Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is a philosophical novel in which Diderot, through a fictional narrative, examines the problem of moral responsibility and the consequences of accepting a philosophy of determinism. Jacques and his Master start out on a journey and soon find themselves the victims of chance occurrences. One of the horses suddenly bolts for no apparent reason and the two travelers end up at an inn, where they are robbed. The progress of the entire journey is governed by chance (fate); neither Jacques nor his Master has any control over where they go. Jacques explains all of these occurrences and others throughout the journey by saying that they were predetermined, or as he defines the situations, written on the great wheel of fate.
The novel has a multilayered structure in which dialogue plays an extensive role. In addition to the actual physical journey of Jacques and his Master, Diderot creates a series of other narrated journeys. As they ride along, Jacques tells of his loves, the Master attempts to recount his amorous affairs, and the people they meet tell stories of faithful and unfaithful loves. The narratives are continuously interrupted by chance occurrences. This structure serves to emphasize Diderot’s intellectual belief in materialism and the constant change and movement that occur in a physical world, which is always in a state of metamorphosis.
It is in the narratives within the narrative that Diderot presents the incompatibility of moral responsibility and determinism and the difficulty of judging the acts of other people. The story of Mme de la Pommeraye and the Marquis d’Arcis, the longest interpolated story in the novel, illustrates this dilemma. The marquis and Mme de la Pommeraye have been lovers; he has tired of her and broken off the...
(The entire section is 740 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: World Fiction Series)
Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is deceptively simple in plot. The two title characters travel through an unidentified French landscape telling each other stories, which are interrupted by various adventures and misadventures. Usually, Jacques does the talking, for his master has an insatiable appetite for stories, and Jacques is a compulsive talker. Throughout the novel, Jacques tells his master the story of his falling in love, though he is bedeviled by constant interruptions, mishaps, separations, and other people’s stories: his master’s, the innkeeper’s wife’s, and a host of other minor characters’. Taking precedence over all the voices is that of the narrator, himself interrupting the characters and addressing the reader.
On the first page, the reader learns that Jacques has joined the army after a quarrel with his father, has adopted his captain’s fatalistic philosophy—“Everything which happens to us on this earth, good and bad, is written up there”—has been wounded in the knee, and has fallen in love. The master asks for the story of his love, and Jacques begins, in frustratingly minute detail for the master (and possibly the reader), to tell of how he was wounded, left for dead in front of a farmhouse, found by the farmer’s wife, treated by surgeons, of what they said, how much they drank, and the day-to-day progress of the healing. His story is punctuated throughout by the narrator’s comments on how novels should or should not be written and by the master’s interruptions to argue with his servant’s views on fate, life, and love.
After spending the night (the narrator says he is not sure where) the master discovers that he has left his watch behind, and Jacques his purse. There is a digression into how Jacques recovers their property and a tribute to his ingenuity which is reminiscent of Sancho Panza’s shrewd peasant intelligence in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615). While he waits for Jacques, the master has his horse stolen, although the narrator says that they spent most of their time walking and talking, possibly leading the horses. This inconsistency is the least of the novel’s purposeful contradictions.
Jacques begins his story again, but not for long. The narrator intrudes with a digression on the dullness of truthful and faithful narratives, unless in the hands of a genius, and tells, as an example, the tale of the poet whom he advised to go to Pondicherry (a French outpost in India) to make his fortune, in order that he could afford to continue to write bad verses, since he was incapable of writing good ones. Then Jacques digresses into the story of his brother Jean, who left the Carmelites, going to Lisbon only to perish in the earthquake of 1755. The two travelers then pass a...
(The entire section is 1150 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Jacques and his master are on a journey whose purpose and destination are unknown to the narrator. The latter even scolds the inquisitive reader for wanting to know such irrelevant information as how the travelers met, what their names are, where they come from, or where they are going. Instead, the narrator merely informs the reader that, as the novel opens, the master is not saying anything, and that Jacques is repeating, for his master’s benefit, the fatalist creed he learned from his captain. Everything that happens to people on earth, good or bad, Jacques explains, is foreordained, written on the great scroll “up above.” As an appropriate example, his captain always adds that every bullet shot in battle has someone’s name on it.
Jacques illustrates the truth of the captain’s doctrine by noting the interconnected chain of events in his own life: He joined the army as the result of a quarrel with his father; soon after, in his first battle, he received “his” bullet, which shattered his knee; and had it not been for that bullet, he would probably never have fallen in love. That remark arouses the master’s curiosity, and he asks his servant to tell him the story of his loves to make their journey more interesting.
The telling of that story, like the recurrent discussions of the doctrine of fatalism, constitutes a running theme throughout the novel. During the entire eight days of travel recounted in the novel, Jacques keeps trying to advance his story, but he is constantly interrupted and ultimately prevented from finishing it. The narrator provides a third running theme, periodically interrupting the narrative, as he does at the very outset, to engage the reader in discussions about storytelling in general and about the truth and morality of each story or interpolated tale that comes up during the journey.
The narrator’s account of the journey is frequently interrupted by unexpected events, by digressions in dialogue between Jacques and his master and between the narrator and the reader, and by the telling of apparently unrelated tales volunteered by individuals they encounter on their journey. Some of the tales are brief but bizarre, such as the account of the relationship between Jacques’s captain and his best friend, a...
(The entire section is 935 words.)