Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Despite its title, the theme of fatalism may function in the novel somewhat as Jacques’s love story functions as a narrative device. Early in the novel, the narrator observes that the question of whether man has free will has been debated for two thousand years “without getting one step further forward.” Eventually, Jacques arrives at the end of his love story, but the reader is left with more than a few unanswered questions and much to consider. The same is true of the discussions of fatalism, love and betrayal, masters and servants.

Diderot’s treatment of fatalism is, in part, a satire of Benedictus de Spinoza’s philosophy. Nevertheless, Diderot also points out the difficulties and inconsistencies in applying any philosophy to life. The idea of all things being written “up there” can be consoling when things go wrong, but in terms of practical action, human volition also becomes important. In one argument, Jacques asks his master if he can will himself to fall off his horse. Then Jacques loosens the girth so that his master will fall but catches him. He is not injured, because it was written “up there”—and also, according to Jacques, because of the servant’s foresight. Jacques has a prayer in which he resigns himself to fate, but he admits that his own actions are often “inconsistent and violent.” Yet the satire is in the genial Horatian mode rather than in the bitter Juvenalian one. The novel suggests that one needs to examine all sides of the question, all sides of life, including the dark ones, yet also to try to keep uppermost a genial, tolerant, and open mind.

With his interest in medicine, the human body, and the relationship of biology to psychology, coupled with his iconoclastic view of institutions, it is not surprising to find Diderot an advocate of open and natural sexual relationships. For late twentieth century readers,...

(The entire section is 770 words.)