Denis Diderot Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2008

Denis Diderot’s first venture into fiction was a mildly spicy fantasy called Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748; The Indiscreet Toys , 1749), which he published anonymously in 1748 in hope of alleviating his financial problems. At about the same time, and probably for the same pecuniary reason, he wrote his first...

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Denis Diderot’s first venture into fiction was a mildly spicy fantasy called Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748; The Indiscreet Toys, 1749), which he published anonymously in 1748 in hope of alleviating his financial problems. At about the same time, and probably for the same pecuniary reason, he wrote his first short story. It was in similar naughty-fantastic vein and was called “L’Oiseau blanc” (the white bird). That story was not published in his lifetime, and it is too superficial and derivative in both content and technique to reveal anything about Diderot’s development as a short-story writer. It is only worth mentioning as a reminder that, for Diderot, telling stories was a constant literary impulse and that he made no real distinction between novels and short stories. Indeed, it is notable that, in all of his novel-length fictions and in a number of his personal letters, there are digressive passages in which a complete tale of some kind is told; some of these tales have been detached from their original source and published separately as short stories. Quite a substantial volume could be composed of such digressions and labeled Diderot’s short stories, but, in fact, there are only five texts, all composed between 1770 and 1773, which were never intended to be part of anything else and which constitute Diderot’s contribution to the art of the short story.

“The Two Friends from Bourbonne”

The first of the five, “The Two Friends from Bourbonne,” is a tale about the nature of friendship, set in a small town near Diderot’s birthplace. In its earliest version, set down in 1769 or 1770, it was a brief exemplary tale intended as a criticism of a story set in America, which idealized friendship by means of an exotic fable about the Iroquois and which was written by a contemporary of his, Jean-Francois, Marquis de Saint-Lambert. Diderot pointedly detailed a case of friendship between two very ordinary people, living simple lives in a familiar setting and in present time, as a contrast to Saint-Lambert’s remote fantasy. The early version ended with the death of one of the friends, but eventually an account of what happened thereafter to the other friend was added, together with a sort of epilogue on the poetics of the short story which has made “The Two Friends from Bourbonne” a particularly celebrated and influential text. The story itself is simple and directly told: The two friends are actually cousins, Olivier and Félix, born the same day, in the same house, to two sisters. One sister dies in childbirth, and the two boys are reared together by the other sister, so that their close relationship is a matter of daily routine, unmarked by self-conscious heroics and constituting a part of their nature. They do everything together and even fall in love at the same time with the same girl. To resolve that problem, Félix withdraws in favor of Olivier and, without quite understanding his own emotions, chooses to leave respectable society and becomes a smuggler. Arrested and on the point of being hanged for his crimes, Félix is rescued in a daring gesture by Olivier and escapes to freedom, although Olivier is mortally wounded in the event. The adventures of Félix, as a hunted criminal after his friend’s death, are varied and harrowing, but their constant focus is Félix’s unremitting effort to give financial aid to Olivier’s widow and children. At the story’s conclusion, the narrator informs the reader that Félix is still alive at the time of writing but living in exile, serving in the Prussian military. The narrative style is remarkable for its spareness and rapidity. No physical descriptions of people or of places interrupt the account of events, which is given in short, precise, and generally unadorned sentences. The direct and unemotional style is intended to underline both the drama of the events and their authentic immediacy, based as they are on real events and people known to Diderot.

The famous epilogue on poetics, abruptly intruded into “The Two Friends from Bourbonne” after the narrative concludes, makes two main points: First, if one distinguishes three main types of tale (larger-than-life, wholly fantastic, and historical), then this one belongs to the historical category; and second, the historical type can only succeed if it overcomes the central contradiction of its requirements, which are that it be credibly true-to-life and at the same time emotionally captivating. Diderot suggests that the best means of overcoming this contradiction is for the artist to lard his narrative, at every step, with small circumstantial details which are exactly observed and which therefore blend the note of authenticity into the very texture of the narrator’s rhetorical art designed to captivate. This device of the systematic accumulation of realistic details is, indeed, the fundamental technique at work in “The Two Friends from Bourbonne” and accounts for the reader’s impression that he is not dealing with a “tale,” that is, an invented yarn, but with a faithful account of actual happenings.

“This Is Not a Story”

The same technique is even more pointedly employed in a story Diderot wrote a short time later about the moral perplexities which occur in the relations between the sexes in our society. This time his very title proclaimed his method: “Ceci n’est pas un conte” (“This Is Not a Story”) plays on the double meaning attached to the French word conte (both “narrative” and “made-up story”) to suggest that the narrative which follows is no invention or lie, but a true story. In fact it is two stories, one describing an apparent instance of the cruel exploitation of a man’s love by a woman, the other describing the cruel exploitation of a woman’s love by a man; and both stories are based on actual events known to Diderot. Even the names used are not fictitious but the real ones. Diderot’s purpose in thus underlining the reality of the stories was to emphasize that the exploitation of each sex by the other is verifiably natural human behavior, however, morally repugnant to some, and that it is not susceptible of rational explanation. Modern laws and mores demand that love, once given, be constant; yet it is unfortunately in human nature that love can be as suddenly and as inexplicably withdrawn as given. Diderot’s two stories thus jointly illustrate the lamentable gap between moral principles and true nature. The reader is left, at the narrative’s conclusion, not with a confident moral judgment about the relations between the sexes, but with a perplexing moral dilemma.

What is of even greater interest in “This Is Not a Story,” however, is the additional contribution it makes to the poetics of the short story. Besides the accumulation of realistic detail, Diderot this time casts the tale in the form of a dialogue in order to attain even greater authenticity, for, as the author notes in his opening paragraph, when one tells any story, it is always to an audience of at least one, and that audience will normally react, interrupt, comment, or question, rather than simply listen in silence. To reproduce the storytelling situation truthfully, Diderot has equipped “This Is Not a Story” with both a narrator and an interlocutor, and the narrative unfolds from the dialogue between the two. The dialogue device adds more than realism to a short story, as Diderot well knew from having used it in other kinds of writing: It also adds a note of dramatic tension to the narrative, allows for the creation of a distinctive “voice” for both narrator and interlocutor, and, above all, permits the presentation of more than one perspective on what the narrative may signify. This last advantage was particularly dear to Diderot because he was not given, by temperament, to preaching a personal point of view but used fiction to render the complex and unresolvable moral ambiguity he saw everywhere in the world, and for that purpose dialogue was admirably suited.

Logically enough, the three other texts of that period (1770-1773) which belong in the category of the short story are all composed in dialogue form. One purports to be the simple transcription of a talk that took place in his father’s house in Langres, among the father, his three children (including Denis Diderot himself), and several neighbors who chance to drop in during the conversation. The focus of the conversation is the moral question of whether it is ever permissible to act outside the law even in the interest of greater justice. Several exemplary cases are discussed, the central one being the case cited by the father who, having once been called on to distribute an inheritance, was tempted to destroy an unjust will he discovered in order to be free to distribute the inheritance in a more just fashion. No clear resolution emerges from the dialogue, only the sense of a moral question too complex to admit to a satisfactory single answer.

“Madame de la Carlière”

Another story, “Madame de la Carlière,” uses the dialogue form to recount and comment on the tale of a woman who tries to use the power of public opinion to guarantee her marriage against the disaster of infidelity. Madame de la Carlière does this by exacting from her future husband a pledge of fidelity witnessed by an assembly of all their friends, with the understanding that, if either partner subsequently broke the pledge, that partner would be publicly denounced before the same assembly of witnesses. The idea is that public vows will have greater force than the traditional private religious or legal vows of marriage; but the device fails, the marriage breaks up, Madame de la Carlière dies of a broken heart, and her husband is made into a social pariah by the condemnation of public opinion. As the dialogue makes clear, however, the husband’s act of “infidelity” was veiled in ambiguities and had no element of the deliberate and conscious betrayal about it. Madame de la Carlière’s extreme reaction can be interpreted as unreasonable, and the severity of the public’s judgment of the husband appears quite unjustified. Diderot’s point in this story, as in “This Is Not a Story,” is that the relations between the sexes are too unpredictable to be controlled by laws, religion, or even public opinion.

Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage

A similar conception informs the last of this group of stories in dialogue, the shocking Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage), in which Diderot invents a “supplement” to Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s 1771 account of his journey around the world, which details the uninhibited sexual mores of the inhabitants of Tahiti. The dialogue treats the “supplement” as the occasion for comparing sexual mores in Europe and in Tahiti and for weighing the relative wisdom and moral values in the two disparate cultures. Again, the only firm conclusion reached is that European laws and religious principles governing the relations between the sexes are well intentioned but culpably blind to the realities of human nature.

Diderot’s stories are never models of disciplined and unified composition. In their sometimes erratic movement, sudden changes of direction, tone or perspective, and absence of discernible form, the stories reflect their author’s restless and probing mind, curious about everything and certain of nothing. Only occasionally do they offer examples of sustained narrative art, as in “The Two Friends from Bourbonne,” the plot of which is recounted in an admirably taut, nervous, and dramatic prose. Mostly they are not stories at all, in any strict sense of the word, but brilliant and animated discourses about moral issues. If they are memorable, it is because each story creates in the reader’s mind the vivid and profoundly analyzed image of a major dilemma. Historically, Diderot’s stories are important because they laid the theoretical groundwork for the modern short story, which blossomed as a recognized art form a generation after his death.

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