Denis Diderot Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3102

One of Denis Diderot’s shorter works of fiction is titled “This Is Not a Story.” He might have said of any one of his characteristic works of long fiction, “This is not a novel.” At first sight, all of his novels, with the exception of The Nun, look like plays. That is because Diderot’s favorite method is the dialogue; even many of his philosophical works, such as D’Alembert’s Dream and The Paradox of Acting, are written in this form. It is in the give-and-take of dialogue that Diderot excels, and his dramatic power, though not of first-rate quality on the stage, comes to life here. The unusually extensive use of dialogue, however, leads to a blurring of genres and a consequent disorder in all of Diderot’s works. Critics such as Crocker, O’Gorman, and Francis Pruner have sought to bring order out of this chaos—much to the dismay of others, who see the disorder as the message.

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As novels, all of Diderot’s fictional works are weak in plot. The Indiscreet Toys consists of a series of licentious anecdotes. Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is a trip from somewhere to nowhere, with intermittent stops here and there. Rameau’s Nephew consists of a single conversation in which the two participants discuss everything from seduction to French and Italian music. The Nun, which comes closest to the traditional idea of plot, does have a beginning and end but does not use any forward or backward reflection. Although it is based on memory, all is told in a kind of eternal present.

As with plot, the timelines are also weak in Diderot’s novels. With the exception of The Nun, all of his novels are poorly marked in time and lack traditional novelistic beginnings or ends. They are also vaguely situated in space. The Indiscreet Toys takes place in a harem in the Congo, a rather incongruous juxtaposition lacking in credibility. Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is situated in France but, despite the efforts of critics to identify the towns and cities that figure in thenarrative, there is very little local color to guide the reader. Rameau’s Nephew, situated in the café du Palais Royal, and The Nun, at the convents of Longchamp and Arpajon, are a bit more localized, yet Diderot could have put them anywhere, for his scenery is subservient to the representation of the characters.

Of all the fictional qualities in his works, it is in the portrayal of character that Diderot excels, although his best characters are in fact caricatures. He dislikes the literary portrait and provides little, if any, physical description of his characters; the reader knows nothing of their size, facial expressions, or clothing. Their personalities are revealed by contrast with those of other characters: Jacques is played against his master, Lui against Moi, Sister Suzanne against the three superiors.

Instead of well-rounded, complex characters, Diderot creates striking types. Among the most memorable are Jacques the Fatalist and Rameau’s nephew, the latter simply called Lui, or He. Jacques is a picaresque hero in the tradition of Panurge, Cacambo, and the Spanish Lazarillo de Tormes. In contrast to his dull master, who spends his time looking at his watch and sniffing tobacco, Jacques is clever, witty, independent; indeed, not unlike Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s Figaro, he is clearly superior to his master. Lui, vaguely modeled on Jean-François Rameau, is a parasite raised to heroic proportions, a seducer, procurer, and indolent cynic who nevertheless excels in pantomime and offers brilliant reflections on society and its morals.

Having produced such picaresque and cynical heroes, it is not surprising that Diderot expends his flair for satire in other directions. Throughout his novels, Diderot attacks the institutions of eighteenth century France. Like Voltaire, Diderot regarded the clergy and the religious—that is, those who had taken monastic orders—as his greatest enemies. Again and again, he reproached the monasteries for infringing on civil and social freedom and for imposing celibacy on their members. Diderot saw hypocrisy in his society, not only in the court but also in the social conventions that people accepted as a kind of false morality; he censures such conventions with particular force in Rameau’s Nephew.

In the esprit gaulois of Renard the Fox and the fabliaux and the Rabelaisian spirit so close to nature, Diderot delights in the details of sexual passions. He sees the genital act as simply a phenomenon of nature, as a purely physical act like eating and smelling. Although he champions women’s rights in The Indiscreet Toys, women in his novels are presented as essentially unfaithful and little more than objects of desire for men, although Amisdar looks for fidelity and devotion in a wife. The cynic Lui in Rameau’s Nephew regrets that his beautiful wife has died, for she might have become the mistress of a wealthy fermier-général (tax collector). Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is based on the amorous exploits of both Jacques and his master, all of which are totally devoid of any spiritual attraction. By contrast, The Nun shows the abnormalities and excesses that result from the frustration of nature.

Diderot’s novels are essentially philosophical explorations. In his materialistic system, intuition is ruled out as a cause of human behavior, and free will also becomes questionable, although Diderot was a champion of freedom and human rights. All is the result of predetermined natural causes, a doctrine given symbolic expression by Jacques’s “great scroll” and his refrain that “all is written on high.” His fatalism is really Diderot’s determinism. Diderot, however, observed the role of chance and coincidence in life and was torn by the paradox of freedom and necessity. His two major novels, Rameau’s Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, explore this tension in a most creative way, without solving the dilemma.

Diderot is an excellent stylist. As well as a knowledge of music (so aptly related in Rameau’s Nephew), he had an ear for harmony. His style can be witty, full of plays on words, fast-paced, with the give-and-take of quick argument. It can also be passionate, even mystical—most notably in the moment of physical desire expressed by the superior of Arpajon for Sister Suzanne and in the two pantomimes of Lui in Rameau’s Nephew, especially the pantomime of the orchestra. In fact, the novels of Diderot reveal a marked talent for mimicry and pantomime, a talent better displayed in his fiction than in his theater.

The Indiscreet Toys

Despite their very readable and attractive prose, Diderot’s novels, as vehicles of what was regarded as dangerous philosophical propaganda, were not likely candidates for the ordinary publisher. None of them was published in France when written. The Indiscreet Toys was written and published in 1748. Diderot wrote this first work of long fiction to help defray the mounting expenses he incurred in his liaison with Madame de Puisieux. Madame de Vandeul, Diderot’s daughter, maintained that her father wrote the book in two weeks, to prove that such a novel could be composed very quickly, provided one had a workable idea. It sold well, with six editions in several months, and was immediately translated into English and German. Reprinted several times in Diderot’s lifetime, it continues to be his most popular book.

Although the novel contains social and political allusions to the reign of Louis XV, it is by no means hostile to the king, portrayed as the Sultan Mangogul, or to his favorite, Madame de Pompadour, represented by Mirzoza. It does, however, reveal the licentious behavior of the court in the confessions made by the indiscreet jewels. The king, Mangogul, bored with his court and his harem, consults the genie Cucufa and asks for a means to discover the secrets of the women at his court. Cucufa gives him a magic ring that will make him invisible and will make the women’s jewels reveal their wearers’ secret passions. Throughout the thirty episodes of the book, licentious secrets entertain both the king and the reader.

While the plot lacks substance and depth, The Indiscreet Toys is important because it is one of the earliest works in which Diderot reveals his philosophical preoccupations. He discusses the scientific and metaphysical views of Sir Isaac Newton and René Descartes, satirizes religious practices, ventures into literary criticism (concerning the lack of naturalness on the French stage), and compares the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau, thus anticipating Rameau’s Nephew. He also parodies a sermon (his daughter said that he had composed and sold real sermons) and investigates dreams, a phenomenon that he was to explore later, especially in D’Alembert’s Dream. He already extols the scientific method, and even in the most licentious scenes he shows a naturalistic and methodical bent.

The Nun

Diderot’s second novel, The Nun, shows a marked advance in technique over The Indiscreet Toys, perhaps in part as a result of Diderot’s reading of Richardson. Like all of Diderot’s novels, The Nun had a fascinating origin. Based partly on a true story and partly on a hoax, it lay dormant for twenty years before Diderot even considered publication. The idea for the novel began with a lawsuit in Paris from 1755 to 1758 in which a certain Marguerite Delamarre—whose story has been illuminated through the research of Georges May—applied for dispensation from her religious vows. Her request was refused as contrary to the authority of parents over their children. A friend of Diderot, Marquis de Croismare, had tried to support the nun. Diderot and his friends wrote a series of forged letters to Croismare, supposedly from the nun, who ostensibly had escaped from her convent. Croismare took such an interest in her that his friends were forced to “kill her off” in 1760. Croismare did not discover the hoax until 1768, but in the meantime Diderot had prepared the greater part of the manuscript, which, after revision in 1780, he offered to Grimm’s successor, Jakob Heinrich Meister, for the Correspondance littéraire. The novel was first published by Naigeon in 1796.

The Nun is a simple, rapidly moving story featuring deep psychological analysis and great artistic restraint. It tells the story of Suzanne Simonin, whose parents force her into a convent because she is illegitimate. She at first refuses to make her vows but is forced into a second convent, where she does make her profession. Her first superior is gentle and maternal, but the second is cruel and vindictive and treats her with extreme brutality. Although Suzanne manages to receive support for a plea to be dispensed from her vows, the request is rejected, and she is sent to another convent, at Arpajon. There the discipline is lax, and the superior makes lesbian advances to Suzanne. This arouses the jealousy of the superior’s former favorite, which eventually drives the superior to madness and the unsuspecting Suzanne to flight. The ending is disappointing and illogical, as Suzanne, weakened from her escape, dies.

Although Diderot has frequently been accused of immorality in The Nun—a film based on his book was temporarily banned in France in 1966—his intentions were, rather, to show the injustice of the enforced cloister and its dangerous effects on the subjects. His technique is masterful, for he presents a young woman who is not tempted to break her vows by the desire for marriage or a lover but who simply finds she does not have a vocation to the cloister. She is innocent, observant of the discipline in the convent, and even unaware of the significance of the advances made by the superior at Arpajon. Diderot’s treatment of the physical desire expressed by the superior is artful and delicate, quite different from his open and licentious descriptions in The Indiscreet Toys and in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. The psychological analysis of Sister Suzanne, of her jealous rival, Sister Thérèse, and of the three superiors with whom Suzanne lives is excellent, making The Nun a forerunner of the works of Marcel Proust and André Gide.

Rameau’s Nephew

The story of Diderot’s third novel, generally acknowledged as his masterpiece, is even more fascinating than those of the two preceding ones. Evidently begun in 1761, Rameau’s Nephew was revised by Diderot in 1762, 1766, 1767, and 1775, but—no doubt because of the allusions to his enemies, especially Palissot—was never published during his lifetime, nor did it appear in Naigeon’s edition of Diderot’s works, uvres (1798; 15 volumes). In 1805, a German translation by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was published, and in 1821 the text was retranslated into French, by this time substantially altered. Several other undocumented versions appeared in the nineteenth century, and it was not until 1891 that a genuine text was published by Georges Monval from a manuscript he had located at a bouquiniste’s stall in Paris.

Written in the form of a dialogue, Rameau’s Nephew was staged at the Théâtre Michodière in 1963, starring Pierre Fresnay. Whether it is a novel is debatable; Diderot called it “Satire seconde” (second satire), and its dramatic possibilities are evident. It is, however, a witty, exuberant, rapid exchange of conversation between two characters, Moi and Lui. Lui is vaguely based on Jean-François Rameau, the nephew of the great French musician Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose French severity Diderot disliked, preferring Italian spontaneity. Moi is vaguely reminiscent of Diderot, at least in some biographical details, such as the education of his daughter. Critics have advanced innumerable theories concerning the identities of the characters Moi and Lui. Some say that they are two aspects of Diderot’s personality, others that Lui is the id and Moi the ego, still others that they are literally Rameau’s nephew and Diderot. Perhaps the most original interpretation is that of O’Gorman, who sees the work both as a Horatian satire and as a Socratic dialogue with the figures of Apollo and Marsyas, and who also identifies Rameau’s nephew with Rousseau.

Rameau’s Nephew, which discusses music, anti-Rousseauesque education, the hypocrisy of society, the art of seduction, and numerous other themes, opens as a casual conversation at the café du Palais Royal during a chess game. It is also a searching inquiry into the basis of morality and a study of the paradox involved in determining the right way to live. For Diderot, morality is nonexistent, because all is based on natural phenomena and matter is the root of human behavior. Yet the existence of a cynical parasite such as Rameau’s nephew, who contends that his way of life is the best, poses a problem to Diderot’s materialistic system, for society cannot survive with a number of Rameau’s nephews. The debate is never neatly resolved; Diderot’s dialectical method in the novel has been much praised by Marxist critics, who differ from many readers in finding a clear message within the twists and turns of the dialogue.

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

Diderot continued his metaphysical speculations on the paradox of morality in his last novel, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, which rivals Rameau’s Nephew as his masterpiece. Like the two preceding novels, it was not published during his lifetime, although it was written probably around 1771 and revised during or after his stay in Russia of 1773 to 1774, as evidenced by the travel theme. Diderot gave the manuscript to the Correspondence littéraire before 1780, but the work was not published until 1796, by Buisson. It was inspired by a passage from Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767), which Diderot had read in English.

Constructed along the lines of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is, however, quite different in tone from the great Spanish masterpiece. It is the most disorderly of all of Diderot’s “chaotic” works, with interruptions of interruptions, interference by the author (who holds dialogues with his reader), and unfinished stories left to the reader’s imagination. Jacques, a sort of Figaro, accompanies his rather empty-headed master, not unlike Count Almaviva, on a trip. In order to entertain his master, Jacques relates the story of his amorous exploits, and various interruptions preclude a real end to his tale. At the end, the master also tells his story; it is not unlike Jacques’s, but it lacks his sparkling wit.

Their stops at inns along the way precipitate other tales, the two most important of which are the stories of Madame de la Pommeraye and Père Hudson. Madame de la Pommeraye is resentful of her lover’s unfaithfulness and decides to avenge herself. She hires a prostitute and her mother to pose as a respectable young woman accompanied by her devout widowed mother. This done, Madame de la Pommeraye arranges to have her former lover, Monsieur des Arcis, fall in love with the prostitute. The day after the marriage, Madame de la Pommeraye tells him the truth, but the revenge is thwarted because he really loves his new wife and forgives her completely. Père Hudson is a sensual and domineering superior who reforms a monastery but exempts himself from its discipline. He arranges for the two priests sent to investigate his conduct to be trapped with a young woman he has seduced, thus escaping censure himself.

Despite the adventures and interruptions, the real theme of the book is the paradox of freedom and necessity. Jacques the Fatalist is really a determinist who, like Diderot, believes that “all is written on high,” that one cannot change one’s destiny. The very form of the novel, however, proves that chance does indeed exist. All of this seems to rule out freedom, which, like good and evil, becomes a mere illusion.

Crocker’s observations on why Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is a great work but not a great novel may serve to classify all of Diderot’s novels. A great novel must embody human life in all of its emotional and intellectual range, in all of its intensity. It must contain a view of human life in terms of concrete problems and human suffering. By contrast, Rameau’s Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist and His Master are preoccupied with abstract philosophical problems. Although these two works may be Diderot’s most profound fictions, it is perhaps The Nun that comes closest to the ideal of the novel. Diderot himself wept over The Nun; its characters and their suffering were real to him, as they are to his readers.

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