Denis Diderot World Literature Analysis - Essay

Denis Diderot World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

As a thinker, philosopher, and writer, Diderot was a multifaceted individual. He was interested in virtually all subjects: the arts, science, literature, theater, philosophy, religion, mathematics, medicine, and mechanics. He wrote in both fictional and nonfictional genres. Throughout his writing career, Diderot was constantly in turmoil as he sought to reconcile his rational materialistic views of man and nature and his sentimentality in regard to love and family, which resulted from his bourgeois heritage. As a rational thinker, Diderot was unable to accept the orthodox doctrine of the Catholic Church. Many of his works question the existence of God, the practice of religion in general, and the human situation. Diderot expressed his ideas in many different genres, including philosophical essays, dialogues, plays, novels, art criticism, and literary criticism.

The dominant themes throughout his various writings illustrate both his inability to formulate a concise philosophical theory and his inquisitiveness. Diderot was above all else concerned with the moral responsibility of the individual in society, for he found moral responsibility essential for the successful social interaction of people. The fact that he opted for the rational tenets of materialism and fatalism over Christian doctrine and belief in free will, sin, and redemption led him into an unsolvable dilemma. How could he reconcile the lack of free will in a fatalistic world and moral responsibility? If people were predetermined to be what they were, then how could they be responsible for their actions? Diderot addresses this problem in many of his works, particularly in his narratives.

Diderot was a master of literary form and composition. His works are carefully conceived and have an identifiable structure. His novel The Nun is based on a three-part structure. Three mother superiors represent three distortions of human nature resulting from their isolation and confinement away from a natural, heterosexual society. In Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, the motif of journeys gives the novel a definite structure. Yet in each novel, Diderot saves his narrative from rigidity and stagnation by overlaying the structure with chaotic movement. Suzanne’s life in the convents is one of total disorder, while Jacques and his Master are at every moment buffeted by chance.

The one element which is most characteristic of Diderot’s writing is dialogue. Diderot was in a constant dialogue with himself as he attempted to reconcile rational thinking and sentimentalism. Dialogue was the perfect medium for his works.

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

First published: Jacques le fataliste et son maître, wr. c. 1771, pb. 1796 (English translation, 1797)

Type of work: Novel

A valet and his master set out on a journey, during which they discuss and experience the whims of fate.

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 relationship. Mme de la Pommeraye vengefully arranges for him to marry a woman who is not a virgin and therefore makes him a cuckolded husband. Jacques and his Master argue about who is guilty—Mme de la Pommeraye or the marquis—or if anyone is guilty. Under a deterministic philosophy, each individual was simply doing what he or she was predestined to do; consequently, neither could be held responsible for his or her actions. For Diderot, determinism precluded moral responsibility and led to...

(The entire section is 2146 words.)