Denis Diderot World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2146

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.

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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 a world in which any and all acts, whether benevolent or destructive, were acceptable; he believed this led to anarchy and was unacceptable in a society.

The novel, however, is not simply a fictional consideration of a philosophical concept. Humor abounds in the work. The many tales of infidelity fill the novel with a bawdiness reminiscent of the medieval fabliaux, of François Rabelais, and of Voltaire’s short stories. Using the basic materialistic idea that a human being, like everything else on the earth, is in a constant state of change, the various narrators recount satirical anecdotes of infidelity.

The riotous, good-humored amusement created by these episodes does not banish sentiment from the novel. Diderot, who was always subject to the bourgeois virtue and respect for morality that his parents instilled in him, was himself extremely sentimental and recognized the human need for enduring love and stability. Therefore, he concludes his novel with Jacques wisely saying that he prefers not to know if his future wife will or will not be faithful to him, but he will believe in her fidelity, and after that he can change nothing. Here, Diderot once again addresses the dilemma that tormented him to the end of his life: What his mind presented to him as rational truth was not what his emotional self wanted to hear.

Diderot was interested not only in using novels to express his ideas, but he was also intrigued with the novel as a genre and the relationship or dialogue which exists between the writer and the reader. As author, Diderot repeatedly interrupts his fictional creation to address his reader. He taunts his readers with his own power as author. He can continue a tale, interrupt it, or leave it unfinished and start a new one. He can take the intrigue wherever he wishes. The reader is at his mercy as long as the reading process continues. However, he also recognizes the reader’s freedom of choice; the reader can simply stop reading.

Thus, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is a philosophical novel, a bawdy comical novel, a sentimental novel, and a query into the novel as a genre.

The Nun

First published: La Religieuse, 1796 (English translation, 1797)

Type of work: Novel

A rebellious young girl is forced to become a nun against her will and attempts to leave the convent.

The Nun, a memoir novel written in first person, was originally written as a series of letters to Marc-Antoine-Nicolas, Marquis de Croismare. Diderot was not composing a novel but participating in a ruse to bring the marquis back to Paris. The marquis, a member of the intellectual circle that frequented the home of Louise Tardieu d’Esclavelles, Marquise d’Epinay, had been called away to his lands in Normandy on business matters. Before leaving Paris, he had attempted to help a woman who had been cloistered against her will. Diderot’s letters were an attempt to convince the marquis that she had fled the convent and needed his help. Developing an attachment for the character he had created, Diderot went on to write a novel about her.

The Nun is a forcible attack upon the cloistering of women. Diderot presents the convent as an unnaturally repressive institution, which degrades human nature, corrupting it to promiscuity, sadism, or insanity. The novel recounts the misfortunes and torments of the illegitimate Suzanne Simonin, who is forced to take the veil in order to expiate the sin of her mother and to enable the legitimate daughters to make more suitable marriages.

Suzanne is confined under the authority of three different mother superiors. Mme de Moni, the first mother superior, is kind to Suzanne and even favors her. However, in the closed oppressive ambiance of the convent, with its continual emphasis on expiation of sin and communion with God, Mme de Moni slips from mysticism into insanity and dies. Her successor, Sister Sainte-Christine, particularly dislikes Suzanne, who is an element of chaos and discord in the otherwise well-disciplined community. Little by little, she becomes more and more sadistic. Suzanne is deprived of furniture, bedding, and clothing. She is locked in her cell. The other nuns are forbidden to speak to her or even to recognize her existence. Broken glass is strewn in her path and she is made to walk on it. She is treated as a cadaver.

It is generally accepted that Diderot was strongly influenced in his depiction of the convent and the horrendous treatment of Suzanne by the tragic fate of his sister Angélique, an Ursuline nun. She lost her sanity and died of exhaustion from overwork at the age of twenty-eight.

Throughout her time in the convents, Suzanne has been working through legal channels to receive permission to renounce her vows. Fortunately, her lawyer, Manouri, arranges for her to be transferred to another convent before she succumbs to the sadistic mistreatment. The lesbian mother superior in this convent treats Suzanne very well. Diderot succeeds in having Suzanne describe the lesbian behavior in exact detail while remaining unaware of what is occurring between her and the mother superior. This is the final portrayal in the novel of the deforming and corruption of human nature by the convent. The mother superior eventually falls into a state of delirium and dies in torment. Suzanne finally escapes from the convent with the help of an unscrupulous priest who takes her to a house of prostitution. At the end of the novel, she escapes and is desperately seeking the marquis’s help in finding a reputable position.

Rameau’s Nephew

First published: Le Neveu de Rameau, 1821, 1891 (English translation, 1897)

Type of work: Novel

Although this work is traditionally included among Diderot’s novels, it is actually a dialogue, teeming with satire and strengthened by elements drawn from reality.

In Rameau’s Nephew, Lui (Rameau’s nephew) and Moi (Diderot) engage in a combative conversation. The work is a totality of contradictions. Lui insists upon what he believes to be true and Moi objects that the exact opposite is right. Lui is a self-admitted parasite upon society who takes advantage of everyone and everything that he can. He admits to having taught his son that money is more important than anything else and to mourning his deceased wife because he could have profited by prostituting her. Lui insists that his lifestyle is morally correct. Moi, who is the embodiment of bourgeois morality, is appalled by Lui and vehemently objects to his assertions. Lui and Moi are both strong combatants, and Diderot does not permit either one a decisive victory. This ambiguity makes the dialogue an inquiry into morality that never finds an answer.

While neither Lui nor Moi can claim a victory, they do lead each other into a state of change, of becoming less of what they were. The character of Lui also undergoes startling physical change as he contorts himself in the most outlandish fashion, acting out what he says. Lui is like an actor, creating characters by his gestures and physical contortions. Just as Lui contorts himself to assume the various individuals he talks about, he also shapes himself into whatever he needs to be to profit from social opportunity. Lui’s explanation of his relationship to the society in which he lives enables Diderot to satirize a number of his enemies in the novel.

The believability of the dialogue as a real conversation that actually took place is enhanced by Diderot’s use of realism. The conversation occurs in the Café de la Régence, an actual café in Paris. The characters of Lui and Moi are drawn from real life. The musician Jean-Philippe Rameau had a nephew, and of course Diderot put himself into the dialogue as Moi. The conversation proceeds in a realistic fashion, as one topic brings up another and the two interlocutors discuss a number of topics, including music, women. making a living, and what it means to be successful.

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Denis Diderot Long Fiction Analysis