Denis Diderot Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

0111207185-Diderot.jpg Denis Diderot (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Denis Diderot was an inveterate experimenter with literary forms, creating new variations on traditional forms in his several novels and plays and inventing wholly new forms for his essays, philosophical discourses, and satirical dialogues. He was a pioneer in the writing of art criticism and was the author of some of the most brilliant personal letters in the French language. He contributed a widely varied group of articles—on scientific, historical, and philosophical subjects—to the Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772; Encyclopedia, 1965), of which he was also coeditor. His first publications were translations from English, a language he knew well; and, as a result of his youthful interest in mathematics, he published early in his career a volume of mathematical studies. He even published a small amount of not very distinguished verse. In general, Diderot tried his hand at just about every literary form then known and invented a few hybrids—especially the ingenious combination of narrative, dialogue, and essay used in Rameau’s Nephew and Other Works—which had not previously existed.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Critical reactions to Diderot have varied greatly over the years. His contemporaries admired him as a dramatist of sentimental plays and a social critic, who had edited with Jean Le Rond D’Alembert the Encyclopedia. When Diderot died in 1784, most people did not know that his contributions to literature were as significant as those of his eminent contemporaries Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. With the posthumous publication of his masterpieces, which include his dramatic dialogue Rameau’s Nephew and Other Works, his novels La Religieuse (1796; The Nun, 1797) and Jacques le fataliste et son maître (1796; Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, 1797), and especially his art criticism, readers could finally appreciate his mastery of the art of dialogue, his ability to make people reflect on the complex motivations for their moral choices, the originality of his reflections on painting, and his importance in the evolution of eighteenth century French novels. The Nun is a powerful denunciation of the exploitation of women. In this novel, the main character is forced to stay in a convent against her will. In Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, Diderot experimented with many narrative techniques to make readers see from several different perspectives the interconnected themes of freedom and fatalism.

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In his own day, Denis Diderot was best known for his numerous unsigned contributions to the Encyclopédie (1751-1772; Encyclopedia, 1965), his reviews of the biennial art exhibitions in Paris (Salons, 1845, 1857), and his philosophical writings. Diderot also wrote extensively on the theater, and he produced a number of fictional works, beginning with the erotic Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748; The Indiscreet Toys, 1749). The best of his novels, however, appeared only posthumously: La Religieuse (1796; The Nun, 1797), Jacques le fataliste et son maître (1796; Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, 1797), and Le Neveu de Rameau (1821, 1891; Rameau’s Nephew, 1897). His letters were edited by Georges Roth and Jean Varloot and have been published in sixteen volumes (Correspondance, 1955-1970).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

To his contemporaries, Denis Diderot was known as “Monsieur le Philosophe.” As coeditor and then sole editor of the Encyclopédie, he guided that masterpiece to its completion despite the desertion of collaborators and censorship by the government. This work, along with his philosophical writings, set forth the fundamental ideas of the French Enlightenment and challenged the old regime’s politics and thoughts. Although the fiction that appeared in his own lifetime—The Indiscreet Toys, “Les Deux Amis de Bourbonne” (1773; “The Two Friends from Bourbonne,” 1964), Entretien d’un père avec ses enfants: Ou, Le Danger de se mettre au-dessus des lois (1773; Conversations Between Father and Children, 1964)—was not well received, his posthumously published works have established him as a leading prose writer of the eighteenth century, a worthy contemporary of Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne in England. Similarly, as a dramatist he was known in his own day as the author of two relatively unsuccessful plays. After two performances in 1757, Dorval did not appear onstage again for fourteen years. The Father of the Family fared better. The King of Naples requested it four nights in a row, and it was frequently revived throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Both were popular in book form, Dorval going through four editions in its first year and some twenty-five in France alone by 1800. The Father of the Family was even more successful: thirty-two editions in French before 1800 as well as ten in German, three in English and Dutch, two in Russian, Danish, Polish, and Italian, and one in Spanish. As with his fiction, though, Diderot’s most enduring work in this genre appeared posthumously. Est’il bon? Est’il méchant? has not been absent from the theater for long since the amateur theater Équipe began performing the piece in Paris in 1951. More significant for the eighteenth century stage were the essays that Diderot wrote about the theater, challenging the rule-bound attitudes of playwrights and actors and impelling the stage toward more natural presentations in both content and manner.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although the official complete edition of the novels of Denis Diderot (DEED-uh-roh) is found in the twenty-volume uvres complètes (1875-1877), edited by Jean Assézat and Maurice Tourneax, the novels are readily available in the Classiques Garnier, edited by Henri Bénac (1962). An edition of uvres complètes (1975-1995) has been updated under the editorship of Herbert Dieckmann, Jean Fabre, and Jacques Proust. All the novels are available in English in various popular editions.

Diderot began his literary career with translations, the most important of which are L’Histoire de Grèce (1743), a translation of the English Grecian History (1739) by Temple Stanyan; Principes de la philosophie morale: Ou, Essai de M. S.*** sur le mérite et la vertu, avec réflexions (1745), of the earl of Shaftesbury’s An Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit (1699); and Dictionnaire universel de médecine (1746-1748), of Robert James’s A Medical Dictionary (1743-1745).

Diderot was a prolific essayist. His first important essay, Pensées philosophiques (1746; English translation, 1819), was immediately condemned for its rationalistic critique of supernatural revelation. It is available in English in Diderot’s Early Philosophical Works (1916), translated by Margaret Jourdain. La Promenade du sceptique (1830; the skeptic’s walk), which was written in 1747, was described by Diderot himself as a “conversation concerning religion, philosophy, and the world.” De la suffisance de la religion naturelle (on the sufficiency of natural religion), written the same year but not published until 1770, extols natural religion. The famous Lettre sur les aveugles (1749; An Essay on Blindness, 1750; also as Letter on the Blind in Jourdain’s book) puts forth Diderot’s ideas on the supremacy of matter; this work was the cause of his imprisonment at Vincennes. It was followed in 1751 by the Lettre sur les sourds et muets (Letter on the Deaf and Dumb in Jourdain’s book), which was circulated by tacit permission of the authorities and which contains important ideas on music and poetry. Pensées sur l’interprétation...

(The entire section is 927 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although Denis Diderot is one of the major novelists of the eighteenth century, it is as the editor of the Encyclopedia that he is most remembered. Along with Jean le Rond d’Alembert, who was to abandon the project in 1758, he began in 1746 what was intended to be a translation of Ephraim Chambers’s major English reference work, Cyclopedia (1728). Diderot’s version later became a compendium of knowledge in seventeen volumes of text and eleven volumes of plates, published from 1751 to 1772 amid countless difficulties and attacks by clergy and government. Diderot was not only the principal, and eventually sole, editor but also the author of numerous articles, many of which were unsigned in later volumes, and...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What is Denis Diderot’s attitude toward fidelity?

What role does dialogue play in Diderot’s fiction?

What is the importance of gesture in Rameau’s Nephew?

Why does Diderot oppose convents and a cloistered life?

Why does Diderot combine chaos and order in his works?


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Anderson, Wilda. Diderot’s Dream. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. See especially the introduction and chapter 6, “The Nephew’s Natural Morality.” Includes very few notes and no bibliography.

Bremner, Geoffrey. Order and Chance: The Pattern of Diderot’s Thought. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Bremner seeks a pattern in Diderot’s thought and concludes that, in his best works, order and chance are complementary concepts. Interesting insights, suitable for advanced undergraduates.

Brewer, Daniel. The Discourse of Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France: Diderot and the Art of Philosophizing. Cambridge Studies in French, No. 42....

(The entire section is 873 words.)