Other Literary Forms

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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...

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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.


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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

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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).


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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

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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 de la nature (1754; thoughts on the interpretation of nature) explores some implications of the scientific method.

In 1759, Diderot began his contributions to Friedrich Melchior von Grimm’s Correspondance littéraire, a periodical that had a very limited circulation among the aristocracy abroad, reporting on the latest happenings in French arts and letters. Diderot’s art criticism, contained in the famous Les Salons (1845, 1857), first appeared there. These annual reviews of Paris exhibitions were published from 1759 to 1781, the most famous being those of 1761, 1763 (considered the best), 1765, 1767, and 1769. Other essays during this time include the famous Le Rêve de d’Alembert (1830; D’Alembert’s Dream, 1927), written in 1769, which contains scientific and philosophical ideas together with an exploration of dreams. Entretien d’un père avec ses enfants (1773; Conversations Between Father and Children, 1964) and Paradoxe sur le comédien (1830; The Paradox of Acting, 1883), written in 1773, are among other important essays. Diderot’s last philosophical work was his Essai sur Sénèque (1778; essay on Seneca), which was revised as Essai sur les règnes de Claude et Néron (1782), a digressive amplification of the former. Both of these essays mix autobiographical material with an exposition of Diderot’s ideas on politics and morality. All of these works are included in the uvres complètes; they are also found in the Classiques Garnier volumes, uvres philosophiques (1956), uvres esthétiques (1959), and uvres politiques (1962). In addition to Diderot’s Early Philosophical Works, English editions include Diderot, Interpreter of Nature: Selected Writings (1937), translated by Jean Stewart and Jonathan Kemp, and Selected Writings (1966), edited by Lester Crocker.

In 1757, Diderot began to write for the theater. Although he developed a new genre, the so-called drame bourgeois, he was not a successful playwright, for his plays lack dramatic qualities. Le Fils naturel: Ou, Les Épreures de la vertu (Dorval: Or, The Test of Virtue, 1767) was published in 1757 but not staged until 1771. It was followed by an essay, Entretiens sur “Le Fils naturel” (1757; conversations on “The Natural Son”). Le Père de famille (1758; English translation, 1770; also as The Family Picture, 1871) was staged in 1761. This play, too, was followed by an important essay, Discours sur la poésie dramatique (1758; English translation of chapters 1-5 in Dramatic Essays of the Neo-classical Age, 1950). Diderot’s last play, Est’il bon? Est’il méchant? (pr. 1781; Is it good? Is it bad?), is considered his best.

In addition to long fiction, Diderot also wrote several short stories. They include “L’Oiseau blanc” (the white bird), written and published in 1748, and several stories written in 1772 that were published at later dates: “Les Deux Amis de Bourbonne” (1773; “Two Friends from Bourbonne,” 1964), “Ceci n’est pas un conte” (1798; “This Is Not a Story,” 1960), “Madame de la Carlière: Ou, Sur l’inconséquence du jugement public de nos actions particulières” (1798), and Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1796; Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage, 1926). Several of these stories are available in English in Ralph Bowen’s translation Rameau’s Nephew, and Other Works (1964).

Diderot’s voluminous correspondence is collected in sixteen volumes by George Roth (1955-1970). The most famous of these letters are the 187 extant to his mistress Sophie Volland (1755-1774). Other important letters are those to Paul Landois on determinism (1756); those to the princess of Nassau-Saarbruck (1758), translated as Concerning the Education of a Prince (1941); and the farewell letter to Catherine II of Russia (1774). Finally, Diderot wrote many articles in the famous Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772), many of which are unsigned. Some of these are available in English in the Bobbs-Merrill edition, Encyclopedia (1965), translated by Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer.


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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 some mutilated by André Le Breton. It is particularly through Diderot’s articles that his philosophical ideas come to light, as demonstrated in Arthur M. Wilson’s masterful 1972 study and confirmed by numerous other scholars.

Diderot was above all else a philosophe, one of the great eighteenth century Enlightenment figures who prepared the way for modern thought. The philosophes were not philosophers in the classical sense. In fact, they criticized many such thinkers, although Diderot had great respect for Plato, to the extent of using ideas from the Socratic dialogues as the basis for many of his works, at least in the opinion of Donal O’Gorman. The philosophes, Diderot among them, believed strongly in personal freedom, as seen in The Indiscreet Toys and The Nun; in reason and progress, the whole thesis of the Encyclopedia; and in a more representative government. Generally they were Deists, although Diderot himself was associated with the atheist circle of Baron Paul-Henri-Dietrich d’Holbach.

Diderot as a philosophe explored the question of morals, of virtue and vice—which he named bienfaisance and malfaisance, or good-doing and evildoing. He concluded that morality as such is the result of naturalistic and materialistic causes that determine a person’s conduct—hence, that traditional morality has no meaning. Rameau’s Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist and His Master explore essentially the question of the modifiability of human behavior, determinism, and freedom. Diderot also attributes pleasure to natural causes, becoming one of the forerunners of “sensibility,” the Romantic emphasis on feeling and the heart. His novels bear the stamp of Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne and anticipate the reign of Romanticism. Diderot’s sensitivity to aesthetic beauty is expressed in the art criticism contained in Les Salons; it is also reflected in his fiction, notably in the digressions in The Indiscreet Toys and the musical discussions in Rameau’s Nephew.

As a novelist, Diderot was an innovator. The Nun anticipates twentieth century psychological fiction, especially in its exploration of the abnormal. Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is, by Diderot’s own description, an antinovel, a forerunner of the twentieth century New Novel, which is not really a story but rather a collaboration between author and reader. Rameau’s Nephew is a fascinating study of the paradox of the human personality. The independence of thought that distinguishes all of Diderot’s works is particularly evident in his fiction; he produced novels with few models and with rich possibilities for further development.

Discussion Topics

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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?


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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. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. This somewhat difficult study examines the interplay between critical knowledge and its representation. Examining Diderot’s work in philosophy, science, the fine arts, and literature, Brewer points to its remarkable similarity to aspects of modern critical theory.

Creech, James. Diderot: Thresholds of Representation. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986. This very clear explanation of Diderot’s aesthetics enables readers to appreciate the originality of Diderot’s art criticism. Creech also shows how Diderot utilized these theories in order to represent social reality in the fiction.

Cronk, Nicholas. “Reading Expectations: The Narration of Hume in Jacques le fataliste.” The Modern Language Review 91 (April, 1996): 330-341. Argues that David Hume’s ideas of causation and determinism influenced Diderot’s philosophic voice and narrative structure. Claims that Diderot exemplifies the compatibility of the apparently contradictory positions of “reader-freedom” and “reader-direction.”

Curran, Andrew. Sublime Disorder: Physical Monstrosity in Diderot’s Universe. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 2001. An examination of physical monstrosity in Diderot’s writings. Bibliography and index.

Fellows, Otis. Diderot. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. This volume is an excellent short introduction to the works of Diderot. Fellows describes very well Diderot’s evolution as a writer despite the fact that censorship prevented him from publishing his major works during his lifetime. Contains a good annotated bibliography.

France, Peter. Diderot. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. In this relatively short book, France explaines very clearly Diderot’s originality as a free thinker, an art critic, and a social critic. France’s chapters on Rameau’s Nephew and Diderot’s aesthetics are especially thought-provoking. This book complements very nicely Otis Fellows’s book (above) on Diderot.

Furbank, Philip Nicholas. Diderot: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. An excellent biography of the philosopher-writer. For a review of this work see see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Goodden, Angelica. Diderot and the Body. Oxford, England: Legenda, 2001. A study of Diderot that focuses on his portrayal of the body.

Gould, Evelyn. Virtual Theater: From Diderot to Mallarmé. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. Contains a lengthy discussion of Rameau’s Nephew, comparing it to the Platonic dialogues and exploring its influence on Romanticism, especially in Germany. Includes notes and bibliography.

Hampshire, Stuart. “The Cast Charmer.” The New York Review of Books 40 (March 4, 1993): 15-18. Notes that Diderot made natural emotions the center of his morality; Diderot argued that the soul is in constant flux and that any conventional morality entails ambiguities; he did not believe in perfectibility or acknowledge the idea of the good, and he was amused by his own inconsistencies and weaknesses.

Kaufman, Peter H. The Solidarity of a Philosophe: Diderot, Russia, and the Soviet Union. New York: Peter Lang, 1994. This study examines Diderot’s philosophy and its lingering influence. Bibliography and index.

Loy, Robert J. Diderot’s Determined Fatalist. New York: King’s Crown Press, 1950. Although this study deals directly with Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, Loy argues persuasively that Diderot’s experimentation with various narrative techniques in this novel enables readers to understand his originality as a writer of both short and long fiction.

Pucci, Suzanne L. Sites of the Spectator: Emerging Literary and Cultural Practice in Eighteenth Century France. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 2001. This work looks at the literary world in eighteenth century France, focusing on Diderot’s Les Salons and Marivaux’s Le spectateur français. Bibliography and index.

Rex, Walter E. Diderot’s Counterpoints: The Dynamics of Contrariety in His Major Works. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1998. Examines Diderot’s works in relation to his era. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Simon, Julia. Mass Enlightenment: Critical Studies in Rousseau and Diderot. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. An examination of the social and political thought in the work of Rousseau and Diderot.

Umdank, Jack, and Herbert Joseph, eds. Diderot: Digression and Dispersion, a Bicentennial Tribute. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1984. Presents nineteen essays that cover Diderot’s many activities and interests. In their diversity, the contributions mirror the editors’ view that Diderot did not seek unity but rather regarded diversity as the rule of nature.

Werner, Stephen. Socratic Satire: An Essay on Diderot and “Le Neveu de Rameau.” Birmingham, Ala.: Summa Publications, 1987. The introduction explores Diderot’s view of satire, and subsequent chapters analyze different forms of satire as they apply to Diderot and to his conception of irony. Includes notes and substantial bibliography.

Wilson, Arthur M. Diderot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. This essential and well-researched biography of Diderot also includes insightful analyses of his major works. Wilson defines Diderot’s importance in the development of the French Enlightenment and the critical reception of his works since the eighteenth century. The notes and bibliography are essential for all Diderot scholars.

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