The story starts with Jacques and his Master embarking on a journey. They face a series of unfortunate events as their horse takes off. They stay at an inn and end up getting robbed. These events, and many more, become examples of fate. Jacques describes them as predetermined and out of their control. To further explicate this point, there are several additional journeys that are described by the characters. Each journey is interrupted by an occurrence out of their control. This further exemplifies the philosophical doctrine of determinism. Jacques shares the story of how he was wounded in the army and was left bleeding on farm land. He was rescued and underwent surgery. He then proceeds to fall in love. This rambling storyline is interrupted many times by Jacques’s own thoughts and other characters. Jacques finally gets through his story line and introduces the young woman he loves. However, this interaction is paused by a disagreement between Jacques and his Master over who is in charge. The Master now has the opportunity to share his own love story. It is a sad story and in which he ends up having to care for a son that was not his. We learn that the pair are traveling to trade the son. Suddenly a former friend who betrayed the Master appears and they fight. The Master ends up fleeing and Jacques is put in prison. Jacques’s friend frees him from jail and reunites him with his Master and love.
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...
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