Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

by Denis Diderot
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 249

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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1150

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is deceptively simple in plot. The two title characters travel through an unidentified French landscape telling each other stories, which are interrupted by various adventures and misadventures. Usually, Jacques does the talking, for his master has an insatiable appetite for stories, and Jacques is a compulsive talker. Throughout the novel, Jacques tells his master the story of his falling in love, though he is bedeviled by constant interruptions, mishaps, separations, and other people’s stories: his master’s, the innkeeper’s wife’s, and a host of other minor characters’. Taking precedence over all the voices is that of the narrator, himself interrupting the characters and addressing the reader.

On the first page, the reader learns that Jacques has joined the army after a quarrel with his father, has adopted his captain’s fatalistic philosophy—“Everything which happens to us on this earth, good and bad, is written up there”—has been wounded in the knee, and has fallen in love. The master asks for the story of his love, and Jacques begins, in frustratingly minute detail for the master (and possibly the reader), to tell of how he was wounded, left for dead in front of a farmhouse, found by the farmer’s wife, treated by surgeons, of what they said, how much they drank, and the day-to-day progress of the healing. His story is punctuated throughout by the narrator’s comments on how novels should or should not be written and by the master’s interruptions to argue with his servant’s views on fate, life, and love.

After spending the night (the narrator says he is not sure where) the master discovers that he has left his watch behind, and Jacques his purse. There is a digression into how Jacques recovers their property and a tribute to his ingenuity which is reminiscent of Sancho Panza’s shrewd peasant intelligence in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615). While he waits for Jacques, the master has his horse stolen, although the narrator says that they spent most of their time walking and talking, possibly leading the horses. This inconsistency is the least of the novel’s purposeful contradictions.

Jacques begins his story again, but not for long. The narrator intrudes with a digression on the dullness of truthful and faithful narratives, unless in the hands of a genius, and tells, as an example, the tale of the poet whom he advised to go to Pondicherry (a French outpost in India) to make his fortune, in order that he could afford to continue to write bad verses, since he was incapable of writing good ones. Then Jacques digresses into the story of his brother Jean, who left the Carmelites, going to Lisbon only to perish in the earthquake of 1755. The two travelers then pass a funeral procession which Jacques is sure is his captain’s. After a number of reflections on death and destiny by the master, and on novelistic coincidence by the narrator, Jacques again resumes, only to be interrupted with another story by the narrator. The new horse, which Jacques is riding, keeps leading him to gibbets, and the master reflects that Jacques’s destiny may be hanging. Jacques tells his captain’s story—he had a close friend but one with whom he was driven to duel compulsively. The narrator interrupts with a similar experience and two further unrelated narratives (though they do continue with the themes of love and betrayal). Jacques’s horse then suddenly insists on going to a certain house, injuring Jacques in the process. He is treated with extreme kindness, only to discover that his benefactor is the town executioner.

Persistent, Jacques begins his story of love again, only to have the narrator interrupt with two brief anecdotes, one about Socrates, and two more stories linked to the ones he has told earlier. Finally, the companions arrive at an inn and settle down for the evening with Jacques’s love story, only to be interrupted by the innkeeper’s wife, who tells them the story of Madame de La Pommeraye and the Marquis des Arcis, the latter also a guest at the inn. Madame de La Pommeraye is a virtuous woman who finally yields to the Marquis. He then falls out of love with her, and she seeks revenge, plotting a year of ingenious deception during which he will marry a whore. This, the centerpiece of the novel, was often reprinted separately as a narrative of high morality. The innkeeper’s wife herself is interrupted almost two dozen times before she completes the narrative, in which the Marquis forgives his wife when Madame de La Pommeraye confronts him with the truth, thus depriving her of her revenge. A lengthy debate follows the story on the relative morality of all the characters.

At last, Jacques introduces the young woman with whom he is to fall in love, but this time the interruption takes the form of a quarrel between Jacques and his master over Jacques’s obedience and who, indeed, is master. The innkeeper’s wife arbitrates the quarrel and reconciles them, defining their positions permanently. As the two men leave the inn, they fall in with the Marquis des Arcis and his secretary, and hear the story of how the latter was forced to leave a monastic order after he unmasked his wily and lecherous superior, Father Hudson.

Jacques then gives a Rabelaisian account not only of how he lost his virginity, but also of how he sported with two farmer’s wives who thought he was still an innocent. (It is this episode that became a major target for subsequent censors.) Then the master tells his own love story, a somber tale of betrayal by his best friend, imprisonment, and final responsibility for a son who was not his. It is this son whom they are traveling to see, in order to put him to a trade. Jacques, as they travel, almost finishes his story, when suddenly the false friend arrives to see the child’s mother and he and the master duel. The former friend dies, the master flees, panic-stricken, and Jacques is jailed. On this gloomy note, the narrator stops, saying that this is the point at which his manuscript stops. Then, he discovers a few more paragraphs, and at the last moment, an old friend of Jacques (the one he tricked when he lost his virginity) appears, releasing him from jail, and finally all are reunited—Jacques, friend, master, and Jacques’s love, whom he marries. One is not sure, finally, if the sudden happy ending, typical of a number of popular eighteenth century novels, is a satire on both novels and readers, or if a somber ending is not ultimately in keeping with the tone and general philosophical stance of the novel. Considering the latter, it may well be both.

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