Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

by Denis Diderot
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 276

The philosophical and often comedic novel by Denis Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, has two major characters, the Master and Jacques, and an unnamed narrator. The Master and Jacques in particular mention other people in the stories they tell each other, but these characters really only serve to reinforce their views on life.

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The narrator introduces the dialogues and often interjects with humorous observations that directly address the reader.

You see Reader, I'm into my stride and I have it entirely in my power to make you wait a year, two years, three years, to hear the story of Jacques's love affairs, by separating him from his Master and making the both of them undergo all the perils I please . . . But I'll let them off lightly with an uncomfortable night, and you with this delay.

Jacques is the Master's servant. He was a soldier twenty years earlier and claims that a bullet to his knee brought him adventure, "both happy and unhappy" love and a limp. From this perspective he is a self-proclaimed fatalist. For example, when the Master admonishes him for falling in love, he states

If I did fall in love with her, what would be so strange in that? Are we free to decide whether or not to fall in love? And it we were, do we have the power to behave as if we weren't?

The Master has also been a soldier, and probably a higher rank than Jacques. He is rather set in his ways, and at times grumpy, calling Jacques a "devil of a man." Nevertheless he not only listens to him, but often pushes him to talk.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 395

The narrator

The narrator, who presents the conversations that compose the book. No description of him is provided. He frequently interrupts his characters to interject comments about the relationship between fiction and reality. He emphasizes the “made-up” character of his work, often changing from one story to another before the first has been completed. He combines authentic references to contemporary events with unexplained and bizarre jumps in chronology. He sometimes mentions other novelists, including Miguel de Cervantes and Samuel Richardson.


Jacques, a valet. He is the hero of the book, and his adventures are its chief subject. His exact age is not given, but he often discusses his military service, which took place twenty years before his dialogues with the Master; therefore, he is probably in his forties. He walks with a limp because one of his knees was shattered while he was in the army. He is attractive to women, as his many adventures indicate. A nonstop talker, he is subject to frequent distractions in his storytelling. He often repeats fatalistic slogans but arrives at no fixed conclusion about the effect on one’s actions of accepting fatalism. Fatalism does, however, influence his attitude, which is one of resigned cheerfulness. His tales usually have as their theme the near escapes from disaster occasioned by his frequent romances.

The Master

The Master, the principal conversation partner of Jacques. He is not described physically, but, like Jacques, he has seen military service. He is probably somewhat older than his valet. His principal role is to prod Jacques to untangle his stories. Without much success, he endeavors to get Jacques to complete one story before beginning another. He is generally in a good mood but is occasionally grumpy. He is heavily dependent on Jacques.

The innkeeper’s wife

The innkeeper’s wife, the teller of one of the main stories in the book. She is no longer “in the first flush of youth” but is still attractive. She is tall and full-figured, with beautiful hands. Like Jacques, she is a nonstop talker. Beneath a sometimes gruff exterior, she is unusually kindhearted. Her story is about the complicated relations, mixing love and jealousy, between the Marquis des Arcis and Madame de la Pommeraye. She recounts her story with considerable polish. How someone in her circumstances has come to possess intimate knowledge of the nobility is not explained.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617

There are four major characters: Jacques, the master, the narrator, and the innkeeper’s wife. The narrator sets the mood and tone of the novel from his opening staccato series of questions and answers: “How did they meet? By chance like everyone else. What were their names? What’s that got to do with you?... Where were they going to? Does anyone ever really know where they are going to?”

This voice recurs throughout the narrative, haranguing the reader and upsetting expectations at every turn. Though he is identified with the author, it is important to recognize the distinction between the narrator’s persona and the actual Denis Diderot, who had considerable life outside the novel.Diderot himself cautioned readers to seek an author not in one of his characters but in his entire body of work. The reader, also a minor character, is a creation representing a group of typical readers’ attitudes and not necessarily those of the actual reader. Twentieth century readers are less likely to insist on the rules of literary composition (in particular, unity) and less likely to question the use of earthy vernacular. Otherwise, the insistence on romantic adventure, impossible coincidence, excessive action, wealthy and highborn characters; the impatience with the slow-moving, philosophic, and “realistic”; the insistence on inconsequential detail and description rather than on gestures and nuances of the spoken word; and above all, the passion for love stories—all are quite timeless.

Diderot emphasized the particular and individual, and each of his characters is fully realized, even his very minor ones. Though Diderot was an art critic with a strong sense of the visual, he often ridiculed extensive physical description. He preferred to use his knowledge of the stage to portray characters by action and dialogue, rather than by description. For example, a number of dialogue passages are written as a play, simply identifying the speakers. For all this individualizing, however, very few of the characters have names, and the major voices belong to Everyman: servant (“Jacques” was often a name for “peasant”) and master, author and reader. Though with unique voices, they speak for a variety of representative points of view. The master is conservative and traditional in politics and religion, morals and literary style; in Jacques can sometimes be heard hints of the revolution to come. The major quarrel between master and man is precipitated as much by Jacques’s statement that a Jacques is a man as much as any other man and the master’s contradicting him, as by Jacques’s insolence. Yet in the give and take of argument, the master can be more liberal, Jacques more conservative; nor does Jacques consistently maintain his fatalism. Ideas as well as persons are almost literally characters in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master; remove them, and there would be very little narrative remaining.

This is not to imply that the novel is abstract. Far from it. As the innkeeper’s wife tells her story, the interruptions—the mail, the friar almoner, the cooper, the straw chandler—build up a picture of life in an eighteenth century inn. The narrator’s asides describing where and how the characters are sitting, the number of bottles of wine consumed and in what manner, all give substance to the scene. During one of the innkeeper’s wife’s absences, Jacques and his master observe that in the way she tells her story, she reveals that she was not born an innkeeper’s wife. Beyond acknowledging the truth of the assertion, she refuses to digress into her own history. Jacques’s godfather and his son are two earthily Chaucerian portraits, and the amoral Father Hudson has a kinship with Moliere’s Tartuffe.

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