Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

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Unpublished until 1796, twelve years after Diderot’s death, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master was not initially received with great enthusiasm. Of Diderot’s contemporaries, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognized his creative genius, though Rousseau later broke with Diderot, and neither man lived to read the novel. Nevertheless, Catherine the Great of Russia not only admired the philosopher’s work but also purchased his library and papers, leaving him their use during his lifetime and also providing him with a small monthly stipend. Many of these materials are still in Leningrad.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller both admired the novel, but French critics found the book disordered, inconsequential, and, in some cases, offensive. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the response was more favorable. The novel was dramatized in 1832 and again in 1847. Stendhal, Honore de Balzac, and Eugene Delacroix were among Diderot’s nineteenth century admirers in France. In Great Britain, Thomas Carlyle thought the novel brilliant, though he deplored its obscenity, and Karl Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels recommending both Jacques the Fatalist and His Master and Le Neveu de Rameau (1821, 1891; Rameau’s Nephew, 1897). In Germany, the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in a discussion of the master-servant relationship, spoke admiringly of Jacques and his master.

Although an edition of Diderot’s complete works was compiled in France between 1875 and 1877, Diderot’s place in intellectual history for both Continental and British readers was not high. Considered more an editor, translator, and compiler than an original thinker and a novelist, he was assigned to the lesser ranks of Enlightenment figures and was known mainly for his editorship of the monumental Encyclopedia (1751-1772). Critical reaction to Jacques the Fatalist and His Master continued to be indifferent or unfavorable until 1912, when observation of the bicentenary of Diderot’s birth started to gather momentum. Then, critics began to reread and reevaluate Diderot’s works. As Peter France has observed, in the twentieth century, not only did Diderot become appreciated, but diverse groups began to claim him for their own as well. The Soviet Union saw him as a major precursor, as did the French Communist Party. Liberals saw in him an early humanist; Romantics, an aesthetic forerunner; existentialists found in him some of the roots of their philosophy; and modern writers, too, claimed him as their own for his irony and for his unconventional approach to the novel.

One of the more telling contemporary comments on Diderot is the exiled Czech writer Milan Kundera’s adaptation of the novel for the stage, Jacques et son maitre: Hommage a Denis Diderot (1981, 1985). Inspired by Diderot’s novel as Diderot was by Sterne, Kundera saw the novel as a milestone on the road taken by travelers from Don Quixote to Godot, a refreshing voice of reason and comedy in a much more irrational age. By overlapping and counterpointing the love stories, which can be performed by the same actors taking a number of parts, Kundera emphasizes Diderot’s questioning mind, his paradoxes of freedom and fate, masters and servants, author and characters. Using Diderot’s own technique of dialogue and gesture, of demonstrating rather than explicating, Kundera demonstrates that Jacques the Fatalist still has much to offer successive generations of readers.

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