Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Unpublished until 1796, twelve years after Diderot’s death, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master was not initially received with great enthusiasm.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.


(The entire section is 542 words.)