Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835

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Denis Diderot, a prominent member of the group of leading thinkers and writers in eighteenth century France known as The Philosophers, expressed so many radical and controversial ideas about society and human nature in his novels, plays, and philosophical dialogues that he did not dare publish most of them out of fear of stringent government censorship. Instead, he circulated his works in manuscript among his trusted friends. Long after his death in 1784, those friends arranged for publication of his works.

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master was composed during the 1770’s, when Diderot was over sixty. It was an experimental work in which Diderot tried to fuse his most controversial views about the writing of fiction, his boldest speculations about fatalism as a philosophy of life, and his opinions about the hypocritical conduct occasioned by the rigid moral values demanded by society. The experiment seemed designed to sum up his nearly forty years of reflection about life and literature. When it was finally published, in 1796, it was met with bewildered incomprehension at best and angry outrage at worst, for the text seemed almost perverse to its early readers in systematically thwarting their expectations of how a novel should be constructed and how characters should be shown to comport themselves. They were puzzled by the constant interruptions to the narrative thread that allowed no coherent story to emerge.

It was only in the last half of the twentieth century that readers both in France and elsewhere discovered and began to appreciate what it was that Diderot attempted in this culminating composition of his career. The narrator’s interruptive discussions with the reader are now read as Diderot’s declaration that fiction must avoid facile invention of heroic adventures in the interests of truth, a principle requiring him to shatter conventions of the novel. By deliberately presenting his novel’s characters as inconsistent, neither wholly good nor wholly evil, neither purely rational nor purely irrational, Diderot was attempting to indict conventional novels for their oversimplified, one-dimensional characters that lacked true humanity. As for the endless chain of digressions, diversions, and changing scenes that prevent the main narrative from moving forward, they were Diderot’s means, borrowed from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), of reminding readers that no life unfolds logically and coherently, free of interruptions or diversions, and that society is too complex, varied, and unpredictable to conform to preconceived patterns, whether attributable to God or to novelists. In Diderot’s view, a novel must display the chaotic and unpredictable procession of events, behaviors, and motivations that characterize real life. Finally, since his unorthodox narrative techniques evoke the reader’s laughter, Diderot seems to be arguing that the spectacle of life’s chaotic unpredictability is best seen as an occasion for joyous delight in the vastness of human diversity.

This theme of chaotic unpredictability is announced by the title, which places the servant first and the master last and gives the servant a name and the master none. By calling Jacques a fatalist, the title also hints at his possible superiority of intellect over the master, since Jacques has at least reflected about the meaning of existence. This intellectual superiority of Jacques naturally produces moments of tension between the two, but the master’s attempts to put Jacques “in his place” during these quarrels are always vehemently resisted, and each quarrel leads both back to the abiding truth that they need each other. This equality of mutual dependency was daring social doctrine for the times and is one of the ways in which this unusual novel can be seen as a forerunner of the French Revolution.

Unconventional moral themes are freely evoked in this novel, including the wide discrepancy in the sexual behavior of men and of women; the moral teachings of the Catholic Church; the randomness with which sinful behavior is sometimes punished and sometimes rewarded; and the equally capricious consequence of virtue, which can produce suffering as often as it produces a clear conscience. The novel mocks Jacques’s fatalism by demonstrating how it distorts reality and by pointing out that Jacques himself often contradicts its tenets. Yet the novel also shows that fatalism has the power to console Jacques and enable him to accept evils he cannot prevent.

The interpolated tales in this novel exemplify the chaotic disorder of everyday life and illustrate concretely the novel’s running themes. Indeed, careful analysis of the most celebrated tale in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, that of Mme de la Pommeraye and her unfaithful lover, the Marquis des Arcis, reveals that it touches directly on every major theme of the entire novel: the problematical relations between the sexes; the morally perverse consequences of sin and virtue; and the comical unpredictability of human motivation, among others. This astonishing single tale embodies, for the thoughtful reader, the essence of what Diderot hoped to achieve with his farewell novel: a joyous celebration of the variety of human nature and the stunning but delightful unpredictability of human conduct.


Critical Context