Critical Evaluation

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

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 835 words.)

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Critical Context