Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357

Jacques the Fatalist and his Master (French: Jacques le fataliste et son maître ) is a philosophical novel by French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot, presumably written sometime between 1765 and 1780. It is largely presented in the form of a dialogue, mainly between the servant Jacques and his master,...

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Jacques the Fatalist and his Master (French: Jacques le fataliste et son maître) is a philosophical novel by French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot, presumably written sometime between 1765 and 1780. It is largely presented in the form of a dialogue, mainly between the servant Jacques and his master, who is not given a name. The novel tells the tale of the eventful journey of Jacques and his master, as they travel through France, meet new characters, experience new adventures, and learn new stories.

The main theme of the novel is, naturally, the relationship between Jacques and his master. Along the way, Jacques tells the story of his life and his past loves, even though he is often interrupted by various characters and events. He speaks of a certain philosophy in which he believes: the idea that everything that happens to mankind and to all living beings, every decision that we make, no matter how whimsical, is predetermined from above, or from a higher deity. We are, essentially, slaves to our own fate and destiny. Many consider this to be characteristic of his determinism and even his fatalism, which explains the origin and the inspiration behind the title of the book. In contrast, Jacques’s master remains skeptical of his fatalism and is mostly passive throughout the novel.

Because of its dialogue form, the book is more often compared to a stage play than to a typical novel. The readers are given a certain amount of freedom to interpret the events and evaluate the characters, based on their own opinions. Through the humorous scenes, the repetitive interruptions of the dialogue and the conversation, and the numerous sub-stories of other characters, Diderot portrays the unpredictability of life and questions all understanding of free will and reality.

The novel received mixed reviews: it was mainly criticized for its allegedly nonreligious, inappropriate, and lewd narrative; however, it was praised (especially among German intellectuals) for its playful and entertaining storytelling, its picturesque and vivid scenery, and its accurate portrayal of eighteenth-century France. Thus, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is considered one of the most interesting representations of Enlightenment philosophy in literature.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 149

*France

*France. Interrupted tales bounce the main characters and readers from place to place throughout France. Settings include towns, inns, farms, roadways, houses, and even lofts and doorsteps. The constantly shifting scenes are so disorienting that even the narrator is not always sure where the characters are.

Like his contemporary French writer Voltaire, Diderot often viewed sexual relationships between men and women as good sources of humor and satire. The novel includes several places which by their nature create humorous situations based on these relationships. The tale of the baker’s wife and her lover, for example, is one in which place is essential to the action. When the local authorities come to arrest the baker, the wife’s lover, not the baker, is with her. Later the lover leaves and is arrested in spite of his protests because “whoever sleeps with the baker’s wife is the baker.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245

“Diderot’s Great Scroll: Narrative Art in Jacques le Fataliste,” in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century. LXXXVIII (1975).

Fellows, Otis. Diderot. Boston: Twayne, 1989. In this updated edition, the author was able to incorporate the latest research on Diderot in general and on Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, which is discussed in the penultimate chapter, in particular.

Furbank, P. N. Diderot: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Fine biographical study, which includes critical analyses of Diderot’s writings. The study of Jacques the Fatalist and His Master in chapter 24 offers astute treatment of the philosophical issues and of the theories about fiction.

Loy, J. Robert. Diderot’s Determined Fatalist. New York: King’s Crown Press, 1950. The pioneering study that first opened up Diderot’s experimental novel to intelligent critical evaluation of its qualities as a work of art and as a profound philosophical discussion of the nature of human existence.

Vartanian, Aram. “Jacques the Fatalist: A Journey into the Ramifications of a Dilemma.” In Essays on Diderot and the Enlightenment in Honor of Otis Fellows. Geneva: E. Droz, 1974. Exceptionally clear and elegant essay on Diderot’s uncomfortable awareness of the contradictions in fatalism and determinism as philosophical systems.

Wilson, Arthur M. Diderot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. A thorough and scholarly critical study of Diderot’s life and works. Chapter 46 has a fine discussion of Jacques the Fatalist and His Master as an exposition of Diderot’s views on determinism and humanism.

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