Jacques the Fatalist and His Master Additional Summary

Denis Diderot

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Jacques and his master are on a journey whose purpose and destination are unknown to the narrator. The latter even scolds the inquisitive reader for wanting to know such irrelevant information as how the travelers met, what their names are, where they come from, or where they are going. Instead, the narrator merely informs the reader that, as the novel opens, the master is not saying anything, and that Jacques is repeating, for his master’s benefit, the fatalist creed he learned from his captain. Everything that happens to people on earth, good or bad, Jacques explains, is foreordained, written on the great scroll “up above.” As an appropriate example, his captain always adds that every bullet shot in battle has someone’s name on it.

Jacques illustrates the truth of the captain’s doctrine by noting the interconnected chain of events in his own life: He joined the army as the result of a quarrel with his father; soon after, in his first battle, he received “his” bullet, which shattered his knee; and had it not been for that bullet, he would probably never have fallen in love. That remark arouses the master’s curiosity, and he asks his servant to tell him the story of his loves to make their journey more interesting.

The telling of that story, like the recurrent discussions of the doctrine of fatalism, constitutes a running theme throughout the novel. During the entire eight days of travel recounted in the novel, Jacques keeps trying to advance his story, but he is constantly interrupted and ultimately prevented from finishing it. The narrator provides a third running theme, periodically interrupting the narrative, as he does at the very outset, to engage the reader in discussions about storytelling in general and about the truth and morality of each story or interpolated tale that comes up during the journey.

The narrator’s account of the journey is frequently interrupted by unexpected events, by digressions in dialogue between Jacques and his master and between the narrator and the reader, and by the telling of apparently unrelated tales volunteered by individuals they encounter on their journey. Some of the tales are brief but bizarre, such as the account of the relationship between Jacques’s captain and his best friend, a...

(The entire section is 935 words.)