Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

by Denis Diderot
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Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 186

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master by Denis Diderot exhibits a philosophical style of prose and explores various themes. The most prominent theme is the in-depth analysis of morality—in particular, the moral responsibility of individuals. The novel also touches on the theme of determinism, which is a philosophical concept stating that every decision one makes and every action taken is determined by prior occurrences.

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The theme of determinism is juxtaposed with the idea of fate—the consequence of random events believed to be predetermined—as both Jacques's and his master's lives are in the hands of fate. The novel illustrates that events that occur in life are mostly out of our control.

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Latest answer posted March 24, 2021, 2:09 pm (UTC)

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The theme of progression, or a form of journey, is also present in the novel. The physical, geographical journey the duo takes runs parallel with inner journeys told through their respective stories. They are both physically traveling outward, but the more stories they tell, the further they go inward in a journey of self-reflection and self-discovery. Both the actual and internal journeys are needed to help the two men complete a spiritual metamorphosis.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770

Despite its title, the theme of fatalism may function in the novel somewhat as Jacques’s love story functions as a narrative device. Early in the novel, the narrator observes that the question of whether man has free will has been debated for two thousand years “without getting one step further forward.” Eventually, Jacques arrives at the end of his love story, but the reader is left with more than a few unanswered questions and much to consider. The same is true of the discussions of fatalism, love and betrayal, masters and servants.

Diderot’s treatment of fatalism is, in part, a satire of Benedictus de Spinoza’s philosophy. Nevertheless, Diderot also points out the difficulties and inconsistencies in applying any philosophy to life. The idea of all things being written “up there” can be consoling when things go wrong, but in terms of practical action, human volition also becomes important. In one argument, Jacques asks his master if he can will himself to fall off his horse. Then Jacques loosens the girth so that his master will fall but catches him. He is not injured, because it was written “up there”—and also, according to Jacques, because of the servant’s foresight. Jacques has a prayer in which he resigns himself to fate, but he admits that his own actions are often “inconsistent and violent.” Yet the satire is in the genial Horatian mode rather than in the bitter Juvenalian one. The novel suggests that one needs to examine all sides of the question, all sides of life, including the dark ones, yet also to try to keep uppermost a genial, tolerant, and open mind.

With his interest in medicine, the human body, and the relationship of biology to psychology, coupled with his iconoclastic view of institutions, it is not surprising to find Diderot an advocate of open and natural sexual relationships. For late twentieth century readers, Diderot’s treatment of the sexes does not seem to be as advanced as his own contemporaries believed it to be. There is no equality between the sexes; women must still resort to cleverness, wit, and subterfuge in order to survive. Jacques and his master quarrel about women; Diderot pairs innumerable opposite adjectives—good/wicked,stupid/clever, unfaithful/faithful—without saying which character asserted which adjective, concluding “and they were both right.” Thus, Diderot does make fun of stereotyping; the episodes involving women may well reflect the attitudes of the times.

As Diderot examines the relationships of men and women, master and servant, novelist and reader, and of whoever “wrote up there” to those whose lives are written, the major themes become interrelated and multifaceted. These relationships are all in a state of flux and ambiguity, and truth, if it be arrived at all, is found through the examination and tension of opposites. Master and servant may seem to be a constant, but Jacques and his master have a unique relationship, and just after the innkeeper’s wife settles their quarrel forever, the master observes to the Marquis des Arcis that Jacques is his master rather than the opposite. Actually, they are interdependent, but when Jacques refers to Oliver Cromwell and the death of Charles I and is about to continue with what people in France are saying now, the master abruptly changes the subject.

The novel’s structure reflects another major theme: the nature of the novel itself. Parallels are constantly implied between the novelist’s writing and whoever is writing what is written “up there.” In its loose, episodic structure, with its narrator’s interruptions, and in its satiric tone, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master resembles Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767). Sterne and Diderot met and then corresponded, and at the end of his novel, Diderot introduced a passage that he said was taken word-for-word from Sterne’s novel, leaving gracefully and humorously open who found it first. Much has been written about Diderot’s possible plagiarism, but imitation was an accepted eighteenth century literary device, and Diderot’s novel is quite different from Sterne’s.

Diderot’s narrator at one point insists that he is writing a true story and not fiction, which is why the story is not written as a novel should be. At another, he observes that “the person who takes what I write for the truth might perhaps be less wrong than the person who takes it for a fiction.” The truth, Diderot may be saying, as far as people can know the truth of anything, may be that all things need to be called into question.

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