Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Rameau's Nephew begins with a scene at the Regence Cafe, where the narrator is approached by the eponymous nephew of M. Rameau. The nephew is not very intelligent but likes to express himself. These two characters then proceed to have conversations on various topics.
They first talk about society and geniuses. The Nephew tells the narrator about his uncle (who is a great musician) while also maintaining that evil has always stemmed from genius. They discuss whether it's better to be a genius or just an ordinary merchant.
They then talk about parasitism as a philosophy. During this conversation, the Nephew mimics all kinds of people and states—seduction, supplication, a harpsichord player, and so on—to show off his talents.
The next topic is the education of young girls. The Nephew questions whether someone is able to master science well enough to instill it in others.
The Nephew then contradicts the philosopher, a new interlocutor, in defending philosophical immoralism. His conversation with the philosopher continues and moves on to the question of happiness. The philosopher, who is a moralist, contends that true happiness lies in helping the unfortunate. The Nephew, defending his immoralism, claims that the world is full of people who are happy without being good or honest.
The Nephew then talks about his time at M. Bertin's. Bertin was a financier and had a salon of mediocre poets and musicians; the Nephew excelled there, as someone "mad."
The Nephew then goes on to start a cynical and enthusiastic advocacy of the sublime in the evil, recounting the story of the renegade of Avignon, who, not content to be a despicable villain, reaches the sublime of malice. The penultimate discussion, on the quarrel of buffoons, is about musical art as imitation. The Nephew, an admirer of Italian works, strives to show that singing is an imitation of the accents of passion, and he condemns French works. At this point, he mimics the operatic arias and the various instruments of the orchestra.
Finally, they talk about the education of Rameau's son. The philosopher is surprised by the nephew’s sensitivity for aesthetic value coupled with his blindness for moral value.
The epilogue concludes with the notion that the only being who is exempt from pantomime is the philosopher, who has nothing and who asks nothing.