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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 232

Rameau's Nephew was written by French philosopher Denis Diderot between 1761 and 1764. It is an imagined dialogue between a narrator (referred to as "Moi") and an interlocutor named "Lui." The narrator (who is not necessarily Diderot himself), explains that his interlocutor is

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the nephew of the famous musician who delivered us from the plain song of Lully, which we've been chanting for more than a century, and who wrote so much unintelligible and visionary stuff and apocalyptic truths about the theory of music, none of which ever made sense either to him or to anyone else. (3)

He prefers to live the life of a sycophant, exploiting the wealthy, but without a specific initiative to achieve respectable wealth or a family of his own.

The narrator is a philosopher, known by Rameau's nephew's comment "so there you are, Mister Philosopher" (4). The two meet in a cafe, and "Moi" (the narrator) encourages his interlocutor to apologize to those of whom he has taken advantage, and as for their pardon. "Moi" rejects the cynicism of "Lui" and maintains that his life of writing, and raising his daughter with a traditional education in grammar and history is a fulfilling one.

The two characters are foils for one another, and, despite the narrator's role being the more conventional one, neither emerges as the decided winner. This calls into question the traditional value system that the narrator's lifestyle represents.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 644


I, a counterpart of Diderot (dee-deh-ROH), the author, who displays not only much of the author’s biographical profile but also his progressive Enlightenment philosophy. The daily afternoon strolls in Paris’ Palais-Royal gardens that this character takes in order to be alone with his thoughts lead him to encounter, in the Café de la Régence, the eccentric figure of Rameau’s nephew, with whom he previously has had only a passing acquaintance. Their subsequent wide-ranging conversation, recorded in dialogue form by I, who occasionally steps out of character to frame a scene descriptively, is the subject of the novella. I generally acts as the levelheaded interlocutor to the younger, more impetuous nephew of Rameau, pleading for the value of reason, goodness, and virtue even as the latter argues insistently for short-term pleasures. I never ceases to marvel at the mass of contradictions present in this paradoxical figure and is particularly puzzled as to how the seemingly complete lack of morality of Rameau’s nephew could be coupled with his obviously well-developed aesthetic sensibility. I mostly contents himself with allowing Rameau’s nephew to hold forth on an array of topics, including why geniuses are rarely good persons; whether there are substantial differences between one’s public and private selves; what constitutes a proper education for girls; whether there are higher ideals in life than mere hedonism; which musical tradition, French or Italian, provides greater verisimilitude of emotional expression; and whether character traits are hereditary. I sits patiently through loud responses and wild gesturing by Rameau’s nephew, conscious of the unwanted attention they periodically attract, and proffers some rational advice as to how Rameau’s nephew might resolve his current difficulties. I buys lemonade and beer for Rameau’s habitually broke nephew when he grows hoarse and feels a pain in his chest, before watching the idler set off abruptly for a performance at the opera.

Rameau’s nephew

Rameau’s nephew (rah-MOH), identified as He, the ne’er-do-well nephew of famed French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. I considers He the very model of inconsistency, because He not only seems to embody simultaneously good and evil, as well as reason and folly, but also seems to show up continually with a changed mood or physical appearance. Rameau’s nephew is an unambitious shirker who schemes to maintain a high standard of living at the expense of wealthy patrons and benefactors. When He runs into I at the Café de la Régence, He is disconsolate for having just jeopardized the continued patronage of Monsieur Bertin and his mistress, the second-rate actress Mademoiselle Hus. He has fallen out of their favor because of an ill-advised off-color joke he told to an abbé at the dinner table. Although Rameau’s nephew does possess some talent as a keyboard composer, He prefers to freeload off the rich, exchanging degrading services such as pet care and incessant flattery for lavish meals and invitations into the finest houses of Paris. As a foil to I’s rational Enlightenment man, Rameau’s nephew argues that the truth actually can be harmful. He looks to prey on the weakness of others, as this behavior also occurs in Nature; he seeks wealth above virtue and fame, because money excuses all bad behavior; he uses the writings of French playwright Molière to learn how to be a scoundrel without appearing to be one in speech; and he becomes impassioned about the future direction of music, although he neither aspires to be a great composer like his disagreeable uncle nor wishes his own son to grow up to be a musician. Given to histrionic outbursts, He chooses to squander whatever potential he may possess and to continue his irresponsible way of life unabated. At the novella’s close, He is seen hurrying off to the opera to carry on his bohemian existence.

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