Rameau’s Nephew submits to no simple classification. Although the narrative is fictional, the characters are actual persons and the ideas they expound in the book probably closely resemble the opinions they actually held. There is the problem of deciding how much of Denis Diderot can be found in the character Rameau, and how much of Rameau in that of Diderot. In general, however, the Diderot in the book is a mild champion of traditional values whereas Rameau is a vivacious apologist for roguery. The brilliant turns of this satirical dialogue raise the suspicion that the author Diderot is delighted with the convention-defying attitudes of his friend Rameau; perhaps Diderot believes Rameau more than Rameau believes himself.
The dialogue is a satirical critique of manners and morals. It makes specific reference to prominent writers, musicians, politicians, critics, and other leading figures of eighteenth century France. Many of the comments are unkind, and some are painfully so—or would have been had the work been published at the time of its composition. Diderot saw to it, however, that his lively satire remained unpublished, not only because of its references to living persons but also because of a reluctance to stir up the censor and all those to whom Rameau’s carefree morality might have proved unacceptable.
The character Rameau is marvelously wrought to suit Diderot’s intention. Although Rameau is a fully drawn individual and convincing, as witty rogues in literature usually are, he is not simply one thing or another. On the contrary, Diderot states that Rameau is simultaneously his own opposite. Sometimes Rameau is thin, sometimes fat; sometimes he is filthy, sometimes powdered and curled. His physical vacillation is matched by vacillations of mood. Sometimes he is cheerful, sometimes depressed; sometimes he is courageous, sometimes timid to the point of being fearful. Rameau is a sensualist and a lover of wine and women, but his passionate defense of an egoistic hedonism is a sign of his need to apologize for his manner: His morality is a device to prop up his manner. Underneath Rameau’s abandon can be perceived a poignant longing for depth and...
(The entire section is 900 words.)