Denis Diderot

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

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Jacques the Fatalist and His Master Summary

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Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is a philosophical novel by French author and art critic Denis Diderot, published in 1796. It was allegedly written over much of Diderot’s life, between 1765 and 1790. A central figure of the Enlightenment era, Diderot explicates his concept of a “great scroll” that reveals its preordained decree over the individual lives of men as time moves on. This appeal to existential determinism is expressed through the characters Jacques, a valet, and his unnamed master, who travel to an indefinite location. Jacques’s master tells him to relieve their boredom by retelling stories about how he fell in love. As Jacques complies, the party is interrupted by a host of absurd pitfalls and characters, including a persona of the reader him- or herself, who interrogates the story’s narrator. Most of the tales are intended to be both funny and philosophical, focusing on subjects of sex, romance, and hedonism, exploring how these aspects of human life are philosophically entangled.

The novel’s core plot follows the titular characters as they travel through rural France. Jacques is the more talkative of the two, owing to his master’s love of hearing, rather than telling, stories, and Jacques’s exuberant personality. The primary story is, ostensibly, Jacques’s retelling of how he once fell in love. However, this attempt is repeatedly interrupted by the stories of other characters, who often appear unexpectedly, or the two travelers’ logistical mishaps. Above it all, the narrator takes primacy over the pace of the story, frequently halting the narrative to speak to the reader.

Early in the story, Jacques reveals that he enlisted in the army after fighting with his father. From his experience at war, he took away his cohort captain’s deterministic philosophy that all the experiences that befall humans are preordained by a heavenly “scroll” which lies “up there,” and is inaccessible to people other than through their earthly correspondence with it. Jacques relates that this includes his experience injuring his knee in combat and falling in love during the process of healing. Jacques begins with the story of being wounded. He tells it in excruciating detail at first, describing how he thought he was good as dead, having crawled outside a farmhouse with no one in sight to call out to. A farmer’s wife appeared and took him in, and found surgeons willing to treat him. He recalls the surgeons’ personalities and rampant alcoholism, which colored the long days of healing ahead. Meanwhile, the master interrupts him to debate his story’s embedded assumptions about life, love, and destiny.

Jacques and his master soon realize that they left some of their possessions behind, their purse and watch, respectively. Jacques goes on an ingenious excursion to retrieve them, which recapitulates on plot elements from Cervantes’ work Don Quixote. While Jacques is gone, the master’s horse is stolen. The narrator reflects that it is possible the duo had not been riding the horse anyway.

Jacques resumes his story, but barely, before the narrator digresses with his personal opinion that stories told truthfully are always boring unless communicated by a genius and then, delivers an anecdote about a struggling poet. He returns to Jacques, and then, interrupts again, this time opining that the valet’s fate may be death by hanging. Jacques tells the story of his captain, whose friend was addicted to dueling. During the story, Jacques’s horse aggressively redirects the men to a nearby house, causing injury to Jacques. The man at the house is very kind to Jacques, but Jacques soon learns that he is the local executioner. Jacques and his master proceed to an inn, where the innkeeper’s wife tells them the story of another guest, Madame de La Pommeraye. She courted the Marquis until he eventually grew tired of her, causing her to enact revenge by tricking him into marrying a prostitute. Eventually, the Marquis forgives Madame before she can experience the bliss of revenge. The story meditates on the challenge of living a purely moral life.

Jacques finally makes it to the part of his story where he falls in love but digresses into an argument with his master about who is truly in charge. The innkeeper’s wife serves as arbiter, declaring their final positions in the hierarchy of men. On their way out of the inn, they meet the Marquis des Arcis and his assistant, learning that the latter was ousted from a monastery for revealing his mentor’s moral crimes. Jacques recounts his loss of virginity, which is followed by a story told by his master, in which he is betrayed by his closest friend and made responsible for a child that is not his own. It is revealed that the whole point of the duo’s trip has been to meet this son. The two-faced friend that the master mentioned abruptly appears, intending to see the young boy’s mother. The master duels him and slays him, resulting in the imprisonment of Jacques. At this point, the narrator claims the manuscript he is relating has ended. He realizes that he missed an appended section, and relates that one of Jacques’s friends bails him out of jail. Jacques rekindles his relationship with his love and marries her.

The novel ends with the suggestion that the exploits of its characters are far from over beneath the parodic veneer of the stereotypical happy ending common in eighteenth-century literature. Refusing to tie up his book’s endings, Diderot suggests that the “heavenly scroll” of fate will never be fully uncoiled or free of the compulsive self-interruption that characterizes the story of Jacques and his master.