Jacques the Fatalist
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The main subject of the book is the relationship between the valet Jacques and his master (who is never named). The two are traveling to a destination the narrator leaves insistently vague, and to dispel the boredom of the trip Jacques is compelled by his master to recount the story of his loves. However, Jacques's story is continuously interrupted by other characters and various comic mishaps. Other characters in the book tell stories as well, and they, too, are continuously interrupted. There is even a "reader" character who periodically interrupts the narrator with questions, objections, and demands for more information or detail. The tales told are usually humorous, with romance or sex as their subject matter, and feature complex characters indulging in deception.
Jacques's key philosophy is that everything that happens is "written up above" ("tout ce qui nous arrive de bien et de mal ici-bas était écrit là-haut"), a "great scroll" which is unrolled a little bit at a time, on which all events, past and future, are written. Yet Jacques still places value on his actions; he is not a passive character. Critics such as J. Robert Loy have characterized Jacques's philosophy as not fatalism but determinism.
The book is full of contradictory characters and other dualities. One story tells of two men in the army who were so much alike that, though they were the best of friends, they could not stop dueling and wounding each other. Another concerns Father Hudson, an intelligent and effective reformer of the church, who is privately the most debauched character in the book. Even Jacques and his master transcend their apparent roles, as Jacques proves, in his insolence, that his master cannot live without him, and therefore it is Jacques who is the master, and the master who is the servant.
Jacques is in many ways a metafictional work. The story of Jacques's loves is lifted directly from Tristram Shandy, a design choice which Diderot makes no secret of, as the narrator at the end announces the insertion an entire passage from Tristram Shandy into the story. Throughout the work, the narrator refers derisively to sentimental novels and calls attention to the ways in which events develop more realistically in his book. At other times, the narrator tires of the tedium of narration altogether and obliges the reader to supply certain trivial details themselves.
Literary significance & criticism
Critical reception to the book has been mixed. French critics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries dismissed it as derivative of Rabelais and Sterne, as well as unnecessarily bawdy. The German critic Schiller held it in high regard, and recommended the book strongly to Goethe, who also enjoyed it. Stendhal, while acknowledging flaws in Jacques, nevertheless considered it a superior and exemplary work. In the twentieth century, critics such as Leo Spitzer and J. Robert Loy tended to see Jacques as a key work in the tradition of Cervantes and Rabelais, focused on celebrating diversity rather than providing clear answers to philosophical problems.
- A self-contained anecdote from Jacques le fataliste was adapted by Jean Cocteau and Robert Bresson for Bresson's 1945 film Les dames du Bois de Boulogne.
- Milan Kundera dramatised the novel in 1975.