Jacques the Fatalist

Jacques the Fatalist and his Master

Titlepage, 1797 edition
Author Denis Diderot
Original title Jacques le fataliste et son maître
Country France
Language French
Genre Philosophical novel
Publication date

Jacques the Fatalist and his Master (French: Jacques le fataliste et son maître) is a novel by Denis Diderot, written during the period 1765-1780. The first French edition was published posthumously in 1796, but it was known earlier in Germany, thanks to Goethe's partial translation, which appeared in 1785 and was retranslated into French in 1793, as well as Mylius's complete German version of 1792.


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 vague, and to dispel the boredom of the journey Jacques is compelled by his master to recount the story of his loves. However, Jacques's story is continually interrupted by other characters and various comic mishaps. Other characters in the book tell their own stories and they, too, are continually interrupted. There is even a "reader" 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 to us down here, whether for good or for evil, has been written up above" ("tout ce qui nous arrive de bien et de mal ici-bas était écrit là-haut"), on a "great scroll" that is unrolled a little bit at a time. Yet Jacques still places value on his actions and is not a passive character. Critics such as J. Robert Loy have characterized Jacques's philosophy as not fatalism but determinism.[1]

The book is full of contradictory characters and other dualities. One story tells of two men in the army who are so much alike that, though they are the best of friends, they cannot 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.

The story of Jacques's loves is lifted directly from Tristram Shandy, which Diderot makes no secret of, as the narrator at the end announces the insertion of 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.

Literary significance and criticism

The critical reception of the book has been mixed. French critics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries dismissed it as derivative of Rabelais and Laurence Sterne, as well as unnecessarily bawdy. It made a better impression on the German Romantics, who had had the opportunity to read it before their French counterparts did (as outlined above). Schiller held it in high regard and recommended it strongly to Goethe, who also enjoyed it. Friedrich Schlegel referred to it positively in his critical fragments (3, 15) and in the Athenaeum fragments (201). It formed something of an ideal of Schlegel's concept of wit. 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.


Jacques le Fataliste is the most commonly adapted of Diderot's works.


  1. Loy, J. Robert (1950). Diderot's Determined Fatalist. New York: King's Crown Press.
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