We tend to think of experimentation with form and meta-narratives that call attention to their artificiality as the exclusive traits of postmodernism. But if we glance in the rearview mirror of history, we can sometimes find works from the past that also employ these same storytelling strategies. Joe Bray suggests that the eighteenth century is a particularly rich field in which to hunt for such rare literary butterflies.1 And while Tristram Shandy is the most well-known example, Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist offers us an exquisite specimen for our study.
Written in the 1760s, the novel circulated in manuscript among the encyclopedist’s friends before it was published after his death in 1784. It relates the adventures of a talkative valet called Jacques and his unnamed master as they journey through the French countryside.
Along the way, they exchange a number of anecdotes and listen to those told by others. These stories range from the two soldier friends who were addicted to dueling with each other to that of the vengeful Madame Pomeray and her elaborate plot against her lover. By turns, silly, witty, urbane, and earthy, the yarns that Diderot stitches into his larger tale showcase his narrative verve and talent for drawing memorable characters with a few deft strokes of his quill.
Throughout this pastiche, Jacques attempts to explain to his master his belief in fate. Despite our conviction that we have free will, the valet tells us, we do not control our actions, and nothing we do will change the outcome of events. Or, as his master later sums it up, “we are nothing but living and thinking machines.”2
In other hands, this theme might turn Jacques into a ponderous philosophical tome. But Diderot serves up his determinism with a wry twinkle in his eye as though it were a plate of exceptionally savory canapes that he wishes us to sample.
But what truly sets Jacques the Fatalist apart from other works of its era is its playful willingness to break the rules of conventional fiction. From its abrupt first paragraph, it announces how radically different it will be from other contemporary novels of the period.
“How did they meet? By chance, like everyone else. What were their names? What’s that got to do with you? Where were they coming from? From the nearest place. Where were they going to? Does anyone really know where they are going to? What were they saying? The master wasn’t saying anything. And Jacques was saying that his captain used to say that everything which happens to us on earth, both good and bad, is written up above.”3
For a point of comparison, we might turn to the opening of another novel of Diderot’s day. “I must take you back to a time when I first met the Chevalier des Grieux. It was about six months before I left for Spain. At that time, I lived alone and seldom stirred abroad…”4
When we glance from this straightforward traditional opening to that of Diderot’s text, we realize that we have crossed into dramatically foreign territory. It is a landscape mapped out in the metafictions of Italo Calvino and John Barth, and it reminds us that there is nothing new under the postmodern sun.
The novelist continues his opening gambit of casting us, his readers, as characters in his narrative, occasionally assigning us lines of dialogue and quarreling with us over the direction his story takes. Consider the following passage.
“So you can see, Reader, that I’m well away, and it’s entirely within my power to make you wait a year, or two, or even three years for the story of Jacques’ loves, by separating him from his master and exposing each of them to whatever perils I like. What is there to prevent me from marrying off the master and having him cuckolded? Or sending Jacques off to the Indies? And leading his master there? And bringing them both back to France on the same vessel? How easy it is to make up stories! But I will let the two of them off with a bad night’s sleep and you with this delay.
Dawn Broke. There they were back on their horses, carrying on their way.
-And where were they going?
That is the second time you’ve asked me that question, and for the second time, I ask you, what has it got to do with you?”5
But while its form may remind us of our own time, many aspects of the novel will recall to us that we are, in fact, reading a text from quite a different era. Although written in the latter half of the century, we find no hint of the storm brewing on the horizon of French history just a few years hence. Despite his name, Jacques is no revolutionary. On the contrary, he quite obviously relishes his position as servant to a wealthy nobleman. And if he manipulates his master and tells him to his face that he is doing so, it is not out of a spirit of egalite, liberte, and fraternite.
And though Diderot is quite content to poke fun at the clergy and nobility, it is clear that he takes an aristocratic view of his society and does not engage in any serious attempt to examine it. Instead, he is satisfied to tell us a funny story about a wily and eccentric valet who gets the better of his employer.
Another reminder that we are reading a literary artifact from the past is the position of women in society and Diderot’s own viewpoint toward them. The writer includes some strong female characters. The innkeeper’s wife, who regales Jacques and his master with the tale of Madame Pomeray, presents a particularly striking portrait. But several of the stories in the book’s latter half are contaminated with an air of pervasive and casual misogyny.
So while we may humorously refer to it as a postmodern work from the past, it’s clear that Jacques the Fatalist remains firmly embedded in its own time. If we were to examine the reasons the writer chose to experiment with the form of the novel as he did, they would undoubtedly be quite different from the motives of a Kurt Vonnegut or a Thomas Pynchon. But perhaps its similarity to later texts can be instructive in another way.
Criticism can often give the impression that literary epochs flow into one another in an orderly progression so that Romanticism inevitably gives rise to realism which ineluctably leads to modernism and so forth. However, when we see individual writers like Diderot writing against the temper of their times, we realize that the process is more complex and mysterious.
But what is not mysterious is that Jacques the Fatalist will prove to be an overlooked gem to anyone who reads it. It delivers a heady mixture of philosophical speculation and literary gamesmanship from a master storyteller of the Age of Reason. Diderot’s views on determinism prefigure many developments in modern genetics. And his novel’s radical form echoes many techniques familiar from today’s fiction. As Jacques himself might say, it was written in the great scroll above that future readers would find this book an endless source of fascination and amusement.
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- Bray, Joe, Postmodernism and its Precursors, The Cambridge History of Postmodern Literature, Cambridge University Press, pp. 24-38
- Diderot, Denis, Jacques the Fatalist, Michael Henry tr. Penguin Books, Kindle edition, l.4685
- Diderot, l.331
- Prevost, Abbe, Manon Lescaut, Leonard Tancock tr. Penguin Books, p.7
- Diderot, l.354
A Postmodern Eighteenth-Century Novel. Copyright Jonathan Golding 2023. All Rights Reserved.
Artwork: Diderot by Louis-Michel Van Loo 1767. Public Domain