(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau strove for a self-portrait “true to nature.” Unlike the Confessions of Saint Augustine, this book does not attempt religious introspection and moral guidance for others, but Rousseau is like the early medieval saint in expressing his deepest convictions, though they are set forth more systematically in other books such as Emile and The Social Contract.

It is a fairly complete autobiography from Rousseau’s birth in Geneva in 1712 to the year 1765, twelve years before his death. He frequently attests his weaknesses, such as the time when, as a boy serving in an upper-class household, he had a servant girl dismissed for his own petty theft, or his abandonment of a choir master, with whom he had been living, while the latter was suffering an epileptic fit.

Any other autobiographer would have suppressed such unflattering incidents, and Rousseau chides Michel de Montaigne, famous for his honest self-portrayal in his Essays, for having included nothing comparable. If Rousseau’s facts are not always verifiable, his candor is certainly genuine.

He wrote out of a sense of his uniqueness, not of his greatness. Indeed, he believed in the uniqueness of all humans; it is simply that he knew his own story and his own self best. This conviction that the individual--good or bad--is worthy of account represents one of the author’s major contributions to progressive social and...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Confessions Bibliography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Babbitt, Irving. Rousseau and Romanticism. New York: Meridian, 1955. Originally published in 1919; useful study, despite the author’s dislike for his subject matter. Analyses of Romantic genius, imagination, morality, love (including love of nature), irony, and melancholy provide a good checklist of topics to look for in Rousseau.

De Mijolla, Elizabeth. Autobiographical Quests: Augustine, Montaigne, Rousseau, and Wordsworth. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994. Stimulating study, especially for readers familiar with some of the other authors discussed.

Ellis, Madeleine M. Rousseau’s Venetian Story: An Essay upon Art and Truth in “Les Confessions.” Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966. Reinforces the fact that what Rousseau has said about himself often is seriously inaccurate.

Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. 2 vols. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. Both volumes include numerous references to Rousseau. A source on his historical and intellectual contexts.

Kelly, Christopher. Rousseau’s Exemplary Life: The “Confessions” as Political Philosophy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987. Asserts that regarding the Confessions as primarily a political statement negates criticism of its inaccuracies.