The New Héloïse is Rousseau’s release from a life of frustration as a lover. That the book was successful proves that the eighteenth century was ready to identify with Rousseau’s ideals. The setting is the country of the author’s youth, along the shores of Lake Geneva, where he lived out his idyll with Mme de Warens. By eighteenth century standards, the plot of this epistolary novel is a simple one. The first three parts of the novel exalt the mutual passion of Saint-Preux, Rousseau’s projection of himself, and his ideal woman, Julie. The last three praise Julie’s return to her duties as daughter, wife, and mother. Saint-Preux thus learns the value of renunciation.
While living at the Hermitage, a country home provided for Rousseau by one of his admirers, Mme d’Épinay, Rousseau composed the book that was to make him famous. He had been accompanied in his retreat from Paris by Thérèse Le Vasseur, a woman who was obviously devoted to him but with whom he found no outlet for his sensibility. Suffering from a sense of almost unbearable solitude, he took refuge in his imagination. In The Confessions, he reveals that he imagined not one but two complementary heroines, Julie and her cousin, Claire, “but I admitted no rivalry, no quarrelling, no jealousy, because it is difficult for me to imagine painful feelings, and I did not wish to mar this charming picture by anything which degraded Nature.”
The reading public immediately thrilled to Rousseau’s forceful portrayal of passion. Some of...
(The entire section is 633 words.)