Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1492
Man, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is innately good. If he has become corrupt, it is society that has corrupted him. In the lace, frills, wigs, and pervasive artifice of the eighteenth century, Rousseau saw only a distortion of reality and an attempt to cover up the true nature of man. To peel away the accumulated layers of contact between man and society, Rousseau postulated for conceptual purposes a man of nature. Presumably, nature in this sense represented all that was furthest removed from the civilized world. In it, primitive men lived in relative isolation and enjoyed freedom in their simple, everyday activities.
When notions of property became widespread, however, the pure state of nature ceased to exist. Men moved into close contact with, and became dependent on, one another. Social classes established themselves, and inequities arose among them. A previous amour de soi (self-love)—based on self-preservation and giving rise to love and, concomitantly, pity of one’s fellow human beings—yielded to amour propre (selfish love), a concern primarily with aggrandizement of oneself or one’s possessions. Men’s actions no longer came about spontaneously and from heartfelt emotions; they resulted, rather, from carefully contrived plots.
Notwithstanding his harsh attack on society, Rousseau did find in it some sources of hope. As long as man in society could feel pity, which Rousseau considered as perhaps the last vestige of primitive man, there remained the possibility of his self-betterment. Rousseau believed that man is a “perfectible” creature and predicated his educational and political theories on this belief. Sifting the various aspects of society, Rousseau came upon reason and government as key areas by which to reestablish morality. Reason, although not as reliable a guide as man’s feeling or conscience, can ultimately lead him to enlightenment. As a young boy, Emilius, in the semifictional work named after him, receives an education in reason, but only after assimilating the full worth of his sensations and feelings. Moreover, the reason to which his tutor introduces him takes on a “sensitive” character. Its content has essential meaning only insofar as it has the deeper cognitive backing of feeling. Government, in its turn, should also give full force to the individual’s feeling and will. In his view of the state as seen in The Social Contract, Rousseau balanced the individual will with the general will by closely associating the one with the other. According to his scheme of things, each individual “uniting with all obeys, however, only himself and remains as free as before.”
Rousseau’s dogged pursuit of a virtuous individual freedom paralleled his search for truth and authenticity in his own life and in his works. He took as his motto a saying from Juvenal’s Saturae (100-127 c.e.; Satires,1693): vitam impendere vero (to devote one’s life to truth). When Rousseau criticized d’Alembert’s article on Genevan theater, it was less out of any personal distaste for dramatic performances than out of his belief that the integrity of the spectators was being compromised. In the theater, they watched only feigned emotions and staged appearances without coming to any enhanced awareness of themselves or their fellow human beings. Rousseau countered this alienating experience with the public festival, or fête, in which participating members demonstrated what critic Jean Starobinski has called “transparency” in their behavior.
The privileged place that Rousseau granted simplicity, openness, and spontaneity in interpersonal relations led him not only to create in his fictional writing characters that illustrated these traits but also to attempt to exemplify them himself. In his autobiographical works, Rousseau established one of the closest rhetorical relationships yet seen in the history of literature between narrator and reader. While perusing the pages of The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, the dialogues, and The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, one comes to a new sense of realism in literature—almost able if not to touch then certainly to feel intùs et in cute (on the inside and under the skin) the writer of these works.
The New Héloïse
In his only major novel, The New Héloïse, which bore the subtitle Lettres de deux amants, habitants d’une petite ville au pied des Alpes, recueillies et publiées par J.-J. Rousseau (Letters of Two Lovers, Inhabitants of a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps, Collected and Published by J.-J. Rousseau), Rousseau brought together many of his utopian ideas concerning humankind and society. The novel has a dreamlike quality; indeed, the subtitle reflects Rousseau’s own predilection for an idyllic life in the country. Because he was composing A Letter to M. d’Alembert, The Social Contract, and Emilius and Sophia at the same time, echoes from these works found their way into The New Héloïse. They are particularly evident in the grape-harvest scene, the way of life, and the system of education chosen for Julie d’Étange’s children at Clarens, the town in which she settles after turning away from the lover of her own choosing, Saint-Preux, and accepting her father’s marital choice for her, Monsieur de Wolmar.
The grape harvest offers a positive example of the fête that Rousseau described to d’Alembert. It takes place outdoors in a public forum in which all members of the community can see one another. None of the theatrical devices orconventions that allow actors to hide behind masks and curtains and foster a mere representation of human feelings are operative there. The air of simple gaiety, combined with the industriousness of the event itself, conspires to effect an aesthetic and political ideal dear to Rousseau—an admixture of the pleasant (l’agréable) with the useful (l’utile).
The very house at Clarens has been modified to reflect the lifestyle of its inhabitants. Simple and practical furniture has replaced the former, richly decorated pieces. Another vegetable garden is cultivated where flower beds stood earlier. As for the community’s society, however paternalistic it may be, its workers often act among themselves both independently and with one voice. When an individual’s request agrees completely with the general will, it is automatically granted. The person’s thanks, however, go not to another individual but to the group.
After Saint-Preux receives Wolmar’s permission to join Julie and him at Clarens, he is charged with the instruction of their children. Although Saint-Preux no doubt possesses the requisite sensitivity to teach, Julie and Wolmar find it necessary to clarify with him their position on educating a child properly. Their system of education reflects Rousseau’s own approach to this activity, which he felt was all too often preoccupied with making reason instead of nature the guiding force. Julie and Wolmar wish their children to be educated naturally, so that each step in the learning process follows the preceding one at an appropriate time and place. Should any outside factor disturb or rush this process, one ends up, as Julie notes, with “young doctors and old children.” It is the tutor’s foremost responsibility to develop rather than correct what nature has already given a child.
Despite some of its similarities to his other writings, The New Héloïse distinguishes itself in Rousseau’s literary canon primarily by its subject matter. It is the one work in which the author, inspired by the correspondence between Abélard and Héloïse in the Middle Ages, integrates his thought around the central notion of love. In so doing, he not only accurately depicts the dialectics of desire but also offers an alternative to amour-passion in virtue. The book thus has a moralizing tone that Rousseau considered necessary for the society of his day. The vital struggle between a passionate love and a virtuous love—both of which inherently yield certain freedoms—underlies the entire novel.
Though very much in love, Julie and Saint-Preux must ultimately part company. Their separation, in conjunction with their intense feelings, lends aesthetic and dramatic plausibility to the novel’s epistolary form. When Julie marries Wolmar, she undergoes a religious conversion that leads her to a new life of piety. In her letters to Saint-Preux, she attempts to tell him of the joys of virtue, which for him represents a renunciation of his desire for Julie. After several years and numerous trips, Saint-Preux, in the style of a bildungsroman character, is finally won over to virtue. What henceforth characterizes their relationship and, indeed, what has always characterized that between the novel’s other major figures, Claire d’Orbe and Édouard Bomston, is a lasting friendship. Immune to the vagaries of passionate love, friendship becomes a source of peace and happiness. If Julie’s death at the novel’s end proves the intransmutability of passion, it does not altogether efface the intimate friendship among the remaining characters. In her absence, it is, by necessity, all that they have left as they hope to join Julie themselves.
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