Jean-Jacques Rousseau World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3482

Rousseau is one of the thinkers whose moral position prepared the way for the French Revolution. He proposed reforms in education, morals, politics, law, and even in religion. He consistently refused to accept the official responsibilities that were offered to him through the influence of highly placed admirers, many of whom were great ladies. Although his financial situation was increasingly precarious, he said he preferred to earn his living as a humble music copyist, even while his health was giving out, rather than lose his independence. One of his great moral principles was never to accept a legacy so as not to profit by the death of anyone who loved him. Rousseau’s contemporary Thomas Jefferson would have liked to see the American republic abolish all inheritance in order to avoid the inequality of citizens based upon accidents of birth. Rousseau’s principles were rightly considered by many to form a condemnation of the social fabric of Europe where authority could be exercised without competence and where self-interest outweighed all other motivations.

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The importance of the intellectual, scientific, and social innovations of eighteenth century France sometimes obscures another development of the age: the rise of the novel. The significance and popularity of the genre was given impetus by the only extended work of fiction written by one of the most famous men of the century, Rousseau. The New Héloïse reached an enormous reading public, not only in France; almost immediately translated, it swept England and America, too. The epistolary novel greatly changed the way that people saw love and nature and prepared the way for innumerable Romantic novels.

Strict as he often appears, Rousseau also presents a paradoxical position on many questions. He was a man of letters who despised and criticized the knowledge that can be obtained from books. The beginning of the love affair between Saint-Preux and Julie in The New Héloïse is punctuated by quotes from love poetry. As the young lovers are educated by misfortune, however, they abandon such artifices and consult only their feelings. Toward the end of the story, one character questions the value of books, for “you need only to learn to read the book of nature in order to be the wisest of mortals.” In another genre, Rousseau’s very influential treatise on education, Émile, develops this preference for nature over civilization, while The Social Contract examined an ideal for human society based upon the principles of nature.

For posterity however, Rousseau is usually most closely connected not to the works that he published while alive but to his posthumous The Confessions, Les Dialogues, and The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, which form one of the main references for the nineteenth century vision of the solitary artist and provided one model for the sensitive Romantic hero. While the eighteenth century prized good form, Rousseau, the self-taught upstart, introduced the directionless, disordered, passionate eloquence of emotion. Style henceforth would be subservient to sincerity.

The New Héloïse

First published: Julie: Ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse, 1761 (English translation, 1761)

Type of work: Novel

In their letters, Saint-Preux and Julie celebrate a passionate love leading to a return to virtue.

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 Saint-Preux’s phrases have become passwords for French lovers. Of Julie’s home, the hero says: “That place alone is inhabited; all the rest of the universe is empty.” When Saint-Preux succeeds in learning from his beloved the value of sacrifice, he is able to admire her husband, Wolmar, and live in relative tranquillity with the family. While the beauty of nature had already served as a metaphor for the lovers’ passions in the first part of the novel, it becomes the image of virtue in the second. Julie has a secret garden, Elysium, which looks uncultivated and wild. The heroine becomes Rousseau’s mouthpiece for reflections on art and nature: “It is true . . . that nature has done everything, but under my direction, and there is nothing here which I have not ordered.” The garden is a symbol of the harmony of nature, which is no longer chaos but has become spiritualized, just as in Julie herself passion and emotion have been purified.

The novel’s references to nature permit Rousseau to expound his theories of economy, domestic happiness, and especially the education of children. Julie and Wolmar’s country home is a model for a new sort of aesthetic: The billiard room has been replaced by a wine press, the peacock shed had been replaced by a dairy, flower beds have gone to make way for a kitchen garden, and the lindens bordering the avenue have been replaced by walnut trees. Everywhere, Rousseau sees the “gloomy dignity” of eighteenth century taste giving way to the idealized rustic look of the prerevolutionary period.

The sentimentalism of the novel owes much to the Anglomania that had begun to undermine neoclassical French literature in Rousseau’s day. The New Héloïse is a cousin of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady, (1747-1748), not only in the epistolary form but also in the praise of simplicity and virtue. Even though Voltaire called the success of the novel one of the infamies of the century, The New Héloïse became one of the precursors of the Romantic period and certainly earned for Rousseau a place next to Voltaire as one of the major influences on European thought.


First published: Émile: Ou, De l’éducation, 1762 (English translation, 1762-1763)

Type of work: Essay

A rich, noble orphan is reared in the country by a devoted tutor according to Rousseau’s theories of a natural education.

Rousseau opens his treatise on education, Émile, with a phrase that could summarize his entire philosophy: “Everything is good when it comes out of the hands of the Author of creation, everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Through the death of his mother and the carelessness of his father, Rousseau’s own education had been left to chance. As a tutor, he was singularly unsuccessful and preferred to abandon that career even if it meant great material difficulty. His own five children were abandoned to the foundling hospital in Paris at birth. Given all this, it seems strange that he should presume to write on education.

In fact, however, the upbringing of children was one of Rousseau’s earliest concerns. He is addressing an age when parents lived quite separately from their children, who were first sent to nurses in the country and only brought home to be confided to the mercenary care of tutors and governesses before being sent out again, the boys to schools and the girls to convents. Moreover, education seems to be intended to make children into miniature adults. This goal is strikingly illustrated in the manner in which children are represented in eighteenth century painting. Rousseau argues that children should be as children, that understanding and love are more important to them than books.

The nature of humanity is to be free, and the first principle of Rousseau’s plan of education is to respect the liberty of the child. The master should intervene as little as possible. Since religion is incomprehensible before the age of sixteen, a natural education is a negative one. The second principle is to treat the child as a child and not an adult. An attractive and progressive system of education will never demand of the child an effort beyond the capacities of his or her age. The third rule is to form the heart before worrying about the mind. Humankind is naturally good, not naturally knowledgeable. Then, after giving much consideration to the heart, Rousseau prefers educating judgment rather than imparting information. The head should be accustomed to functioning, not simply filled with knowledge. Some knowledge is of course necessary, but if Émile has not learned everything, it will be easy for him to do so when he wants because he has learned to learn. A person’s only true profession is to be an eternal apprentice. Émile’s education lasts for twenty years. Like most authors of his time, Rousseau neglects the organization of his work. Digressions abound. The essay follows a chronological order and is divided into five sections of unequal length.

Some of Rousseau’s ideas seemed scandalous at the time. He thought women should nurse their own children, but husbands like M. d’Épinay found the idea perfectly shocking and ridiculous. Public education would be too ideologically biased, according to Rousseau, who preferred to have children educated in the home. Most books are banished from Émile’s library, with a notable exception, Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, Written by Himself (1719; commonly known as Robinson Crusoe), the story of humankind in nature. Émile learns from personal experience more than from the experiences of others. It is only at the age of eighteen that he is ready to discover God. This section of the book is the famous “Profession of Faith by the, Savoyard Vicar.” Rousseau presents a natural religion, a theism that he considers preferable to all established cults.

The fifth book of Émile is consecrated to woman, studied in herself and in relation to man. The two sexes will not receive the same education. While the male is reared in nature, the female will learn the arts of society, music, dance, lace making, and especially coquetry. Sophie is the companion whom Rousseau imagined for Émile, but Rousseau was much less daring in inventing an educational scheme for her.

Although Rousseau’s work was condemned by the state, its influence was enormous, especially with women. Under the revolution, his educational theories were proclaimed ideal. By the beginning of the Romantic period, Émile was acclaimed in every layer of society.

The Social Contract

First published: Du contrat social: Ou, Principes du droit politique, 1762 (English translation, 1764)

Type of work: Essay

Examining the models for democracy, Rousseau specifies the conditions necessary to a society.

A Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Politic Law, commonly known as The Social Contract, is a product of Rousseau’s retreat from Paris. This examination of government appeared in 1762, the same year as Émile, his treatise on education. In The Confessions, Rousseau emphasizes the awkwardness that he felt in society. He was a deeply solitary man who found social life distracting and distasteful. Yet when he reflected on society, Rousseau created a work that provided posterity with the vocabulary, with the terms and assumptions that would be employed, consciously or unconsciously, to address social issues for the next two centuries and beyond.

“Man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains.” Thus Rousseau opens his treatise on human government, establishing his unique point of view. He continues: “Those who believe themselves the masters of others cease not to be even greater slaves than the people they govern.” Rousseau is himself a master at noting the contradictions underlying all generally accepted values. Perhaps that is one explanation for the enormous influence of the work.

The Social Contract is a major source, for example, of the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Almost all modern states claim to be “people’s states.” Public deliberation, mass demonstrations, voting, plebiscites, all rituals for arousing a popular will are as necessary to authoritarian states as to liberal ones. It is generally accepted that The Social Contract exposes a doctrine that is valid. The only argument concerns its interpretation.

Rousseau, whose master in political philosophy was Plato, knew that the problems of contemporary democracy arise from the fact that the ideals of that form of government were developed in the intimate community of the Greek city-state and are inapplicable to the needs of the centralized and technological nation-state. Yet, as a moralist, Rousseau is mainly concerned with the principles of political rightness. His analysis was complicated by a nostalgic idealization of ancient city-states and his own native city of Geneva. Rousseau’s ambition in The Social Contract is to establish a political jurisdiction. He does not intend to describe law as it is but rather as it should be. In other words, his concern is to specify the conditions for a just society. Might does not make right, nor does the fact that a system exists mean that it exists for good. Rousseau speaks as a philosopher rather than a historian.

The central problem of the social contract is to determine the type of social organization that will ensure security to each individual. Security is, in fact, the necessary condition for happiness in society. The desire for security is the motive for the evolution from the state of nature to civilization. Yet security must be made compatible with freedom, for the sacrifice of freedom is the sacrifice of the essence of humanity. In Rousseau’s theory, the recurring problems of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and of John Locke are reconsidered. Security and liberty are the two criteria according to which the State is organized.

Rousseau rejects any authority based on natural advantages or the rights of force. The only legitimate basis for authority is a contract or covenant between the parties concerned. Under that authority, the people must be allowed to exercise their rights. The sovereignty of the people is “inalienable” and “indivisible.” In a social system, each individual has a pact with himself or herself. “Obedience to a law that one has given oneself, is freedom.” To the question as to how a person may be free while subject to law, Rousseau answers with the often misunderstood notion of the “general will.” This principle is for Rousseau the cornerstone of any democracy. It is reflected in his famous dictum that people may be forced to be free: Even convicts are free in the sense that they are imprisoned by their own general wills, which require that people who follow their private wills in the way that they have shall be punished. The individual who differs from the community is private, wrong, and enslaved; the individual whose will is unified with that of the community is general, right, and free.

Those who were tired of apologies for the ancien régime found in the general will an instrument for reducing public affairs to simpler terms. The middle class, increasingly insulted by the distinction that separated them from the nobility, found in the general will a version of its own dignity and political intelligence. In particular, Rousseau’s inference that government is simply the servant of the people inspired those who were opposed to the existing regime, while, to its defenders, seemingly undermining the very basis of social order. The Social Contract insisted so much on the obligations of government to the people that, to those in power, it seemed to be an open invitation to permanant revolution. The censorship by Rousseau’s native Geneva consecrated the revolutionary force of his tract.

The Confessions

First published: Les Confessions de J.-J. Rousseau, part 1, 1782; part 2, 1789 (English translation, 1783-1790)

Type of work: Autobiography

Convinced that the persecution that he has experienced is the result of the absolute originality of his thinking, Rousseau presents the story of his life.

The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, commonly known as The Confessions, opens with a proclamation of originality: “I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator.” The reasons for the singularity of this undertaking are twofold. First, Rousseau claims to be absolutely honest, to hold back nothing of the “truth of nature.” Second, he feels he is different from all other people, and it is the value of this difference that he desires his reader to judge.

The Confessions were written between 1765 and 1769 in an effort to react to the persecutions that Rousseau suffered even at the hands of former friends. They are divided chronologically into two parts. The first, which follows the formative years of the philosopher, is the most accessible and most often studied. Although much of what he has to tell is embarrassing, Rousseau seems to delight in dwelling on the pleasure that he felt in being spanked by the Mlle Lambercier, the sister of the pastor to whom his early education had been confided. He is willing to indulge his reader in scenes of food stealing while he is serving his apprenticeship and to reveal the humiliation of being replaced by another young man in the affections of Mme de Warens.

There is, in fact, a great difference between the two books, and Rousseau was well aware of this difference. While the first book reveals his confidence in recounting the details of his early life, the second book is full of hesitation. The closer Rousseau gets to the time of the writing, the more he claims to be uncertain about chronology. The emotional impact of the persecutions endured in the recent past seems to have upset him, to the point where he is unable to recall exactly what happened. While the first book may seem exhibitionist, the second becomes more and more paranoiac. Thus, he explains the unsatisfactory account given of some incidents: “I am surrounded by spies, and I am obliged to accomplish, inefficiently and in haste, a task which would require peace of mind and leisure which I do not enjoy.” Yet the way that the author seems to savor the incidents of his early life gives no impression that he lacks time to tell them.

One interesting element in The Confessions is the way in which Rousseau gives his reader the means of understanding his character without seeming to comprehend what he himself is saying. He does not omit the mention of incidents that explain the part that he played in his own persecutions. The concluding sections of The Confessions relate how Rousseau was hounded for irreligion while under the protection of Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, protector of Voltaire and well-known freethinker. Rousseau had chosen to live in the territory of Neufchâtel but never seems to have reflected that the Armenian costume that he had adopted seemed to advertise a connection with the religion of Islam. As he walks about the Swiss countryside dressed in a caftan and fur cap, he is an easy prey for the rabble who have been aroused against him by the clergy. Although he says he was the victim of stoning, he never seems to have attempted to make himself less conspicuous.

Students of psychology can read The Confessions as a case study, all the more revealing for the fact that the speaker does not realize the full impact of his statements. Near the end of his story, Rousseau is a refugee living on a small island and tormented by the idea that he may someday have to leave it. He dreams of being imprisoned there. The desire that had already expressed itself in the pleasure in punishment during early childhood is here clearly apparent: “It is little enough that I am permitted to live here; I could wish to be condemned, to be forced to remain in this island.”

While this work was influential for many aspects of nineteenth and twentieth century thought, it is the one that has most inspired Rousseau’s followers. Memoirs, journals, and autobiographical novels flourished in succeeding generations with The Confessions for a model.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau Long Fiction Analysis


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

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