(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Saint-Preux, a young Swiss man with unusual talents and sensibilities, is accepted by Madame d’Étange as a tutor for her daughter Julie and Julie’s cousin Claire. For a year under Saint-Preux’s instruction, the women make excellent progress, until Claire goes away to visit her own family. During her absence, Saint-Preux reveals his love for Julie. After some solicitation, Julie admits that she, too, is hopelessly in love. The young people view their situation as desperate, for the Baron d’Étange, Julie’s father, has promised to marry her to his friend, de Wolmar. In addition, the baron is a lineage-proud man who would never hear of his daughter’s marriage to a commoner such as Saint-Preux, regardless of the latter’s abilities.

Julie fears that she may fall victim to her love for Saint-Preux; she writes to Claire and asks her to return as a protector. She writes to her cousin because she is afraid that, if her mother suspected the truth, she would immediately send the young man away. Claire returns, and for a time the romance continues to blossom. At last, Claire and Julie decide that Saint-Preux ought to leave until the baron returns from an absence that has kept him from home for well over a year. The women fear that the baron may dismiss Saint-Preux unless steps are taken to pave the way for the young man to continue as their tutor. Saint-Preux leaves. The women show themselves off to the baron when he returns, and he is so pleased with the progress of their education that he has Saint-Preux recalled.

Once again, the love between Saint-Preux and Julie grows. In spite of her virtue, however, Julie falls victim to Saint-Preux’s pleas and becomes his mistress. A short time later, Saint-Preux is dismissed to facilitate Julie’s marriage to de Wolmar. The shock of seeing her lover depart and the news from her father that her marriage day is not far off make Julie very ill. Only a visit from Saint-Preux, smuggled into the sickroom by Claire, saves the young woman’s life.

After Julie recovers, there follow more than a year of surreptitious meetings between the lovers. As her passion waxes, Julie’s fear of her father grows less, until she even has Saint-Preux stay with her through the night. Neither of the young people believes that they are committing sin, for they honestly feel that they are already married in the eyes of heaven and that only the baron’s attitude keeps them from living together publicly and with outward virtue.

In the meantime, both Julie and Saint-Preux have met Lord Edward Bomston, a British peer living in Switzerland. Saint-Preux and Lord Bomston become friends, even though Lord Bomston is himself seeking Julie’s hand in marriage. Bomston fails in his suit. One night, while he and Saint-Preux are drinking,...

(The entire section is 1142 words.)