Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1034
The New Héloïse, which Jean-Jacques Rousseau published in 1761, became the model for and the best example of the sentimental novel, depicting bourgeois life and mores. This type of novel became exceptionally popular during the second half of the eighteenth century, and its popularity was due in no small part to the enormous success of Rousseau’s novel. In his portrayal of Clarens and of the life lived there by Julie, her husband M. de Wolmar, and their children, Rousseau depicts the well-ordered, tranquil life of the bourgeoisie, in which virtue and reasonableness are the guiding principles. M. de Wolmar is a man utterly controlled by his reason. Emotion never takes precedence over reasonableness for him. Julie, as his wife, conducts her life according to the dictates of reason and virtue. Moderation and calm reign throughout Clarens.
To depict this idealized bourgeois lifestyle, Rousseau creates characters who are embodiments of certain qualities and comes very close to writing an allegorical novel. M. de Wolmar is the good, wise father of the family, Julie is the perfect mother, devoted to her husband, children, and home. However, Rousseau’s novel is more than a fictional tale of the virtuous life of a segment of society. The novel addresses one of the key philosophical concerns of the century and takes as its theme the conflict between reason and passion. Through his fiction, Rousseau confronts reason (M. de Wolmar and life at Clarens) with passion (Saint-Preux).
Consequently, the novel has two major themes: that of the idyllic life of the virtuous and reasonable bourgeoisie and that of the conflict between reason and passion, two contrary aspects of human nature. The novel is thus two novels in one, mirroring a split in its title character. Julie is not just Julie; she is both Julie d’Etange and Julie de Wolmar. The first part of the novel deals with Julie d’Etange, her cousin Claire, and their tutor Saint-Preux. The second part of the novel is the story of Julie de Wolmar. Rousseau brings the two stories together with the introduction of Saint-Preux into Clarens, as passion is invited into reason’s realm. With complete confidence in reason, M. de Wolmar believes that he can cure Saint-Preux of his passion. This belief is fatal for life at Clarens. In the presence of Saint-Preux, Julie’s duality becomes ever stronger. Rousseau has created the eternal triangle of woman, husband, and lover. The three cannot exist in tranquil happiness in the idyllic atmosphere of Clarens.
Rousseau, who was adamant in his writings about the absolute importance of chastity and fidelity, especially marital fidelity, could not make Julie unfaithful to M. de Wolmar, nor could he—with his belief in the union of souls—make Julie unfaithful to Saint-Preux. Julie d’Etange is never unfaithful to Saint-Preux, for at the moment of her marriage to M. de Wolmar, Julie is transformed into another woman. She is no longer Julie d’Etange; she is Julie de Wolmar. The two Julies simply cannot exist at the same time. Using the solution typical of the century’s fiction, Rousseau brings about Julie’s death. In death, the union of Julie d’Etange and Saint-Preux is preserved, as is the marriage of Julie de Wolmar and M. de Wolmar. Julie’s death solves the dual problem of fidelity.
However, the ending also recognizes the dangerous and fatalistic power of passion and its ability to triumph over reason. In the latter part of the novel, Julie becomes increasingly aware that she cannot maintain her fidelity to M. de Wolmar as long as Saint-Preux is at Clarens. She even tries to arrange a marriage between Claire and Saint-Preux. Julie and Claire, as cousins, have always had a very close relationship, so close in fact that Claire is almost another Julie. Thus, through Claire, Julie could perhaps unite Julie d’Etange and Saint-Preux. Neither Claire nor Saint-Preux will agree to such an arrangement, and they do not understand why Julie wishes it. Although Julie’s death is conceived by Rousseau, readers may have the sense that Julie herself has somehow brought it about.
As the title indicates, the novel is the story of Julie. Rousseau structures the novel in a series of circles around Julie. She is always at the center of the intrigue. Life at Clarens revolves around her. Even as her death approaches, Julie continues to control the lives of the other characters. As a result of her decision, M. de Wolmar, Claire, and Saint-Preux are to live at Clarens and care for the children.
Rousseau did not produce a theory of the novel, and he usually condemned the novel as a corrupting influence, especially upon young girls. Despite this, The New Héloïse is a significant work in the development of the novel as a genre. In it, Rousseau achieved the two goals of eighteenth century novelists: to produce a work characterized by realism and moral instruction. With its extensive descriptions of the virtuous, reasonable life at Clarens, the novel is definitely moral and instructive. Its moral tone and idyllic portrayal of Clarens seem to make the novel lack realism. However, the realist portrayal of Julie’s early life at her father’s home, her father’s intransigent exercise of his authority, and her arranged marriage create a realist reflection of eighteenth century mores. The destruction of the reason-based utopia of Clarens by Saint-Preux’s presence further anchors the novel in reality.
Rousseau’s text is in many ways exemplary of French eighteenth century novels: It is written in the epistolary form. It portrays a love affair in relation to the social mores of the time. The society in which the characters live has an important influence on their lives. A marriage between Julie and her tutor is unacceptable. She instead marries a man chosen by her father. However, the society Rousseau depicts is that of the virtuous bourgeoisie rather than that of the corrupt aristocracy. By depicting this lifestyle, Rousseau’s novel was instrumental in enlarging the subject matter treated in novels generally and in creating the sentimental novel, a new type of novel, which contrasted sharply with the libertine novel of its predecessors.