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.
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...
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