This week – Rousseau. I am in the last books of the semester with a paper and presentation due next week – plus three books left to write journal reflections on. This being one of the three – Julie, or the New Heloise – a fairly hefty novel of 450 pages (that’s the abridged version) penned in 1761. Now considered somewhat of a slow read, this epistolary book was perhaps the best-seller of the 18th century and fanned the emotional flames of its readers who were enchanted by the doomed love affair of the main characters – Julie and the so-nicknamed lover Saint-Preux – which echoes the historical figures of Abelard and Heloise.
Purporting to be the letters between, and concerning the two lovers (lovers meet and fall in love/lust, match is deemed unsuitable by father, lover is sent away, letters between the lovers discovered by mother and all communication is cut off, Julie enters an arranged marriage with a man of perfect reason, lover returns to her side as tutor to children and family friend, Julie dies in tragic accident) Rousseau uses the novel to dig at deeper philosophical observations about the nature of emotion and reason, the human character, the relations between the sexes, and individual autonomy within society.
In the text emotion and reason are characterized by the different characters and their relationships to each other. Julie in the earlier chapters and St. Preux representing emotion, Julie’s cousin Claire and Monsieur de Wolmar (Julie’s husband in later chapters) representing reason with other characters supporting these roles. Through their travails, the characters demonstrate that while emotions bring out the beauty and heightened feeling for life, reason must always trump them eventually in order to bring about domestic harmony and a peaceful existence. In some ways this is considered to be a transition of age (Julie partially makes this transition after her marriage), but it is also a matter of central character (Monsieur de Wolmar asserts that he has never felt much passion and believes himself an observer rather than much of a participant in life). The measured detachment of Monsieur de Wolmar is depicted as mature and more desirable to the fevered state of melancholy the lovers exist in prior to his arrival on the scene. The cousin Claire also plays this counterpoint throughout, admonishing Julie regularly on being the author of her own heartache and being too attached to the sway of her emotions. We are to understand the ecstasy of the lovers only through the framework of their agony – thus paving the rational road for the more mature characters to lead us down.
It follows in the tale that it is in this maturity we may find the autonomy in ourselves and allow it in others – for to be held in the emotions is to be prey to jealousies and possessiveness which Julie and St. Preux both exhibit in their affair. By contrast we have Monsieur de Wolmar – who, with secret understanding of Julie’s former affair with St. Preux – allows St. Preux into his home and then encourages a close and affectionate relationship between the two former lovers. This is presented as the only truly honorable option – and it relies on the true nature of goodness that all characters possess once freed from their frenzied emotional states. There is a definite paternalism in Monsieur de Wolmar’s position — he refers to the two as his children at one point during a speech– as we are to understand that this reasoned approach is not without great feelings of affection even as the lovers are diminished by it. St. Preux is reduced to the status of Julie – a pet, a possession – of de Wolmar’s, even though he is returned from his own process of maturing abroad. Perhaps this is a nod to the castration of St. Preux in homage to the story of Abelard?
The women in Julie are strange objects, indeed – the stone-faced Claire contrasted against the virtuous and excitable Julie – which makes one wonder about Rousseau’s own relationships. Being dominated by women, my professor says, turned Rousseau on – so that would explain the strong female characters. That is, strong to a point, because Julie’s virtue is severely challenged when her lover returns under her roof. Thus, the only resolution for Julie is her death by drowning – otherwise the temptation of St. Preux in her home might prove too great. This really is the happy ending for everyone – St. Preux is left to tutor Julie’s children thus retiring from social life into a solitude in which he can nurse his past memories, de Wolmar is never betrayed by his wife, and Julie is released from the conflict between her emotions and reason eternally. It is made clear that because she is so tortured about her repressed love for St. Preux, she wishes to die, though it is undoubtedly an accident which takes her.
I quite enjoyed this work, even though the plot itself is a simple veil for Rousseau’s moral message – though the characterization of the voices behind the letters is sometimes so weak as to confuse the reader. But it’s the lives I enjoy, the details of life in 18th century Switzerland, the moral dilemmas that seem somewhat alien in the modern era – and these Rousseau gives us in great detail. The letter format brings an intimacy even as it also seems at times artificial – and I admire Rousseau’s inventiveness at pretending the letters to be “real”, found in a trunk somewhere and printed for the edification of the reader.
I am winding down on this semester – my books have now arrived for next – so we will be switching the Required Readings up soon which I am looking forward to!