Julie, or the New Heloise
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Julie, or the New Heloise (Fr:Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse) is an epistolary novel by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, published in 1761 by Rey (Amsterdam). The original edition was entitled Lettres de deux amans habitans d'une petite ville au pied des Alpes.
The novel’s subtitle points to the history of Heloise and Abelard, a medieval story of passion and Christian renunciation. The novel was put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, amongst other things, because of premarital sex between Saint-Preux and Julie d'Etange.
Although Rousseau wrote it as a novel, a philosophical theory about authenticity permeates through it. He explores autonomy and authenticity as moral values. A common interpretation is that Rousseau values the ethics of authenticity over rational moral principles. He also illustrates that you should only do what society asks of you when it's congruent with the "secret principles" and feelings which constitute your core identity. Acting inauthentic is self-destructive.
This plot summary is taken from Judith Shklar's seminal Men and Citizens:
- [Nouvelle Héloïse] begins with Saint-Preux . . . declaring his love to Julie d'Etange. As he is merely the tutor of this daughter of a nobleman, he assumes from the first that he will be rejected. This does not happen, and they presently become lovers. Julie's letters are at first mostly addressed to her cousin, the more level-headed Claire, who is eventually in everyone's confidence and who acts as a sort of one-woman chorus throughout, observing, predicting and lamenting. Julie's father, though not her mother, is inflexibly opposed to the marriage of the young lovers. Julie hopes to force her father to consent by becoming pregnant, but she has a miscarriage.
- At this point Lord Eduard Bomston, an immensely rich English peer and a friend of Julie's father, appears. He takes a great liking to Saint-Preux, but the latter suspects him of having designs on Julie. In a jealous rage he challenges Lord Eduard to a duel. This disaster is finally averted and Lord Eduard's generosity is proven by his efforts to persuade Baron d'Etange to permit the marriage. This fails and he and Saint-Preux go off to Paris, from where the latter writes Julie a series of devastating accounts of life in the capital.
- While they are gone Julie's mother discovers the correspondence and is very upset, and soon after she falls ill and dies. Even though the two events are unrelated Julie feels guilty and thinks that she is to blame for her mother's death. In this state of mind she consents to renounce her lover and to marry M. de Wolmar, an older man whom her father has chosen for her. During the wedding she undergoes a profound inner change, a conversion to virtue. She now feels ready to accept her duties as a wife and mother. In her pursuit of virtue she is at every step helped by her extraordinary husband, a man as wise as he is good. Although she cannot bring herself to tell him of her relationship with Saint-Preux, he knows and forgives everything.
- Saint-Preux is thrown into utter despair by Julie's marriage and contemplates suicide. He is dissuaded by Lord Eduard, who finds a position as engineer on a vessel going on a trip around the world for him. After ten years Saint-Preux returns and is made welcome by Wolmar and his wife. Julie now has two children and her life is wholly devoted to them and to running a model estate at Clarens with Wolmar. The rest of the book describes these efforts, Julie's virtue, Wolmar's wisdom, the beauty of their English garden and the prosperity of their estate. Julie's only sorrow appears to be that Wolmar is an atheist. He never speaks of it, always attends church for the sake of appearances, but he is a convinced unbeliever. This disturbs Julie, although Wolmar never tries to alter her faith. The more beneficent Wolmar is, the more he does to cure Saint-Preux of his old infatuation, the more religious and miserable his wife becomes. In the end, as it seems certain that Saint-Preux will marry Claire and settle down at Clarens to become the tutor of the Wolmar children, she tells him of her profound malaise and boredom. There is a short break in the story just before this that deals with Lord Eduard's amorous adventures in Italy. An appendix is also devoted to this delightful subject.
- The final section is brief. Julie jumps into a lake to rescue one of her children, catches cold and dies. She is very happy to die, because she is now perfectly aware that all her virtue has not helped her to forget Saint-Preux. She loves him as much as ever. As she dies she gives an account of her tolerant and loving religious beliefs, but her greatest hope is to be reunited in heaven with Saint-Preux. Wolmar looks thoughtful, but never admits to conversion.<ref>Shklar, Judith. Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau's Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1969), 232-3.</ref>
Historian Robert Darnton has argued that Julie "was perhaps the biggest best-seller of the century." Publishers could not print copies fast enough so they rented the book out by the day and even by the hour. According to Darnton, there were at least 70 editions in print before 1800, "probably more than for any other novel in the previous history of publishing."
But what was truly astonishing regarding Julie's popularity was not just its sales statistics, but the emotions it brought out in its readers. Readers were so overcome that they wrote to Rousseau in droves, creating the first celebrity author. One reader claimed that the novel nearly drove him mad from excess of feeling while another claimed that the violent sobbing he underwent cured his cold. Reader after reader describes their "tears," "sighs," "torments," and "ecstasies" to Rousseau. One wrote in a letter to Rousseau after finishing the novel:
I dare not tell you the effect it made on me. No, I was past weeping. A sharp pain convulsed me. My heart was crushed. Julie dying was no longer an unknown person. I believed I was her sister, her friend, her Claire. My seizure became so strong that if I had not put the book away I would have been as ill as all those who attended that virtuous woman in her last moments.
Like this reader, people became deeply invested in the lives of the characters in the novel, to an extent that was entirely new in fiction. In fact, some readers simply could not accept that the book was fiction. One woman wrote to Rousseau asking:
Many people who have read your book and discussed it with me assert that it is only a clever fabrication on your part. I can't believe that. If so, how could a mistaken reading have produced sensations like the ones I felt when I read the book? I implore you, Monsieur, tell me: did Julie really live? Is Saint-Preux still alive? What country on this earth does he inhabit? Claire, sweet Claire, did she follow her dear friend to the grave? M. de Wolmar, milord Edouard, all those persons, are they only imaginary as some want to convince me? If that be the case, what kind of a world do we inhabit, in which virtue is but an idea?
Other readers identified less with the individual characters and more with their general struggles. They saw in Julie a story of temptation, sin and redemption that resembled their own lives.