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  • Taking Readers as They Are: Rousseau’s Turn from Discourses to Novels
  • Christopher Kelly (bio)

Perhaps more than his contemporaries known for fiction and political writings, Rousseau became a novelist and political thinker rather than setting out to be either. There are numerous studies of Rousseau’s literary techniques in Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse and others discussing the content of the novel in relation to his political thought, but insufficient attention has been paid to the precise considerations that led him to combine political philosophy with the novel. 1 In fact, Rousseau’s turn to the novel is connected with crucial issues of his political thought which themselves concern how a writer can hope to have an effect on his readers. Rousseau’s reflection on these issues had a profound effect on his literary practice.

When he arrived in Paris at the age of twenty-nine, Rousseau was equipped with two arms to aid him in the struggles for success in the intellectual world: his newly invented system of musical notation and his play Narcisse. It was only nine years later that he published his first work of political philosophy and an additional ten years afterwards that he published Julie. Rousseau tells the story of his composition of Julie in Book IX of the Confessions. The general context of this discussion is his account of his move away from Paris in April 1756. When he arrived in the country, his mind was full of plans for books: his great Institutions politiques, an edition of the works of the Abbé de St. Pierre, the Morale sensitive ou le matérialisme [End Page 85] du sage, a system of education, and a Dictionnaire de musique. 2 While social obligations made sustained work difficult to achieve at times, Rousseau was, on the whole, in an excellent position to execute these grand projects. Nevertheless, the only ones he finished were the Dictionary and the work on education. His novel Julie, which he presents as the unplanned outcome of flights of the imagination undertaken out of dissatisfaction with his personal life, came to take precedence over his other literary projects. If one considers that the treatise on education also became a novel, one should conclude that between 1756 and 1762 Rousseau turned himself from a writer of academic discourses into a novelist.

Rousseau attributes this shift in his literary enterprise in large part to the emotional change caused by his move to the country. Relative solitude returned him to himself from the period of “effervescence” that he had experienced for several years beginning with his “illumination” on the road to Vincennes, which launched him to fame by inspiring the First Discourse. During this period of intoxication with virtue, he had written the two Discourses, engaged in controversy against their critics, and participated in a pamphlet war over the relative merits of French and Italian music. Rousseau suggests that at least the style of these early works was embittered by his constant exposure to the vices he was attacking. Once he left Paris, that stimulus was gone and he lost the indignation that had fueled his efforts. In addition to these emotional changes, there were also factors inherent in his thought that had been leading him to a reconsideration of the style proper for its expression.

The planned edition of the Abbé de St. Pierre’s works was the first of his projects to which he turned. This edition appeared to offer a golden opportunity to use the Abbé’s name as a shield to protect Rousseau from persecution as he sharpened the criticisms of the French government found in these works. As he proceeded, however, Rousseau realized that he was in fact putting himself into a vulnerable position: “By taking it into my head to repeat his censures, even though under his name, I exposed myself to having myself asked, a little roughly, but without injustice, what I was meddling with.” 3 Consequently, Rousseau abandoned the edition after producing abridgements of and commentaries on two of St. Pierre’s works.

Rousseau had other reservations about the Abbé’s works, which clarify his understanding of what a writer can and cannot accomplish. While...

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pp. 85-101
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