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  • Julie's Breasts, Julie's Scars:Physiology and Character in La Nouvelle Héloïse
  • Mary McAlpin (bio)

It is a general impression experienced by all men, although not observed by all, that in the topmost mountains, where the air is pure and subtle, one feels . . . more serenity of mind, pleasures are less ardent, passions more moderate.

Rousseau, La Nouvelle Héloïse, letter I:23, Saint- Preux to Julie1

Saint-Preux, the long-suffering hero of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), is the quintessential figure of French pre-romanticism. And yet, as this proto-Byron climbs ever higher into the Swiss mountains, bemoaning his sensitive soul, the work does not build toward moral crisis; rather, the higher Saint-Preux ascends into the Alps, the more serene he becomes. As he observes in a letter to the cause of his suffering, Julie d'Etange, the "pure and subtle" mountain air moderates his passions, calming his frenzied mind. This one example of many illustrates that Rousseau's characters are bound to their bodies in a manner quite foreign to the full-blown romantic ethos; as Jean Ehrard writes in his study of Julie: "It is thus to misinterpret Rousseau's novel, and probably to block any comprehension of its immense success, to see it, from some 'pre-romantic' perspective, as only the novel of 'sensitive souls.'"2

In the present article, I examine the at-times quite coarse physical details that Rousseau provides for the body containing Julie's "sensitive soul": the size, color, and consistency of her breasts; her reactions to sexual stimuli; the causes and effects of her illnesses; and the decay of her corpse. Despite her paradigmatic, unchanging sensibility, Julie's body and mind are necessarily malleable, in keeping with the eighteenth-century emphasis on the interaction [End Page 127] of physical circumstances and moral development.3 Like Saint-Preux, Julie is an unusually careful observer of the relationship between her physical and mental states; unlike Saint-Preux, she seeks to capitalize on the causes and effects of this interaction in order to improve her moral being. By the second half of La Nouvelle Héloïse, her body can indeed be read as something of a palimpsest of her travails in the first half; every physical detail, including her now-motherly breasts and the "almost imperceptible" scars left by her bout with smallpox, points to a moral triumph. It is this hard-won virtue that allows Julie, at novel's end, to leave behind her flawed, decomposing physical self for greater glory as a purely spiritual being. Rousseau's heroine was received in her own time as far more than a static allegory of Virtue; while undeniably a superior specimen of womanhood, Julie struggled with the limitations of the body with which her sensitive soul was indissociably entwined.4 The story of her successful engagement with love, duty, faith, and fidelity is ultimately as realist as it is romantic.

The physico-moral evolution undergone by Rousseau's heroine may be divided into three distinct periods. As the novel opens, the young Julie d'Etange is already in love, but her virginal body remains in a pure, latent state, and her mind is accordingly at peace. This stage abruptly ends when she and Saint-Preux first kiss, and Julie undergoes an intense sensual awakening. Faced with her father's opposition to their union, Julie sacrifices her virginity outside the bonds of marriage. She becomes pregnant, only to miscarry, then develops smallpox as the result of guilt over her mother's death. The crisis of her illness passed, Julie begins the third period of her life with an "interior revolution" that occurs during the ceremony in which she marries her father's friend, Wolmar. She is seemingly at peace with married life as the second half of the novel begins; and yet, her body contains the repressed germ of her love for Saint-Preux. The question of whether a suitable catalyst will provoke the consummation of this now truly extramarital passion adds narrative spice to the second half of the novel, otherwise taken up with describing the ideal community the Wolmars...


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pp. 127-146
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