When Girls Read Rousseau: The Case of Madame Roland

By Walker, Lesley H. | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

When Girls Read Rousseau: The Case of Madame Roland


Walker, Lesley H., Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture and thus determined, in all its aspects, by the resources of his medium?

Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism

**********

IN the provocative statement above, Paul de Man reverses realist causality, in which literature reflects life, and claims that it is the autobiographical project that will "determine the life" of the writer. He does not resort to quotation marks to indicate that he means the "represented" life of the writer. Of course, for de Man, there is no "real life" outside of representation; there are merely different modes of figuration. (1) It might strike some as utterly incongruent to bring such an insight to bear on the writings of Marie-Jeanne Roland, a French Revolutionary writer who was executed during the Terror. But ultimately our knowledge of her life depends on an interpretation of her memoirs and letters, which is to say a reading of her discursive self. With this in mind, then, what were the "demands of self-portraiture" that determined her autobiographical project? To understand what these "demands" might have been, I analyze Jean-Jacques Rousseau's novel Julie: Ou La Nouvelle Heloise because its treatment of desire and feminine virtue would prove to be tremendously important to Roland as she crafted her story. (2) She used Rousseau's fiction to authorize a radical perspective on femininity in which she audaciously published the name of her lover while at the same time claiming exemplary status as wife and mother. So scandalous were these sections of her autobiography that they did not see the light of day for over sixty years. (3)

In the last thirty years, the question of Rousseau's appeal to women readers and writers has occupied much of the critical debate concerned with his influence and reception. (4) This debate has produced a wide spectrum of responses. For some critics, he is the very embodiment of misogyny, while, for others, he offered solace and hope to women for what otherwise would have been a dreary life. In her most informative book, Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment: Women Writers Read Rousseau, Mary Trouille points to a seeming contradiction or paradox that animates the lives of many of the women authors (Mme d'Epinay, Mme Roland, Mme de Stael, Mme de Genlis, Olympe de Gouge) whom she portrays in this work. Despite an excellent Introductory chapter where Trouille carefully delineates Rousseau's sexual politics and his allure for women readers, she nevertheless finds it difficult to account for his "appeal to women of superior gifts and idealistic expectations." (5) Why, for instance, did a certain Henriette feel compelled to engage in a conversation with the one man, Rousseau, who would surely not support her scholarly efforts as a woman? (6) Trouille is hardly the first critic to be perplexed, and indeed rather annoyed, by Rousseau's popularity. Louis Sebastien Mercier noted early on that "upon the publication of La Nouvelle Heloise, readers were extremely numerous, never had a work made a greater splash: but soon the readership was divided into two classes: the men of letters and the public." (7) The philosophes, with Voltaire leading the attack, roundly condemned the novel as utterly lacking in verisimilitude and good taste. (8)

By eighteenth-century standards, the philosophes were right. It should have been inconceivable that a "fallen" woman could be transformed into a near Christian exemplar as Julie was in this novel. Yet the "public" unanimously and in great numbers adored this book. Why, given its entirely "unrealistic" plot, did Rousseau's novel not strike its readers as preposterous? Through a reading of Madame Roland's letters and memoirs, I demonstrate that the novel's impact depended upon the reader's willingness to accept Rousseau's radical contention that Julie's "virtue" was an interiorized quality of heart or mind and not identical with her hymen. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

When Girls Read Rousseau: The Case of Madame Roland
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.