Jean-Jacques Rousseau, La Nouvelle Heloise (1761)

In his two prefaces to La Nouvelle Heloise, Rousseau insists that the novel is designed for a kind of reader not commonly found in the sophisticated cosmopolitan Parisian audience. He writes:

This book ... is not adapted to the generality of readers ... all the sentiments will seem unnatural to those who know not the meaning of the word VIRTUE (viii)

The corrupt urban sophisticate--a member of the group to which Rousseau refers as "people of the world"--cannot learn from novels:

As to morals, I believe that reading of any kind is useless to people of the world. ... [T]hey are of no use; they have not strength enough to break the chain by which the reader is attached to the vices of society. A man of the world may possibly, for a moment, be led from his wonted path by the dictates of morality; but he will meet with so many obstacles in the way, that he will speedily return to his former course. (xxvi-xxvii)


The farther we retreat from business, great cities, and numerous societies, the fewer and weaker are the obstacles to morality. There is a certain point of distance where these obstacles cease to be insurmountable, and there it is that books may be of use. When we live in solitude, as we do not then read with a design to display our reading, we are less anxious to change our books, and bestow on them more reflection.... (xxvii)

Thus, country reading may follow the model that Rolf Engelsing calls "intensive." Rousseau strongly advocates this kind of reading, and it seems to be especially conducive to a sentimental engagement with literary works.

The model is strongly linked to the seclusion and is emphatically anti-societal:

Books which are designed to be read in solitude, should be written in the language of retirement: if they are meant to instruct, they should make us in love with our situation; they should combat and destroy the maxims of the great world, by shewing them to be false and despicable, as they really are. (xxxi)

On the other hand, reading in small groups can be useful, as this can provide encouragement for maintaining relations defined in contrast to societal norms. In fact, Rousseau says,

I feel great pleasure in the idea of a married couple reading this novel together, imbibing fresh courage to support their common labours. ... In quitting the book, ... every object around them will assume a more delightful aspect; ... and perceiving happiness within their reach, they will learn to taste it as they ought: they will perform the same functions, but with another soul; and what they did before as peasants only, they will now transact as real patriarchs. (xxxiii)

Related terms:

dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography