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In the eighteenth century an increasing emphasis was placed on visual mediums as evidenced, in part, by the fascination with representations of the spectacle of death – particularly the death of a beautiful woman. Sentimental novels were largely responsible for promoting such interests with Richardson’s Clarissa and Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse[1] at the center of this trend. Rousseau was greatly influenced by Richardson and in fact wrote La Nouvelle Héloïse reading Clarissa which he described as lacking an “equal” in any “language” (Politics and Art 82). Like Richardson, Rousseau concluded his novel with a lengthy description of the heroine’s death. The calm virtue that Julie displays on her deathbed, and her slow demise – (her death occurs over thirty pages in the 1997 edition) – serve to glorify and create a spectacle around the death of a beautiful woman in a manner that would be repeated throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But Rousseau, who was particularly interested in visual mediums, went beyond a verbal description of this and other important moments in his novel: he had twelve illustrations produced for the first edition of La Nouvelle Héloïse, giving the artist detailed instructions so that the engravings would appropriately compliment the ideas found in his text. The last engraving in this collection depicts Julie’s death [see Figure 1].[2] Careful examination of this engraving will reveal that it was organized in such a way as to enhance the sense of spectacle. The backdrop for this pivotal scene is a stately room with an elegant bed. The drapes from the bed are pulled back so as to frame and expose Julie’s lifeless body, which is adorned in fine clothes. Everyone in the room is positioned around Julie. Wolmar presides over the scene at the foot of the bed with his hands out to the side of his body in a helpless gesture while he gazes on Julie’s remains. A multitude of servants and common people have gathered in the room; they are close to Julie but maintain a respectful distance – pain and anguish are visible in their features. Some kneel and weep, others clasp their hands in apparent amazement and obvious distress at the sight. Claire is the only one in the room not looking at Julie. She is in the process of veiling Julie’s body; her eyes are raised as if in prayer while she gazes over her shoulder away from Julie. Ironically, her averted gaze actually serves to draw more attention to the deathly spectacle. The veil stands strategically between Julie’s body and the people who are around her bed – the separation between life and death. While, at first glance, one might suppose the veil is meant to cover the spectacle of death, it is instead (as I will argue) the act of veiling itself that creates the spectacle in this engraving.

Figure 1

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Rousseau employs the power of a spectacle to highlight the message of his text. Thus, the deadly climax of Rousseau’s novel demands attention and there is no shortage of studies that examine this issue. Contemporary critics have read the spectacle surrounding Julie’s death in a variety of ways, using twentieth-century feminist and psychoanalytic theories to frame their discussions. Like many critics, Tanner recognizes the apparent desire for unity presented in La Nouvelle Héloïse. He reads this desire and the conclusion of the novel in feminist terms, outlining the manner in which patriarchal structures enforce a divide in feminine subjectivity by attempting to control, contain, define and, ultimately, repress feminine desire.[3] Miller also examines Julie’s death through a feminist lens. She argues that Julie wants to return to the lost sense of unity she knew before the advent of sexual desire and that her death symbolizes the impossibility of this act: “for Julie . . . the utopia she imagined . . . can only be realized in Christian paradise. Sexuality still synonymous with criminality can only be transcended definitively beyond the flesh” (Miller 115). Fermon builds on these earlier feminist studies and argues that “Julie’s death in La Nouvelle Héloïse is perhaps not only a conventional strategy of the genre, where social ties are established over the dead body of the heroine, but rather the genre itself is indicative of a deep unresolved conflict between passions and the requirements of social order” (7). Focusing specifically on the issues surrounding the spectacle of death, Bronfen provides an interesting psychoanalytic reading of the deathbed scene in art and literature. She argues that “[b]oth femininity and death inspire the fear of an ultimate loss of control, a disruption of the boundaries between self and other, a dissolution of an ordered hierarchical world” (Bronfen 182). Thus the viewer must gain control by transforming the “body into a sign” so that “the living can interpret the spectacle of the corpse as the repository of knowledge about the nature of our postlapsarian existence that is in fact inaccessible. By making death representable in the dramatisation of the deathbed scene, that state which is outside human knowledge becomes accessible to the experience of the surviving spectators” (Bronfen 84). Morgenstern adds to the discussion by reading Julie’s death through a discourse on language. While Julie desires a stable, transparent form of language, she is forced to recognize that “language reflects [the] ambiguous nature of the concepts that it represents . . . [Thus] [t]he disjunction between language and meaning points to the lack of meaning in Julie’s own life. Forced to face this discrepancy, together with the ambiguity of the symbols that she mistook for solid guideposts to reality, Julie cannot survive” (Morgenstern 221).

These studies offer important insights into the function of Julie’s death within the novel and, though quite different at times, they all attempt to address on some level the issue of recovering a loss sense of unity. What is missing from this discussion on La Nouvelle Héloïse in general and the spectacle of her death in specific is analysis of the important role of reading theories. After all, the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of a massive print-culture; reading, once the privileged activity of an elite minority, became a national pastime, influencing a discourse on the art of interpretation that would help define the period. While typically studied separately, I think the growing fascination with the spectacle of death and emerging theories on reading[4] share an important connection that has been overlooked, and that to read the spectacle of Julie’s death in light of a discourse on reading significantly alters our understanding, not just of this particular scene but, of Rousseau’s novel in general and the influence it had on Gothic and Romantic writers. Therefore, in this essay, I will examine the relationship between theories on reading and the spectacle of death in Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse. I will be arguing that this text charts a shift in notions concerning subjectivity and marks the evolution of a subject position that is defined by and through popular mediums – in this case: novel reading.


Before examining the issues surrounding the spectacle of Julie’s death, I would like to discuss another important moment in La Nouvelle Héloïse: the scene in the novel where Saint-Preux misinterprets Bomston’s response to a letter written by Julie. This scene was significant enough to warrant visual representation in the collection of twelve engravings Rousseau commissioned for the first edition of La Nouvelle Héloïse (See Figure 2).[5] The artist portrays the moment when Saint-Preux rushes into Bomston’s room and challenges him to a duel. Bomston’s position in the room and the various accoutrements that surround him (the teapot, the burning candles, the blazing fireplace, and the letters on his desk) suggest that he is part of a domestic, civilized realm. Saint-Preux, on the other hand, stands in front of an open door that leads to a hallway with a window directly opposite. He has come from the “outside” – the public realm – and is filled with passion. In the upper right hand corner of the engraving one can see half of a portrait. The portrait is of a woman in conservative dress. The painting is above the door and would be the last thing one saw before leaving. This is the image of the ideal woman that men are meant to remember as they enter the public (masculine) realm. Bomston, seated in his domestic space, views this woman; Saint-Preux, in his rage, has his back to her and is unaware of the painting. But the ideal woman is present in more than one way in this scene – she is in the letter that Bomston was reading before Saint-Preux entered his room. Julie, like the woman in the portrait, is a presence that is an absence – present only through a type of representation. It is relevant that neither woman is “physically” present, and that the portrait is only partly visible. In Rousseau’s vision of a new republic, it is the image of the ideal woman that exerts influence. The fact that Bomston is interrupted while perusing Julie’s letter serves to highlight the act of reading. The ability to read “properly” is essential to Rousseau’s plans for the new republic and the theme of interpretation can be found throughout Rousseau’s novel; in fact, I will be arguing that one of the major aims of this novel was to outline and define a new style of reading. The remaining sections of this essay will elaborate on the themes presented in this engraving and explore the manner in which they help form the foundation for both the celebration of the spectacle of death and the theories on reading that were to become so prevalent in sentimental, Gothic and Romantic texts.

Figure 2

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Johann Herder asserted “We are creatures of language” (“Origin” 143) in his 1770 essay on the origin of language. Herder, like many philosophers in the eighteenth century, viewed language as the “central and unifying sense” (143) among people – the trait that separated man from the animals. Studies on the origin and development of language were quite popular at this time due to the fact that not only was language considered the element that separated man from beast, but it was the very thing that enabled self-awareness. It was because of language that one could speak of, examine and know “man.” Discussions on the origin of language were particularly topical around the middle of the century when Rousseau was producing the majority of his work, and they form the discourse through which Rousseau defines his theories on reading.

Rousseau argues that there were two main components necessary for the development of language: passion and the imagination. Like most of the theories he promoted, Rousseau’s examination of the origin of language was a gendered discourse. Stating that “passions stimulated the first words” (“Origin” 11), Rousseau viewed language as originating in a natural, feminine and maternal form of unity (pure passion in speech), where sign and referent are closely related. However, as society evolved and writing developed, language lost its connection to passion and came to occupy a more masculine realm of extreme reason; this realm is dominated by a sense of absence and deferred presence, in so far as writing is the graphic representation of passion, and thus a symbol of absence. In his groundbreaking analysis of Rousseau in Of Grammatology, Derrida highlights the manner in which Rousseau’s theories on language involve a system of supplementation: “[s]peech being natural or at least the natural expression of thought, the most natural form of institution or convention for signifying thought, writing is added to it, is adjoined, as an image or representation. In that sense, it is not natural. It diverts the immediate presence of thought to speech into representation” (Derrida 144). Therefore, gestures (which were considered “natural”) supplement (or substitute) thought, speech supplements gestures, and writing (which is considered “unnatural”) supplements speech – a process that leads one away from immediate presence and into a realm of “thought” and “representation”. Derrida highlights how, in the history of Western philosophical discourses, representation – or the sign – is linked with death: “obliged to have recourse to representation, ‘the human body, begins to die as soon as it is born, and carries in itself the causes of its destruction’” (297).[6] This degenerative move from pure presence to thought and representation allows for the imagination to more fully develop; the imagination then begins to function as the primary means for interpretation. It is, after all, in one’s imagination that the supplement or the sign is united with its referent. As Derrida explains: “Imagination is the power that allows life to affect itself with its own re-presentation” (184). Thus language, passion and the imagination institute an economy of signs where a symbol (or form of representation) substitutes or stands in for the object in question. But there is no guarantee that symbol and object, sign and referent will form a stable, steady relationship, or that one’s imagination, when influenced by excess passion, will allow for proper interpretation.

The body enters the economy of signs (in fact, the idea of a “body” is conceived because of this sign-system) and thus becomes a symbol to be read and interpreted. This creates the notion that there is an interior “self” that is disguised or must be expressed by an exterior body. As Rousseau writes: “Why is my soul subjected to my senses and chained to this body which enslaves it and interferes with it? I know nothing about it. Did I take part in God’s decrees? . . . I aspire to the moment when, after being delivered from the shackles of the body, I shall be me without contradiction or division and shall need only myself in order to be happy” (Emile 292-293). This highlights the manner in which the body, like the sign, is inextricably linked with death, and how the subject is thus forced to define two separate elements of his subjectivity: one that is external and temporary, another that is internal and eternal – the site of his “true” identity. Such binary visions of self lead one to feel a sense of inauthenticity that signifies the move away from the primordial unity found at the origin of language. In his Confessions, Rousseau further develops and complicates this idea by explaining that “different states [of mind]. . .[have] a great deal to do with our . . .impressions from external objects,” (Confessions 381). In other words, methods of interpretation influence one’s emotions and identity. While savage man lived “within himself,” modern man lives “always outside himself . . . [knowing] how to live only in the opinions of others” and deriving “the sense of his own existence” through them (Rousseau, Discourse 136).[7] Thus, contrary to savage man, the modern subject is defined through external elements and Rousseau complains that “[e]verything is in constant flux on this earth. Nothing keeps the same unchanging shape, and our affections, being attached to things outside us, necessarily change and pass away as they do” (Rousseau, Reveries 88). This state of “constant flux” has a negative influence on subject development by enhancing the sense of a divide self – where internal and external notions of identity fail to connect – and by preventing the soul (or “true” identity) from finding a stable “resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there” (Rousseau, Reveries 88 – italics mine). Rousseau attempts to address this problem by defining a style of reading that stabilizes the sign, fusing the acts of “reading” and “seeing.” Mediation thus gives way to the spectacle of the image (the “real”) that lies beyond the supplement – a process that helps heal the split or divide in modern subjectivity. Rousseau outlines this project in his novel, Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse.


Discourses on reading were extremely popular in the eighteenth century due to the technological and social advances that, for the first time, allowed for the mass production and consumption of novels. These discussions reveal an ambivalence to the democratization of this relatively new medium. As Raven explains: “what . . . shaped eighteenth-century concern about reading . . . was a conflict between support of the increased production and circulation of print, and moral and political misgivings about the extension of reading” (177). Rousseau had a tremendous influence on the discourse of reading.[8] While he defined novel-reading as morally dubious, Rousseau regarded reading as an essential part of subject development, stating that his own self-awareness was intimately connected to, what he describes as, this “dangerous” pastime. Thus, for Rousseau, reading was a personal, intimate act; as an author he brought this sense of intimacy to his books and transformed the relationship between writer and reader; Darnton explains: “[Rousseau] encouraged [his readers] to see through to the Jean-Jacques behind the texts . . . [he] broke down the barrier separating writer from reader” (234-235). Rousseau wanted his readers to see beyond the printed text on the page, to the inner sense of self he so meticulously attempted to portray.

In La Nouvelle Héloïse the issue of reading is examined in its broadest sense, including all forms of interpretation, and the discourse on novel-reading functions as a framework for broader discussion on interpretation and its relationship to subjectivity. For example, Claire tells Julie that some of the basic differences between the Genevans and Parisians can be attributed to their reading habits: “The Frenchman reads a good deal; but he reads new books only, or rather he leafs through them, less to read them than to say he has read them. The Genevan reads good books only; he reads them, digests them . . . possesses them” (Rousseau, Julie 542-543). National identity is thus tied to the manner in which one reads, and the preferred reading habits of the Genevan include an active form of interpretation that requires the reader to so fully engage with the text that it metaphorically disappears while he “digests” it. St. Preux describes a similar style of interpretation to Julie: “what you put into your readings is better than what you find in them, and your active mind makes from the book another book, sometimes better than the first” (Rousseau, Julie 47). The first book fades away as it passes through Julie’s soul and emerges as a second (“sometimes better”) book. In the same conversation on reading St. Preux discusses the issue of vision: “One practices seeing . . . or rather exquisite vision is but a delicate and refined sentiment. So it is that a painter beholding a beautiful landscape . . . is enraptured by objects that are not even noticed by the common Observer” (Rousseau, Julie 48). The conflation of discussions on reading and seeing is relevant. Both forms of interpretation require “practice” and involve a process that allows one to read/see properly – even to see things that, to the untrained eye, are not readily visible. Also, the issue of seeing is combined with a discussion on reading because Rousseau defines the act of reading as a visual exercise. For example, St. Preux describes the “reading so delightful” that allows one to see what is beyond the text: “how could anyone not know you in reading your letter? How could anyone lend so touching a tone and such tender sentiments to a face other than yours? Does not one at each sentence see the sweet look in your eyes?” (Rousseau, Julie 200). In this case it is Julie’s body (which is functioning as the site of the “real”) that emerges beyond the disappearing text. Having access to a type reading that allows one to see beyond the printed letters on a page is something that must be carefully taught and regularly practiced. It is this style of reading that Rousseau promotes and defines in La Nouvelle Héloïse in an attempt to achieve two main goals: 1) to overcome the confines of mediation so as to enable the subject to discern the “truth” or the “real” and gain a sense of unity, and 2) to control the passions and therefore control the act of interpretation and its influence on identity formation.[9]


In La Nouvelle Héloïse Julie discusses the difficulties and limitations inherent to the powers of interpretation:

However one tries . . . the heart attaches itself only by the mediation of the senses or the imagination that represents them, and how can one see or imagine the immensity of the great Being! When I wish to raise myself toward him, I know not where I am. . . I no longer see or feel anything, I find myself in a sort of nothingness . . .

How then . . . shall I go about escaping the phantoms of a reason which is going awry . . . To my sorrow I lower divine majesty; between it and me I interpose sensory objects; unable to contemplate it in its essence, I contemplate it at least in its works.

Rousseau 483-484

Julie explains that it is only through our senses or our “imagination” that we can know the world around us. God – which for Julie and Rousseau is another term for “truth” or the “real” – is above and beyond the senses and has access to “a direct communication” (Rousseau, Julie 597). Attempting to move beyond the mediateon of the body/senses – beyond the chain of signification that gives shape to one’s consciousness – Julie finds herself overwhelmed with a sense of “nothingness” because the body (and subjectivity which is intimately connected to the body) relies on, and is defined by, the senses. Therefore Julie places “sensory objects” between God and herself. It is only in “contemplating” or viewing these “objects” that Julie is able to discover God, who represents truth, unity, and pure presence. Thus, there is always something between the reader and the “real.” This “something” is representation itself (or as Derrida defines it, the supplement), and Rousseau suggests that it is impossible to access the “real” without it. In Rousseau’s theories there is a privileged representation that helps conquer the limitations of mediation – it comes in the form of a spectacle. The male subject must internalize the image presented in this spectacle; it will stand between the reader and the real, stabilizing his passions and thus controlling his imagination, allowing him to properly interpret or “view” external objects. The image, essential for subject development, that will help him negotiate the difficulties inherent to interpretation and will give him access to unity and to “truth,” is the image of the maternal ideal.


“A home whose mistress is absent is a body without a soul”.

Rousseau, Julie 88

The mother – all mothers – provide important access to truth. After all, as Rousseau highlights, it is the mother who “serves as the link between [the children] and their father; she alone makes him love them and gives him the confidence to call them his own” (Emile 361). The mother is thus the basic force uniting sign and referent – father and child – ensuring the valid nature of the child’s identity. The family forms the cornerstone of society and of Rousseau’s republic; the mother is central to guaranteeing the unity, truth and authenticity of this unit and thus of society as a whole. It is through her that men will find access to a transparent form of mediation.[10]

Saint-Preux discusses issues concerning interpretation and transparency on many occasions, including the following discourse on music:

I [once] said, music is but an empty sound that can flatter the ear and acts only indirectly and faintly upon the soul. The impression of chords is purely mechanical and physical . . . [However,] I did not perceive in the accents of melody applied to those of language the powerful and secret connection of the passions with the sounds; I did not see that the imitation of the various registers by which sentiments animate the speaking voice confers in turn on the singing voice the power to stir hearts, and that the performer’s energetic tableau of the movements of his soul is what constitutes the true charm of the listeners. . .

I began to listen to that enchanting music, and I soon sensed from the emotions it provoked in me that this art had a power greater than I had imagined . . . It was no longer an empty sequence of sounds . . . At each phrase some image entered my brain or some sentiment my heart; the pleasure did not stop at the ear, but entered the soul . . .

[W]hen . . . we came to those grand expressive pieces, which can excite and depict the disorder of violent passions, I lost at every moment the notion of music, song, imitation; I thought I was hearing the voice of grief, rage, despair, in my mind’s eye I saw mothers in tears, lovers betrayed, curious Tyrants, and in the agitations I was forced to experience I could scarcely keep still.

Rousseau, Julie 107-109

This passage describes Rousseau’s well-known preference for Italian over French music. It also displays his fascination with issues of interpretation and mediation. For Rousseau, the art of listening to music is, ironically, a visual exercise. He explores this notion through the character of Saint-Preux who, until he heard the Italian masters, thought that music was “purely mechanical and physical” and had nothing to do with “sentiments” (107). Saint-Preux initially views music as simply an oral form of representation that was defined by mechanical and mathematical elements which, though pleasing, provided superficial enjoyment only and did nothing to stir the soul. However, he discovers that Italian music moves the listener beyond the supplement, connecting the “passions with the sounds” (107). The idea that Italian music overcomes the limitations of mediation is made apparent by the visual result of this oral art. Music is “no longer an empty sequence of sounds” but instead becomes a spectacle of “images” and “sentiments” that do “not stop at the ear, but [enter] the soul” (109). Italian music thus moves beyond the body – both the body of music or the text on which music is written and produced – the instruments, the voice, the paper containing notes etc. – and the body of the listener, bypassing the “ear” in order to touch the “soul.” Eventually the text/body disappears as the listener looses “the notion of music, song, [and] imitation” and instead “hear[s] the voice of grief, rage, despair . . . [and sees] mothers in tears, lovers betrayed, [and] furious Tyrants” (109). Representation thus gives way to the spectacle of “reality” and the listener is united to the music.

The importance placed on the visual aspects of Rousseau’s theories of interpretation is evident, not just by his discussions on what is seen and how it is viewed but, by his concern with what is not seen. When Wolmar and Julie take Saint-Preux into Julie’s garden, Saint-Preux marvels that he does not “see the slightest trace of cultivation . . . the gardener’s hand is not to be seen . . . I see no human footprints” (Rousseau, Julie 393). Wolmar explains that they take great pains to “[hide] the traces of labor” (Rousseau, Julie 393). In other words, they are hiding all traces of physical labor – of the body – in order to present a transparent nature. Julie adds that “nature seems to want to veil from men’s eyes her true attractions . . . she flees much frequented places . . . Those who love her and cannot go so far to find her are reduced to doing her violence, forcing her in a way to come and live with them, and all this cannot be done without . . . illusion” (Rousseau, Julie 394). The “violence” or “illusion” that Julie speaks of in this scene is representation, because what Saint-Preux is viewing is a carefully constructed imitation of “nature”; all forms of representation – language, printed words on a page, the voice, instruments etc. – must disappear in order to allow the reader/subject to see the “real.” In this case it is Julie’s labor, her body, that is between the “reader” and the “real,” and it is her body that disappears behind the “verdant, [and] fresh” foliage in order to produce a seemingly natural garden (Rousseau, Julie 393).

These issues of interpretation are intimately connected to notions of subject-development, and women play an important role in this process. In Rousseau’s vision of society, women become the “Other” (or the “text”) that children and male subjects define themselves through. Since the world is in “constant flux”, women must provide a source of stability. Thus, Julie’s soul, like a pool of water, must remain smooth and static in order to return clear reflections. Once again, the visual aspects of interpretation are stressed as Julie says to Claire: “Whatever you may think of yourself, your soul is calm and tranquil . . . objects are reflected in it as they are; but mine ever moved confuses and disfigures them like a rippling wave” (Rousseau, Julie 409-410). Julie must therefore repress her passions in order to become the ideal woman/mother.

While Rousseau seeks to move the subject beyond mediation – beyond the supplement – he also recognizes the need for supplementation, particularly when dealing with passion: “Physical pleasure! Is it the lot of man to enjoy it? Ah, if ever in all my life I had once tasted the delights of love to the full, I do not think that my frail existence could have endured them; I should have died on the spot” (Confessions 210). Although Rousseau views the evolution of this system in negative terms, he nevertheless argues that women need to be supplemented because they represent “pure pleasure” (210). In The Confessions he describes how he had to supplement his desires through masturbation, and limit his sexual encounters with women, because he believed that to “[remain] longer with [them]. . . would . . . [kill] [him]” (37). Derrida explains that although “the supplement is dangerous in that it threatens us with death, . . . Rousseau thinks that it is not at all as dangerous as ‘cohabitation with women.’ Pleasure itself, without symbol or suppletory, that which would accord us (to) pure presence itself, if such a thing were possible, would be only another name for death” (155). Thus, for Rousseau, woman (as object of desire) is linked with death. In fact, she is more dangerous than death, because she represents the chaos associated with pure presence, unmediated passion, unruly and anarchical desire. Uncontrolled – unmediated by supplementation – she becomes a threatening and destructive figure.

In La Nouvelle Héloïse, Julie echoes Rousseau’s ideology by conflating sexual desire with death; the following passage is a letter Julie sent to Saint-Preux suggesting a private meeting where they could consummate their relationship:

Take counsel with yourself, my friend, and see how much you cherish life; for the expedient I am proposing can lead us both to the death. If you fear it, do not finish this letter, but if the point of a sword does not frighten your heart more today than the abysses of Meillerie did formerly, mine runs the same risk and has not hesitated. Listen . . . Now, my sweet friend, no, we shall not depart this short life without having for an instant tasted of happiness. But bear in mind, however, that that moment is surrounded by the horrors of death; that the approach is subject to a thousand hazards, the site dangerous, the retreat extremely perilous; that we are done for if we are discovered.

Rousseau 118-119

In this scene, Julie becomes the temptress offering pure pleasure. Until this point, Julie and Saint-Preux have only engaged in textual intercourse. However, this act by itself is not innocent. As Julie explains: “you wrote. Instead of throwing your first letter into the fire, or taking it to my mother, I made so bold as to open it. Therein lay my crime, and all the rest was inevitable. I meant to refrain from answering these fatal letters which I could not refrain from reading” (Rousseau, Julie 281). Reading is linked with desire – an act that, in this passage, could not be controlled. Thus the actual consummation of their correspondence/relationship was “inevitable” (281).

Rousseau defines the dangers inherent to reading in the introduction of La Nouvelle Héloïse; his discussion is gender-specific:

Never did a chaste maiden read Novels; and I have affixed to this one a sufficiently clear title so that upon opening it anyone would know what to expect. She who, despite this title dares to read a single page of it, is a maiden undone: but let her not attribute her undoing to this book; the harm was already done. Since she has begun, let her finish reading: she has nothing more to risk.


For women, reading is conflated with sexual intercourse. A maiden who reads, is a “maiden undone.” Once she has started the text, she can finish for she has already succumbed to desire. In Julie’s correspondence with Saint-Preux, she warns him that if he fears “death”, then he should not “finish this letter.” In Rousseau’s text death, sexuality and reading are thus intimately and inextricably intertwined. Julie functions as the agent of control over male desire. She becomes the Eve-like figure offering the forbidden bite. The crime that led to her eventual demise was that she “read”. The “necessary” but “dangerous” supplement fails as a safe medium for sexual desire, leading instead to pure feminine passion. This degeneration is lethal and has a deadly effect on masculine subject development. Reading, therefore, was an act that had to be controlled, contained – defined. And women, as the “texts” through which male subjects define themselves through, have to repress their menacing passion.

In La Nouvelle Héloïse, the veil symbolizes the tool for this form of repression; it functions as the supplement, enacting the necessary control of feminine desire and saving the male subject from the abyss of the passions by sacrificing feminine identity to the deleterious powers of the “sign.”[11] While Wolmar wants to “owe [his] wife’s fidelity to her heart and not to chance,” he has to acknowledge that: “A veil of virtue and honesty makes so many folds around [Julie's] heart, that it is no longer possible for the human eye to enter it, not even her own” (Rousseau, Julie 408, 417). Rousseau develops this theme of veiling more fully in Saint-Preux’s description of the “lugubrious spectacle” that appeared to him several times in the form of a nightmare:

I could see your friend’s worthy mother, on her deathbed, and her daughter on her knees beside her . . . [then] I saw Julie in her place; I saw her, I recognized her, although her face was covered with a veil. I uttered a cry; I rushed forward to push aside the veil, I could not reach her; I stretched forth my arms, I groped desperately and touched nothing. Friend, calm yourself, she said to me in an affable voice. The fateful veil covers me, no hand can push it aside.

Julie 505 – italics mine

In Saint-Preux’s dream, Julie replaces her mother behind the veil, having become “a mother in [her] turn” (505).[12] This is her “destiny.” Julie tells him that this “fateful veil” can never be removed. Saint-Preux not only confuses Julie and her mother but, now that they are mothers, Julie and Claire, claiming that his “heart no longer distinguishes [one] . . . from . . . [the] other” (Rousseau, Julie 507). All mothers thus become the mother – images of pure femininity that transcend the discerning traits of corporeality. This sense of transcendence is highlighted by the fact that, in his dream, when Saint-Preux “groped desperately” at the veil, he “touched nothing” (505). Dream becomes reality as Julie calmly – even gladly – accepts her sacrificial position.[13]

Once she has died, the site of Julie’s unruly passions – her body – has to be repressed and, indeed, this happens with the veiling of her disfigured and decaying remains. Claire fulfills the prophecy of Saint-Preux’s dream and, in a ceremonious fashion that resembles religious ritual, covers Julie’s corpse with a veil: “[Claire] kissed the veil, [and] covered her friend’s face with it . . . [she] exclaimed . . .: ‘Cursed be the wretched hand that ever lifts this veil! cursed be the sacrilegious eye that ever looks on this disfigured face!’ (Rousseau, Julie 606). If we consider the discussion on reading that I have outlined, then when we return to the engraving of Julie’s death we will see things not “noticed by the common Observer” (Rousseau, Julie 48) [See Figure 1]. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Rousseau employed the power of a spectacle to highlight the message he was attempting to portray in his text. Thus he creates a spectacle around Julie’s death (both in his text and through the engraving that was meant to accompany this scene). Rousseau initially describes the manner in which Claire was “feasting . . . on this deathly spectacle” (Julie 604). But he then presents a shift: Claire leaves the room and “return[s] a moment later holding a golden veil embroidered with pearls” (Julie 604). It is this transitional moment that is captured in the engraving: note that Julie’s dead body is actually not at the center of the spectacle – it is Claire, ceremoniously holding up the veil, who attracts our gaze. And, indeed, Rousseau’s notes on this engraving focus, not on the representation of Julie’s dead body but, on Claire and the embroidered veil: “in this last Engraving the figure of Claire holding the veil is important and difficult to render” (Julie 628). The manner in which our attention is drawn to Claire and the veil serves to highlight how Julie’s body, like the text in the hands of the ideal reader, is meant to fade away behind the veil and behind the image of ideal femininity in order to provide access to the “real.” The veil is physically positioned between the people of Clarens and Julie’s dead body. In this way the veil – or the image that will be grafted onto the veil – ends the death associated with the sign because it is that “something” that Julie described as having to stand between the reader and the “real.” Zerilli outlines Rousseau’s ambivalence toward the supplement and adds: “The accursed veil is indeed an obstacle but a necessary one” (22). Through the image on the veil the reader has access to what lies beyond – beyond mediation, beyond the body, beyond death. While the engraving appears to portray the spectacle of death, it is really focusing on the veiling of Julie’s body, and the act of veiling Julie’s body is a reference to the act of reading and interpretation. To enhance this theme of interpretation, the drapes frame the bed as if it were a private theater and the citizens of Clarens gather like an audience at a play. This spectacle marks the moment when the citizens of Clarens are taught to properly interpret this pivotal scene – to read this feminine image. They initially refuse to accept Julie’s death and have imagined that she, like Christ, has risen from the dead. Claire interjects and corrects their misreading. She takes center stage and redirects their gaze, attention and powers of interpretation by placing the veil over Julie’s dead and decaying body. Rousseau describes how Claire is to look in the engraving: “Claire is standing beside the bed, her face lifted heavenward . . . In all other situations, Claire is merely pretty; but her tears must make her beautiful, and above all the violence of her suffering should be heightened by a nobility of posture that adds to the pathos” (Julie 628). Claire thus becomes the physical embodiment of the virtuous woman the members of Clarens are meant to imagine grafted onto the veil – the description of her beauty and the manner in which she gazes up to heaven highlights her transformation into an image of ideal femininity. In fact, Claire is just the first of many: women reading this spectacle are meant to metaphorically mimic Julie and become the virtuous images of femininity that men define themselves through. All of this is done as part of a religious-like spectacle and the spectacle of death actually becomes the spectacle of interpretation – a style of reading that conquers the death of the sign and allows for a more direct form of communication.

Therefore, Julie is now to be read in the manner described throughout Rousseau’s novel – in such a way that her body disappears so as to enable the reader/subject to visualize the “real” beyond supplementation. With this in mind, we will notice that the other engraving I discussed at the beginning of this essay [see Figure 2] also presents the spectacle of reading. Like the deathbed etching, a superficial reading of this print suggests that it is about something else: violence in the form of a duel between St. Preux and Bomston. However, careful consideration exposes the manner in which this scene is actually about the act of reading and, like the deathbed engraving, the act of correcting a false interpretation: St. Preux mis-reads this scene of reading – assuming that Bomston is having an affair with Julie because he is engaged in a correspondence with her and is caught examining one of her letters. However, Bomston is actually presented as the proper reader. He peruses Julie’s letter from a domesticated space and position. When he looks up from the text he is gazing toward the half portrait above the door, suggesting that he acknowledges and has internalized the image of ideal femininity. In contrast, St. Preux has his back to this picture and instead enters the room filled with passionate rage, which reduces his powers of interpretation. In order to read correctly, the subject is meant to internalize the image of the ideal woman and interpret the world, and himself, through her. The ideal woman is present in this scene as text on one end (in the form of the letter written by Julie) and image on the other (in the form of the half portrait above the door). In fact, the manner in which Bomston has dropped his letter and is now facing the portrait mimics how the letter is meant to give way to the image of the feminine ideal. Since it is only the image of ideal femininity that plays a role in Rousseau’s reading program the letter and half portrait have added significance. In trying to negotiate or overcome the limitations inherent to interpretation, it is the body – the female body – that must vanish. The ideal woman is presented in this scene as pure text and image, the half portrait suggesting the necessary dissipation of corporeality.

Thus, in keeping with Rousseau’s reading project, Julie’s body must disappear behind the veil. However, she “die[s] only with the last survivor” of her memory (Rousseau, Julie 609). Julie will return to Clarens, not to “act upon” or “communicate” with her friends (for a soul without a body “has no means of doing that”), but instead to read what her loved ones are “thinking and feeling, through a direct communication” – the communication of God (Rousseau, Julie 597). This is an unmediated, pure form of language that defies the sign system and works directly from one soul to another. As Claire explains, Julie will serve as an omniscient and uniting force that influences their actions and helps them to become the virtuous, honest and authentic members of society that comprise Rousseau’s definition of the new republic: “let us gather together all those who were dear to her. May her spirit inspire us: may her heart unite all of ours; let us live continually under her eyes . . . from the place where she dwells . . . it pleases that still loving and sensible soul to return among us, to find her friends filled with her memory, to see them imitate her virtues” (Julie 612). In this manner, the image of the ideal woman ultimately becomes a stable reference point for the subject to define himself through. Her image also stabilizes the male imagination, allowing her subjects to become astute readers of the external world. Like the model text that, as Rousseau describes, disappears in the eyes of the reader to reveal “truth,” the corporeality of the female body must similarly fade away in order to expose the “real.” The maternal ideal thus helps return man back to the realm of unity and truth that was prominent at the origin of language.


In his Confessions, Rousseau states: “it is from my earliest reading that I date the unbroken consciousness of my own existence” (19). It is interesting to note that the “earliest reading” Rousseau makes reference to, is the manner in which, as a young boy, he read the novels left behind by his deceased mother. For Rousseau, consciousness is defined by and through a system of signs that both enables us to connect with one another and, at the same time, serves as the source for our feelings of isolation – after all, the sign-system reminds us that we lack a direct form of communication or, as in the case of his childhood novel-reading, the presence of the books serve to remind him of his mother’s absence. Rousseau attempts to heal the rift that emerges between sign and referent and to recover a sense of unity and truth by defining a style of reading that helps one to access what lies beyond the supplement. Like many of Rousseau’s ideas, the key to the success of his theories on reading and on being able to “see” beyond mediation relies on a paradox: the text or object must disappear in order to become more visible, allowing the reader to see, not just words on a page but, the image that exists beyond the text. Rousseau applies these theories on reading to masculine identity formation. The male subject internalizes the image of the maternal ideal in order to stabilize his passions and imagination, and thus control the lens through which he reads the world and himself. In the same way that the text must disappear in the eyes of the reader so that he can see the “truth” beyond the words, the corporeality of an important feminine figure must similarly fade away in order to expose the “real” – a real which presents itself as the image of the maternal ideal. In the process, Rousseau helps promote a fascination with representations of dead or dying women by creating a spectacle around the physical demise of his chaste and beautiful heroine, Julie. Thus, for Rousseau, accessing the “real” and triumphing over the deadly nature of the “sign” is ultimately a visual exercise – one that fuses the act of reading and seeing in an attempt to overcome meditation. While it is not within the scope of this paper to discuss the legacy of Rousseau’s ideas in any detail, I would like to suggest that the visual aspects of Rousseau’s reading theories influenced the development of the Gothic novel. After all, the spectacle of death is one of the major themes of the Gothic, and one only has to think of the many moldy documents, secret letters and unidentified portraits that lead to the discovery of a missing mother to consider that Rousseau may hold the key to understanding some of the trademark motifs that define this genre as it developed in the early nineteenth century.