Exemplary Affect: Sensibility and Melancholy in the Texts of Rousseau's Readers

Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2013

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Romance Languages and Literature: French Language and Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



"Exemplary Affect: Sensibility and Melancholy in the Texts of Rousseau's Readers" contributes to the understanding of the vital importance assigned to sensibility and, by extension, to melancholy, in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France. These qualities played an integral role in shaping the ideal vision of the engaged citizen in the sentimental and autobiographical novels I analyze. I propose that sensibility, modeled on Rousseau's ideal portrayed through the characters of Julie and Jean-Jacques in La Nouvelle Héloïse and the Confessions, was employed in exemplary fictions written by both women and men to cultivate the masculine sensibility necessary to produce desirable qualities in active citizens. I therefore recast the male malady as productive: like sensibility, melancholy entails a degree of suffering, yet is ultimately a necessary component of a sentimental education. These texts conceive ideal citizens as selfless, sage members of a civil society, regardless of gender. In the sentimental novels by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Isabelle de Charrière, and Germaine de Staël I study, male lovers adopt the selfless sensibility of exceptional heroines through the mechanism of spectatorship, while in the autobiographical novels by Benjamin Constant and Alfred de Musset I examine, melancholic male heroes develop a similar version of generous sensibility through self-study catalyzed by women.

Drawing on Anne C. Vila's innovative analysis of the valorization of sensibility in the medical and philosophical discourse of the Enlightenment, I focus on moral sensibility and melancholy rather than libertine fiction, tracing this line of influence through the writings of Staël rather than to Sade. My study is aligned, furthermore, with recent scholarship by Lori Jo Marso, Jennifer Popiel, and Annie Smart that approaches Rousseau's writings from the standpoint of the contemporary socio-political landscape, locating value and agency in his representation of women, who are responsible for the education of their children in civic virtues as they prepare them to become citizens of a new civil society. Unlike previous studies of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, sensibility and melancholy, and women and men that have treated these binaries separately, my study indicates that they in fact are part of the same literary tradition.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Tili Boon Cuille

Committee Members

Pascal Ifri, Paul Michael Lutzeler, Annie Smart, Harriet Stone, Colette Winn


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K7C82776

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