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Virginie Pasche

Théorie et enjeux moraux de la fiction chez Rousseau et Isabelle de Charrière


The way literature and moral philosophy intersect raises different responses from Rousseau or from Charrière. After exposing the corrupting influence of drama over morality in his Lettre à d’Alembert, Rousseau adopted the opposite perspective in La Nouvelle Héloïse, where fiction is conceived as being endowed with a reforming power. But beyond this antagonism, both the Lettre and the Nouvelle Héloïse actually rely on a similar definition of the audience: being at the mercy of the influence of passions which are out of their control, the audience are kept away from the use of reason and, consequently, can be swayed indistinctively towards good or evil. Charrière’s view on the matter is somewhat subtler. She gave primacy to the individual reader’s critical resourcefulness while doubting the power of fiction to exert any moral influence. In this respect, her thought echoes a significant shift in the aesthetic paradigm of the late Enlightenment, whereby art grows autonomous from morals.

Comparing the positions of Rousseau and Charrière, this article first examines two opposite sides of the debate about the role of fiction as moral examples in the second half of the eighteenth century. From there, it goes on to analyse the very special place occupied by Rousseau in Isabelle de Charrière’s thinking, in particular in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution.

SvD, December 2012

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