The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Background, contents

The Confessions was two distinct works, each part consisting of six books. Books I to VI were written between 1765 and 1767 and published in 1782, while books VII to XII were written in 1769–1770 and published in 1789. Rousseau alludes to a planned third part, but this was never completed. Though the book contains factual inaccuracies—in particular, Rousseau's dates are frequently off, some events are out of order, and others are misrepresented, incomplete, incorrect[1]—Rousseau provides an account of the experiences that shaped his personality and ideas. For instance, some parts of his own education are clearly present in his account of ideal education, Emile, or On Education.

Rousseau's work is notable as one of the first major autobiographies. Prior to the Confessions, the two great autobiographies were Augustine's own Confessions and Saint Teresa's Life of Herself. However, both of these works focused on the religious experiences of their authors; the Confessions was one of the first autobiographies in which an individual wrote of his own life mainly in terms of his worldly experiences and personal feelings. Rousseau recognized the unique nature of his work; it opens with the famous words: "I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself." His example was soon followed: not long after publication, many other writers (such as Goethe, Wordsworth, Stendhal, and De Quincey) wrote their own similarly-styled autobiographies.

The Confessions is also noted for its detailed account of Rousseau's more humiliating and shameful moments. For instance, Rousseau recounts an incident when, while a servant, he covered up his theft of a ribbon by framing a young girl—who was working in the house—for the crime. In addition, Rousseau explains the manner in which he disposes of the five children he had with Thérèse Levasseur. In spite of its path-breaking features, Confessions is understood by Rousseau researchers to be a widely inaccurate autobiography.[2]

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