The Letters of Abelard and Heloise Essay Questions

Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How do Abelard and Heloise differ in their approach to duty?

    Abelard believes his highest duty is to the Church, where as a scholar of divinity he can help to advance humanity's understanding of the world they live in and of God in particular. He initially has a duty to Heloise, having been hired as her tutor, to help educate her. His affair with her is a blatant violation of that duty. After he is castrated, Abelard returns to the Church and mostly gets to advance his career his own way. He does not see himself as having any ongoing duty to Heloise emotionally, financially, physically, socially, or romantically although he remains fond of her.

    Heloise's approach to duty is more complex. She has a duty to her family to marry and have children, and after she is forced into a cloistered convent she has at least a nominal duty to carry out the outward appearance of a religious life. She feels an intellectual duty to science but also a duty toward the ideals of romantic love. To Heloise, the love she and Abelard felt for one another could theoretically have progressed to marriage, however if she were to marry him despite the objections of everyone else around them she would have to have sacrificed other duties to which she felt strongly compelled.

  2. 2

    Why was the marriage between Abelard and Heloise such a secret, given that at the time neither of them were married and both were technically single?

    As a scholar and churchman, Abelard was pursuing an academic career which precluded marriage. Although not everyone in the Church took a vow of celibacy or chastity, having a wife and children was viewed as a career-ending move. For this reason, Abelard could not afford to openly marry Heloise. Heloise did not wish to marry Abelard because she considered marriage and motherhood to be boring and unsatisfying. As Abelard's mistress she could indulge her passion for learning without being tied down.

    There was a significant difference of social class between Heloise and Abelard. Heloise was the niece of an extremely wealthy and powerful man who also regarded her as a daughter. While this gave her access to far more education and social freedom than most young women her age, and while she was not pressed into a marriage of convenience for economic reasons, Heloise's family did not consider Abelard an appropriate match for her. Although Abelard came from a much higher ranking family, he set aside his rank when he entered the Church. After Abelard flees following the attack on him, he is no longer capable of consummating a marriage with Heloise even if circumstances were to allow them to marry.

  3. 3

    When discussing their love affair in retrospect, how do the perspectives of Heloise and Abelard change?

    Heloise views her relationship with Abelard in a very rosy light, contrasting it perhaps with the restrictions of her current convent life. She believes she was happy, free, and enjoying a very positive interaction with him that she wanted very much to continue.

    Abelard, in reflecting on his actions, believes they were sinful. He obtained access to Heloise through false pretenses, forced his romantic attentions on her in a way that would be considered abuse and rape by modern standards, and married her in secret instead of in public. The fact his conduct resulted in a physical attack on him by friends of Heloise's uncle may have been a factor in his decision.

  4. 4

    What is the significance of marriage on the reputations of Peter Abelard, Heloise, and Fulbert?

    When the affair is discovered after the birth of Astrolabe, Fulbert is humiliated at the fact that someone he trusted had seduced his niece and made her pregnant without marrying her. His sense of pride and propriety can only be satisfied if they marry.

    Marriage does not affect Heloise's reputation as much as the affair and the birth of her son would have, but the fact the marriage was secret annoyed her. She did not wish to marry, believing correctly that marriage would impinge upon her freedom. She regards marriage as a form of prostitution. Worst of all, having to be part of a secret marriage deprives her of such social benefit as would have been hers if the two had married openly. To Peter Abelard, marriage would have been a career disaster. For this reason, he talks Fulbert and Heloise into keeping it a secret. As much as he loves Heloise, he loves his career more.

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