Places: Émile

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Émile: Ou, De l’éducation, 1762 (English translation, 1762-1763)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Novel of ideas

Time of work: Eighteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedNature

Nature. ÉmilePlace from which all education springs. It is in Nature that the French orphan boy Émile is to learn the most important lessons, with the help of a tutor. Sunrises and storms reveal the beauty and power of the Creator, ripples caused by stones cast into ponds reveal Newtonian physics, watching the Sun rise in one place and set in another introduces Émile to cosmology. Nature also provides ample stimulus for healthy physical development. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau the role of the tutor is merely to ensure that the path is not strewn with glass as the naked child runs freely down the path.

Civil society

Civil society. In contrast to Nature, the world that humankind occupies. For Rousseau, civil society reflects varying degrees of perversity. For example, large cities represent the abyss of the human species. Towns and villages are closer to the “General Will.” Rousseau finds that least-cultured people are generally those who are the wisest. When Émile tours Europe for nearly two years to achieve his final stage of growth, he travels to remote provinces instead of major cities.


*Paris. France’s leading city is to Rousseau a place of noise, smoke, and mud that lacks both honor and virtue. Anyone seeking the important things in life–happiness and love–can never be far enough away from Paris. Rousseau considers it a misfortune for any child to be born rich and Parisian. When Émile is of age and looking for a wife, he is finally taken to Paris. The effort is a waste of time, except that it shows Émile what he does not want in a wife. He eventually finds his future wife, Sophie, in a little house in a simple little hamlet.

*Ancient Rome

*Ancient Rome. Rousseau finds much that is good and virtuous about ancient republican Rome. The city’s social and civic virtues, and willingness to speak in actions as well as words, provide positive models for the type of moral growth needed by Émile.

*Ancient Greece

*Ancient Greece. Rousseau claims that the purest thoughts originate from ancient Greece. He argues that being closest to Nature, the Greek city-states were more original in genius. When Émile is ready for books, his tutor steers him toward the ancients. Rousseau often uses the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta as an example of a practical, natural, sensible, and action-oriented society.

Farmer’s garden

Farmer’s garden. Place where the tutor arranges an important life lesson for the young Émile, who derives considerable joy from planting and caring for beans. However, the farmer who owns the land rips out Émile’s beans to plant melons, thus traumatizing the boy. From this lesson, Émile learns about private property. He also learns about negotiation when an arrangement is made for him to plant beans in the garden in the future.

Robinson Crusoe’s Island

Robinson Crusoe’s Island. Imaginary island in Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719), the only book the tutor allows young Émile to read because it teaches self-reliance, and learning from nature in order to survive. Émile’s travels among the so-called talented people of Paris lead him to the conclusion that none of them would be of any use on the island. Unlike Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, none are intellectually, morally, and practically self-sufficient.


*Montmorency. Suburb north of Paris in which Rousseau lived from 1756-1762. Although lost in a forest with his tutor, Émile uses spatial relation lessons learned over previous days to navigate out of a forest wilderness and into Montmorency. Tired, hungry, and thirsty, he and his tutor eat an elegant meal in town. However, another lesson is at hand: How lacking an elegant meal is compared to the simpler rustic fare.

BibliographyBlanchard, William H. Rousseau and the Spirit of Revolt: A Psychological Study. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967. Explores the psychological motivation for the educational reforms developed in Émile. Describes well the many contradictions in Rousseau’s writings on education.Cranston, Maurice. The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754-1762. London: Penguin Press, 1991. Explores Rousseau’s aesthetic and literary evolution during this prolific period in his career as a writer. The chapter on Émile describes both practical and unreasonable recommendations by Rousseau on educational reform.Crocker, Lester G. The Prophetic Voice (1758-1778). Vol. 2 in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Analyzes the last twenty years of Rousseau’s career. The lengthy chapter on Émile examines the conflict between Rousseau’s praise of freedom and his desire for the teacher to control his pupils’ activities.Havens, George R. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Contains an excellent general introduction to Rousseau’s life and career and an annotated bibliography of important critical studies on his work. The analysis of Émile stresses the positive elements in Rousseau’s desire to sensitize parents and teachers to the emotional needs of children.Wokler, Robert. Rousseau. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thoughtful study of Rousseau’s belief that successful educational reform will eventually make citizens unwilling to tolerate despotic governments. Describes well the many connections between Émile and Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762).
Categories: Places