The Bildungsroman in Nineteenth-Century Literature
The Bildungsroman in Nineteenth-Century Literature
The following entry presents criticism on the Bildungsroman, a literary genre that focuses on the personal development and maturation of a main character.
Scholars consider the Bildungsroman, or apprenticeship novel, the most significant German contribution to the novel genre. Used to describe works that deal with the psychological growth of a central character from adolescence to maturity, the term Bildungsroman is most closely associated with a small group of German novels written in the late eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-96; Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), is the most famous example of the Bildungsroman and is generally regarded as the prototype of the genre. The designation Bildungsroman was first used by the critic Karl Morgenstern in lectures presented in the 1820s at the University of Dorpat. Morgenstern specified a two-fold purpose of the genre: first, to portray “the hero's Bildung (formation) as it begins and proceeds to a certain level of perfection,” and second, to foster “the Bildung of the reader to a greater extent than any other type of novel.” However, it was not until the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (see Further Reading) applied the term in his Das Leben Schleiermachers (1867-70; The Life of Schleiermacher), that the concept of the Bildungsroman gained wide critical acceptance.
The typical Bildungsroman traces the progress of a young person toward self-understanding and a sense of social responsibility. Usually, the protagonist is a sensitive and gifted young man who encounters numerous problems and makes several false starts before he accomplishes his goals. The Bildungsroman focuses on one central character who undergoes an important transformation; further, the scope of the novel is limited as a rule because the protagonist's life before his self-awakening begins and after finding his place in society remains unknown. Structurally, the Bildungsroman typically emphasizes dialogue over plot development, thereby keeping the reader's attention squarely on the growth of the hero or heroine's character. These features of the Bildungsroman are well illustrated by its chief example, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. When the novel opens, a wealthy, naive young man, unsure about the direction his life should take, has fallen in love with an actress. Learning that she has been unfaithful to him, he decides to go into business despite his avowed love for the theater. Soon persuaded to support a troupe of actors, his interest in the theater is rekindled and he begins to perform on the stage. Much of the novel deals with the actors's intrigues, Wilhelm's friendships with the various members of the troupe, and his failed love affairs. At the end of the novel Wilhelm has reached a more mature understanding of his creative capacities and social identity.
Goethe's novel was emulated by later German authors, but they also departed from the pattern he established. In his Hyperion; oder, Der Eremit in Griechenland, (1797-99), Friedrich Hölderlin concentrated more on style than on characterization, striving for a kind of verbal perfection that would overshadow Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Novalis, in his Heinrich von Ofterdingen, published posthumously in 1802, differentiated his Bildungsroman from Goethe's by setting the action in the medieval period. One of the most highly regarded Bildungsroman, Adalbert Stifter's Der Nachsommer (1857), is considered especially original because its outcome is evident and ensured from the very beginning of the novel. In terms of structure, Gottfried Keller expanded the Bildungsroman in his Die grüne Heinrich (1854-55), by providing information about both the protagonist's childhood and his later life.
Although the Bildungsroman is primarily associated with German novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the genre, particularly as exemplified by Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, proved extremely influential. Stressing the importance of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship to its era in Europe, Thomas Mann wrote that it was, “an educational and cultural epic so far-reaching, so all-embracing, that a shrewd romantic critic could say that the French Revolution, Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre, and the novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship were the three great events of the period.” Thomas Carlyle was so impressed by the work that he translated it into English in 1824 and imitated it in his Sartor Resartus (1833-34). Other nineteenth-century English authors produced similar novels—Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1861) and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) are generally considered examples of the Bildungsroman genre. Though these novels resemble their German counterparts, scholars have noted that transplanted to England, the form took on some unique characteristics. The English Bildungsroman tended to have a more confessional quality, it often involved the protagonist's move from the country to the city, it was more concerned with the theme of religious doubt, and it ended less optimistically than the German variety, often portraying society as a somewhat destructive force. This last characteristic is also true of French Bildungsromane; for example, in Gustave Flaubert's L'Education sentimentale (1869) and Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir (1830)—the protagonists's youthful desires are not idealistic and naive; they are realistic, reasonable desires that society will not fulfill. Because English and French novels of development tend to deviate in these ways from classic Bildungsroman conventions, some critics exclude them from the scope of the genre. Similarly, while some critics place late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American works such as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1868) within the genre, others exclude American novels, finding them concerned with specifically American themes such as young nationhood and confrontations with “alien” culture. In the twentieth century, the Bildungsroman has continued to evolve. Mann's “Joseph und seine Brüder” (“Joseph and His Brothers”) novel series (1933-43) and his Der Zauberberg (1924), for example, offer an innovative approach to the Bildungsroman through the ironic use of various elements of the tradition. In addition, critics have started to explore the female Bildungsroman, which follows the growth of a young woman toward emotional and social maturity, as a variation on the type. Criticism frequently focuses on the difficulties of achieving maturation and inner development while constrained by the limitations inherent in being female in a patriarchal society. While its themes and techniques continue to interest modern readers, lively critical discussion about the scope and characteristics of the Bildungsroman persists, attesting to the pervasive influence and enduring relevance of the genre.
Pride and Prejudice: A Novel (novel) 1813
Emma: A Novel (novel) 1816
Jane Eyre: An Autobiography (novel) 1847
Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh (prose) 1833-34; published in Fraser's Magazine
The Awakening (novel) 1899
Great Expectations (novel) 1861
Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff
Ahnung und Gegenwart: Ein Roman (novel) 1815
The Mill on the Floss (novel) 1860
L'Education sentimentale, histoire d'un jeune homme [Sentimental Education: A Young Man's History] (novel) 1869
Effi Briest: Roman [Effi Briest] (novel) 1895
*The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (autobiography) 1868
Soll und Haben: Roman in Sechs Büchern. 3 vols. [Debit and Credit] (novel) 1855
North and South (novel) 1855
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
†Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre: Ein Roman. 4 vols. [Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship] (novel) 1795-96
The History of Miss...
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SOURCE: Kontje, Todd. “Bildung and the German Novel (1774-1848).” In The German Bildungsroman: History of a National Genre, pp. 1-22. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.
[In the following essay, Kontje traces the origins of Bildungsroman theory, and the impact and critical reception of Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.]
The belated introduction of the term Bildungsroman into the general critical vocabulary requires us to trace two separate strands of thought in writing the history of the genre, namely the concept of Bildung and the theory of the novel (der Roman). During the last decades of the eighteenth century several prominent German writers began to redefine Bildung: the formerly religious term now became a secular humanistic concept. This transformation occurred at a time when the Germans witnessed an astonishing increase in the number of novels published each year. As novel production soared and suspicion of the reading habit grew among church and state authorities, a few critics began to take tentative steps toward granting aesthetic dignity to at least certain types of the modern genre. They did so by singling out two novels that seemed to portray the Bildung of the protagonist, Christoph Martin Wieland's Geschichte des Agathon [The Story of Agathon] (1766-67) and Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Thus the German...
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Criticism: Definition And Issues
SOURCE: Hirsch, Marianne. “The Novel of Formation as Genre: Between Great Expectations and Lost Illusions.” Genre 12, no. 3 (fall 1979): 293-311.
[In the following essay, first delivered as a lecture in 1975, Hirsch considers the Bildungsroman a European literary genre rather than a strictly German one, and outlines the differences between German Bildungsromane and those of France and England.]
If the Bildungsroman has been considered a primarily German genre, it has been for reasons that are extra-literary in nature. The Bildungsroman expresses, theorists starting with Wilhelm Dilthey have argued, the individualism and interest in self-cultivation valued by German culture.1 In contrast, as Thomas Mann points out in a 1923 lecture, the public and political orientation of Western Europe (France and England) has produced the panoramic novel of social criticism.2 Such claims, true as they might be, obscure significant formal and thematic links among such important novels as Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir and La Chartreuse de Parme, Balzac's Le Père Goriot and Illusions Perdues, Austen's Emma, Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, Dickens' David Copperfield and Great Expectations, as well as Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Novalis' Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Stifter's Der Nachsommer, Keller's...
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SOURCE: Sammons, Jeffrey L. “The Mystery of the Missing Bildungsroman, or: What Happened to Wilhelm Meister's Legacy?” Genre 14, no. 2 (summer 1981): 229-46.
[In the following essay, Sammons questions the very existence of a Bildungsroman genre, contending that only—at most—four novels conform to Bildungsroman conventions.]
If a person interested in literary matters commands as many as a dozen words of German, one of them is likely to be: Bildungsroman. And what this person is likely to know about the term is that it denominates a novel genre particular if not exclusive to Germany in the nineteenth century; moreover, he will think of it as a binary term, distinguishing the characteristic German novel from the more familiar English, French, and American traditions of the same time. Here is an example illustrating the diffusion of this belief, drawn, not from scholarly discussion, but from the wider literate environment. It is from an interview with the popular English novelist John le Carré: “… having a largely German-oriented education has made me very responsive to 19th-century German literature. The predominant form of the lately emerging novel in Germany then was what they called the Bildungsroman, a novel of education, in which a single character was taken through a variety of rooms, as you might say—a variety of encounters and experiences—and...
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SOURCE: Swales, Martin. “Irony and the Novel: Reflections on the German Bildungsroman.” In Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman, edited by James N. Hardin, pp. 46-68. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Swales examines the Bildungsroman genre, particularly its use of irony, contending that the genre is a vital part of the European novel tradition, with a palpable legacy in the twentieth-century novel.]
At one point in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado the ruler of Japan shares with the audience his vision of a judicial system in which there would be perfect consonance between punishment and crime.1 The crimes which he chooses as test cases seem mercifully lightweight—which contrasts engagingly with the ghoulishness of the proposed remedies. One criminal who provokes the Mikado's ire is the bore, and it is decreed that he be condemned to listen to
A series of sermons By mystical Germans Who preach from ten till four.
As far as I am aware, W. S. Gilbert is not here pillorying any particular tradition within German theology; rather, he exploits the happy coincidence that Germans rhymes with sermons to draw upon English skepticism about German culture generally and to suggest that the German cast of mind is characterized by prodigious learnedness and long-windedness, by...
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SOURCE: Mahoney, Dennis F. “The Apprenticeship of the Reader: The Bildungsroman of the ‘Age of Goethe.’” In Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman, edited by James N. Hardin, pp. 97-117. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Mahoney proposes that Bildungsromane have a unique impact and influence upon their readers.]
When dealing with the novels of German Classicism and Romanticism, sooner or later one must consider the question whether the term Bildungsroman is useful for understanding and interpreting these works.1 That the term has a long history no one can deny; as Fritz Martini has shown, Karl Morgenstern had begun to use the word Bildungsroman as early as 1810 to describe the novels not only of Goethe and the Romantics, but specifically those of his friend Friedrich Maximilian Klinger.2 Above all, however, it was Wilhelm Dilthey who brought the term into general usage. In the Hölderlin essay in his book Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung (1906), Dilthey provided the definition that largely determined the direction future scholars were to follow:
Hyperion is one of the Bildungsromane that reflect the interest in inner culture that Rousseau had inspired in Germany. Among the novels that have established their lasting literary value since Goethe and Jean Paul are...
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Criticism: Female Bildungsromane
SOURCE: Smith, John H. “Cultivating Gender: Sexual Difference, Bildung, and the Bildungsroman.” Michigan Germanic Studies 13, no. 2 (fall 1987): 206-25.
[In the following essay, Smith suggests that Bildungsromane rarely end happily because they are characterized to some extent by the protagonist's unfulfilled desire in relation to a female other. The critic also maintains that Bildungsromane necessarily have a male protagonist because the genre requires that the hero have full access to (patriarchal) societal structures.]
I. ANALYSIS BEYOND GENRE
An MLA special session (New York, 1986)—“Generic Fiction or Fictional Genre?”—addressed the dilemmas confronting numerous recent studies of the Bildungsroman.1 The dilemmas arise from a fundamental, conscious or unconscious ambivalence at the heart of any study of genre, an ambivalence that redefines the “hermeneutic circle” or nominalist-realist debates in terms of a mutual dependence of definiens and definiendum: Does our definition of the genre bring it into being, or do we in fact merely describe in our definitions the contours of a real, albeit not concrete, object?2 The difficulty of this interpretive choice seems exacerbated in the case of the genre of the Bildungsroman since definitions and exempla vary considerably in the minds...
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SOURCE: Kohn, Denise. “Reading Emma as a Lesson on ‘Ladyhood’: A Study in the Domestic Bildungsroman.” Essays in Literature 22, no. 1 (spring 1995): 45-58.
[In the following essay, Kohn suggests that Emma is an example of a Bildungsroman in which a heroine's education and development as a lady are achieved in a domestic setting rather than through a quest.]
Emma can be a problematic novel for the modern reader—especially for the feminist reader. On the one hand, feminist critics have lauded Jane Austen for her critique of the marriage market and exposition of the problems of female independence in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Green, Johnson, Kirkham, Poovey). The growing emphasis on creating a canon of women writers has led many feminist readers to latch onto Austen with fervor because she is a woman writer who has long enjoyed a fine critical reputation despite the sentimental and damaging myth of “gentle-Janeism” (Trilling 29). On the other hand, feminist readers have also raised disturbing questions about Austen (Booth, Company 420). While Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar find that her novels are subversive in nature, they also believe that her novels depict “the necessity of female submission for female survival” (203).
Ironically, one way for the modern reader, feminist or not, to deal with the...
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SOURCE: Ellis, Lorna. “Jane Eyre and the Self-Constructed Heroine.” In Appearing to Diminish: Female Development and the British Bildungsroman, 1750-1850, pp. 138-61. Lewisburg, Pa. and London: Bucknell University Press and Associated University Presses, 1999.
[In the following essay, Ellis contends that Jane Eyre, along with Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Betsy Thoughtless, conforms to the female Bildungsroman genre by presenting a heroine who manages to develop and grow while upholding the expectations of society. In addition, Ellis remarks that Jane Eyre is notable for Jane's profound sense of self, which paves the way for later non-Bildungsroman novels in which the heroine spurns societal conventions.]
Jane Eyre marks the last major step in the history that I have been constructing of the female Bildungsroman. It demonstrates most concretely the distinct characteristics of the genre: its combination of conservative and subversive elements, its link between social alienation and material concerns, and its emphasis on the gaze as a means of articulating the heroine's manipulation of appearances. It also illuminates certain connections between the female and the male Bildungsroman that exist less overtly in the other novels I have analyzed. Like male Bildungsromane, Jane Eyre articulates life's progress as a...
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Criticism: Ideology And Nationhood
SOURCE: Kardux, Joke. “The Politics of Genre, Gender, and Canon-Formation: The Early American Bildungsroman and Its Subversions.” In Rewriting the Dream: Reflections on the Changing American Literary Canon, edited by W. M. Verhoeven, pp. 177-201. Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1992.
[In the following essay, Kardux maintains that eighteenth-century social changes that altered family relationships made the nineteenth century uniquely suited for the burgeoning Bildungsroman genre in both Europe and the United States. Kardux also states that Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is the prototypical American Bildungsroman, and examines how works by Herman Melville and Elizabeth Stoddard adhered to or subverted the genre.]
It is surely no coincidence that the century that gave rise to the first general and literary histories of the United States was also the century in which the Bildungsroman became one of the most popular genres in American literature. Following the organic theory of history, George Bancroft's ten-volume History of the United States (1834-76) and Moses Coit Tyler's four-volume History of American Literature (1878, 1897) trace the inception, development, and coming to maturity of the young American nation and its literary tradition, reconstructing the national and literary past as if they were engaged in writing an (unusually...
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SOURCE: Johnson, Patricia E. “Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South: A National Bildungsroman.” The Victorian Newsletter 85 (spring 1994): 1-9.
[In the following essay, Johnson examines North and South as a Bildungsroman in which the characters Margaret and Thornton achieve maturity by revising their ideologies of class and gender.]
The authoress never seems distinctly to have made up her mind as to what she was to do; whether to describe the habits and manners of Yorkshire and its social aspects in the days of King Lud, or to paint character, or to tell a love story.
Thus George Henry Lewes criticizes Charlotte Brontë's industrial novel Shirley in an 1850 Westminster Review. This criticism has echoed for nearly 150 years and has troubled not only readers of the Victorian industrial novel but also literary critics interested in social questions from Marxist and feminist points of view. Ruth Bernard Yeazell reframes Lewes's critique more pointedly as a series of questions in her article, “Why Political Novels Have Heroines”: “Why should a Sybil, Mary Barton, or Felix Holt subordinate its social and political story to a ‘love interest’? What sort of ‘cover’—to ask a more tendentious question—does the innocent heroine provide?” (126). Yeazell's answer is...
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SOURCE: Redfield, Marc. “The Phantom Bildungsroman.” In Phantom Formations: Aesthetic Ideology and the Bildungsroman, pp. 38-62. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Redfield studies the concept of Bildung and the paradoxes of literary Bildung, maintaining that the complications of the Bildungsroman genre stem from its aesthetic ideology.]
For the being of Geist has an essential connection with the idea of Bildung.
—Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method
Among the challenges the modern novel offers to genre theory, that of the Bildungsroman is remarkable on several counts. Few literary terms—let alone German ones—have enjoyed greater international success, both in the academy and in high culture generally. “If a person interested in literary matters commands as many as a dozen words of German,” Jeffrey Sammons remarks, “one of them is likely to be: Bildungsroman.”1 If this person also commands the staples of Western literary history, she or he will also know that this subgenre is epitomized by Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, is in some way deeply German, but represents nonetheless “one of the major fictional types of European realism.”2 At once international and national, a “major...
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SOURCE: Matteo, Chris Ann. “Le grande jeu and the Great Game: The Politics of Play in Walter Scott's Waverley and Rudyard Kipling's Kim.” Journal of Narrative Theory 30, no. 2 (summer 2000): 163-86.
[In the following essay, Matteo suggests that Waverley and Kim are Bildungsromane that portray the development of not only a protagonist, but also of the British Empire in its colonial subjugation of Scotland (in Waverly) and India (in Kim). Matteo contends that both novels use games as metaphors for the gain or loss of power of individuals and nations.]
Although nearly a full century divides Waverley's anonymous publication in 1814 and the 1901 date on Kipling's novel, the Great Game functions in both tales as a specific, metaphoric code word for the relationship between England and her annexed colonies. Set in his vast and diverse contemporary context of turn-of-the-century India, Kipling's novel conceives the Great Game as an intricate system of English surveillance which attempts to avert and anticipate the internal treachery of power-hungry native Rajahs and the external maneuvers of the invading Russian enemy. In the following brief passage we hear Kim's friend Mahbub Ali mention the Great Game rather ominously: “… Lurgan Sahib has a shop among the European shops. All Simla knows it. … and Friend of all the World, he is one to be...
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Fuderer, Laura Sue. The Female Bildungsroman in English: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1990, 47 p.
Annotated bibliography of books, journal articles, and dissertations that focus on English-language female Bildungsromane.
Alden, Patricia. Social Mobility in the English Bildungsroman: Gissing, Hardy, Bennett and Lawrence. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986, 155 p.
Book-length study of the English Bildungsroman focusing on issues of social mobility, class, and culture.
Ciolkowski, Laura E. “Charlotte Brontë's Villette: Forgeries of Sex and Self.” Studies in the Novel 26, no. 3 (fall 1994): 218-34.
Analyzes Brontë's rejection of the standard Victorian-era heroine in her creation and development of Villette's heroine, Lucy.
Dilthey, Wilhelm. Das Leben Schleiermachers. 2 vols. Berlin: Reimer, 1867-1870, 145 p.
Studies philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher's hermeneutics in its historical context.
Esty, Joshua D. “Nationhood, Adulthood, and the Ruptures of Bildung: Arresting Development in The Mill on the Floss.” Narrative 4, no. 2 (May 1996): 142-60.
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