illustration of two young men standing in 19th century garb and looking at one another

David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

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Can a novel that addresses the development of the personality of an already grown up character be considered a Bildungsroman?

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Since the early 19th century, the genre originally embodied a model of the hero’s growth and adjustment to society, based on an Enlightenment belief of human perfectibility and historical progress. Typically it traced the lives of a male hero who experiences a series of disillusionments or clashes with social expectation, sometimes ending in achievement accomplished through compromise, other times ending with the hero overcoming all of the inimical forces operating against him. The modern plot of the bildungsroman not only often places the hero in the middle of his life, reflecting backward and moving forward, but sometimes, too, reflecting the fragmentation typical in recent (post modern) literature, shows the hero’s life as having little if any logic to it at all, a series of events that seem illogical if not absurd. Finally, feminist critics believe that women authors have developed a different sort of bildungsroman as well, and in these novels the heroine often does not conquer life’s adversities but often ends her life in frustration, makes choices harmful to her, or merely turns inward and makes no decisions at all about life. Examples include Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out.

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"Aurora Leigh", by Elizabeth Barrett Browing, is a great example of a woman who, even as an adult, is struggling with psychological and social development. In this case, it is a woman who is trying to reconcile her artistic ambitions with her social roles as a female.

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Absolutely! It was not really until the 20th century that the term came to be synonymous with the emotional, spiritual, and literal growth of young people.

The word originated in Germany during the late 18th century and came into prominence in the early 19th. The German root, "bildung" has several meanings, and is hard to translate. It can mean "novel of development" but its origins, in the Middle Ages, ("bildunge") meant man's communion with God.

According to Petra Rau, "The heydey of "bildungsroman" is undoubtedly the nineteenth century as a period of class conflict, social and social change throughout Europe and Britain which challenge and change the relationship between the individual and society."

Any individual in a novel, therefore, who experiences steady growth can be properly considered a "bildungsroman."

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