Introduction

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 265

Who has not been told that one learns more about oneself from failures than from successes? Is there a more reliable theme to draw readers than success following chronic failure? Literature’s undying storyline is the determined progress of an unlikely hero against the odds.

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Traditional fiction has no more crucial mandate than that by the end the protagonist exhibit major change: Proud Oedipus the king becomes blind Oedipus the exile. Although audiences in the golden age of Greek drama may have undergone catharsis in witnessing Sophocles’ play concerning the tragic hero Oedipus’s recognition of the losing hand that fate has dealt him, the audience may sometimes wish that even tragic destiny might just once be foiled. Readers are more receptive to a hero like Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, who seizes the main chance and is redeemed, than to Thomas Hardy’s Jude, who gives in to an indifferent universe.

Everyone begins in the infantlike state portrayed by James Joyce in the opening lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915 serial, 1916 book), proceeds as uncertainly as Ernest Hemingway’s returning soldier in “Big Two-Hearted River,” faces life-changing decisions like the heroines in Kate Chopin’s stories, and ends as knowing as Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie or as defeated as James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan. The universal story is what happens when innocence confronts forces, human or cosmic, that are not innocent. For the playing out of that progress, literature has found an eighteenth century German word, bildungsroman, that has transcended the use of italics and become international.

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