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.
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.
Bildungsroman is the name affixed to those novels that concentrate on the development or education of a central character. German in origin, “bildungs” means formation, and “roman” means novel. Although The History of Agathon, written by Christoph Martin Wieland in 1766–1767, may be the first known example, it was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, written in 1795, that took the form from philosophical to personal development and gave celebrity to the genre.
More than any other type of novel, the Bildungsroman intends to lead the reader to greater personal enrichment as the protagonist journeys from youth to psychological or emotional maturity. Traditionally, this growth occurs according to a pattern: the sensitive, intelligent protagonist leaves home, undergoes stages of conflict and growth, is tested by crises and love affairs, then finally finds the best place to use his/her unique talents. Sometimes the protagonist returns home to show how well things turned out. Some bildungsromane end with the death of the hero, leaving the promise of his life unfulfilled. Traditionally, English novelists complicate the protagonist’s battle to establish an individual identity with conflicts from outside the self. German novelists typically concentrate on the internal struggle of the hero. The protagonist’s adventures can be seen as a quest for the meaning of life or as a vehicle for the author’s social and moral opinions as demonstrated through the protagonist.
The Bildungsroman was especially popular until 1860. However, anti-German sentiment during the world wars contributed to the demise of its influence, along with the emergence of a multitude of modern experiments in novel writing. Nonetheless, James Joyce wrote his Bildungsroman, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, in 1916, and the genre has continued to be adopted, with distinguishing variations, by writers of many nationalities.
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