Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman Analysis


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Bildungsroman is often called the novel of formation, the novel of education (in the broad sense of the word), or the apprenticeship novel. It shows the development of the protagonist’s mind and character through a number of stages and a variety of experiences, often from childhood to early adulthood. He or she encounters conflicts and challenges, often including a spiritual crisis, which enable the protagonist to achieve a mature identity and eventually play his or her proper role in the world.

The Künstlerroman, also called the artist novel, is an important subtype of the Bildungsroman. It represents the growth of a writer or other artist into a condition of maturity that is marked by a recognition of art as the protagonist’s calling and by a mastery of an artistic craft. A related subtype is the Erziehungsroman (educational novel), which also presents the development of a hero from childhood to maturity, and has one or more teachers directly guiding the protagonist. Another subtype that occasionally overlaps with the Bildungsroman is the picaresque novel, which narrates the escapades of a rascal who lives by his wits in a sordid environment. The picaresque novel, however, has its origins in Spain; the Bildungsroman, as one might expect, has its roots in German literature.

The Bildungsroman in German Literature

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The concept of the Bildungsroman as an arduous journey from inwardness into social integration is central to German fiction. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany’s greatest writer, is the composer of its most influential apprenticeship novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1812). Wilhelm Meister is the son of a prosperous merchant; from childhood on, he is fascinated by the theater. A business trip taken for his father brings him into contact with a group of actors, whom he then accompanies and finances. After many difficulties, Wilhelm and his fellow actors join a famous theatrical company, which then puts on a production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1600-1601). After the public has grown weary of Shakespeare, however, the troupe stages more trivial plays and Wilhelm becomes estranged from them, finding other ways to explore his personality. He learns to become practical and to make the choices appropriate to his temperament and talents. He decides to study to become a surgeon, seeking his true self by obtaining a solid place in the community. Through Wilhelm, Goethe advocates the satisfactions of a stable social existence, of inner harmony and self-certainty. Goethe also indicates that Wilhelm will continue to doubt, seek, and err, to have great difficulty achieving mastery of his life. Critics have often been divided in their appraisals of this novel, disparaging its vague descriptions and long digressions from the central theme, but also admiring its subtleties and profundity.

Thomas Mann

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Thomas Mann, the foremost German fiction writer of the twentieth century, wrote several full-length novels as well as novellas that belong to the Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman genres. His greatest novel, Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), is a deliberate renewal of the Goethean form of the novel of education and maturation. Its central character, Hans Castorp, an apparently mediocre young Hamburg engineer, visits his cousin, who is a patient in a Swiss mountain sanatorium. Hans’s visit turns into a seven-year stay when a doctor there diagnoses a tubercular infection in one of Hans’s lungs. At the end of the book he returns to the plains to enlist—it is 1914, and World War I has begun. Mann makes Castorp the representative of a generation of European middle-class persons. He is a young man in search of an education and becomes exposed to a rich variety of people and ideas. The “magic” mountain where the sanatorium is located has a dual aspect: as a realm of death, and as a possibility of rebirth. Its hermetic isolation removes it from the normal concerns of the land below, and makes it a place for enlightenment. Castorp turns out to be intellectually and morally adventurous. Mann makes the mountain a microcosm of European society, with the Voltairian rationalist Settembrini, apostle of humanism and liberalism, outnumbered by the forces of darkness and dissolution. They are represented most dangerously by Claudia Chauchat and Leo Naphta. She is a Lilith figure, a sinister temptress, while the Jesuit...

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The Bildungsroman in French Literature

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Honoré de Balzac created about ninety interlocking novels to which he gave the comprehensive title La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Comedy of Human Life, 1885-1893, 1896; also The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911). One of the most ambitious of these novels was a novel in three closely connected tales, Illusions perdues (1837-1843; Lost Illusions, 1893), which is a Bildungsroman and a Künstlerroman of epic proportions and encyclopedic content. It features an intelligent, ambitious, but morally weak young poet, Lucien Chardon, who changes his last name to that of his noble maternal ancestors, de Rubempré. Lucien seeks shortcuts to fame and fortune in Paris by consorting with corrupt aristocratic women and entering a sordid literary and journalistic world where success depends on bribery, flattery, forgery, and character assassination. After he has brought ruin to his family, Lucien falls under the sway of a brilliant criminal, Vautrin, who paraphrases the discourses of Satan to Christ, yet becomes the head of the Paris police.

Marcel Proust wrote one of the world’s greatest novels, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981). It is a Bildungsroman and perhaps the greatest single portrait of the artist in fiction. The narrative is related in the first person by Marcel, whose life resembles but does not wholly duplicate...

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The Bildungsroman in English Literature

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Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-1850) is highly autobiographical. It is both a Bildungsroman and a Künstlerroman. As in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the plot is frequently burdened with incidents that have no direct relation to David’s story. Yet the work succeeds as a journey toward maturation, with David surviving loneliness and cruel exploitation in childhood, misplaced loyalties in some of his friendships, the early deaths of his parents, and marriage to Dora, a childish, shallow woman. After Dora’s death, he has the good sense and luck to marry a suitably understanding woman and prepares to become, like his creator, a novelist. While David’s placidity and calm make him an unlikely candidate for the role of artist, Dickens does stress his love of reading and storytelling, his gift for close observation, and his ability to withdraw into the shelter of his strong imagination.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote, in The Way of All Flesh (1903), a hymn of hatred for Victorian Christianity and for the Victorian bourgeois family, bitterly attacking their shams and false sanctities. The book is so overtly autobiographical that it employs letters written by Butler’s relatives, and establishes the pattern of parent-son conflicts that was to be followed in such Bildungsromane as D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915). Butler’s novel covers four generations of the Pontifex family. In the first three, overbearing fathers beat and bully their children and force them to become clergymen or be disinherited. Ernest Pontifex, Butler’s hero and alter ego, is a pathetic failure much of his life. He does poorly at school and then as a minister, being physically weak and mentally morose. Extremely naïve, he entrusts his grandfatherly inheritance to a false friend who cheats him of it, becomes innocently entangled in legal snares, is disowned by his...

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The Bildungsroman in American Literature

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In 1899, Kate Chopin published The Awakening, which was largely neglected until the 1970’s, when feminist critics began to reevaluate it as a Bildungsroman about a courageous woman’s rebellion against a tedious, self-important, and selfish husband. The novel has gained a prominent place on the syllabi of many American fiction courses. The heroine, Edna Pontellier, awakens to her identity during a summer vacation spent with her two children and a stockbroker husband who joins the family on weekends. Tired of his cold self-centeredness after eight years of matrimony, she spends time with her landlady’s handsome son, Robert, and turns seriously to what used to be only a hobby, painting. When her husband leaves...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Alden, Patricia. Social Mobility in the English Bildungsroman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986. Treats the social and political views expressed in the fiction of George Gissing, Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, and D. H. Lawrence. A solid, scholarly account.

Beebe, Maurice. Ivory Towers and Sacred Faunts: The Artist as Hero in Fiction from Goethe to Joyce. New York: New York University Press, 1964. Concentrates on Künstlerromane as well as short stories dealing with the artist by Goethe, Mann, Balzac, Flaubert, James, Lawrence, Joyce and a number of others.

Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. A leading authority on Victorian literature, Buckley writes with learning and grace.

Harper, Margaret Mills. The Aristocracy of Art in Joyce and Wolfe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. Compares the autobiographical fiction of Joyce and Wolfe to each other’s work and to each other’s lives.

Lemon, Lee T. Portraits of the Artist in Contemporary Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985. Lemon’s governing thesis is that, between the generation of Joyce and that of John Fowles, the fictional portrait of the artist changed from that of an isolated hero contemptuous of the ordinary world to that of an ordinary human being trying to connect with nonartists who are equally important. The writers Lemon studies are Lawrence Durrell, Doris Lessing, and John Fowles, all British, the Australian Patrick White, and the American John Barth.