The Bildungsroman in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.