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Critical Overview

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Regarding bildungsromane, critics discuss whether novels other than the German ones written in the strict tradition of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship qualify as examples of the genre. Purists argue that the Bildungsroman is so intertwined with German philosophical and literary heritage that the form does not occur in other languages. Others find common elements in many novels.

It is commonly held that Goethe’s novel had widespread influence. For example, Ehrhard Bahr wrote for the Reference Guide to World Literature:

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship had a great influence on the Romantics and the history of the German novel. It provided, so to speak, the blueprint for all subsequent German novels. Early commentaries on the novel occur in correspondence between Friedrich Schiller and Goethe, in the letters by Wilhelm von Humboldt and Christian Gottfried Körner, and in Friedrich Schlegel’s 1798 essay “On Goethe’s Meister.” Goethe’s novel became a prime example of Romanticism.

Thomas Carlyle, a highly influential British historian, writer, and social critic, thought so much of Goethe’s Bildungsroman that he translated the work in 1824 and also wrote a parody of it. After Carlyle, other English writers took up the genre. The great twentieth-century German novelist, Thomas Mann, also wrote a Bildungsroman (The Magic Mountain) and considered Goethe’s novel one of the three greatest events of that era alongside the French Revolution and publication of Fichte’s Theory of Science. Without doubt, it was a popular form of the novel in the nineteenth century, but when World War I began and critics continued to link the genre to the German tradition, it faded in popularity.

Two studies of the Bildungsroman are Martin Swales’s The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse and Jerome Hamilton Buckley’s Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. The first book argues that the genre is purely German; the second book finds a number of bildungsromane in English literature. The contrast between these two important critical works summarizes the debate over the Bildungsroman. Those who believe that the genre is used in other cultures often re-examine novels classified under other genres to prove the influence of the Bildungsroman on structure. Regarding the genre, critics analyze Scott’s Waverly, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Plath’s The Bell Jar. Some critics assign particular books to the genre; others specify subgenre based on certain characteristics—comic, female, black, Chicano, etc. Others debate whether early female Bildungsroman can be called feminist.

Bernard Selinger, in a 1999 article for Modern Fiction Studies, says that the Bildungsroman continues to interest both authors and critics. In his opinion, critics of the genre tend to move between seeing the genre as concerned with the integration of the hero into society, or with regarding the hero as alienated. This kind of criticism reflects the flexibility of the genre in the hands of skilled novelists throughout the literary world who know that each person’s development has its own outcome.

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Essays and Criticism