Start Free Trial

Bildungsroman: Strictly a German Form of the Novel?

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Repeatedly, the Bildungsroman is defined as a “German” form of the novel. Without doubt, the genre originated in Germany and became commonly used in that country. However, for some critics to maintain that the genre is still predominantly, if not exclusively, German defies logic. Martin Swales, an oft-quoted authority on the Bildungsroman, says in his book The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse that “The Bildungsroman, both in theory and in practice, is little known outside Germany.” Hans Eichner remarks in his “Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman” that this collection “very strongly suggests that the term ‘Bildungsroman’ is useful only when it is applied to the relatively small number of novels that are clearly in the tradition of Wilhelm Meister.”

In fact, the term Bildungsroman is applied to many novels. While it is not a dominant genre, it has a universal appeal because it deals with the universal experience of growing up. The quest to become a responsible adult and find one’s place in the world is so difficult that readers have sustained interest in this topic. Following the difficulties of the protagonist in a Bildungsroman, readers trace the arduous journey toward maturity and learn from the growth process observed in the text.

As every student of literature learns, a wellwritten story has certain basic elements: plot, character, point of view, setting, tone, and style. Any one of these elements can be emphasized over the others. In the case of the Bildungsroman, character is the primary focus. Furthermore, the structure of the story tends to follow the standard pattern: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Along the way, the reader can expect the characters to show some development. If they do, they are dynamic, or round; if they do not, they are static, or flat. What distinguishes the Bildungsroman from other novels is the concentration on the development of the main character from youth to adulthood. This focus makes the genre distinctive yet connected to many variations written in other languages. Despite particular debates on the genre definition, many agree that the term Bildungsroman can be applied to novels of development.

In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849) and Great Expectations (1861), the protagonists are self-educated orphans who head to London with the goal of becoming gentlemen. The Victorian middle-class work ethic demanded that the hero learn a trade and earn his way to success. Dickens’s Pip is an exception in that he has a benefactor and in that he rejects the expected lifestyle of marriage and success. The English Bildungsroman explores external and internal conflicts. George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860) and Middlemarch (1871), and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) dramatize the female quest for development in an oppressive environment.

In Ireland in 1916, James Joyce wrote the quintessential Künstlerroman in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The use of the Bildungsroman form continued among recent Irish writers as a political novel according to Kristen Morrison in “William Trevor,” an article for the Twayne’s English Authors series. Morrison says that William Trevor’s Fools of Fortune (1983) and Nights at the Alexandra (1987), Brian Moore’s The Mangan Inheritance (1979), and John Banville’s Birchwood (1973) and Mefisto (1986) are all written in this bildungs/ political mode. In the typical Bildungsroman, the hero reaches maturity when the character assumes a responsible role in society. However, in these Irish variations of the form which focus on a sociopolitical situation, “alienation, not integration, is the mark of [the protagonist’s] hard-won maturity.”

In the United States, Dickens’s contemporary Mark Twain also made use of the...

(This entire section contains 1250 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Bildungsroman. James E. Caron, in an article for theModern Language Quarterly, makes the case that three of Twain’s works can be classified as comic Bildungsroman: Old Times on the Mississippi, Roughing It, and Innocents Abroad. Twain’s masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn, is a picaresque Bildungsroman. In 1925, Joyce’s contemporary Sinclair Lewis published Arrowsmith, a medical Bildungsroman, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Anne Hudson Jones says in “Images of Physicians in Literature: Medical bildungsromane” that “In the best tradition of the Bildungsroman, Arrowsmith’s efforts to find his life’s work include many false starts and much travel and relocation.” Another famous American author, Philip Roth, repeatedly uses elements of the Bil- dungsroman, most notably in The Ghost Writer and in Zuckerman Bound. As with Twain works, these works are comic bildungsromane.

The female Bildungsroman challenges the assumption that the protagonist is a male. After Jane Austen, the woman in a Victorian Bildungsroman faces new objectives and uses different strategies. Like their male counterparts, these protagonists express independent thought and seek to pursue their own talents. They may end up married, but sometimes pursuit of a partner confounds their development, as seems to be the case with Maggie Tulliver in Mill on the Floss.

In the hands of nineteenth-century American female novelists, the Bildungsroman continued to work within the bounds of social acceptability but gave the heroine even more liberties. A spinster could have a rewarding life. If marriage comes, it is after the establishment of independence. But the heroine grows up surrounded and protected by women, so reality was purposely skirted to provide a suitable environment for the ideas suggested in Little Women, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Five Little Peppers. Then Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) defied convention and revealed the inner dissatisfaction and feeling of entrapment of a married woman. Among modern female bildungsromane, all the limits are stretched and challenged. Two American novels, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, are examples of the Bildungsroman format infused with unique feminine and modern questions.

The Bildungsroman is often a work of social protest because it privileges the experience of the outsider, the one who is marginalized and dispossessed. It tends to examine dominant culture from the point of view of one who is excluded or oppressed. Thus, as the protagonist struggles to claim identity and status in the context which denies that status, the reader has the opportunity to reevaluate the tacit assumptions of the majority. This reassessment takes place while the reader is invited by the text to identify with the one the society excludes. So the novel of protest locates the reader on the outside of the context the reader actually in- habits and this new location clarifies questions about social belief and assumption.

In the black Bildungsroman Invisible Man (1952), Ellison’s protagonist comes to realize that he has no identity outside the white definition of who he is. At the same time, the reader gains insight into slavery and the dehumanizing effect of bigotry. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) explore both feminist and minority issues.

Among modern novels, the variety that can be classified as bildungsromane seems endless. For example, there are a multitude of interesting and popular works in Science Fiction. Other examples include works in the 1950s and 1960s from three French women novelists (Françoise Sagan, Françoise Mallet-Joris, and Claire Etcherelli) and three Francophone African novels (Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure [1961], Camar Laye’s The Dark Child [1953], and Mongo Beri’s Mission to Kala [1957]. No doubt examples could be found in nearly every culture in the world. Of course, there would be differences unique to each culture and time period, but the basic concept of the Bildungsroman is everyone’s story.

Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on the Bildungsroman, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Irony and the Novel: Reflections on the German Bildungsroman

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

At one point in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado the ruler of Japan shares with the audience his vision of a judicial system in which there would be perfect consonance between punishment and crime. The crimes which he chooses as test cases seem mercifully lightweight—which contrasts engagingly with the ghoulishness of the proposed remedies. One criminal who provokes the Mikado’s ire is the bore, and it is decreed that he be condemned to listen to

A series of sermons By mystical Germans Who preach from ten till four.

As far as I am aware, W. S. Gilbert is not here pillorying any particular tradition within German theology; rather, he exploits the happy coincidence that Germans rhymes with sermons to draw upon English skepticism about German culture generally and to suggest that the German cast of mind is characterized by prodigious learnedness and long-windedness, by an unrelieved spiritual profundity that transforms anything and everything into a mystical disquisition.

W. S. Gilbert is not alone in his reservations about the German mind. George Henry Lewes, in his pioneering work Life and Works of Goethe (1855), at one point defines the German cast of mind by asking his readers to imagine that a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a German have been commissioned to write a treatise about the camel. The Frenchman, after a brief contemplation of the animal in question, writes a feuilleton in blameless French which, however, adds nothing to the general knowledge of the camel. The Englishman spends two years observing camels and produces a bulky volume full of facts and scrupulous observation—but devoid of any overall idea or conceptual framework to hold the dossier together. And the German, despising French frivolity and English empiricism, retires to his study, there “to construct the Idea of a Camel from out of the depths of his Moral Consciousness. And he is still at it.”

Now of course Lewes—himself the most persuasive advocate of German culture generally and of Goethe in particular—had no intention of damning the German tradition lock, stock, and barrel. Illustration by Frederic W. Pailthorpe from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens But it is interesting that he raises the notion of the appalling learnedness of the German mind in the prefatory paragraphs of his discussion of Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. In introducing this work, he speaks of the German’s fondness for plunging “into the depths.” “Of all the horrors known to the German of this school,” Lewes continues, “there is no horror like that of the surface— it is more terrible to him than cold water.”

I think I had better come clean at the outset and admit that it is my purpose to examine (among other texts) that novel of Goethe’s that elicited from Lewes the prefatory apology of the camel parable. Moreover, I shall be looking not at one novel but at several, for I wish to examine that German novel genre—the Bildungsroman—which would seem, alas, to be the perfect corroboration of the Mikado’s notion of the German-tradition-as-punishment. The Bildungsroman, the novel of personal growth and development, has traditionally been seen as the German counterpart to the realistic novel of England, France, and Russia. My enterprise—as is appropriate for a German topic—immediately raises a number of theoretical problems. First—and most obvious—one asks why one needs to bother with literary genres at all. Clearly there is no reason why the critic should not establish any conceivable genre for the purposes of comparison and contrast. We could envisage the novel of adultery, of bankruptcy, of aviation, and so on. Such a model of a genre would, I suspect, have no legitimate pretensions to historical status; it would simply be a heuristic tool, a grid that allows the critic to select a number of texts for analytical and comparative purposes. But this notion of the theoretical—or, as I would prefer to call it, taxonomic—genre should not prevent us from realizing that there is also such a thing as the historical genre.

Tzvetan Todorov outlines the vital issues when he points out that the concept of genre or species is one taken from the natural sciences but that “there is a qualitative difference as to the meanings of the term ‘genre’ or ‘specimen’ depending on whether they are applied to natural things or the works of the mind.” He continues, “in the former case, the appearance of a new example does not necessarily modify the characteristics of the species . . . the birth of a new tiger does not modify the species in its definition,” whereas in art “every work modifies the sum of possible works, each new example alters the species.”

It is important to recognize that the literary species or genre is, then, a historically evolving thing and that the mechanism of that evolution is the interlocking of—in T. S. Eliot’s terms—tradition and the individual talent. In other words, not all genre constructs are simply foisted on the individual works after the event by eager scholars in quest of a taxonomy. Rather, the historical agency of the genre constitutes, in Hans Robert Jauss’s term, that “horizon of expectation” with reference to which each individual work is made and in the context of which each individual work is received by its contemporary—and subsequent— audience. The work activates these expectations in order to debate with them, to refashion, to challenge, perhaps even to parody them. Herein resides the clement of newness, the individuality which is at one and the same time the modification and the transmission of the literary genre.

What, then, is a Bildungsroman? The word was coined in the second decade of the nineteenth century, but some fifty years elapsed before Wilhelm Dilthey’s famous discussion of the genre which, as it were, put the term on the map with a vengeance. The capricious history of the term itself should not, however, blind us to the fact that the genre to which it refers existed as a particularly respected—and respectable— form of novel writing throughout the German nineteenth century. If there is an identifiable terminus a quo, it is in my view to be found around 1770 with the publication of the first edition of Wieland’s Agathon in 1767 and of Friedrich von Blanckenburg’s Versuch über den Roman (Essay on the Novel) in 1774. Blanckenburgs theoretical work grew out of his enthusiasm for Wieland’s novel; for him (as also, incidentally, for Lessing) Agathon marked the coming of age of the novel form. Wieland’s narrative, in Blanckenburgs eyes, transformed the traditional novel genre by investing it with a new psychological and intellectual seriousness. Agathon over and over again engages the reader in debate about novel fictions; in the process it repudiates the romance, which so longwindedly fuses love story and adventure novel, and it repudiates the moral constancy, the interpretative transparency, of traditional novel characters. For Blanckenburg, Wieland’s signal achievement resided in his ability to get inside a character, to portray the complex stuff of human potential which, in interaction with the outside world, yields the palpable process of human Werden, of growth and change. By this means artistic—and human—dignity and cohesion was conferred on the sequence of episodic adventures which novel heroes, by tradition, underwent.

The Bildungsroman was born, then, in specific historical circumstances, in a demonstrable interlocking of theory and praxis. It is a novel form recognizably animated by the Humanitätsideal of late eighteenth-century Germany in that it is concerned with the whole person unfolding in all his complexity and elusiveness. It is a concern shared by Humboldt, Goethe, Schiller, and many others, and the discursive or theoretical formulations of the idea (and ideal) of Bildung are legion. But it is important to remember that what concerns us here is a genre of the novel, not a theoretical or cultural tract. And the novel makes certain demands in respect of plot and characterization that prevent the concern for Bildung from being articulated at a purely conceptual level. Indeed, this is part of the problem. The serious novel may be born with the advent of the Bildungsroman, but there remains a certain bad conscience, as it were. For the novel, it seems, retains that questionable legacy of having to do with events, adventures, episodes—all of which militate against human and poetic substance. The need constantly to rehabilitate the novel form is expressed with almost monotonous unanimity by German novel theorists throughout the nineteenth century, and it is nearly always couched in the same terms as a concern for poetry within the traditional prose of the novel. The danger with the novel is, apparently, that it all too readily backslides into an irredeemably prosaic condition. The paradigmatic statement is to be found in Hegel’s Aesthetics.

This novelistic quality is born when the knightly existence is again taken seriously, is filled out with real substance. The contingency of outward, actual existence has been transformed into the firm, secure order of bourgeois society and the state. . . Thereby the chivalrous character of these heroes whose deeds fill recent novels is transformed. They stand as individuals with their subjective goals of love, honor, ambition or with their ideals of improving the world, over against the existing order and prose of reality, which from all sides places obstacles in their path. . . These struggles are, however, in the modern world nothing but the apprenticeship, the education of the individual at the hands of the given reality. . . For the conclusion of such an apprenticeship usually amounts to the hero getting the rough spots knocked off him. . . In the last analysis he usually gets his girl and some kind of job, marries, and becomes a philistine just like all the others.

This is a crucial passage. And it is crucial in its all-pervasive ambivalence. On the one hand, Hegel affirms the seriousness of this kind of fiction, it being synonymous with the novel’s ability to anchor the time-honored epic pattern in modern bourgeois reality. In this sense Hegel seems to offer his approval of the process by which a somewhat fastidious, idealistic—in a word, “poetic”— young man is licked into shape by the “prose” of bourgeois society. On the other hand, Hegel also seems to be saying that there is something debased— and debasing—about this process. That the highest wisdom of the novel and of its latter-day knightly adventurer should reside in the acquisition of wife, family, and job security seems a sorry— indeed philistine—reduction of the grand model. What is particularly suggestive for our purposes is the extent to which Hegel perceives the novel as hedging its bets in respect of prosaic, bourgeois reality. His comments tell us much about the Bildungsroman in that it is precisely this novel form that is animated by the dialectic of poetry and prose. And the uncertainty is nowhere more urgent, as Hegel himself saw, than with regard to the vexed question of the novel’s ending. When Hegel formulates the essential theme of the novel as the conflict “between the poetry of the heart and the resisting prose of circumstances,” he sets the seal on virtually all German thinking about the novel for the rest of the century. And his specter, or, to be more respectful, his Geist, can still be clearly felt in Lukács’s Die Theorie des Romans of 1912.

I have already stressed that the Bildungsroman is a novel form that is concerned with the complex and diffused Werden, or growth, of the hero. How, then, is this process intimated narratively; how does it embody the dialectic of “poetry” and “prose”? In its portrayal of the hero’s psychology the Bildungsroman operates with a tension between a concern for the sheer complexity of individual potentiality on the one hand and, on the other, a recognition that practical reality— marriage, family, a career—is a necessary dimension of the hero’s self-realization, albeit one that by definition implies a limitation, indeed constriction, of the self. The tension is that between the Nebeneinander (the “one-alongside-another”) of possible selves within the hero and the Nacheinander (the “one-after-another”) of linear time, of practical activity, of story, or personal history. In one sense, then, the Bildungsroman undeniably has something of the rarefied epic of inwardness (the “mystical sermon”) that has alienated its English readers in particular. It can tend to dissolve the lived chronology of a life into some providential scenario of symbolic patterns and recurrences. It can at times come perilously close to espousing what J. P. Stern has called “a chimerical freedom— as though somehow it were possible not to enter the river of experience that flows all one way.” It can be less than strenuous in its recognition of the chain of cause and effect within practical living and of the integrity and moral otherness of those characters with whom the protagonist comes into contact. On occasion we can feel that these characters exist, so to speak, not in their own right but for the educative benefit of the hero: that they are significant insofar as they are underwritten by a potentiality slumbering within him. This is as much as to say that these characters are part of a providential decor whose raison d’être is to be found in their relatedness (in a sense that can vary from the literal to the metaphorical) to the hero. But all this is only part of the truth about the Bildungsroman. For what the major novels of the tradition show is not achieved goals, not comfortable solutions, but at best directions, implications, intimations of the possible, which are shown to be no more than that. Moreover, they do not reach the point of dissolving all relationship to plot, to the Nacheinander of story. They may seem to promise just such an obliteration of the flow of resistantly linear experience. But they cannot deliver the goods; they do not break faith with the “prose” of the novel form and write an epistemological or aesthetic treatise. In E. M. Forster’s words, “Yes, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story,” and the story is made up not simply of beneficent experiences that welcome the “poetry” of the individual’s inwardness; hence the tension I have spoken of, a tension which is sustained and narratively enacted—and not resolved. The grasping for clarity and losing it, the alternation of certainty of purpose with a sense of being swept along by the sheer randomness of living—these are seen to be the very stuff of human experience and to be such meaning and distinction as men are able to attain, as the Bildungsroman is able to affirm. The novel, then, is written for the sake of the journey—and not for the sake of the happy ending which that journey seems to promise.

This, then, is a sketch in necessarily broad strokes of the implications inherent in the Bildungsroman as a historical genre. I want now to comment briefly on six major texts from within that tradition. Specialist readers will, I hope, forgive me if these are but somewhat impressionistic interpretative sketches. I have tried elsewhere to provide the detailed argument both on the theory and on the praxis of the genre. I am here concerned with the implications the genre has for an understanding of the European novel as a whole; therefore, the individual text receives less than its due.

Wieland’s Agathon (1767) operates with a profusion of narrative commentary, which on occasion reaches the proportions of a barrage. Over and over again the narrator reminds us that Agathon is not the usual novel hero; the typical protagonist should be both morally and epistemologically a constant, a known quantity throughout, whereas Agathon changes so frequently that the reader must ask if he will ever know and reliably understand him.

He seemed by turns [nach und nach] a pious idealist, a Platonist, a republican, a hero, a stoic, a voluptuary; and he was none of these things, although he at various times passed through all these phases and always a little of each robbed off on him. It will probably continue like this for quite some time.

To look back on Agathon’s life is to perceive a Nacheinander, a chronological sequence. Because the specific circumstances of Agathon’s life change, Agathon himself changes. Yet he is always potentially the sum total of all these “phases,” of all these possible selves—and of many others. In other words, Agathon’s true self can only be conceived of as a Nebeneinander, as a clustering of manifold possibilities, of which at any given time he can only realize (in both senses of the word) a small proportion. Hence the narrator’s irony: in one sense, the significance of the Nacheinander, of the plot sequence is relentlessly called into question, but in another sense the hero does have a story which is somehow his and nobody else’s. And stories need endings. Wieland here has recourse to the fiction of there being an original Greek manuscript on which his account is based. This manuscript ends with a typically novelistic (which is to say, improbable) happy ending, which Wieland both appropriates and undermines. His irony allows him to have his cake and eat it too: to tell a novel and to mount a critique of the expectations inherent in novel convention. Hence the happy ending, that epistemologically simple foreclosure of the process of human growth and self-discovery, is consistently undermined by the narrator’s irony.

Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1796) operates with a comparable irony. Wilhelm leaves his bourgeois home and seeks experiences that promise an adequate extension of his personality. He is for some time attracted to the theater, a realm which clearly allows him to widen both actively and imaginatively his experience. But gradually he grows out of this phase of his life and finds himself more and more drawn to the Society of the Tower. The Society of the Tower is made up chiefly of aristocrats, and it is a world devoted to human— and humane—wholeness. In many ways the Society of the Tower would appear to be the goal of Wilhelm’s quest, for it seems to reconcile individual limitation and human totality, practical activity and inherent potential, or—in Hegel’s terms—the prose of the practical world and the poetry of the individual heart and imagination. In an appropriately dignified ceremony Wilhelm is admitted to the Society of the Tower; he receives a parchment scroll full of wise sayings, he learns that the boy Felix is indeed his son. Finally the words of graduation are pronounced over him: “Hail to thee, young man. Thy apprenticeship is done.” We know that all the members of the Society of the Tower have contributed the history of their apprenticeships, their Lehrjahre, to its archive. The title of the novel refers to the hero’s apprenticeship, and his very name—Meister—promises the attainment to mastery. We should, then, by rights have reached the end of the novel. Indeed, our expectations seem to be speedily confirmed, for our hero approaches life with a new mastery and certainty of purpose. He decides that Therese is the appropriate wife for himself and mother for Felix, and he proposes to her. But this action, alas, turns out to be a complete error, from whose consequences he is shielded by pure good fortune. It comes, therefore, as no surprise that our hero feels cheated; so do we, and so, one suspects, did Goethe’s contemporary readers, on whose taste for novels of secret societies Wilhelm Meister clearly draws, without, as it were, delivering the goods. Goethe, it seems to me, is, like Wieland before him, mounting a critique of traditional novel expectations precisely in order to set up a narrative irony that both validates and calls into question the epistemological assumptions behind such expectations. We note that there is something strangely discursive and wordy about the Society of the Tower (it displays, for example, a somewhat schoolmasterly fondness for wise sayings and maxims). The Society may be dedicated to the concept of human wholeness, but it is not the embodiment of that wholeness. Nor does it confer inalienable possession of wisdom on the aspiring (but struggling) protagonist. The law of linear experience, the Nacheinander of plot, continues out beyond the promised goal. So how does the novel end? Like Agathon before it, it closes with a happy ending which is undercut by irony as fairy-tale ease and stage-managed providentiality take over.

At one point toward the end of Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (1857, translated as Indian Summer) the hero—we wait a long time before we discover that his name is Heinrich Drendorf—undertakes a world journey.

I went first via Switzerland to Italy; to Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Syracuse, Palermo, Malta. From Malta I took a ship to Spain, which I crossed from south to north with many detours. I was in Gibraltar, Granada, Seville, Cordoba, Toledo, Madrid, and many other lesser towns. . . I had been absent for one and a half months less than two years. It was again spring when I returned.

For the first time in this lengthy novel, experiences are recounted which would commonly be regarded as interesting and exciting. Yet these details are reduced to a mere list, to an empty, cataloging baldness which is never applied to the things and modest activities of the Rose House, the dwelling of Risach, the mentor figure. The description of the world tour exudes an unmistakable inertia. Heinrich tells us, “I had been absent [ich war abwesend gewesen] for one and a half months less than two years,” and this explains the deadness of the list. The places visited represent an exile from the centrality of the Rose House, an interlude of inauthenticity, of “being away from being.” It is therefore understandable that, after what amounts to a package tour avant la lettre, Heinrich returns home with relief. But then he always returns with relief to the Rose House, for it is within that world that everyday objects and modest, recurring human activities can be celebrated with a human (and narrative) affirmation that serves to highlight the emptiness of the world tour. Stifter’s art is pitted, therefore, against common expectations of human and narrative interest. It is this which makes Der Nachsommer the painstaking yet incandescent litany that it is.

Der Nachsommer is a novel written against history in a dual sense: against social and political history, in that no narrative interest is displayed in the changes and frictions within mid-nineteenthcentury Austrian society; against personal history, against story and plot, in that Heinrich’s experiences ultimately all dissolve into a sublime stasis— hence the relative unimportance attached to the naming of the hero. In Hegel’s terms, Stifter’s novel does reconcile the poetry of inward values and the prose of outward, practical activity. It is also the one novel in the Bildungsroman tradition that resolves the tension between Nebeneinander and Nacheinander. But it can do so only by confining the story to a number of simple, practical activities underwritten by an urgent—almost hectoring— sense of human and artistic wholeness. The tone is one of sacramental pedantry; the difficulty attending upon the attempt to write an unproblematic Bildungsroman in fact serves to intimate the increasing tension to which the genre is prone, a tension which can be exorcised only by converting the novel into a monolithic litany.

Gottfried Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich (1880, translated as Green Henry) is concerned, like so many of the major bildungsromane with an artist, or more accurately, with someone of artistic potential. Heinrich Lee tries throughout his early years to replace reality with the alternative world of his imaginative and fictive capacities. In the course of the novel, we see how he succumbs increasingly to that dualism which is so much of his own making. What Heinrich is unable to perceive is that reality—even the modest reality of a Swiss peasant community—is sustained not just by pragmatic allegiances and practical accommodations but also by an inward, imaginative assent which rounds out the modest facts and experiences into an all-embracing human totality. Because he cuts himself off from such human fulfillment, Heinrich condemns himself to an increasingly lifeless existence. His art suffers too, in that it is either a dissociated fantasy with no enlivening relationship to the objective world or a painstaking copy of physical details with no overall imaginative conception to sustain it. Heinrich returns to Switzerland at the end of the novel, becoming a “somewhat melancholy and monosyllabic civil servant.”

Keller’s novel is grounded in the disjunction within the protagonist’s experience of the prose of concrete circumstances on the one hand, and of the poetry of the heart’s potential on the other. The narrative perspective is all-important here; the second version of the novel is sustained in the first person throughout. The recollecting voice of Heinrich the narrator is able to document precisely the disjunction I have referred to above—and to suggest the alternative (but unrealized) possibility that there need be no such absolute gulf between poetry and prose, between the complex inwardness, the Nebeneinander of the inner man and the Nacheinander of his actual living in the realm of human society. The tension that is so characteristic of the Bildungsroman becomes here a dualism; moreover, Keller’s novel suggests with an urgency rare in the genre the dangers of such unfocused idealism. There is, in this sense, a moral astringency to Keller’s debate with the Bildungsroman tradition which so informs his own creation.

Finally, a few brief comments about two twentieth- century bildungsromane. Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924, The Magic Mountain, 1927) chronicles the experiences undergone by a young man in the course of a seven-year stay in a sanatorium. These years, it is suggested, constitute a journey into self-knowledge, a Bildungsreise, whose goal, it would seem, is to be found in the chapter entitled “Snow,” in which Hans Castorp has a dream vision of the wholeness of man, of a totality which is not only greater than all antinomies but which is also humane, affirmative in its relationship to the living process. No reader can fail to sense the crucial importance of these insights. And yet the goal of Castorp’s quest, once glimpsed, once formulated, is forgotten as he stumbles back through the snow to the sanatorium. The vision, the complete perception of human totality, exists outside ordinary time; it can be glimpsed as in a dream; it can be formulated discursively, but it cannot be possessed as an abiding and effective recipe for everyday living. The Nebeneinander cannot halt the Nacheinander of Castorp’s experience; his personal history continues on its wayward path until he is caught up in the events of that other Nacheinander to which he has paid such scant attention— world history. For at the end of the novel, the “problem child of life” (Sorgenkind des Lebens) finds himself plunged into the holocaust of the First World War.

The rhythm of Mann’s novel in many ways recalls that of Wilhelm Meister; the seeming Grails of both novels—the Society of the Tower, the snow vision, both of which entail a perception of man as a humane totality—do not come at the end of the novels in which they occur. In both cases the hero emerges on the other side of the goal, feeling not really any the wiser. Both expressions of human totality have in common a certain discursiveness, a limitation to the conceptual postulation of totality, which is relativized by the demands of the hero’s ongoing experience. What, then, do we make of Hans Castorp, our mediocre—mittelmäßig—protagonist? He is, I would suggest, mediocre in the precise sense of Mittelmäßig, “middle way.” He is undistinguished by any dominant characteristic or capacity; he is the point at which the other characters in the novel, all of them so much better-known quantities than Hans Castorp, intersect. He is, as it were, over-endowed with potentiality. And yet the novel does not allow him to become simply a static cipher for the complexity of man, for he is also a Person, an ordinary individual who, like all of us, has to live his (and nobody else’s) life.

Thomas Mann’s employment of the Bildungsroman tradition in this novel is the measure of his urgent need, under the impact of the 1914–18 war, to review his own and his country’s intellectual tradition. A similar critical urgency is, in my view, the source of Hermann Hesse’s partly skeptical, partly affectionate employment of the genre in his last novel, Das Glasperlenspiel (1943, The Glass Bead Game)—where the pressure of historical events comes from the turmoil of the 1930s. The novel is narrated by an inhabitant of Castalia, an ivory-tower region dominated by intellect and meditation, who in the first few pages of his account makes derogatory remarks about the bourgeois fondness for biography. Such an interest in the individual and his life story is, he argues, symptomatic of a declining culture. Castalia, on the other hand, is sustained by the principle of suprapersonal service; it has its center of gravity in that model of synchronic universality, the Glass Bead Game, which, in its very abstraction from the specific, the individuated, the particular, creates a scenario for the total play of all human values and experiences. However, the experiences with which the narrator is crucially concerned are those of one man—Josef Knecht (the name, meaning, roughly, servant, is, of course, a contrastive echo of Goethe’s Meister). Knecht joins the Castalian province and becomes its supreme exponent and servant as Master of the Glass Bead Game. But he then leaves Castalia, because he can no longer accept the abstraction and bloodlessness of the province’s values. In its striving for spiritual totality, Castalia is hostile to the ontological dimension that is history. But Knecht, through his encounters with Pater Jacobus, comes to perceive the truth of history—to perceive that Castalia itself is, like everything else, a historical phenomenon. At the same time he realizes that he too is a historical phenomenon in the sense that he has a personal history, that he lives, not in timeless abstraction, but in the chronological specificity of choice, of cause and effect. In other words, he learns that he has a story, that his experiences are inalienably enshrined in the Nacheinander of a lived life. All this is faithfully reported by the narrator— without his ever modifying that Castalian ideology with which he begins his account and which Knecht’s life so manifestly calls into question. It is here that we find in my view the narrative and thematic center of Hesse’s text; and the conflict between the Nebeneinander (the Castalian striving for universality and totality) and the Nacheinander (of Knecht’s story) is the measure of the novel’s engagement with the Bildungsroman tradition.

The foregoing has been a somewhat rapid review of the theory and practice of the German Bildungsroman from about 1770 to 1943. I want in conclusion to inquire into the implications of this novel tradition for the European novel in general. Let me begin by clarifying one or two issues. In quantitative terms the Bildungsroman is by no means the only kind of novel to come out of Germany in the period with which I am concerned. Nevertheless, it must be said that most German novel writing of distinction does in some form or another partake of this genre. I know it is nowadays fashionable within the curiously neopositivistic enthusiasm for Rezeptionsgeschichte (the history of the reception of a work) to say that scholarly inquiry should be concerned not with literary quality but with the demonstrable history of reading habits within a given society. But it seems to me difficult to avoid the issue of literary quality—for the simple reason that no amount of Rezeptionsgeschichte will alter the feebleness of a novel such as Freytag’s Soll und Haben (1855) when compared with, say, Dombey and Son. Moreover, as a number of critics have shown recently, the 1830s and 1840s in Germany witnessed a consistent—but ultimately unavailing—attempt to direct the novel away from the Bildungsroman, away from the dominant presence of Wilhelm Meister and toward a more socially and historically aware novel (after the manner of Walter Scott). The preeminence of the Bildungsroman can be gauged from the fact that it was not confined simply to serious novels for the adult market. In 1880 there appeared a novel in the German language which must be accounted one of the supreme best-sellers of all time. It has been translated into dozens of foreign languages, it has been filmed and produced in television serializations, and its readership apparently numbers some forty million. If you are still wondering what I am talking about, let me give you the title. It is, of course, Heidi by Johanna Spyri. But this, let me hasten to add, is not the correct title of that amazingly successful book; for the first volume of Heidi’s adventures is actually entitled Heidis Lehrund Wanderjahre. All of which, I suppose, goes to show that not every novel in German which partakes of the Bildungsroman tradition has to be a sermon by a mystical German who preaches from ten till four.

Let me add a further word in justification of this novel tradition. W. H. Bruford, in a study of the term Bildung, has suggested many of the ways in which it speaks of the characteristic limitation of the German middle classes in the nineteenth century; the inwardness of the values esteemed, the fastidious aversion to practical affairs, to politics, the sacramental pursuit of self-cultivation; all these factors bespeak that well-known phenomenon, the deutsche Misere, which has been identified as the lack of bourgeois emancipation in nineteenthcentury Germany. The specific social and economic circumstances that obtained and their impact on German cultural and intellectual life have been acutely analyzed by a number of distinguished commentators. Moreover, one should add that the nineteenth- century situation is part of a larger legacy which is bound up with the particularism of the Holy Roman Empire, with its tangle of small principalities. The lack of a unified national arena, of a focus, a metropolis where the spiritual issues of the age could find palpable enactment helped to produce a situation in which the nation existed as an inward—or, if not inward, then at least cultural and linguistic—unit, rather than as a demographic entity. One can register all this as a shortcoming, as something that in linguistic terms militated against there being an energetic language of public (and journalistic) debate. But the lack produced as its corollary a certain gain, a language that could explore inward and elusive experience with an assuredness and differentiation rare in other European languages. Such a language, usually associated with religious or mystical experience, became a potent contribution to the autobiographical and biographical narrative form with the advent of the complex phenomenon of secularization in the second half of the eighteenth century. The pietist, confessional mode is that inward quest for the soul’s vindication which so often entails an awareness of sinfulness as a precondition of spiritual distinction. Such concerns (at once thematic and linguistic), in their secularized form, clearly gave the Bildungsroman part of its characteristic impetus. Now all this may be, to English observers, an inauspicious climate for the emergence of the modern novel in Germany. The dangerous historical consequences of the German reverence for inwardness are indicated in Bruford’s book and have been underpinned in a recent article by R. Hinton Thomas, in which it is shown that the notion of Bildung— with its central concept of the organic personality— could be, and was, transferred into the sphere of social and political debate in Germany, and became part of the stock vocabulary of German conservatism on which Nazism was later to draw. These are pertinent insights. But neither Bruford nor Thomas are concerned in any thoroughgoing way with the Bildungsroman, which is after all, a vital part of the tradition they explore. And I want to insist that the Bildungsroman is precisely a voice from within the German intellectual tradition which can command our assent and respect—because it does not offer unequivocal certainties, unreflected values, but embodies the difficulties of those aspirations which, in their theoretical and discursive formulation, can prove so forbidding for English readers. In other words, if we want to look for a critique of Bildung, the Bildungsroman is an obvious and eloquent starting point. Moreover, it seems to me that many of the features of the Bildungsroman that allowed it in the past to be relegated to the periphery of the European novel tradition— with the familiar sigh of relief that it was yet another example of the pathology of the German mind—are now part of our experience of the twentieth- century novel. I have in mind the selfconsciousness of the Bildungsroman, its discursiveness and self-reflectivity, its narrative obliqueness, its concern for the elusiveness of selfhood, its dialectical critique of the role of plot in the novel— all these things are not merely German (that is, provincial) excesses; they are the staple diet of the modern novelist’s unease in respect of the form he has inherited. All of this makes it very tempting to engage in some polemical historicism—and to suggest that the Bildungsroman, precisely because it articulates the unease of a society not easily at home in the bourgeois age, speaks particularly forcefully to our age, when that unease is so very apparent.

We are, I suspect, all familiar with the argument that the novel expresses the contradictions of bourgeois society, that it has its roots in, to quote Raymond Williams’s phrase, the “creative disturbance” generated by the norms of that society. Or to put the matter another way, the modern novel (and we must remember that, in terms of simple chronology, the Bildungsroman tradition in Germany coincides with the rise of the novel as a European phenomenon) is born under the astrological sign of irony. Ernst Behler has shown that irony as we know it came into being as the expression of a decisive change in sensibility which occurred in the late eighteenth century. He argues that up until this time irony was a stable rhetorical device (by which a speaker intimated the opposite of what he was saying). But with Friedrich Schlegel irony became enriched by the complex dimension of an author’s relationship to his own creation. It was for this kind of irony that Schlegel praised Wilhelm Meister (at the same time wondering if Goethe would understand what he meant). And he was referring to irony as a structural principle, irony which issues in a kind of self-reflectivity in the novel. If the ground of that irony is the dialectic of the creative, inward potential of man on the one hand and on the other the necessary donnée of finite, palpable experience, then we can see that such irony is the articulation of vital issues inherent not only in the novel form but also in aesthetics, in philosophy, in history. This is perhaps why Hegel, in his comments on the novel, was so ambivalent precisely about the ironic constellation which he was expounding, why, when he incorporated references to a novel into his Phänomenologie des Geistes, they were to Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau. For in this work Hegel perceived the situation of a mind unwilling to serve the values of society but unsure of its own integrity, seeking to realize itself in the complex modalities of its estrangement from the objective world. Lionel Trilling has superbly shown how Diderot’s novel and Hegel’s gloss on it are central to any understanding of the issues of selfhood, sincerity, authenticity in their (and our) time. In the novel’s oscillation between potentiality and actuality— and it was that oscillation which Hegel saw as constitutive of Bildung—it enacts the deepest spiritual issues of its age. Moreover, we would do well to remember that Hegel was not alone in his admiration of Le Neveu de Rameau. It claimed both the interest and the active engagement of the translation process from none other than Goethe himself. This would, at the very least, suggest the improbability that Goethe’s own Wilhelm Mister is an unproblematic pilgrimage toward human wholeness and fulfillment. But perhaps it might be felt that all this talk about irony is becoming rather heavyweight, not to say teutonically mystical. For Hegel, of course, every aspect of human experience was reducible to that ironic field of force in which mind and facts, idea and actuality intersect.

Let me then turn to less heady versions of the argument about irony and the novel. It has been shown, most cogently by Ian Watt, that the breakthrough in sensibility that makes the novel possible in the eighteenth century has to do with a perception of the specific nature of experience, with the individuality and particularity of the vital criteria which determine significance and truthfulness. In other words, in respect of narrative forms, the eighteenth century witnesses the breakdown of a stable, public rhetoric in favor of a private language in which the narrator appeals to the reader’s own experience as epistemological authority. Wolfgang Kayser and others have argued that the birth of the modern novel is linked to the emergence of an overtly personal narrator. In theoretical terms, this entails a repudiation of the romance in favor of some more truthful (that is, unstable and personal) mode of narrative discourse. Let me take an example from Ian Watt’s discussion of Moll Flanders. Watt points out the irony which results from a discrepancy between the experiences narrated and the kinds of values which the successful Moll, as recollecting narrator, espouses. He then goes on to ask how far this irony is, as it were, an articulated situation, or how far it is largely unreflected in the sense that the irony is there for us, the readers, but not for the characters. He concludes that the latter is the case, that Moll Flanders “is undoubtedly an ironic object, but it is not a work of irony.” With this assessment I would agree. And I want to borrow Watt’s categories and to risk a somewhat large generalization. If much English novel writing is, as would commonly be argued, realistic in spirit—that is, sustained by the imaginative concern to recreate and thereby to understand society, its pressures, its economic and moral sactions, its institutions and norms—then it is a fiction that operates with what J. P. Stern has called the “epistemological naivety” of realism. The social context is taken as given—it is so much the donnée of the novelist’s art that it is not the subject of epistemological scrutiny. Now of course, in documenting the clash between individual values and social norms, between personal aspirations and the actuality of society, the realistic novel does not emerge with stable, reassuring assessments of the way its characters live, move, and have their being. Indeed, it is one of the hallmarks of the realistic novel as we know it that it reveals the jostling norms of the social and moral situation which it so persuasively evokes. But the realistic novel is concerned to reflect the jostling—rather than to reflect on the norms themselves. The result is the novel as “ironic object.” And this I take to be as true of Defoe as it is of Balzac or Dickens. But I want to suggest that the Bildungsroman, although it may display a whole number of naivetés, does not suffer from epistemological naiveté. It is higly selfaware in respect of the interplay of values which it so unremittingly explores and articulates within the hero’s experience. Hence, its irony is qualitatively different; it is irony as structural principle; it is the novel whose self-awareness generates the “work of irony” (in Watt’s sense).

Here we arrive at the central objection to the German novel tradition: its lack of realism. There are two points I wish to make in answer to this charge. First, it seems to me a falsity to assume that the novel has to be wedded to the tenets of literary realism in order to be truly a novel. A number of recent studies of the novel have shown that the genre can appropriately be a self-conscious form in which referentiality of import is anything but the be-all and end-all. Moreover, it has been suggested that the realistic novel is but one, historically circumscribed, possibility within a much more durable and continuous tradition. Second, I want to insist that the concerns of the German Bildungsroman arc recognizably part of the overall situation of the nineteenth-century European novel. The conflict between individual aspirations and the resistant presence of practical limitations is as much a theme within, say, the Victorian novel as it is within the Bildungsroman. But with a difference. Within the framework of literary realism, this conflict finds palpable, outward enactment, and human growth and development is plotted on a graph of moral understanding; whereas in the German novel tradition, the tension between Nebeneinander and Nacheinander is essentially a debate about the coordinates of human cognition, and the issues raised arc epistemological rather than moral, are embedded in the narrator’s (and reader’s) capacity for reflectivity. If the German Bildungsroman is a legitimate voice within the European novel as bourgeois epic, then it has something to tell even English readers about the inherent potentialities of the novel form. Moreover, we should not forget that English novel theory changes in the second half of the nineteenth century, moving away from the unambiguous commitment to realism towards a greater concern for what Arnold called “the application of ideas to life.” Stang and Graham have both highlighted the emergence in the 1880s of the so-called novel of ideas or philosophical romance. If the English novel theory of the 1750s (in the famous remarks of Dr. Johnson and Fielding) had repudiated the romance, by the 1880s the wheel had come full circle. And, as Elinor Shaffer has recently shown, a novel such as George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) is vitally informed by a complex indebtedness to Goethe, to Wilhelm Meister, to the particular tradition of higher (that is, mythological) criticism in Germany; and thereby the strenuous moral concern of the English novel tradition interlocks with a mythopoeic consciousness, with a density of spiritual and cultural reflectivity which sustains—and is sustained by—the lives which that novel chronicles.

I hope I have said enough to suggest that the Bildungsroman should no longer be dismissed as a narrowly German exercise in the novel mode. For it is, in my view, a narrative genre that raises problems to do with character and selfhood in the novel, to do with plot, to do with the relationship between narrator and reader which can enrich our understanding of the possibilities of the novel form. Above all else, it can differentiate our awareness of how the novel can convey and explore the life of the mind, for the Bildungsroman is not simply an allegorical scenario of philosophical positions and values. No other novel form is so engaged creatively by the play of values and ideas; yet at the same time no other novel form is so tough in its refusal to hypostatize consciousness, thinking, in- sight as a be-all and end-all. (Hence that insistent presence of the Nacheinander on which I have laid such emphasis.) No other novel has been so fascinated by the creative inner potential in man—hence its fondness for artists or cryptoartists as protagonists— yet no other novel has seen the artistic sensibility as one involving a whole set of epistemological problems that are not susceptible of easy, practical solutions.

Now of course, this concern for the life of the mind is not confined only to the novel in German literature. English readers have often felt that German culture generally is heavily philosophical (shades of the Mikado’s objections!). There is much truth to this—but it can also gravely mislead. And I want to insist that German literature is philosophical not in the sense that it has a philosophical scheme which it wants to impose but rather in that it asks after the place of philosophizing, of reflectivity, in living. Ultimately its finest products always suggest that consciousness and being are inextricably intertwined; that consciousness is not a realm serenely encapsulated from the stresses and strains of living.

Source: Martin Swales, “Irony and the Novel: Reflections on the German Bildungsroman,” in Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman, edited by James Hardin, University of South Carolina Press, 1991, pp. 46–68.


Critical Overview