Bildungsroman Analysis

Origin of the bildungsroman

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It is far more difficult to locate the source of the bildungsroman—a term combining the German words Bildung, personal growth, with roman, novel—than it is to credit the book that is its exemplar. The Encyclopedia of German Literary History claims that the philosopher and literary historian Wilhelm Dilthey famously defined the term in an analysis in 1870 of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796, 4 vols.; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824), almost eighty years after the publication of Goethe’s masterpiece. In the bildungsroman, Dilthey wrote, [a] regulated development within the life of the individual is observed, each of its stages has its own intrinsic value and is at the same time the basis for a higher stage. The dissonances and conflicts of life appear as the necessary growth points through which the individual must pass on his way to maturity and harmony.

In 1942, in his comprehensive English Novel in Transition, 1885-1940, William C. Frierson applied the terms “life-novel” and “spiritual autobiography” to many of the novels that can be categorized as bildungsromans. As if unwilling to get bogged down by the Germanic bildungsroman and its cognates, Frierson never mentions the word or the novel by Goethe that exemplifies it. Other scholars prefer “education novel” or “apprentice novel.” Thousands of novels—from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), from Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925)—could lay claim, if barely, to being chronicles of passage.

This survey discusses only a select few novels that both follow Dilthey’s lead and meet the main criterion for any classic—endurance—concentrating on landmark works, most of them originally written in English. American literature is notable for writers whose oeuvres—career-long or in a sequence—have moved from innocence to experience but whose heroes, especially in contemporary novels (notably those of John Updike), are unchanging.

In the closing third of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the bildungsroman was given new vitality by novels dramatizing alternative patterns, especially women striving toward commensurate status with men. The feminist bildungsroman, given scant attention earlier, has become a major force in the revival of the form.

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship

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The paragon for the nineteenth century novel of education was Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, translated by Thomas Carlyle. The earlier work introduces a hero whose object is to seek self-realization in the service of art: As actor and later manager of a stage company, he will make the German theater a primary agent of cultural change. In Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, this aim must compete with many other intentions and values.

Scattered throughout the novel are many details and impressions adapted from Goethe’s own experience: a childhood delight in puppets, the tension between visionary son and hardheaded practical father, efforts at amateur acting and firsthand observations of the vagaries of fellow-players, responses to the esoteric rituals of freemasonry, even Wilhelm’s lovesick wandering of the streets. In most scenes, Wilhelm appears, sometimes as protagonist but more often as spectator or auditor, a young man whom Goethe viewed with marked ambivalence. Wilhelm’s involvement with the theater makes possible an exploration and broadening of his personality. It offers him an adventurous life, a chance to broaden the self by accepting various roles, but it is life without direction. Following “Confessions,” which closes the first half, Wilhelm gradually quits the theater for new rites, literal and figurative: those of passage and those of the secret Society of the Tower. Characteristically for the bildungsroman, entry is achieved only after many missteps.

The nineteenth century English bildungsroman

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William Makepeace Thackeray’s The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends, and His Greatest Enemy (1848-1850, serial; 1849-1850, book) is called by Thackeray’s biographer Gordon N. Ray “the first true Bildungsroman in English fiction.” Jerome Buckley rejects it as too conventional, perhaps because its hero comes to maturity more by accident than by design.

George Meredith’s major bildungsromans derive from Charles Dickens, whom he dismissed as “a caricaturist who aped the moralist.” Still, as Buckley argues, the later Victorian was indebted to the earlier, especially in The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871) and in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859). The method of narration and even the plotting of The Adventures of Harry Richmond recall Dickens’s character David Copperfield, and the theme, the shattering of false illusions, resembles that of Great Expectations (1860-1861, serial; 1861, book). The frequent caricatures in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel are suggestive, according to Buckley, of “Dickensian shorthand.”

Dorothea Brooke’s two marriages in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872) symbolize a journey from naïve impressionability to practical wisdom and humane sympathy. Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1903) is the most directly autobiographical bildungsroman in English before D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) and Joyce’s A Portrait of...

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The later English bildungsroman

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In 1948, literary critic and historian Mark Schorer wrote a famous essay, “Technique as Discovery,” in which he declared that literary technique is nearly everything. It is the means by which the writer’s experience, which is his subject matter, compels him to attend to it; technique is the only means he has of discovering, exploring, developing his subject, of conveying its meaning, and, finally, of evaluating it.

Without explicitly citing it as the high point in English of the bildungsroman, Schorer extols Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as the crowning fictional study of passage in an especially rich period, the first quarter of the twentieth century. There is another reason to apply Schorer’s strictures in the present context: He not only sets up Joyce’s work as a classic in the bildungsroman tradition but also creates a literary rogues’ gallery from other famous bildungsromans, including H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay (1908), Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River (1935), and Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy (1935).

As the bildungsroman’s poet, Joyce, with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, made the intuited destiny of Stephen Dedalus an attainment nonpareil. He utilized the subliminal so convincingly that it rendered the intrusive author in the long biographical novels of Goethe, Dickens, and Stendhal unnecessary. No writers of bildungsromans until Joyce had succeeded in making narrative serve theme contrapuntally. As a famous essay by poet and critic Hugh Kenner puts it, Each of the [five] chapters begins with a multitude of warring impressions, and each develops toward an emotionally apprehended unity; each succeeding chapter liquidates the previous synthesis and subjects its elements to more adult scrutiny in a constantly enlarging field of perception, and develops toward its own synthesis and affirmation.

Joyce presents a variety of styles, each appropriate to the movement of Stephen from childhood through boyhood into maturity. Flow of consciousness delineates the mind of the child not yet amenable to selection or judgment. Evocation of the world of sensual and bodily detail is rendered by internal and external emotional bursts—moments rescued from flux that Joyce called epiphanies—that mark Stephen’s rejection of domestic and religious values. Gradually, Joyce conveys the intellectually assured Dedalus by dialectic as he asserts to himself his soul’s call to be a poet.

Other English bildungsromans

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Working from opposite directions, fiction’s two principal figures in modernism between the two world wars were Joyce and Lawrence. Joyce, as noted, internalized fiction by evoking consciousness. Lawrence, who pioneered few technical innovations, broke down any notion that ego was stable. Books such as Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow (1915), and Women in Love (1920) blurred the usual partitions between and within genders and installed the primitive and savage emotions of “blood” over civilization’s crippling decrees of “mind.”

Neither the voluntarily exiled, hard-drinking Dubliner nor the Midlands coal miner’s son who in his brief span would roam the world in a vain search for transcendence had anything good to say about the other. When Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) began to vie with Ulysses (1922) as a book for tourists in Paris, the nearly blind Joyce asked a friend to read it to him. He listened carefully, then pronounced only one word: “Lush!” To Lawrence’s puritan mind, Ulysses was a “dirty” book, a reduction of Sex (uppercase)—to him an icon in the merging of consciousnesses—to sex (lowercase)—a mechanical act for prurient readers.

A more fruitful pairing links Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers with W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915). In their sexual bildungsromans, the introspective hero that the reader met in Joyce’s Künstlerroman, the artist-protagonist, gives way to lovers under siege. Paul Morel and Philip Carey spoke with candor to beleaguered young men everywhere. Lawrence’s bildungsromans provided what Patricia Alden calls “the basis for a new, classless elite of the initiate [in which] sexual relationships recapitulate the fundamental conflict between bourgeois individualism and working-class communalism.” More simply, Lawrence’s novels always turn on crucial “splits.” In Sons and Lovers, the conflict between Paul and his mother, Gertrude, vies with the conflict between kinds of love, physical and spiritual, which draw the son away and are represented by two young women, Miriam and Clara.

Critic V. S. Pritchett, whose short stories and autobiography celebrate his own emergence from late-Victorian squalor, demonstrates in a memorable essay how Sons and Lovers bears the defects of its virtues. Galvanic as he is in revealing Paul’s drift into spiritual quandary, Lawrence “cheats” too: He almost entirely omits the story of Paul’s education, his early teaching, and his gradual separation from the mining village of his birth. Alden agrees with Pritchett. For her, Lawrence isolates Paul’s drive to become an individual from any social context. The story of how Lawrence left the Midlands becomes the story of how Paul leaves his mother; he is seen as the passive victim of three women who embody unmet social ambitions they seek to realize through him.

Joyce and Lawrence represent contrasting traditions with regard to the relationship...

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The bildungsroman and time

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Shortly before beginning Sons and Lovers, the novel that launched his career, Lawrence revealed to his lover, Jessie Chambers, his despair upon reading Wells’s Tono-Bungay: “Most authors write out of their own personality,” Lawrence, then twenty-three, averred. “Wells does, of course. But I’m not sure that I’ve got a big enough personality to write out of.”

Thus, Lawrence is awed by the same quality in Tono-Bungay that critic Schorer deplores: a richness of vision, both retrospectively and futuristically, able to embrace at once the death of Victorianism and the emergence of the new spirit of advertising. For Schorer, in his manifesto favoring Henry James and formalism, Wells’s...

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The American bildungsroman

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Writing his doctoral dissertation in 1948, Philip Young mounted a convincing wound-and-bow theory on Ernest Hemingway. The so-called Hemingway hero, as Young defined him, was Hemingway himself. For any real understanding of either the heroes of the novels or their creator, a Hemingway aficionado must take into account the young Ernest’s severe injuries in the Italian campaign of World War I, which, according to Young, left permanent scars, visible and invisible. Over Hemingway’s initial protests—he told Young that to try to psychoanalyze a writer is tantamount to destroying that writer—Young published the first literary study of Hemingway in 1952, and in 1965, four years after Hemingway’s suicide, applied his “wound”...

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American chronicles as bildungsromans

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Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is a decent, unintelligent man who finds that the momentum that sustained him as a high school basketball star has slowed to a crawl in a dingy apartment where the dinner is always late and his wife has stopped being pretty. John Updike takes this common domestic tableau and turns it into a subtle expose of the frailty of the American Dream.

Written entirely in the present tense—in 1960, a virtually unheard-of technique in American fiction—to stress the immediacy of Rabbit’s crisis, Rabbit, Run (1960) details the sterility of a society that offers television sets and cars but ignores spiritual loss and belief. As critic Donald J. Greiner puts it, All [Harry’s wife Janice]...

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The feminist bildungsroman

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Ellen Morgan, in “Humanbecoming: Form and Focus in the Neo-Feminist Novel” (1972), identifies the bildungsroman as “the most salient form for literature influenced by” the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The feminist bildungsroman is a “recasting” of the old genre by modern women authors to meet their particular needs. The traditional bildungsroman is often an autobiographical novel depicting adolescent self-development and the educative experiences of youth. Endings to novels such as Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Sons and Lovers, Of Human Bondage, and Tono-Bungay become the beginnings for the protagonists, who either merge into their societies, like Philip...

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Contemporary bildungsromans

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The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw no shortage of novels concerned with an adolescent’s battle for an adequate extension of personality, a quest that brings the initiate into conflict with the constraining factors of parental wishes, first love, and economic and social sanctions. Many landmarks of world literature belong to this distinguished subgenre. In its classic form, the bildungsroman reached its peak in the nineteenth century. The twentieth century added more direct autobiography, an increasingly depersonalized society, and battles between the genders.

One of the first modern lesbian bildungsromans was Rita Mae Brown’s first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle (1973). Writer Edmund White, author of an...

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Historical Context

(Literary Movements for Students)

Development of the Novel
Beginning in the early eighteenth century, long narratives began to be written in prose. The modern...

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Literary Style

(Literary Movements for Students)

The Bildungsroman doesn’t just tell a story. It involves the reader in the same process of education and development...

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Movement Variations

(Literary Movements for Students)

American Novels
The American style of the Bildungsroman is a combination of the German Bildungsroman and the Spanish picaresque....

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Compare and Contrast

(Literary Movements for Students)

1700–1800s: Christoph Martin Wieland and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe develop the Bildungsroman, but the novel is still in its infancy...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Literary Movements for Students)

Abrams, M. H., ed., “James Joyce: 1882–1941,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed., Vol....

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Alden, Patricia. Social Mobility in the English Bildungsroman: Gissing, Hardy, Bennett, and Lawrence. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. Confirms the difficulty of economically vulnerable youths, uncertain about aspiration and talent, and under no illusions that the provincial world of their childhood offers an alternative to their effort to escape.

Buckley, Jerome H. Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. 1974. Reprint. Bridgewater, N.J.: Replica Books, 2000. Engagingly written scholarly survey of more than a century of the English bildungsroman. Buckley demonstrates that gradual imaginative...

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Topics for Further Study

(Literary Movements for Students)

Among the books that you have read, is there one that you think would fit in the Bildungsroman classification? Explain why it is a...

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Representative Works

(Literary Movements for Students)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Like the Bildungsroman hero, Huck leaves home to find an independent life, has a...

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Media Adaptations

(Literary Movements for Students)

Image Entertainment produced James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1979 and released it on video in 2000. It...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Literary Movements for Students)

The Bildungsroman is popularly used in Science Fiction, especially perhaps in Young Adult Science Fiction. For example, Orson Scott Card,...

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