The English Bildungsroman

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The English Bildungsroman

  • Meaning and Characteristics

Of the Realist NovelCharacteristics

  • The linear flow of narrative
  • The unity and coherence of plot and character and the cause and effect development thereof
  • The moral and philosophical meaning of literary action
  • The advocation of bourgeois rationality
  • Rational, public, objective discourse
  • The Realist novel of the nineteenth century was written in opposition to the Romance of medieaval times
  • Represantation of “real life” experiences and characters versus ideal love, ideal moral codes ideal characters (nobility), and fixed social values ,
  • The novel a lengthy ficticious narrative representig life-like characters and action.
  • George Eliot’s Midllemarch is agreat milestone in the realist tradition.
  • The novel has a strong tradition in English literature. In Great Britain, it can trace its roots back to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in 1719 (Kroll 23). Since then, the British novel has grown in popularity. It was especially popular in Victorian England. The type of novel that was particularly popular in Victorian England was the novel of youth.
  • Many authors of the time were producing works focused on the journey from childhood to adulthood: Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre, George Eliot wrote The Mill on the Floss, and Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield and Great Expectations. All of these novels trace the growth of a child. In this respect, some of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century were part of the genre called the Bildungsroman.
  • In the simplest sense of the word, a Bildungsroman is a novel of the development of a young man (or in some cases a young woman). In fact, the Webster's College Dictionary definition of Bildungsroman is "a novel dealing with the education and development of its protagonist". The Bildungsroman as a genre has its roots in Germany. Jerome Buckley notes that the word itself is German, with Bildung having a variety of connotations: "portrait," "picture," "shaping" and "formation," all of which give the sense of development or creation (the development of the child can also be seen as the creation of the man) (13-14). Roman simply means "novel."
  • The term Bildungsroman emerged as a description of Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. This was the first Bildungsroman, having been published between 1794 and 1796 (Buckley 9). The word "lehrjahre" can be translated as "apprenticeship".
  • "Apprenticeship" has many connotations, most of which deal with education and work. An apprentice goes to work for an experienced worker and learns and develops his trade and also to a greater extent his identity. Similarly, the Bildungsroman is characterized by the growth, education, and development of a character both in the world and ultimately within himself.
  • The Bildungsroman is subcategorized into very specific types of the genre, most often found in German literature. There is the Entwicklungsroman, which can be defined as "a chronicle of a young man's general growth rather than his specific quest for self-culture" . In other words, a story recounting a man's life rather than focusing on the inner changes that contribute to his maturity.
  • Another form within German literature is the Erziehungsroman; this form is primarily concerned with the protagonist's actual educational process .
  • The root Kunstler translates as artist in English. Therefore, this is the development of the artist from childhood until his artistic maturity, focusing on the man as artist rather than the man in general. Dickens' David Copperfield and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are both examples of English Kunstlerroman, as the protagonists of both books are writers.
  • According to Buckley in his book Seasons of Youth, the Bildungsroman in English literature is "in its broadest sense . . . a convenient synonym for the novel of youth or apprenticeship" (13).
  • The English Bildungsroman vary from novel to novel. However, they have many aspects in common, all of which are important to the development of the protagonist.
  • Part of the development of the child is the desire, as mentioned earlier, to leave home and become "his own man." Both the search for identity and the repression of the small town present motivation for the protagonist to do just that, and often his destination is London. He also travels to London to find his trade or occupation. This is most appropriate for the English Bildungsroman.
  • After all, London is the largest, most cosmopolitan city in England and therefore presents the most opportunities for the now adolescent child to continue his development, education, and ultimately find his niche within society through his chosen occupation. Buckley points out that this journey is "more importantly . . . his direct experience of urban life".
  • However, this urban experience is not always a pleasant one. However poor the child may have been in his provincial town, there is urban squalor and abject poverty in London, a harsh reality to bear. In this case, London, although it seems like some perfect destination, full of opportunity, is the source of "disenchantment more alarming and decisive than any dissatisfaction with the narrowness of provincial life" (Buckley 20). Therefore, despite the hero's image of the shining city of hopes and dreams, it is disappointing, and not so much better than the life he had at home.
  • An aspect of this new life in the city is that of love. It is usually here that the hero has his first experience with love. Buckley writes that there are "at least two love affairs or sexual encounters, one debasing, one exalting" (17).
  • Usually, between the debasement of the one love affair and the disillusionment with the city, the young man takes the final step in his development. He must reconcile "after painful soul-searching, the sort of accommodation to the modern world he can honestly make".
  • In other words the inner development and maturity of the protagonist takes place after his "education" in the city. It is this newfound self-knowledge that signals the ultimate maturity of the hero. With this maturity of course comes success, and often the protagonist marries, a recognition of acceptance and maturity; now that he knows himself he can share his life with someone else.
  • Even if the protagonist does not get married, he returns home to share his successes with his family or fellow townspeople
  • Clearly, this is a display of pride in his accomplishments, and more importantly a search for external validation, however ironic it may be that he must return to the place he wanted so desperately to escape to achieve this validation.
  • It is with this return home, where the reader is reminded of who the protagonist was and where he came from, that his development can most clearly be delineated. Although he has come full circle, the memories of the boy that was are perfectly suited to emphasize the man that he has become.
  • Obviously, this is a basic definition of the English Bildungsroman. There are variations within the genre, and one or more elements may be left out of a particular novel (Buckley 18). However, the basic principles of education and development, and the journey from childhood to adulthood, from small to large, are present within every English Bildungsroman.
  • It is these differences precisely that make each novel its own story. After all, even though every person's story is different, they must all go through stages of development in order to reach maturity and find their personal niche within the larger world.
  • The basic formula of the Bildungsroman is universal and especially appropriate to the growing world of the Victorian age where the kind of opportunities presented to the hero of the Bildungsroman echoed the actual experiences of those growing up in that era.  
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