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Examples Of Bildungsroman Essays On The Great

Bildungsroman Essay

658 WordsApr 7th, 20063 Pages

Bildungsroman After studying the term Bildungsroman, I have drawn the conclusion that the novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit would fall directly underneath this genre of literature. Bildungsroman is defined as "a novel of formation" or "a novel of someone's growth from childhood to maturity." (Lynch) In this "formation," there are a few key elements that must be present for a novel to fall under this specific genre.
To begin, one of the first criteria is that the story must be autobiographically based. (Birk) We know that this is true when we meet the protagonist, Jeanette, of the story. The most obvious evidence of this is that the author named the protagonist after herself: Jeanette. She also gave them some of the same…show more content…

This growth is oftentimes attained through hardship. (Birk) Hardship for Jeanette occurs throughout the story. It displays a picture of a roller coaster that starts as soon as Jeanette's first, sexual encounter with someone of the same sex, Melanie, takes place. After Jeanette tells her mother about it, her mother tells their pastor and he openly speaks out against their sin and specifically points them out. This is beginning of Jeanette's breaking away, for she openly disagrees with the pastor. When she flees, she meets Miss Jewsbury, and they sleep together. The very next day, Jeanette is met by the elders of her church who have come over to perform an exorcism, which doesn't work. Jeanette is forcefully locked in her room for 36 hours and is not fed during this period of time. Then, she fakes repentance and gets back involved with the church. She starts to teach and lead, and then she meets Katy. She has an affair with Katy, and the church kicks her out. Her mother also seemingly disowns her. Jeanette lives on her own and works in a hospital, a funeral parlor, and drives an ice-cream truck.
In conclusion, Jeanette's greatest growth is seen by coming into herself and being content with who she really is. More of this growth is noticed by Jeanette's compassion for other people that, for some reason, was never shown to her. Moreover, the blueprint for a story that falls under the category of bildungsroman directly correlates to the construction of

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1. Characteristic features and short history of the English Bildungsroman

2. Pip’s three stages
2.1. Nothing but disappointments?
2.1.1. Pip’s search for identity, a father and a family
2.1.2. Pip’s desire to be educated
2.1.3. Pip’s desire to rise in society and to become a gentleman
2.1.4. Pip’s mad obsession with and unreturned love of Estella

3. Hard-hearted Dickens or romantic Bulwer-Lytton?


1. Characteristic features and short history of the English Bildungsroman

“Happy season of youth, (…) happy times of the first wish of love!”[1]

Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1796)

Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister s Lehrjahre, where this quotation is taken from, is unanimously regarded as the prototype of the Bildungsroman by literary scholars. In the following paper I am going to concentrate on the English Bildungsroman exclusively by analysing Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, a representative novel of the Victorian Bildungsroman.

A Bildungsroman in general describes the life of the protagonist “as a process of movement and adjustment from childhood to early maturity”[2] and “as a growing up and gradual self-discovery in the school-without-walls that is experience.”[3] The plot of a typical English Bildungsroman can usually be divided into three stages in the hero’s development: childhood, youth and maturity. During his first stage of development the protagonist, often an orphaned child, grows up contentedly in the country or in a provincial town. The experience of his first schooling, however, makes him unsatisfied with his lot. Driven by deficiencies and lack of options he sets out to seek his fortune in a cosmopolitan city which in almost all cases is London. This applies to the Victorian age in particular, when the British Empire was at the height of its political and colonial power with its centre in London. The journey from rural environment to the city initiates the second stage, where the hero’s real education begins. He often is increasingly alienated from his childhood friends and persons of trust and experiences urban life. There he is involved in exalting and debasing love affairs. An additional typical theme of the Victorian Bildungsroman is the making of a gentleman. Only by reappraising his values can he enter upon his final stage of maturity. He then returns home to his place of origin to demonstrate the degree of his success or failure.[4] There are numerous facets to this general description of the hero’s life. A thorough analysis of Great Expectations will reveal the most important and most striking aspects of the genre.

As very often a first person narrator recounts his life from early childhood to adolescence, it is very tempting to misread a Bildungsroman as the author’s biography. Making assumptions of this kind is a tightrope walk. Secondary literature suggests the term autobiographical novel, conceding that it cannot be argued that most Bildungsromane, in particular those of the Victorian age, in fact do contain biographical elements.[5] However, “Pip’s conduct [in Great Expectations] at no point coincides precisely with that of Dickens; the personal has become oblique, distant and ironic.”[6] It is Pip’s biography rather than Dickens’s attempt to recount his life.

In English literature the awkward German term is often translated by synonyms like novel of youth, novel of education, of apprenticeship, of adolescence, of initiation, or the life-novel.[7] For reasons of consistency and acknowledgment of its roots, I shall use the German term Bildungsroman throughout the paper. German literary criticism further distinguishes between

the Entwicklungsroman, a chronicle of a young man’s general growth rather than his specific quest for self-culture; the Erziehungsroman, with emphasis on the youth’s training and formal education; and the Künstlerroman, a tale of the orientation of an artist.[8]

I am not going to make this distinction, because in the context of English literature these categories are far less rigid.

Deriving its roots from Germany the Bildungsroman first came into being in England during the Age of Enlightenment. The victorious hero of the English Bildungsroman of the 18th century generally experienced a life “(…) of success, of obstacles overcome, of safety and prosperity reached.”[9]

Examples from 19th century Victorian England, however, are characterised by a more pessimistic tone in so far as disillusionment, lack of and consequent search for identity and a family, loneliness, and a sense of the cruelty of life clearly prevail.[10] It is precisely these motifs which, among others, play a central role in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.

2. Pip’s three stages

The organisation of the novel into three volumes conspicuously indicates the three stages of Pip’s development. Dickens even explicitly writes at the end of the first and second volume: “This is the end of the first [second] stage of Pip’s development.”[11]

These three stages are presented as follows: Pip lives his childhood with his sister and her husband Joe at the forge in the Kent marshes, experiences the metropolitan life of London during his youth and finally the circle closes with the mature Pip returning home to the forge. However, in respect of Pip’s moral purification and his catharsis from false and hopeless desires the circle appears to be not as closed or as smoothly rounded as it looks at first reading. I will examine this later when analysing the implications of the two endings to the story.

2.1. Nothing but disappointments?

“If young Pip sets out to London as a picaresque adventurer, old Pirrip comes home to the marshes as a defeated hero.”[12] This is Hobsbaum’s debatable conclusion.

The title Great Expectations is perfectly devised. Apart from Joe, who contentedly leads a blacksmith’s life at the forge in the marshes, and his second wife Biddy everybody entertains expectations related either to themselves or in part to the main character. Pip’s four great expectations at the same time correspond to the characteristics of the Bildungsroman: Firstly, lacking a real family, he searches for identity and security. Secondly, he strives for education both in respect of knowledge and manners in order to cover up his commonness and coarseness. Thirdly, he devotes all his energies onto developing into a gentleman. Pip’s definition of a gentleman is based on social class, prestige and money. Having succeeded in reaching these goals, he hopes that Estella, with whom he has been madly obsessed since their first encounter at Satis House, will finally reciprocate his affection and devotion. This last of Pip’s four main expectations, the fulfilment of his irrational love of the unreachable Estella, motivates all his doings.

When one looks at the outcome of Pip’s great expectations from Pip’s point of view in greater detail, on the one hand Pip might well be regarded as a ‘defeated hero’ according to Hobsbaum. On the other hand he has advanced morally and personally during his ordeal, though it was not his intention or part of his initial aspirations. Bearing these two aspects in mind, can Pip’s life be called a wasted life, has he learned anything at all?

2.1.1. Pip’s search for identity, a father and a family

Like many heroes in the English Bildungsroman, Pip is an orphan. This condition provides him with no conventional independence or self-assertion.[13] His sister’s bringing up and her frequently doing him injustice have made him morally timid and very sensitive.[14] Estella – although she is about his age – disparagingly calls him ‘boy’ incessantly and adds to Pip’s feeling of inferiority and uncertainty.[15]

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones.[16]

Pip is an orphan who has to search for his identity and to find his place in society within a family embedded in a community of close friends and persons of trust. In his quest of disclosing to him his family’s roots he resorts to the nearest and only objects at hand, which are the tombstones on his family’s grave. As these monuments cannot communicate to him any clear knowledge either of his parentage or his position in the world, the conclusions he draws are highly equivocal.

Pip not only does not know his real family, but his present mother is his harsh sister Mrs Joe Gargery, who is more than twenty years older than him and who has a “hard and heavy hand.”[17] His present father is his brother-in-law Mr Joe Gargery, “a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow – a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness,”[18] in other words the angelic and childlike opposite of Pip’s masculine sister. This leaves Pip with a relatively distorted family structure. Joe is not a father, but more like a friend and brother to Pip, his elder sibling: Pip treats him “as a larger species of child, and as nor more than (…) [his] equal.”[19] Later during his first stage of development, Pip’s glimpses into higher and hitherto unknown spheres of society at Satis House together with Estella’s remarks about his coarse hands induce a change in the former equal Pip-Joe companionship: “I wished that Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.”[20] The rift grows wider still, when the two worlds are brought into sharp contrast at the end of chapter 13, when Miss Havisham announces to Pip and Joe the termination of Pip’s services.[21] Although Pip dearly loves him[22] and their relationship, which gets temporarily tarnished during the course of Pip’s development, changes for the better again thanks to Pip’s reappraising Joe’s values in the end, on grounds of the reasons mentioned above, the naïve and childlike Joe cannot impersonate the father figure Pip is in need of. However, Pip does not need to look far for a substitute father. He unwittingly finds him in the convict Abel Magwitch, whom he meets in the misty graveyard in the marshes. Indeed the convict’s first fatherly act takes place when, in order to protect Pip, he assumes guilt for having stolen Mrs. Gargery’s pork pie.[23] This convict, at the end of stage two, turns out to be his true benefactor.

‘Yes, Pip, dear boy, I’ve made a gentleman on you! It’s me wot has done it! (…) Look’ee here, Pip. I’m your second father. You’re my son – more to me nor any son. (…) And then, dear boy, it was a recompense to me, look’ee here, to know in secret that I was making a gentleman.’[24]


[1] Buckley, Jerome. Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1974, p.vii

[2] ibid., p.viii

[3] ibid., p.viii

[4] cf. Buckley, pp.17-18

[5] cf. ibid., pp. 24-25

[6] ibid., p.44

[7] cf. ibid., pp.vii-viii

[8] ibid., p.13

[9] Diakonova, Nina. “Notes on the Evolution of the Bildungsroman in England.” Zeitschrift für
Anglistik und Amerikanistik
16:4 (1968): 341-51, p.341

[10] cf. Diakonova, pp.341-42

[11] Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Charlotte Mitchell. London: Penguin Books, 2003,
pp.160, 324 (Hereafter referenced as GE)

[12] Hobsbaum, Philip. A Reader’s Guide to Charles Dickens. London: Thames and Hudson, 1972,

[13] Buckley, p.48

[14] cf. GE, p.63

[15] cf. ibid., pp.55,56,57,58

[16] ibid., p.3

[17] ibid., p.8

[18] GE, p.8

[19] ibid., p.9

[20] ibid., p.62

[21] ibid., pp.100-102

[22] Pip says: „I loved Joe – perhaps for no better reason in those early days than because the dear
fellow let me love him.“ (GE, p.41)

[23] cf. Buckley, p.49

[24] GE, pp.319-21

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