October 24, 2010
The Bildungsroman and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
It is widely recognized that one of the most accomplished versions of the Bildungsroman genre can be found in the works of Charles Dickens. Novels such as David Copperfield or Great Expectations are well recognized by readers and scholars alike, for their captivating stories concerned with human development. However, the novel which began the genre, and laid the foundations for many novels of later writers, is Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-1796). A novel concerning a young man’s adventures and maturation process and his attempt to find meaning in life; it is a complex story which was enormously popular and successful at the time of it’s publication,and it continues tobe read with pleasure by many today. Although there is much argument as to the exact definition of the Bildungsroman form, it is generally regarded as a novel that is concerned with the formation of a character, and the character’s progress, or “growth from childhood to maturity” (Lynch).
The protagonist of Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm, utters words which become the formula for the entire genre: “to develop myself, just as I am” (347), which can be understood, in other words, as an attempt, to take all that is potential inside his “self”, and to bring it to full maturation; to actualize and fulfill a potential. Wilhelm’s statement is what later becomes the idealist model of the Bildungsroman, and a pattern which many future writers come to use when composing their own works. As Martin Swales puts it, the Bildungsroman, as in Goethe’s model, is a story of “a man unfolding organically in all his complexity and richness” (14) – an approach, where bildung isthe formation of a character, that is by definition conceivable only as a male. From its very inception, the Bildungsroman form has therefore been primarily concerned with the life stories of male characters. This essay attempts to present the Bildungsroman as a traditionally male construct, that can however, through the application of certain, less conventional devices, successfully present the development of female characters, such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in a different, but equally respectable and valued form.
The type of character that develops in the Bildungsroman is traditionally viewed as a self that progresses through its paces in life, in the adventures or plot of a novel. It is a character that has particular experiences; a character that moves from childhood to maturity, going through a whole set of milestones in life before finally arriving at a state of wisdom and maturity; and in Goethe’s model, it presents a final state of responsibility which the character comes to possess. The “self” of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister is a discrete, masculine entity; an integral whole that holds within it a great potential. The task of the novel is, through the story, to actualize what is inside the character; to make it visible and give it proper social enactment.
In an attempt to illustrate and gain a more tangible idea of the Bildungsroman, one may try to imagine certain elements element of a person’s everyday experience, that in many ways parallel the idea of the Bildungsroman. The custom of composing a résumé, or Curriculum Vitae, involves taking note of important information from life. Facts, such as when and where one was born, the schools attended, the offices held, and the clubs that one has belonged to, are all pieces of information which hold great significance. Summarizing important events in the life of an individual is the way in which people chart their careers, which are essentially, reflections of an evolving self, that goes through a set of steps in life. A résumé is essentially a plot presenting a person’s personal encounter with life, and explaining how that person was formed. Such personal facts and events are the same that comprise the essential elements of a fictional characters life path found in the Bildungsroman.
When attempting to explore the possibility of their existing a Bildungsroman that can be characterized as female; presenting the development and evolution not that of a man’s, but that of a woman’s, it is crucial to take under consideration the possibilities available to women in Victorian England, and to understand what kinds of social avenues were accessible to women who lived, and were often portrayed in the literature of the time. Some of the most famous nineteenth century female literary figures present an image of life development that is essentially opposite to that of male characters. Because of the existing social conditions, many paths were unobtainable, or simply unthinkable for numerous heroines of the age. Maggie Tulliver in Elliot’s Mill of the Floss, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Fontane’s Effie Briest, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are all characters for whom social horizons are greatly limited, and due to their desire to transgress social boundaries, they often find themselves heading towards ill fate, often in the form of suicide or death. If one were to attempt to record the lives of these characters, at the level of any measurable accomplishments, it would quickly become clear that there is not much material to report – such characters have not progressed very far in their lives, because the appropriate social paths were closed and unavailable to them, or simply did not exist.
There may however be ways of viewing the self as something more than an entity that is undividable and inherently masculine in nature. Feminist theorists have created a basis which allows one to see other, more universal and perhaps more feminine versions of the self in the Bildungroman. Nancy Chadorow and Carol Gilligan have proposed that there exist certain differences between the way boys and girls are brought up, claiming that boys are raised at a certain distance from their parents and form a unified, discrete and more independent “self” (163), who later venture out into the world and, in their adult lives, have numerous encounters or collisions with what the world has to offer them. Thus, a young man’s life in many ways reflects that of Wilhelm Meister. Girls are however, more attuned to close relationship and connection with their families, forming mother-daughter or sister-sister relationships, with “a stronger basis for experiencing another’s needs or feelings as one’s own” (8). Being raised in a closed relationship with their parents, and later in marriage, girls do not have to head out into the world on their own in the same way that boys do, and are thus more attuned to connection as opposed to the more masculine encounters and collisions with other individuals, and with the world.
The female “self” therefore, forms a more ecological, interconnected image, that is more relational towards others. When measuring what women achieve, one may view them not as dull and limited individuals, but as daughters, mothers, and wives that are imprinted into many critical aspects of life. The process of charting the progress of the life of a female character does not have to be in any way less complex or intriguing than charting the life story of a man.
When attempting to view Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as potential character of the Bildungsroman, one must take note of not only her clearly visible, external, acts and experiences, through which she acquires knowledge and skill, but also her more internal processes of psychological and emotional maturation. Such internal elements of her “self” may at first glance seem to be of an enclosed and isolated nature, but turn out to be in fact actively influencing her individual being, and the world with which she interacts. Together, her external events, and internal experiences, will come together to form a discrete and integral body, which will communicate itself onto Jane’s life, and form the basis of her individual “self”, and her progress from girl, to responsible woman and wife.