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Examples Of Bildungsroman Essays

Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition and history of the Bildungsroman
2.1 Definition
2.2 History

3. Features of the Bildungsroman
3.1 General information
3.2 Three different types

4. Features of the Bildungsroman in Jane Eyre
4.1 Religion
4.2 Love vs. Autonomy
4.3 Social Class
4.4 Education
4.5 Technical devices

5. Autobiographical aspects in Jane Eyre

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Every human being undergoes changes during his life-time. From childhood through adolescence until old age he or she is constantly in a learning process. One can never say that a person is absolutely mature and at the end of his or her maturing process but one can say that there are certain steps in life most people pass or go through.

Also Jane Eyre betakes herself on the journey of life and in the novel the reader can watch the different steps she passes and accompanies her. On the one hand they can observe her behaviour objectively, her changes, her maturing process, her fears and challenges in a distant and objective way. They see how other people manage their life and are made aware of their changes without directly being a part of it. On the other hand the reader is able to identify with Jane Eyre and imagine how she must feel because, as I said before, every person changes during their life and experiences certain problems and challenges.

Although those must not necessarily be exactly the same as Jane experiences, we can feel with her. There is just a certain amount of feelings a human being is able to feel and as we, together with Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë and many others, belong to the same species we feel similar for example about things like love.

But it is not only me who definitely can identify and feel with Jane. Charlotte Brontë’s favourite novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, said the following after reading Jane Eyre:

…the plot of the story is one with wh[ich] I am familiar. Some of the love passages made me cry, to the astonishment of John, who came in with the coals. St. John the Missionary is a failure I think, but a good failure, there are parts excellent. I don’t know why I tell you this but that I have been exceedingly moved and pleased by Jane Eyre.[1]

I think it is exactly this point of identifying with the heroine that makes Jane Eyre such a popular novel and that also draw my attention to it.

However, it is even more the specific topic of the genre Bildungsroman that caught my interest.

The development of a character, no matter if in fiction or reality, is always interesting and inspiring. Jane is not afraid of changes and shows the intention to go on the journey to herself. She plays the “inner wheel” to change her life for the better. In my opinion this is something really important because you first have to understand yourself before you are able to understand other people.

The following term-paper is divided into five parts. Firstly I would like to define the term and point out the history and origin of the genre Bildungsroman. The second part deals with the key features of the genre. Afterwards I will deal with the question how these aspects are applied to Jane Eyre.

The fourth part concentrates on Charlotte Brontë’s life and how its influence on Jane Eyre. At last I will sum up my thoughts in the conclusion.

2. Definition and history of the Bildungsroman

2.1 Definition

…the Bildungsroman is characterized by the growth, education, and development of a character both in the world and ultimately within himself.[2]

The central feature of the Bildungsroman is the protagonist’s process of psychological and moral growing and developing from childhood until finally maturity. The central figure has a good look at certain fields in life and works out his relation to them until he finally achieves true self-knowledge and is in accord with the world and himself.

2.2 History

The Bildungsroman has its roots in Germany in the last half of the 18th century, which was the era of Enlightenment. The word “Bildung” is a German expression and has different connotational meanings like “formation”, “picture” and “shaping” whose deeper sense is in every case something like development or creation.

The term Bildungsroman was first used to describe Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, which has been published between 1794 and 1796 and since then was known as the paradigmatic Bildungsroman. It can be translated into Wilhelm Meisters apprenticeship, that means it has something to do with education and work. For this reason the most common translations of the term are “novel of development” or “novel of education”.

Paradoxically the best examples can be found in French and English literature. It became the most important literary form whereas the German writers focused more on the novella.

In the Victorian Britain the desire for self-improvement and the need to cope with the social circumstances in a changing world led to complex characterisations, i.e. to some kind of development. For the same reason the Bildungsroman also contained social critique.

At the same time the female Bildungsroman developed, which survived the crisis of this genre in the 20th century much better than the male version. The first examples were from England and Ireland, like Jane Austen’s Emma and Maira Edgeworth’s Belinda.

This crisis began because of the genre’s dependence of a linear plot which did not fit into the stylistic and structural experiments, typical for modernist writers. Nevertheless in the 1950’s and 60’s the Bildungsroman became very popular again due to feminist and leftist political movements. It became a common ground for theories and ideologies for marginalized groups such as women, socialists, gay men, lesbians and none-whites.

3. Features of the Bildungsroman

3.1 General information

The English Bildungsroman is mostly written in an autobiographical form. It is natural that an author brings something of his personal experience into his work, in particular when childhood-remembrances and -digestions are so important to the protagonist’s development. On top of that it makes the whole story more authentic.

However, that does not mean that it is an autobiography in the literal sense. These elements are just used to add a sense of reality to the novel.

It is to be understood that fact and fiction are combined. Therefore Jane Eyre, subtitled “An Autobiography” is just Jane’s autobiography and not Charlotte Brontë’s.

Another reason for the subtitle is that Jane’s development throughout the novel takes place over a long time, often decades, and therefore shows features of a biography.


[1] Diane Long Hoeveler & Lisa Jadwin, Charlotte Brontë, 1997, p. 58

[2] cf. www.umd.umich.edu


What is a Bildungsroman? In my examination, I will attempt to answer this misleadingly simple question. The term was suggested by Friedrich von Blanckenburg's discussion of Bildung in his 1774 "Essay on the Novel," coined by Karl Morgenstern in the 1820s, and popularized by Wilhelm Dilthey in his 1870 essay on Friedrick Schleiermacher. Therefore, when we 20th Century readers talk of the Bildungsroman, as we often do, we employ a critical lens honed in 19th Century Germany to treat a genre begun in the 18th Century. One result of this critical distance is the conceptual indistinctness of the term. Bildungsroman is often used as a collective term to designate several potential genres: Entwicklungsroman or "novel of development," Erziehungsroman or "novel of education," and Kunstlerroman or "novel about the artist."

My major field, European Bildungsroman, includes novels that could serve as examples of these various forms: Rousseau's Emile, and even Fielding's Tom Jones as novels of education; Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, James' Roderick Hudson, and Joyce's Portrait as novels about artists; Austen's Emma, and even James' Ambassadors as novels of development. Most of the novels I select have featured in other critical discussions of the Bildungsroman by critics such as Martin Swales, Franco Moretti, and Lorna Ellis.

My particular approach to defining the genre, however, returns to Dilthey's original definition. According to Dilthey, the prototypical Bildungsroman is Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship in which the hero engages in a double task of self-integration and integration into society. For Dilthey, the first implies the second, and thus he reads the Bildungsroman as a fundamentally affirmative, conservative genre, confident in the validity of the society it depicts, and anxious to lead both hero and reader to a productive place in that society. 1 maintain that if we accept Dilthey's definition of the Bildungsroman, then we cannot be confident that even Wilhelm Meister deserves the label. Nor is it clear that the term, so defined, applies to any of the novels I have selected. What is more accurate, I will argue, is that Wilhelm Meister articulates a tension in Dilthey's double task, that is, a conflict between the priorities of self-integration and social integration, a tension between what Goethe himself called Vollen (desire and its fulfillment) and Sollen (social obligation and its fulfillment). If there is a criterion for the Bildungsroman genre, it is this tension, which presents itself on different levels, a tension to which authors respond with vastly different strategies, from Austen's attempt to mitigate it, to Flaubert's and James' efforts to exacerbate it.


Defoe, Daniel (1660-1731)
— Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Fielding, Henry (1707-54)
— Tom Jones (1749)

Diderot, Denis (1713-84)
— Le neveu de Rameau (1761)

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712-78)
— Emile (1762)

Burke, Edmund (1729-97)
— Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Austen, Jane (1775-1817)
— Sense and Sensibility (1811)
— Pride and Prejudice (1813)
— Mansfield Park (1814)
— Emma (1816)
— Northhanger Abbey (1818)
— Persuasion (1818)
— Sanditon (1817)

Scott, Sir Walter (1771-1832)
— Waverley (1814)

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832)
— Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774)
— Wilhelm Meister's Lehrjarhre (1795-6)

Stendhal (Henri Beyle, 1783-1842)
— Le Rouge et le noir (1830)
— La Chartreuse de Parme (1839)

Balzac, Honore de (1799-1850)
— Pere Goriot (1834)
— Illusions perdues (1837-43)

Thackeray, William Makepeace (1811-1863)
— Vanity Fair (1847-8)

Brontë, Charlotte (1816-55)
— Jane Eyre (1847)
— Villette (1853)

Dickens, Charles John Huffman (1812-70)
— Oliver Twist (1837-38)
— Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9)
— Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4)
— David Copperfield (1849-50)
— Little Dorrit (1855-7)
— Great Expectations (1860-1)

Eliot, George (Mary Ann, later Marian Evans, 1819-1880)
— Middlemarch (1871-2)
— Daniel Deronda (1874-6)

Flaubert, Gustave (1821-1880)
— Madame Bovary (1857)
— L'Education sentimentale (1869)

Hardy, Thomas (1840-1928)
— Jude the Obscure (1895)

James, Henry (1843-1916)
— Roderick Hudson (1877)
— Daisy Miller (1879)
— Washington Square (1880)
— Portrait of a Lady (1881)
— The Ambassadors (1903)
— "The Beast in the Jungle" (1903)

Wharton, Edith (née Newbold Jones 1862-1937)
— The House of Mirth (1905)

Mann, Thomas (1875-1955)
— Buddenbrooks (1901)
— Zauberberg (1924)

Lawrence, David Herbert (1885-1930)
— Sons and Lovers (1913)

Joyce, James Augustine Aloysius (1882-1941)
— A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-5)

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