The author has kindly shared with readers of The Victorian Web, the following passage from the third chapter of her Literary Epiphany in the Novel, 1850-1950: Constellations of the Soul, which Palgrave Macmillan published in 2012. — George P. Landow.

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s the bildungsroman most familiar to Eliot, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96) showed Eliot how to incorporate the spiritual autobiography into a secular narrative of development, one in which social experience, not divine grace, forms the basis of individuation. Eliot, however, retains for her character Dorothea the sudden epiphanies seen in Puritan literature, which Goethe had excluded from his text and thus separated from his protagonist Wilhelm. Although epiphanies are generally absent from the German bildungsroman tradition, twentieth-century critics have associated them with novels of female development, thus gendering them or their function in the novel.

Eliot’s use of epiphany in Dorothea’s Bildung has an unusual relation to similar novels of development. Strangely, although both male and female authors report epiphanies in Puritan autobiography, epiphany seems more common to women in the bildungsroman genre. As they identify distinctive traits of the female bildungsroman, Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland observe that “development may be compressed into brief epiphanic moments. Since the significant changes are internal, flashes of recognition often replace the continuous unfolding of an action” (12). According to this influential view, male development takes the form of “continuous unfolding” because it comes through sustained practical action. The Bildung of Wilhelm Meister, for example, is called an “apprenticeship” as if it were the learning of a professional craft. Wilhelm’s education unfolds as he works in the theater, takes lovers, and travels, encountering new scenes and characters. Yet prior to the late twentieth century, novels of female development largely favor an internal growth, one that comes, curiously enough, through sudden illumination: “epiphany” (Pratt, Abel, Hirsch, Langland) or “awakening” (Rosowski, Fuderer 4-5).

Some critics explain this inward turn as the result of social defeat. As Maureen Ryan puts it, “The female Bildungsroman, then, is traditionally a tale of compromise and disillusionment, the chronicle of a young woman’s recognition that, for her, life offers not limitless possibilities but an unsympathetic environment in which she must struggle to discover a room of her own” (14-15). The female “awakening to limitations” (Rosowski 49) was noted as early as 1830, when Karl Menzel categorized women’s novels as Entsagungsromane, novels of resignation. The disillusionment and compromise, however, are not strictly female. Critics often list them as part of the general Bildungsroman structure (Buckley, Röder-Bolton, others), and in his Aesthetics, Hegel describes the novel itself as a genre in which an idealistic hero tries to improve the world and ends his “apprenticeship” by “getting the corners knocked off him […]. In the last analysis he usually gets his girl and some kind of job, marries and becomes a philistine just like the others” (557-58 qtd. in Swales 20). Except for the job, this description fits Dorothea’s life story. But the job is a crucial difference for feminist critics. Because the encounter with the social world equals failure or lack of opportunity for the female protagonist, she grows in the opposite direction, cultivating her interior life. For this reason, some critics even suggest that “female Bildung [is] a contradiction in terms” (Smith, “Cultivating” 220).

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland. Introduction. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Ed. Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1983. 1-19. Print.

Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974. Print.

Ellis, Lorna. Appearing to Diminish: Female Development and the British Bildungsroman, 1750-1850. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1999. Print.

Fuderer, Laura Sue. The Female Bildungsroman in English. An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990. Print.

Hirsch, Marianne. “Spiritual Bildung: The Beautiful Soul as Paradigm.” Abel, Hirsch, and Langland 23-48. Print.

Labovitz, Esther Kleinbord. The Myth of the Heroine. The Female Bildungsroman in the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. New York: Peter Lang, 1988. Print.

Pratt, Annis. “Women and Nature in Modern Fiction.” Contemporary Literature 13 (1972): 476-90. Print.

Röder-Bolton, Gerlinde. George Eliot and Goethe: An Elective Affinity. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998. Print.

Rosowski, Susan J. “The Novel of Awakening.” Abel, Hirsch, and Langland. 49-68. Print.

Ryan, Maureen. Innocence and Estrangement in the Fiction of Jean Stafford. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987. Print.

Smith, John H. “Cultivating Gender: Sexual Difference, Bildung, and the Bildungsroman.” Germanic Studies 13.2 (1987): 206-225. Print.

Swales, Martin. The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse . Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978. Print.


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Last modified 27 June 2013