George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858) and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-61) shows us two very different ways of creating first-person narratives of personal development. Whereas MacDonald writes his short novel as a fantasy, Dickens writes his instead as realistic fiction. Yet like Anodos’s adventure in the fairy world, Pip’s adventures in London allow him to recognize what is most important in his life and allow him to grow up to a mature adult.

George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858) is a fantasy in which the protagonist, Anodos, ventures into a magical fairyland and encounters all sorts of mystical and strange people and creatures. He describes one of his experiences in the fairy world in such a way that suggests the experience was so fantastic and perfect that not even he can relate the story to the readers in an adequate way:

One story I will try to reproduce. But, alas! it is like trying to reconstruct a forest out of broken branches and withered leaves. In the fairy book, everything was just as it should be, though whether in words or something else, I cannot tell. It glowed and flashed the thoughts upon the soul, with such a power that the medium disappeared from the consciousness, and it was occupied only with the things themselves. My representation of it must resemble a translation from a rich and powerful language, capable of embodying the thoughts of a splendidly developed people, into the meagre and half-articulate speech of a savage tribe. Of course, while I read it, I was Cosmo, and his history was mine. Yet, all the time, I seemed to have a kind of double consciousness, and the story a double meaning.

This magical fairy book that Anodos discovers places him in the action of the novel as the character, Cosmo, and the experience he has as this character is so strange and powerful that he calls the language by which he describes it as “the meagre and half-articulate speech of a savage tribe.” The world of fantasy that Anodos has entered is characterized as being so foreign to our own that it cannot even be adequately described.

In Dickens’s Great Expectations, however, the action of the novel takes place in the realistic world of England in the 19th century, and though some of the events of the novel rely heavily on coincidences (such as the fact that the convict Pip happens to meet as a child turns out to be Estella’s father), none of the events are magical nor are they completely unbelievable. Dickens relies on the real world to teach Pip what is important in life, and thus his writing style attempts to capture and adequately describe English life in the 19th century, making his writing style more straightforward and direct. Dickens’s writing is also more humorous than MacDonald’s because he is describing a world that his readers would be familiar with and they would have experience with the scenes and people he was describing, as in the passage in which Pip is bound to Joe:

The Justices were sitting in the Town Hall near at hand, and we at once went over to have me bound apprentice to Joe in the Magisterial presence. I say we went over, but I was pushed over by Pumblechook, exactly as if I had that moment picked a pocket or fired a rick; indeed, it was the general impression in Court that I had been taken red-handed; for, as Pumblechook shoved me before him through the crowd, I heard some people say, “What’s he done?” and others, “He’s a young ’un, too, but looks bad, don’t he?” One person of mild and benevolent aspect even gave me a tract ornamented with a woodcut of a malevolent young man fitted up with a perfect sausage-shop of fetters, and entitled TO BE READ IN MY CELL.

Both stories in other words take the form of a Bildungsroman, in which the protagonists gain insight through their experiences and are able to move from childhood to adulthood. Pip must come to understand that money and status are not worth sacrificing his relationship with his loved ones and Anodos must learn to lose his ego (the dark, evil shadow that follows him) and come to respect and sacrifice for others. In this sense both novels emphasize the theme that growing up involves the trading of one’s egotism and pride for humility and kindness.

The use of the Bildungsroman form in both these novels represents the introduction of that form in English literature at the time. According to Richard Salmon’s history of the Bildungsroman as it appeared in nineteenth-century England:

Bulwer’s contribution to the establishment of the Bildungsroman in Britain should not be underestimated, whatever our response to his novels as such. If Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-1834) is commonly perceived to be the first, and most influential, adaptation of the Goethean novel of "apprenticeship" into English, it is worth noting that of the several novels written by Bulwer which follow the same model, the first was published as early as 1828 (Ashton 22). Elements of the Bildungsroman as inaugurated by Wilhelm Meister (1791-1796) can be traced back to Bulwer’s The Disowned (1828) and Godolphin (1833), as Susanne Howe suggests, but attain their most coherent expression in Ernest Maltravers (1837) and its sequel Alice; or, The Mysteries (1838) (140-59).

Because the Bildungsroman was just becoming popular in English literature in the years before these two pieces were published, it is likely that the authors got some inspiration and ideas about how to craft their coming-of-age stories by this newly popular model.


Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. The Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. Web. 2 May 2010.

Macdonald, George. Phantastes: A Faeire Romance for Men and Women. The Victorian Web.. Ed. George P. Landow. Web. 2 May 2010.

Salmon, Richard. “The Genealogy of the Literary Bildungsroman: Edward Bulwer Lytton and W. M. Thackeray.” Studies in the Novel Vol. 36 (2004). Questia. Web. 7 May 2010.

Victorian Web Overview George MacDonald George MacDonald’s Phantastes Genre and Mode in Dickens

Last modified 12 May 2010