Bildungsroman and its Aspects in Jane Eyre

Bildungsroman is a German term which was first suggested by Friedrich van Blackenburg in his 1774 “Essay on the Novel”, and made popular by Wilhelm Dilthey in 1870. However, in the twentieth century, this term has been associated with a particular genre which originated in the eighteenth century, that is, the novel. In this context, ‘Bildungsroman’ has been broadly used for combining three different genres under a single category. These three genres are: ‘Entwicklungsroman’ or ‘novels of development’, as seen in Jane Austen’s Emma and Henry James’ The Ambassadors; ‘Erziehungsroman’, or ‘novels of education’, as seen in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Rousseau’s  Emile; and ‘Kunstlerroman’, or ‘novels about the artist’, as seen in Henry James’ Roderick Hudson and James Joyce’s Portrait of  an Artist as a Young Man. Thus, ‘Bildungsroman’ is essentially regarded as a novel concerning the all-round development or the self-culture of the protagonist.

Wilhelm Dilthey defines Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship as the prototypical bildungsroman, as it depicts the hero engaging in the task of self-integration and integration into the society. Using Goethe’s novel, Dilthey goes on to assert that ‘Bildungsroman’ is essentially a conservative genre which maintains the status-quo of the society it portrays by implicating self-integration within the ambit of social-integration. However, one could argue that protagonists such as Wilhelm Meister articulate not the heroes’ attempts to align themselves to the orthodox norms of the society they are exposed to, but rather the opposite. It seems that bildungsroman as a genre conveys the conflict between the two tasks of self-integration and social-integration, a tension between what Goethe himself described as ‘vollen’ (desire and its fulfillment) and ‘sollen’ (social obligation and its fulfillment).

The conflict between vollen and sollen has been at the core of many Victorian novels throughout Europe. Various Victorian authors have dealt with this ambivalence using different strategies, from Charlotte Bronte’s attempts to mitigate it in Jane Eyre to Gustave Flaubert’s efforts to exacerbate it in Madame Bovary. All Victorian authors have adapted Goethe’s model of ‘Bildungsroman’ to their own purposes, as a result of which, Victorian bildungsroman has developed its own traits. These traits included depicting an orphaned protagonist, who has become fatherless, either literally or metaphorically, right in his childhood. This absence of a father figure leads to a loss of faith in the values of the protagonist’s home and family, and forces the protagonist to search for an alternate parent, thus, paving way for an alternate way of life. These tenets are present in Bronte’s Jane Eyre as well.

Jane Eyre depicts a female protagonist who is orphaned right in her childhood and left with no inheritance, therefore, being devoid of any economic status. She is taken in by her upper middle class relatives, the Reeds, but there also she remains without the support of a father-figure. Mr. Reed is dead and his son, John Reed is a pampered little brat who treats Jane as a slave, calling her “an animal”, and demanding that she call him her master. The only bright side to this short-lived association of Jane with the Reeds is that she is still considered among the middle-class. This class status seems important even to Jane herself who refuses to go and live with her poor lower class relatives.

Owing to the lack of a protective parent at Mrs. Reed’s, Jane is also forced to look for an alternative elsewhere. But her new way of life is rather imposed upon her when Mr. Brocklehurst takes her away to Lowood. It is at Lowood that Jane gets guidance from characters like Ms. Temple and Helen Burns. This episode at Lowood initiates her spiritual education, which is reinforced later in the novel by St. John Rivers. At Lowood, Puritan beliefs are inculcated within Jane. Austerity and spirituality are practiced so religiously at that institution that Jane is deprived in every possible way – physically, mentally and artistically. She, like other girls at that place, is provided burnt porridge and simple uniform. She is always required to keep braided hair, in order to repress her sexuality. She is always associated with dull colours such as grey and brown. Along with her passions, emotions, sexuality and beauty, even her reason is repressed, to the extent that she is punished severely and humiliated publicly for challenging authority at Lowood. She is made to conform to her class status by mingling with other girls who, like her, belong to the middle class and who, like her, have lost their status due to loss of financial security.

Moreover, apart from class and spiritual education, Jane also undergoes education in other subjects like art and French language, as well as vocations like sewing and embroidering, all of which equip her to gain financial independence, a tenet peculiar to bildungsroman. However, it is clear that male bildungsroman is quite different from female bildungsroman in terms of protagonist’s aspirations. A male protagonist operates in the public domain, acquiring status by amassing wealth and experiencing the world through voyages, etc. On the other hand, a female protagonist limits her aspirations to the domestic domain, experiencing emotions, and trying to fit into the role of the angel in the house by proving to be a chaste wife, a dutiful daughter and a nurturing mother. Even the professional aspirations of a female protagonist are confined to the role of a governess, a trend quite common in the Victorian Europe. This can be seen in Jane Eyre too in which Jane acquires sufficient knowledge of those subjects and vocations that prepare her to gain financial independence by working as a governess for Adela at Rochester’s mansion at Thornfield.

In the new surroundings of Thornfield, Jane experiences what is probably at the heart of all bildungsroman, that is, love. Usually, in a bildungsroman, pure love is pitted against an unhealthy one to test the protagonist. In Jane Eyre, Jane’s love for Rochester is contrasted against a madwoman, Bertha Mason, and an upper class snob, Blanche Ingram, only to be put to a final test by St. John Rivers who insists Jane to marry him and move with him to India. Furthermore, as in all bildungsroman, towards the end of the novel, Jane has an epiphany in the form of a supernatural echo, which makes her realize where she ought to belong. However, the happy ending culminating in Jane’s reunion with a now blind and a humbler Rochester remains ambiguous; an ambiguity which is typical of a bildungsroman.

In conclusion, ‘Bildungsroman’, as seen in Jane Eyre charts out the development of the protagonist’s mind and character in the passage from childhood through various experiences into maturity and recognition of his/her role in the world. It also resolves the dialectical notions of vollen and sollen by taming a rebellious Jane into a sophisticated, God-fearing middle class woman who has acquired an inheritance by the end of the novel to ensure her financial security.


(c) Riya Payal 2016


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