Tag Archives: bildungsroman

Thomas Hardy – Jude the Obscure (1895-6)

Hardy’s last novel is also his most dense, sparse and brutal. Country bumpkin Jude Fawley (pun on folly) aspires to be an Oxford don, but because of liquor and a weakness for women, as he calls it, ends up marrying Arabella Donn (yes, pun intended), who snags him by lying about being pregnant. Their marriage breaks up over the slaughtering of a pig: Jude refuses to bleed it slowly because of his affection for animals.  Arabella moves to Australia, and Jude moves to Christminster, where he studies hard plies his trade of stone-cutting; he is refurbishing the inside of a cathedral, much like Hardy himself did. He meets Sue Bridehead, a cousin, whom is Aunt Drusilla has expressly told him to avoid. According to her, there is a curse ont he family that makes all wedlock something to be avoided. Jude unintentionally brings her together with his old idol Richard Phillottson, whom Sue agrees to marry. But not before she breaks out of her training school to meet Jude, etc. etc. She marries him but is immediately unhappy, as Jude knew she would be. She leaves with Phillottson’s consent and goes to Jude. But they don’t marry. Arabella has returned (a drunken night ended in Jude sleeping with her once again), and though she is married to a certain Cartell, she informs Jude that she had a child from him, whose name is Father Time. Sue and Jude raise him. They are happy for a while, but never get married (for a fear of the legal bond that would destroy their natural love). Cast out by society, they return eventually to Christminster, where they can’t fin lodging. Father Time (little Jude) kills Sue’s two children and hangs himself because they were “too menny.” Sue goes crazt and becomes religious. She remarries Richard. Jude eventually remarries Arabella. Jude dies, and Arabella is looking for a new man before he is cold.

Critique of the bildungsroman: In short, a systematic subversion of the meritocratic presumptions of the 19th-century bildungsroman.

The letter killeth: This is referring to the letter of the law, but it reverberates in two other significations: Jude carves letters, he etches things like the ten commandments in stone [not sure to connect this..perahps through ideas of permanence?]; Sue writes through letters that express her more free self…that is, her letters allow for the sort of split personality that gets their tragic romance off the ground.

Natural vs. Legal vs. Spiritual: The rather simple notion of a contract in Casterbridge is complicated here. According to the demands of the plot, it functions in one of these tree ways: it effectively empties marriage of its symbolic status and it becomes a device for refracting the various social and religious dogmas that exist in the text.

Fate/Tragic: Yes, Jude and Sue do seem to be beaten about by external circumstances, but they also have an awareness of the tragic from which the consciously draw to make sense of their circumstances. Locating the cause and effect is difficult (making this a proto-modernist text), because the textual allusiveness takes on a force that becomes constitutive of plot itself. Jude exclaims that Sue is “enslaved to forms,” and while that applies, the moment to her rigid adherence to religious forms, it could apply, also to the early moments in the text, when her unconventionality is precisely that which the 19th-century novel needs in order for it to grind along and grind down those excesses necessary for conclusion.

Architecture: The normal descriptions of the Wessex landscape give way, in this novel, to a focus on architecture–above all, architecture in transition. Most obviously, cathedrals are being retrofitted in gothic fashion (Sue wishes Jude had been trained in the classic way–can relate this Ruskin, how the democracy of the Gothic has itself become a form that can be imposed, artificially, on the crumbling remnants of a social order.) But domestic interiors also have an incongruous feel: oak wainscot contrasts with the brass bed stand and the birch furniture. The two styles “nod to each other across three centuries upon the shaking floor” (282).

The University: Needs to be contextualized within Hardy’s own personal history: an auto-didactic that could never quite shake off the image of the rustic…he would try to write urban novels only to be driven by the market to stay within the confines of his Wessex.

Animals: Both Sue and Jude are kind to animals (birds, pigs, rabbits), which distinguishes them most clearly from Arabella, and her father, who run a pork business. The obvious reading is that it demonstrates Jude and Sue’s desire to extricate themselves from the cycle of nature that characterize the “quite desperation” of all those that blithely accept the conventions foisted on them by “culture.” Yet, in so doing, they implicate themselves in a different cycle of literary reduplication that condemns them to misery–moral: resisting the cruelty inherent to man’s existence will just make you the object of that very cruelty. 

Loving-kindness: The term that Hardy associates with the sort of lowest common denominator of human sympathy–and capacity to narrate–in his 1922 poetic “Apology.” In the context of Jude,


Charles Dickens – Great Expectations (1860-1)

The orphan Pip is brought up by his sister and her husband Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. One night Pip encounters a convict in the cemetry, and he does him an act of kindness which the convict, who will turn out to be Magwitch, Mr. Provis and Mr. Campbell all in one, will never forget. He soon goes to Miss Havisham’s house to be a playmate with Estella. He starts to become ashamed of himself and his lower-cultured childhood friends. He becomes and apprentice with Joe, and works alongside Orlick, who is a sort of double that plays out all the crimes that Pip almost commits but never does. [An instance of shadowing the protagonist with doubles, sorta like Bertha Rochester and Jane Eyre.] Pip receives an inheritance (via Jaggers) from an unknown source, but he assumes it is from Miss Havisham. This enacts the processes of accumulation that correlate with the field of desire associated with Miss Havisham.  But he soon gets into debt and it is revealed that Abel Magwitch–and it is further revealed that he is the father of Estella (her mother is Molly, Jagger’s housemaid). Pip tells Havisham this story, she stands to close the fire and dies from her injuries, despite Pip’s attempts to save her. Magwitch is arrested and dies; Pip is about to be put into debtor’s prison, but he gets sick, and then is nursed back to health by Joe. He returns to Joe’s home, where they have had a child named Pip [cf. Sydney Carton at the end of Tale]. He visits Stalis house, where he meets Estella. It’s ambiguous whether they marry or not.


Guilt vs. desire – One can frame Pip’s two worlds according to this tension. Pip is marked by guilt from the very beginning, as his actual inheritance. The world of desire, or lack, is associated with Havisham and Estella. Cognitively adjusting to the knowledge that his inheritance comes from guilt rather than desire entails a confrontation with a world of crime that does not square with the tenants of individuality and subjectivity he had adopted in the middle part of the book. Rather, crime seems somehow universal: Magwitch somehow emerges from the landscape, he is an atmosphere of sorts. Pip himself will toggle between these two spheres.

Is Pip being a bad reader because he has not yet grown up? (structure of dramatic irony to deal with how these things can be known at all) Contrast this with Maisie (does not give signification, only registers impressions). As an example of better reading by way of negative contrast: Magwitch shows Pip how he acted poorly towards Joe. But where do we locate this knowledge?

In David Copperfield, the impetus to give full signification (retrospective and fully) is the same impulse as in Great Expectation (Pip as narrator does know things that phenomena subject does not know) but sometimes we just get the narrated Pip and we see his ignorance negatively. In the end, Pip the narrator and narrated converge but there is not a full knowledge. Indeed, the reduplication of Pip as a young boy points to the “bad infinity” that could ensue: the second Pip is able to effectively truncate the narrative with a new beginning. And to the degree that “family” is posited as a source of final cohesion, it should be noted that Pip is excised from that family.

Two ends in Great Expectation: 1. very clear that Estella and Pip don’t get married 2.  you don’t know whether they get married or not, structurally undecideable.

More broadly: Can think of Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope as obsessed with evidentiary character of narration, must give an account fo how the narrative has come into being. On the other hand, Eliot, Hardy and James fully accept the arbitrary nature of the narrative–they can’t justify it, so they just start. [in Hardy in particular, one has the sense that anyone walking along a road could furnish the novelist with a story]


Georg Lukács – The Theory of the Novel (1920, 2nd edition 1962)

The famous Preface begins with the anecdote concerning “individual, concreate acts of heroism,” which, in 1920, Lukács thought masked the violence of the total system of war. He asks, “Who will save us from Western Civilization?” Theory of the Novel was therefore written in a tone of despair, but also one of utopian hope. Indeed, Lukács claims that his early work was by no means conservative, but that its subversive nature was grounded on an entirely naive conception of utopia’s emergence form the rubble of capitalism. Such a view tips over into conformism, a conformism of which he directly accuses Adorno and others: they have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss,”

a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered. (22)

It should be noted that the grounds of accusation revolve around a certain relation to food, taste, and subtlety. Adorno has supposedly succumbed to the very dilettantism he accuses the vulgar philistine of.

He distinguishes integrated and problematic civilizations. The current civilization is problematic (appropriate to the novel), while the Greek civilization was integrated (appropriate to the epic). Similar to Bakhtin, the novel is given the burden of strictly miming the “ruptural totality” of contemporary worlds. The epic is the genre of childish immaturity while the novel is the genre of virile maturity (71)–that is, it is capable of soberly reviewing the homelessness of it factical position.

The novel, as an assertive, form-giving endeavor, runs a double risk: either it does not fulfill the minimally sufficient demands of the form, or it is too coherent, closing the circle of signification too soon or too tightly (72).

Indeed, the novel always risks the bad infinity of pure mimesis: it therefore must assert the form of biography, submitting the subject matter to confines of a life. [Connect this to Brooks argument about Freud’s master-plot, and also to the idea of Victorian literature marking out its historical contours according to the life of Queen Victoria.]

The mode of all novels is irony. It is the form of reflecting on itself. This need for reflection is the novel’s “deepest melancholy.” Put otherwise, “Te novel is the epic of a world abandoned by God.” Irony is able to negative render those spaces from which God has withdrawn. It is a negative mysticism. Irony is the highest freedom that can be attained in a world abandoned by God. (93).





Elizabeth Barret Browning – Aurora Leigh (1856)

A Verse-Novel that strains to the condition of a modern epic. According to Browning, “The poem I am about will fill a volume when done. It is…written in blank verse, in the autobiographical form; the heroine, an artist woman–not a painter, mind. It is intensely modern, crammed from the times (not the ‘Times’ newspaper) as far as my strength will allow.” The narrative is simple: Aurora Leigh, born in Italy, becomes an orphan at a young age and is shipped back to England to be raised by her conventional aunt, who discourages her artistic endeavors. At the age of 21, her cousin Romney asks her to marry him and also to give up her poetic enterprise in order to fight contemporary social evils. Aurora declines, claiming equal importance for her art. At book 5, the narrative shifts to the theme of writing itself. Aurora eventually hears that Romney has decided to marry the indigent Marian Erle, but she stands him up on the wedding day. Aurora runs into her and hears her violent story, takes her and her child to Italy, where the now blind Romney eventually meets them. In the much more novelistic conclusion, Aurora and Romney marry.

Mixes all genres together, including lyric, epic and novel. Browning is self-conscious about the formlessness of the poem–“I’m writing like a poet, somewhat large” (Henry James would call it “muddy,” Woolf would call it absurd but exhilarating):

What form is best for poems? Let me think
Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit…
Inward evermore
To outward–so in life, and so in art
Which still is life. (v.223-228)

The closing bars of the poem are particularly novelistic, as if the novel becomes necessary for the consolidation of the lyric. Can talk about the end as a zone of poetic emergency, to use Agamben’s terms. Coincides with the conventional marriage (similar endings in David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1852), North and South (1854)). Do we consider this coda as extra-diagetic? How can we realte this mixing of genres to Bakhtin’s heteroglossia on the one hand, and Lukacs theory of epic on other other? One can at least ay that there is no simple one-to-one relationship between the subject and the world…rather, the soul is amalgamation of many experiences across a diachronic axis:

A palimpsest, a prophet’s holograph
Defiled, erased and covered by a monk’s–
The apocalypse, by a Longus! poring on
Which obscene text, we may discern perhaps
Some fair, fine trace of what was written once,
Some upstroke of an alpha and omega
Expressing the old scripture. (i.826-32)

That which has been overwritten and must be uncovered by more writing is precisely that element of life which the work of art is able to convey, create, or hold. The question this poem asks: how can a poem hold a charge of life? How can it represent without killing (perhaps in this posing an answer to the question of “The Kraken”). We can begin to talk of an ethics of NOT REDUCING. This entails a certain vitalism that detaches LIFE from any particular subject, and redistributes it to all the objects of the outside world. Life is in everything: “Life’s violent flood / Abolished bounds–and, which my neighbor’s field, / Which mine, what mattered?”

                                             Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava song
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
Behold–behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets our beating: this is living art,
Which thus presents and thus records true life.’ (v.216-221)

This is manages a convergence of lyric and epic–a brush so close with materiality that we forget we are looking at it…so now brute materiality brushes with infinity in the zone of maximal contact with the present.

John Stuart Mill

What is Poetry? (1830)

– Poetry is not metrical composition. (4)
– What makes poetry is felt. (5)
– Stories are more primitive, poetry is more advanced and mature (7)
– Poetry does not conjure the real, but it conjures a displacement of the real. (8)
Eloquence is heard, Poetry is overheard (12)
– Poet supplements the real with spontaneous imagination (20)
– Oratory/narrative/poetry


On Liberty (1859)

Mill puts for the counterintuitive requirement of government not to protect the interest of the majority only, but also to protect the interest of the minority: “protection against the tendency of society to impose, but other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them” (9). The appropriate region of human liberty is 1. the inward domain of consciousness 2. tastes and pursuits 3. to unite with other individuals for any purpose not involving harm to others. (18).

The mode of argument is strangely Darwinian: if minority opinions are repressed (represented as heresy) then culture will not be able to grow and evolve. Society, in other words, depends on these mutations. Thus individuality must be protected because it fulfills the role of sexual selection and proliferation: “The initiation os all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual” (82). On the other hand, thought and discussion serve as regulative activities, much like natural selection. “It is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied” (65). Indeed, Mill goes so far to declare the act of non serviam, the “mere example of nonconformity,” as an act of “service” (83).

Mill’s worries look forward to Hardy’s worries about an homogenized affective steady-state, and also to Nietzsche’s concerns with the stoical “acting according to nature” which results in our being metabolized by natural forces of decay:

The demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves,  grows by what it feeds on. if resistance waits till life is reduced to nearly on uniform type, all deviations from that type will come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature. Mankind speedily becomes unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it. (91)

This conflation of biologic and cultural diversity (or not) is picked up again in much of the vitalist philosophy of the early 20th-century. But Mill stays focused on the State (of England) as the crucial object of critique. He worries that a commitment to efficient social “machinery” is repressing the innate human capacity to think and live freely. The value of a state is comprised by the individuals in the state—they are the chief end. If they are sacrificed for the sake of state machine, then the vital energy required for that machine to run will be sapped away. Again, relate to Nietzsche, in which knowledge depends on life, even if it is opposed to it.


Autobiography (1873)

Opens with an extensive account of his education as conducted by his father, under the aegis of Benthamite utilitarianism. Cultivated exclusivity as means of avoiding the vulgar influences of other boys. Feeling was denigrated, as was imagination, and therefore poetry was not valued. From this Mill learned to never accept half-solution (an interesting intervention into the language of “half” that pervades poetics from Wordsworth through Tennyson). But all this led to a “Crisis in my Mental Life,” that led to Wordsworth and Coleridge and his subsequent salvation. From this he developed his theory of indirect happiness, based on Carlyle’s idea of “anti-self-consciousness.”

 I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it a direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of other,on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as means, but as itself and ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. (92)

Indeed, Mill goes on to reject any system except that which acknowledge “the system” to be far more complex than we could ever hope to understand (104). But he nevertheless accepts an historical system of organic vs. critical eras. It seems as if his current period is one of transition: “when old notions and feelings have been unsettled, and no new doctrines have yet succeeded their ascendancy” (162). The development into an organic era depends on culture to educate the masses into a system that no longer divides along class lines–in which private property becomes coextensive with a socialist ideal. Mill connects this with the division between Intuition and Experience or Association. The latter, he claims, is more conducive to a politics of reform.

Interesting to think of Autobiography as a Bildungsroman of sorts…with JS Mill being the exact opposite of an orphan. He becomes both the giver and the receiver of education, without the sort of temporal trickery that allow sDavid Copperfield to be both subject and object of his story.

Autobiography, The Library of Liberal Arts (Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, 1976)