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The Bildungsroman Tradition Undermined: "A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man" and "Great Expectations"

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In his 1987 study The Way of the World, literary scholar Franco Moretti states that the Bildungsroman “stands out as the most obvious of the (few) reference points available in that irregular expanse we call the “novel””. Indeed, while the reader may be unfamiliar with the term itself, which was coined by the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, the genre’s common motifs of education, growth, and formation are widely recognised as staples of the Western novelistic tradition. The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century in particular saw a keen interest in life stories, including Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861) and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), two novels that chronicle a process of self-discovery by which the protagonist comes to a deeper understanding of life through epiphanies and a gradual transition from childhood to maturity. However, while it is generally accepted that these texts fall under the Bildungsroman tradition, it is necessary to consider the contradictions and inconsistencies within both novels, including the seemingly incongruous manner in which the protagonists’ moral and intellectual development is paralleled by a curious loss of freedom and financial autonomy. Furthermore, the semi-autobiographical nature of these texts raise problematic questions relating to novelistic closure, with both protagonists’ moral journeys ending ambiguously. Throughout the course of both narratives, therefore, the reader’s expectations are continually confounded, casting doubt upon the assumption that Dickens and Joyce have produced clear-cut narratives of advancement and progress.

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With a deft and strikingly progressive focus on the sensibility of the child, the opening chapters of Dickens’ Great Expectations firmly establish the young Philip Pirrip’s identity and outline the social and emotional constraints placed upon the protagonist as a consequence of his struggle through childhood adversity, a principal characteristic of the Bildungsroman form. Orphaned at a young age and brought up “by hand” by his overbearing sister, Pip harbours a considerable degree of resentment, yet is haplessly unable to better himself due to his disadvantaged start in life. Indeed, after being taunted for his coarse clothing and manners by the beautiful Estella at Satis House, Pip reflects that, “Within myself, I had sustained, from my babyhood, a perpetual conflict with injustice. I had known, from the time when I could speak, that my sister, in her capricious and violent coercion, was unjust to me” [63]. Dickens augments this inward struggle by imbuing his text with a distinctly Gothic quality throughout, and Pip’s surroundings are continually shrouded in darkness – “Once more, the mists were rising as I walked away” [285] – thus reflecting the protagonist’s confusion and vulnerability in the face of an uncertain future. When Pip is driven to London by worldly expectations, therefore, it appears that the foundations have been laid for a gradual quest for self-fulfilment and social ascension, and the reader subsequently anticipates a “rags-to-riches” tale of personal development in line with the conventions of the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman.

Written over fifty years after the publication of Dickens’ text, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man develops the Bildungsroman tradition by utilising an innovative stream-of-consciousness narration, yet the protagonist emerges from similarly impoverished beginnings in a provincial Irish town. The intellectual and emotional challenges faced by Dickens’ Pip are echoed in the opening chapters by the young Stephen’s sense of bewilderment at the world, with Joyce depicting a similar conflict between generations – perpetuated by a father who is an embarrassing figure of slackness and ineptitude – as the source of the child’s resentment: “He was angry with himself for being young and the prey of restless foolish impulses, angry also with the change of fortune which was reshaping the world about him into a vision of squalor and insincerity” [50]. Indeed, Stephen’s struggle with isolation reaches a peak while accompanying his luckless father to Cork, where he feels the need to reassure himself by repeating, “I am Stephen Dedalus” [70], thus highlighting his continuous search for a concrete identity. The protagonist’s alienation from his father parallels his lack of faith in the values of his home, and Stephen must accordingly search for an alternative vocation and creed. From the opening chapters, therefore, Joyce seems to be preparing his readers for a formative novelistic journey of emancipation, consequently putting the developmental structure of the Bildungsroman into motion.

On the surface, the journey from provinciality to the metropolis, undertaken by both Pip and Stephen, signals a route to success and autonomy. However, these notions of social and professional advancement are problematised by the palpable decline in freedom experienced by the characters as a direct consequence of their moral development. For example, Great Expectations depicts Pip’s descent into an attitude of carelessness and snobbery that ultimately results in a religious paradox: in order to be cleansed, he must be defiled, and subsequently lose all he has. Accordingly, Pip’s fortune is taken away from him, and the protagonist is forced to return to a state of childlike helplessness. Invoking the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, Dickens strips Pip of his riches and wellbeing, ensuring that he must once again be nurtured by the kindly blacksmith, Joe. This calamitous turn of events exposes the contradiction at the heart of the novel: although Pip has gained emotional maturity, he has lost crucial elements of his adult identity, with his financial destitution symbolising his loss of freedom and independence.

Similar incongruities can be found in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen continually battles with feelings of isolation and entrapment even at pivotal moments in his personal growth. As a schoolboy at Clongowes, for example, he stands up to injustice and reports on the prefect of studies after he is treated unfairly. For the first time, Stephen is the subject of high esteem and is treated as a hero by his peers, yet he is uncomfortable with the situation and evidently feels “caged” by the adulation of his classmates: “They made a cradle of their locked hands and hoisted him up among them and carried him along till he struggled to break free” [44]. Even at this early stage of the novel, Stephen’s developing mind associates heroism and success with constraint, foreshadowing the continual feelings of confinement that he encounters as he reaches adulthood. This theme persists throughout the narrative, and despite experiencing developments in his artistic consciousness, Stephen remains alienated from others, as illustrated by his unease whilst among his peers in the classroom: “Stephen’s heart began slowly to fold and fade with fear like a withering flower” [82]. Evidently, the protagonist’s developing intellect is not analogous with a process of self-contentment, and Stephen, in spite of his growing consciousness as an artist, remains unfulfilled.

Moreover, several critics have noted the problematic issue of novelistic closure in the Bildungsroman, highlighting the various difficulties of concluding a semi-autobiographical life-story with conviction. The ending of Great Expectations, in particular, is a point of contention for many readers, and could be said to subvert the notion of life stories as congruous narratives of development and progress. After initially ending his protagonist’s story in a decidedly unromantic manner, Dickens was urged to write an alternate conclusion, which sees the adult Pip reunited with his first-love, Estella:

“I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw the shadow of no parting from her.” [482]

This somewhat anticlimactic conclusion undermines the moral journey undertaken by Pip, and the re-emergence of Estella (and the cynical opulence that she represents) in the protagonist’s life could be said to make a mockery of Pip’s process of redemption. As a semi-autobiographical account of Dickens’ own life, the uncertain ending to Great Expectations therefore exemplifies the difficulties associated with fusing fiction with autobiography, as the tensions between the novelistic elements and the intrusions of real-life experience are difficult to reconcile. Dickens is unable to end the text definitively, and, consequently, Pip cannot fully escape the shackles of his troubled childhood. Therefore, rather than being a tale of formation and development, Great Expectations could instead be regarded as a narrative about novelistic expectations, where readers’ anticipations are raised and subsequently defied.

A similarly ambiguous conclusion is found in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and despite Stephen’s formative decision to leave Ireland, the author does not attempt to disguise the incomplete nature of the artist’s development. Indeed, Stephen’s personal deficiencies are made clear even in the concluding chapter, which sees the protagonist often speaking erratically, “like a fellow throwing a handful of peas into the air” [195]. Like Dickens, Joyce is constrained by the semi-autobiographical nature of the text, and the novel’s inconclusive ending exposes Stephen’s deep shortcomings. Indeed, several critics have highlighted the undesirable elements of Stephen’s character, such as his lack of humour, with Hugh Kenner claiming that the reader’s first impulse on being confronted with the final edition of Stephen is to laugh: “we are not to accept the mode of Stephen’s “freedom” as the “message” of the book”. The tension between the protagonist’s intellectual development and the absence of a full, harmonious personality therefore undermines the notion that Stephen’s life story is one of true development and self-improvement.

Furthermore, throughout the course of both novels, the division between good and evil, reality and falsehood, becomes increasingly blurred, leading to what Moretti refers to as “an out and out paralysis of judgement”. While Pip initially perceives the world in fairly binary terms, his experiences in London, coupled with his subsequent encounter with his unlikely benefactor, Magwich, brings about the realisation that he has behaved more reprehensively than a convicted criminal: “I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe” [446]. In a similar vein, Stephen Dedalus repeatedly confuses fiction with reality, escaping from… by imagining himself as the hero in various literary works, including The Count of Monte Cristo. In a confusing and chaotic world of industrialisation and middle class progress, therefore, the gentlemanly “ideal” becomes increasingly difficult to define, and, thus, almost impossible to attain. Consequently, “happy endings” and linear narratives of progress are no longer feasible in novelistic form, as they are rarely found in real life.

Nevertheless, a preoccupation with the ambiguities of the Bildungsroman form runs the risk of completely neglecting the instances when true progress does occur, and it is important to note that the protagonists of both novels are each informed by striking moments of insight. For the adult Pip, this formative moment occurs upon his return to Satis House, where he recognises the futility of his life of privilege and his subsequent need for spiritual renewal: “O Miss Havisham… my life has been a blind and thankless one; and I want forgiveness and direction far too much, to be bitter with you” [398]. However, the intense euphoria caused by an epiphany is most poignantly relayed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen’s perception of a bird-like young girl wading in the sea prompts a revelation that is akin to a spiritual experience:

“Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy. He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling. On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him” [132].

The term “advent”, with its clear religious connotations, augments the gravity of this moment of epiphany, and his initiation into a new mode of creative thought is reflected in the form of the diary entry that comprises the final section of Joyce’s novel (“Mother indulgent. Said I have a queer mind and have read too much”. Not true.”). This shift from the third-person narration to a first-person voice mirrors Stephen’s transition from passivity to assertiveness, suggesting that, despite his shortcomings in other aspects of his life, he is gradually discovering his true vocation as an artist. Through his skilful experimentation with different narrative forms to detail his pioneering artistic vision, Joyce therefore transforms, even as he follows, the Bildungsroman genre.

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In conclusion, it is clear that these two novels form an essential part of the Bildungsroman tradition. While Dickens’ Great Expectations chronicles the moral growth of the protagonist within a rapidly changing industrialised world, Joyce focuses almost exclusively on the subjective consciousness of Stephen Dedalus in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, thereby presenting the reader with an alternative, more innovative, picture of personal formation and development. However, these novels do not present a completely linear narrative of progress, and neither Pip nor Stephen can be adequately defined as “heroic” by the end of their stories. Their respective moral and intellectual growth results in a paradoxical loss of freedom, thereby raising pertinent questions about the true nature of their development. Nonetheless, both writers’ compelling accounts of the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood ensures that the reader undergoes a similar formative process, and the complexities of the Bildungsroman genre that these texts expose essentially epitomise the organic and multifaceted nature of the western novel.

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