The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man. These are novels familiar to most people. They all can be classified as bildungsroman novels and all share a key aspect: they are centered around boys becoming men. So where are the stories about girls becoming women?
The existence of the female bildungsroman genre -- sometimes called the frauenroman -- has been debated amongst scholars and feminists alike with a blurred resolution. Does the genre stray from the patterns of the male bildungsroman? What are its definitive characteristics? Are there enough works written about women, by women, to create a sub-category in the bildungsroman genre? These are all questions that arise because results are limited when investigating the “female bildungsroman.”
Many investigations into the female bildungsroman take on a feminist critique. In the 1970s, feminist critics used the term “female bildungsroman” to describe coming-of-age stories featuring female protagonists. These feminist critics analyzed nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women novelists’ portrayal of young women as they matured. The female bildungsromane of these times depicted the “suppression and defeat of female autonomy, creativity, and maturity by patriarchal gender norms” (Lazzaro-Weis 17). This portrayal was fitting for the Victorian woman, who struggled with the expectation of social accomplishments and wifehood defining her entire being. Female development was a topic in literature that proved especially difficult to describe because of the social constrictions of the time. Writing the development of a female protagonist as parallel to a male lead character during this time period would have meant describing a girl undergoing personal development through education, growth, and citizenry (Maier 319). Even though this approach was radical, it was not nonexistent; it is embodied in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
In Brontë’s classic, which is possibly the first widely known female bildungsroman, the female protagonist experiences personal development beyond that of social and economic status. Brontë’s novel was controversial at the time it was published not only because of the unknown identity of the author (Brontë published it under the pseudonym “Currer Bell”), but also because it depicts an orphaned girl receiving an education, thus shattering the strict class boundaries of the time (Watkins). It also recounts the internal development and growth process of a Victorian woman. However, Jane’s path in the novel differs from other female bildungsromane of the time, ones which some feminist critics say depict women as “growing down instead of growing up.” Women writers of the bildungsroman genre tend to describe the female experience as dealing more with nostalgia, loss, home and community, and the generation gap between mothers and their daughters (Lazzaro-Weis 21).
Despite stark differences in the development of men and women, the two genders of the bildungsroman have clear similarities. Among these similarities are the protagonist’s involvement in his or her own development, self-reflection and introspection, and reintegration into society (Maier 318-319). Rather than being the opposite of bildungsromane novels with male protagonists, the female bildungsroman is seen as an “extension” of the traditional coming-of-age genre (Maier 320). Even though male protagonists are more common in the bildungsroman genre, works such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre have been widely recognized as notable novels despite the use of female main characters. It is because of these works that female writers and the development of female protagonists in the bildungsroman genre have continued throughout centuries. Early works by female authors in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries paved the way for female protagonists to take a key role in today’s culture. Contemporary works that could be considered female bildungsromane include Twilight by Stephenie Meyer; Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.
While the change in gender of the protagonist in the bildungsroman altered the norm of the genre, the shift of norms in society altered the topics covered by female writers. Female bildungsromane in contemporary literature and film are able to explore issues that those of the past were unable to mention. Sexuality, higher education, and other aspects of society that were once off-limits to female writers (particularly when writing about women) are now described and explored extensively because of the shift in cultural norms. For example, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret depicts a young girl going through puberty and includes her thoughts on bodily changes. Also, Anderson’s Speak explores life in the high school environment and centers on the theme of rape. These topics are now open in society for discussion, allowing the female bildungsroman genre to grow and develop.
However, key components to the stories of coming-of-age have endured. The most popular one is the inclusion of a love story as part of a girl’s growing up. While works of previous centuries centered on marriage as the conclusion, many contemporary works still incorporate romantic relationships as a key component of the protagonist’s development. Contemporary female bildungsromane are still seemingly not complete when only focusing on self-realization and exploration of oneself. A connection, particularly a romantic one, to another person is almost always included.
the existence of female bildungsroman works, differences in the
development of men and women have been explored. However, the
similarities in growth of characters in both traditional and female
bildungsroman show that the latter is simply an extension of the genre
rather than an antithesis. The two genders may not be completely
identical in their comings-of-age, but the emotions and lessons learned
by them are very similar. The fact that female writers are now given
more range in their subject matter allows these similarities to be
further identified and analyzed.
Lazzaro-Weis, Carol. "The Female ‘Bildungsroman’: Calling It into Question." NWSA Journal 2.1 (1990): 16-34. JSTOR. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.
Maier, S. E. (2007). Portraits of the Girl-Child: Female Bildungsroman in Victorian Fiction. Literature Compass, 4(1), 317–335.
Watkins, Susan. "Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)." Encyclopedia of the Novel. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2013.