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The Female Bildungsroman: A Critical Overview


If adolescence for boys represents a rite of passage (much celebrated in the Western
literature in the form of the Bildungsroman), and an ascension to some version (however
attenuated) of social power, for girls, adolescence is a lesson in restraint, punishment, and
Judith Halberstam,

From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the Invisible Man, from Great Expectations to the
Funny Boy, they are novels the literary world are quite familiar with. 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?

Before that, what exactly is meant by the genre Bildungsroman? It is a literary genre that
focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood
(coming of age) carrying episodes of realisations and reflections and the resultant maturity
that follows. A point worth noting is that the origin of Bildungsroman as a distinctive genre
came about in the mid 19th century i.e. the Victorian age. So the paper is going to discuss the
female Bildungsroman and its evolution over time and where it has come too.

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.

19th century England - a world of progress and reform, discovery and innovation,
industrialization and social upheavalwitnessed intense debate about the position of women
in society. It was this century of change that heard controversies about a wifes right to own
property, staged arguments about a mothers right to custody of her children and ownership
of her body, and saw the birth of the movement for womens suffrage. This was also the era of
the professional woman writer, a time in which women demanded a place alongside men in
the world of letters to contribute to cultural discourse, to make their opinions heard, and to
tell their own stories. Lets find out how womens use of writing in the 19th century became a
powerful tool to promote social change and to take control of their lives, to make their voices
heard outside the domestic confines of the home, and to alter their positions within the social
order. The 19th century was an era of reform. It was during the Victorian period that Britain
made significant steps toward expanding its citizens rights. But despite a series of reform
bills, women were continually excluded from these social liberties. They could not hold
political office, nor could they vote. It was the Victorian era that saw the first petitions to
Parliament for womens suffrage, beginning in the 1860s. However, it wasnt until 1918 that
British women over 30 would finally be given the vote, and they were not given full voting

rights equal to men until 1928. Legal restrictions for women concerned more than the right to
vote. Until the Married Womens Property Act of 1870, which allowed women to be rightful
owners of the money they earned or inherited, all a womans property belonged to her
husband (the principle known as coverture). It wasnt until 1882 that married women were
allowed the same full rights over their property as unmarried women. Furthermore, marriage
was more binding for women than it was for men. Whereas men could divorce their wives for
adultery, a woman had to also prove that her husbands adultery was combined with cruelty,
bigamy, incest, or bestiality (1857 Matrimonial Causes Act). Alongside these legal restrictions,
education and employment opportunities for women were extremely limited. Almost all
colleges and universities only accepted men. It wasnt until the 1860s and 70s that Oxford
and Cambridge finally opened colleges for women. However, despite such restrictions, lower
class women were working long hours in factories. Such incongruence fueled debate about
womens natural and social roles. Legal and social restrictions made it difficult for women to
easily take on literary careers. However, many women responded to such restrictions be
actively arguing against them in print. Women increasingly wrote pamphlets and articles
defending their right to social and legal equality. Feminism was born out of a frustration with
a social situation that became more evidently unfair and untenable in such a rapidly changing
world. Despite rigid gender roles that emphasized a womans proper place in the home (the
domestic sphere), 19th century British women confidently took up the pen to write their own
stories. Whether domestic fiction or social commentary, childrens poetry or political
pamphlets, women took advantage of the huge increase in print production in the Victorian
era to make their voices heard. Early in the century, Jane Austen, in her last novel, Persuasion
(1818), heralded the arrival of a more confident female literary force. In a conversation
between her heroine, Anne Elliot, and Captain Harville about womens inconstancy and
fickleness, Anne defends her sex against prevailing literary stereotypes:

No reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own
story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their
hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.

The conversation is overheard by Austens hero, Captain Wentworth, who is busy writing a
declaration of love to Anne. Only a few lines earlier, Austen has Wentworth accidentally drop
his pen. The pen is no longer confined to mens hands. Women writers like Austen took up
their own pens and were, throughout the 19th century, confidently telling their own story.

The female Bildungsroman is, in some ways, a contradiction in terms. Novels about the
transition from girlhood to womanhood have historically been more about growing down, in
Annis Pratts famous phrase, than growing up; they show their heroines learning to conform to
gender norms rather than discovering themselves as individuals. Even if the novels contain
subversive middles, showing us girls who run and play like boys and harbor ambitions for
achievement or fame, they generally end rather depressingly with marriage and
subservience, the heroines renouncing all of their earlier dreams.

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 19th- and early 20 th -century
women novelists portrayal of young women as they matured. The female Bildungsroman 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 Bronts Jane Eyre.

In Bronts classic, which is possibly the first widely known female Bildungsroman, the female
protagonist experiences personal development beyond that of social and economic status.
Bronts novel was controversial at the time it was published not only because of the
unknown identity of the author (Bront 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, Janes path in the novel differs from other female
Bildungsroman of the time, ones which some feminist critics say depict women as growing
down instead of growing up (as previously mentioned). 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 protagonists
involvement in his or her own development, self-reflection and introspection, and
reintegration into society (Maier 318-319). Rather than being the opposite of Bildungsroman
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 Plaths The Bell Jar and Charlotte
Bronts 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 18th , 19th , and 20th centuries paved the way for female
protagonists to take a key role in todays culture.

Throughout 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.

A few distinctions are noteworthy though. Firstly, the male Bildungsroman usually begins in
childhood, whereas fictions of female development (with a few exceptions) begin when the
protagonist is older and has already married and perhaps given birth; her self-development is
then motivated by her feeling frustrated with her life as it is. Secondly, unlike the young boy,
most female protagonists do not receive formal schooling. The critics contend that [e]ven
those directly involved in formal education do not significantly expand their options, but learn
instead to consolidate their female nurturing roles rather than to take a more active part in
the shaping of society (Abel et al). Consequently, there is a marked gender difference as
regards formal education and position in society: the heroines place is still in the home.
Thirdly, the male hero has the possibility to leave his home in quest for an independent life in
the city, an option usually not available to the female heroine. However, if she does have the
chance to leave home, her aim is still not to explore or to learn how to be independent, like

her male counterpart. Fourthly, the two love affairs/sexual encounters, one positive the other
negative, that the male protagonist should experience as a minimum requirement, is not an
option for the female protagonist: Even one such affair, no matter how exalting, would assure
a womans expulsion from society (Abel et al). Paradoxically, what is seen as beneficial to the
young mans emotional and moral development, would result in punishment for the young
woman in the shape of ostracism from social life. Lastly, when the male heros reaches the
end of his spiritual and psychological journey he is a mature man; by then he has made the
resolution to accommodate to the world, or alternately to withdraw from it or rebel against it.

In contrast, the female protagonist does not have the same choices, as her only option is to
concentrate on her internal world rather than engaging with society. Moreover, the price she
might have to pay for psychological development is a loss of social life, the authors claim.
Even if allowed spiritual growth, female protagonists who are barred from public experience
must grapple with a pervasive threat of extinction (Abel et al). The cost for self-development
is remarkably higher for the female protagonist; although the young man might experience
painful soul-searching before he reaches maturity (Buckley), a woman not only experiences
the threat of social isolation but also of death.

Also, Labovitz study The Myth of the Heroine: the Female Bildungsroman in the Twentieth
Century focuses on the heretofore missing female heroine in the Bildungsroman genre, and
thus on the development of the female protagonist. She lists a number of characteristics of
the female novel of development: self-realization, inner and outer directedness, education,
career, sex roles, attitude toward marriage, philosophical questions, religious crisis and
autobiographical elements, which testify to the different developmental process of the
female protagonist. Although there are common themes in the male and female
Bildungsroman, such as relationships to family and friends, formal/informal education,
sexuality/love and the overall goal of self-development, there is a marked gender difference
between the aims of the spiritual and psychological quest of the male hero and female
heroine respectively, which needs to be recognized and realized in a proper (re)definition of
the Bildungsroman genre. Labovitz claims that another gender difference is that [e]very male
hero of the Bildungsroman is guided by a mentor; something that the female heroine rarely
acquires. Lacking proper guidance in life by a mentor, in contrast to her male counterpart
who has reached the end of his journey as well as important career choices when he is but a
young man, the female protagonists developmental quest is both procrastinated and
prolonged into middle age. Consequently, the female Bildungsroman requires expansion
beyond the point when the heroine is married, for up until this point of maturation the heroine
has no sharp delineation of her self or her role, taking her identity from the man she marries,
and wavering between self-narrowing and growth. In contrast to the male hero who has
modelled himself on his mentor, the female protagonist, lacking a representative model, has
not yet found her role in society by the time she marries when still a young woman. As she
has not yet found her own identity but instead models herself on her husband, thus hesitating
between narrowing and developing her self, the female protagonists growth continues well
beyond matrimony. The theme of role models hence reveals clear gender differences between
the male and the female Bildungsroman. A third difference between the male and the female
Bildungsroman concerns the issue of gender and sexual inequality. Labovitz highlights the fact
that patriarchy plays a rather significant role in the female Bildungsroman, as well as the
heroines repudiation of male power. Consequently, the theme of equality between sexes
is one sharply raised in the female Bildungsroman, alone. Whereas gender equality is a major
concern in the female novel of development exclusively, the male hero, in contrast, will
grapple with social equality; by means of his vocation the male protagonist starts to climb
the social ladder, while his female counterpart rebels against the structure of society and its

injustices. Drawing parallels to this essays epigraph by Halberstam, it follows that the male
adolescent has a freedom of career choice that the young woman lacks. For instance, while it
is more often than not self-evident in the male Bildungsroman that the protagonist should go
to university to pursue his career, this option is not as a rule available to his female
counterpart. Upon realizing existing gender injustices the female protagonist, if she rebels
against societal norms, risks punishment in the form of social ostracism. Moreover, there is a
marked gender difference between the male and the female Bildungsroman as far as
sexuality is concerned. Labovitz, as well as Abel et al, note that the male protagonist is
expected to defy societal norms in his sexual initiation. However, if a female protagonist
would venture to do the same, she would be ostracized from society for rebelling against her
assigned female role. Although sexual initiation is a necessary step of the male heros
development and thus important in the male Bildungsroman, issues related to sexuality and
sex roles, Labovitz observes, are dealt with predominantly in the female equivalent. As a
consequence, the theme of sex roles must be included in a definition of the female
Bildungsroman because it helps to distinguish it from the male variant; whereas this aspect is
considered a dilemma in the female Bildungsroman, it is rarely perceived as problematic in its
male counterpart. Another difference is that while formal schooling is an actual possibility for
the male protagonist, the female heroine often has no choice but to educate herself, which is
a way of getting access to the external world. A feature characteristic of the female
Bildungsroman is, according to Labovitz, the heroines, loss of self, efforts to gain control
over their own minds, to win their freedom without hindrance, and to further their self-
development. In contrast to the male protagonist, the female heroine has to regain a sense
of self that was lost in childhood. Unlike him, she also has to gain her freedom in order for her
spiritual and psychological growth to be successful. It is noteworthy that the heroines search
for selfhood is more often than not completed either in solitude, or in the company of other
women. If she chooses the latter option, the model of the female community offers an
alternative form of intimacy grounded in gender identification, according to Felski. By
socialising with other women, by modelling herself on other female figures, the young heroine
acquires increased self-knowledge; not only her lost sense of self but also a gendered identity.
In her concluding chapter Labovitz approaches a definition of the female Bildungsroman,
which follows a female protagonist from her adolescence to maturity focusing mainly on
friendship and family, education and career, love and marriage. Like her male counterpart,
the female protagonist, in her search for self-development and self-knowledge, goes through
experiences that are both necessary and desirable. Unlike the male hero, however, the female
heroines quest for growth takes place under completely different circumstances: Bildung
would function from her life experience rather than from a priori lessons to be learned,
Labovitz maintains. Instead of learning by reason, by basing decisions on previous knowledge,
like the male hero, the female protagonist grows by learning from life itself. According to
Labovitz, a defining characteristic of the female Bildungsroman, is thus that Bildung takes a
greater toll from [sic] the heroine in that she embarks upon a quest of self-discovery, of
discovering things she has known but cannot yet act upon. The female protagonists search
for self-knowledge has a more negative effect on her because she feels burdened by social
injustices, as she cannot yet take action to solve the problems. However, once she discovers
her identity and place in society, then she can begin to develop. Her journey towards self-
realization will be promoted or hampered by her self-education and ideological testing. Here I
find that it is somewhat unclear in Labovitzs discussion what the major differences between
the respective growth processes of the male hero and the female heroine are. It is possible
that Labovitz wants to emphasize that as the female protagonist in general embarks upon her
quest later in life than the male protagonist, she has accumulated more (negative)
experiences than he has; among other things, she has typically experienced a marriage and

most likely childbirth. It is also possible that Labovitz wants to highlight another significant
gender difference: whereas the typical hero has modelled himself on a mentor, the typical
heroine has modelled herself on her husband and thus has not yet found her identity.
Consequently her quest is procrastinated. Being a female, the heroine feels burdened by the
inequalities between the sexes that she becomes aware of, which does not bother the hero to
the same extent. Experiencing a double burden, the heroine must leave social issues open,
temporarily anyway, as her primary goal is to find her self. Hence, it is essentially circular,
while the heros is spiral, that is, more straightforward.

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
Bildungsroman 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? Its Me, Margaret depicts a young girl going through puberty and includes her
thoughts on bodily changes. Also, Andersons 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 girls 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 protagonists development. Contemporary
female Bildungsroman 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.

Of course, the most beloved womens novels toy with the genres conventions. Take Jane Eyre
for one with its rebellious heroine and weakened hero, who come together in the end as
equals; A common ending for the female Bildungsroman, especially for the wilful heroine who
refuses to conform, has been death, either as punishment or protest; Yet some began rather
than ended with marriage, rightly acknowledging that many 19th-century women married
before, not after, they had achieved maturity, and that the search for self did not always end
on the wedding day.

Today the Bildungsroman remains an important genre for women writers, particularly as
women continue to explore possibilities opened up thanks to modern feminist activism. But it
would be wrong to assume the genre has only recently come into its own. The 19th century is
full of varied examples that were relegated to virtual obscurity not only for their historical
significance but also for the diverse forms of artistry they display. They also offer all of the
joys of challenging convention that our old favourites do. The movement to recover womens
voices of the past has waned somewhat in recent years. Of all of the genres women have
written in, the female Bildungsroman is one of the most important for it often grows out of
the authors own lived experiences, providing a map to where womens lives have been, and
where they are going.

Works Cited-

Abel, Elizabeth, Hirsch, Marianne and Langland Elizabeth, Eds. The Voyage In: Fictions
of Female Development. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1983.
Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to
Golding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.
Felski, Rita. Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change.
Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity (1998), pp. 935-954. In Rivkin, Julie and Ryan,
Michael, Eds. Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Lazzaro-Weis, Carol. "The Female Bildungsroman: Calling It into Question." NWSA
Journal 2.1 (1990): 16-34. JSTOR. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.
Labovitz, Esther Kleinbord. The Myth of the Heroine: The Female Bildungsroman in the
Twentieth Century: Dorothy Richardson, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Christa
Wolf. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.
Maier, S. E. (2007). Portraits of the Girl-Child: Female Bildungsroman in Victorian Fiction.
Literature Compass, 4(1), 317335.
Watkins, Susan. "Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bront (1847)." Encyclopedia of the Novel.
Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2013.