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The Existence of a Female Bildungsroman

An Analysis of Mill on the Floss and My Ántonia

An Analysis of Mill on the Floss and My Ántonia

Mostly a male-centric genre focusing on the development of a boy into his maturity, the very definition of the bildungsroman is disinclined to include its female counterpart, and in doing so has insisted on the two genders being an irreconcilable dichotomy.[1] This division, however, can be seen only as a consequence of the era in which the Bildungsroman was conceived; as women gained more freedom, so too did their position as the protagonist in the classical Bildungsroman genre. Before female independence is realized, however, the female Bildungsroman, as critics have come to call it, can and must be seen in terms of both their male counterpart, if there is one, as well as in terms of the social constructs surrounding women, and how their ‘…growth and development within the context of a defined social order’ do not, in the novels by George Eliot and Willa Cather adhere to the true desires of their heroines. The Female Bildungsroman is a fight against following the male’s ability to develop and the constraints of their womanhood.  Due to these constraints, many critics cannot consider the female Bildungsroman to be a true variant of the genre. Elaine Hoffman Baruch, even after analysing the novels that have been ascribed to being female Bildungsroman, claims ‘[the] authentic feminine bildungsroman is still to be written.’ [2] Her reasoning for this is that ‘…a true development cannot be vicarious’ and rather than having female protagonists ‘supportive of the status quo’ these women were instruments for ‘revolutionary statements.’ [3] For Idette Noomé ‘…single books for girls cannot be readily classified as examples of the Bildungsroman, unless the novel of parallel experience is admitted into the genre. [4] (p. 246) On the other hand, many more critics consider the female Bildungsroman in terms of marriage and family, the conventional maturity for women at the time. [5] What feminist writers of the 19th century utilise the Bildungsroman format for, it seems, it to compare and contrast the limitations of women in terms of their male counterparts, and, later in the 20th century – the arguable end of the Bildungsroman – when women can finally follow the path of the Bildungsroman without comparison. [6] After all, as Charlotte Goodman stresses, ‘In a patriarchal culture where the “education” of males and the “education” of females is so vastly different, surely the Bildungsromane which male and female novelists respectively write would be very different.” [7] (p.29)

In order to understand the Bildungsroman and the female protagonists’ place in it (either as an individual in her own right or as a contrasting parallel with a male counterpart) characteristics of the Bildungsroman have to be defined. Jerome Buckley’s understanding of the genre has described the Bildungsroman as the general course of the life of a child, from his early days where his sensibilities are not entirely understood by his kin, to his first schooling (usually inadequate to his disposition or intelligence).[8] However, due to the ‘oppressive atmosphere at home’, the protagonist leaves to make his way independently into the world. [9] The Bildungsroman, Buckley states, usually includes “at least two love affairs or sexual encounters, one debasing, one exalting” which forces the hero to reappraise his values. [10] By the time he has decided, his initiation into maturity is complete and he may revisit home, completing, as Marianne Hirsh calls it, the novel’s ‘circular development’. [11] Buckley does, of course, admit that ‘[no] single novel […] precisely follows this pattern.’ [12] (p.18) Furthermore, to Buckley’s definition of the Bildungsroman, up to three of the characters previously transcribed may be omitted, whilst still embodying the genre. [13]  It is via Buckley’s criteria that we can define which novels are Bildungsroman, however it is Susan Rosowski who stresses the role of the female Bildungsroman, something she defines as ‘The Novel of Awakening’ where ‘[the] subject and action […] consists of a protagonist who attempts to find value in a world defined by love and marriage.’ [14] Conversely, the novel of parallel experience, or, as it’s later defined by Goodman, the ‘Male-Female Double Bildungsroman’, is the first development of a female the genre.[15] Not, at the time, able to hold her own as a character of development, the heroine must mature against her brother, and by doing so she enables the readers to understand the limitations lie in the culture, not on the character herself. Goodman describes this double development as ‘circular’; stating the childhood of these two characters are ‘reminiscent of a prelapsarian mythic garden’ where the two characters ‘once existed as equals’. [16] She expounds that the novel then dramatizes the separation of the children when the male-child follows his traditional Bildungsroman destiny and the girl-child is left behind and concludes with their reunion. [17] Goodman believes this reunification to signify ‘a turning away from the mature adult experience and a reaffirmation of the childhood world in which the male and the female protagonist were undivided.’ [18] The double experience paves the way for the female character to, eventually, star in her own Bildungsroman, within its original definition, and not through the limitations of maturity in marriage and motherhood.

The Double-Bildungsroman in Mill on the Floss offers its readers an interesting dilemma of the right rightful protagonist. [19] Naturally as a parallel experience, the narrative documents the development of both siblings, Tom and Maggie, however, it is Maggie who undergoes a ‘development of a total individual, spiritual, moral, intellectual, emotional, even sexual.’ [20] (p.37) Tom succeeds in the community, where Maggie does not, however despite his success in the world of business, it is Maggie who undergoes the typical development of a Bildungsroman protagonist. Marked by the ‘need of being loved’ (Mill I 5) as well as being ‘full of unsatisfied intelligence and unsatisfied, beseeching affection’ Maggie’s need for development is apparent from her first introduction. [21] As her precociousness is passed over with derision time and time again, Eliot sets up Maggie to be ripe for the development of a true Bildungsroman protagonist needs. It is she, after all, who goes out in the hope of finding the gypsies – those that could help nurture her sensibilities – and Tom who returns home. [22] It is she who has the knack for Tom’s studies, or at least the drive for them; so much to the point where Eliot passes over Maggie’s education in favour of Tom’s – we know who should be receiving Tom’s education, and anything less is not worth any attention. It is Maggie who has the two love affairs; it is she who has the spiritual crisis, and it is she who chooses and, theoretically, should have emerged from the decision to not marry Stephen victorious and developed. Instead, the town of Ogg’s shuns her and drives her away from the establishment in the community back into the detrimental domestic scene. However Mill on the Floss is very much a dual experience, and as such Tom and Maggie’s lives end where they begin. Hirsh takes note of this circular development, stating that the ‘irony of this line underscores the ironic conjunction of social defeat and spiritual affirmation in the novel. (p. 37)’ [23] Their death, where ‘brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted; living through again in one supreme moment the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together’ →VII, ch.5 ends where it begins; bringing the characters back to where equality is possible where, as Rosowski asserts, ‘the limitations imposed on both the male and the female protagonist in a patriarchal society where androgynous wholeness no longer is possible’ (p.31) no longer binds them. [24]


Moreover, the 20th Century’s Double Bildungsroman offers readers a much different female protagonist, or protagonists, as is the case of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. [25] Unlike Eliot’s Maggie, My Ántonia documents the development of several characters from their rural childhoods to their maturity, and has therefore created both a double-Bildungsroman and a successful Bildungsroman. This idealized, equal relationship, “the precious[…] incommunicable past” (MA p. 372) is quickly thwarted when gender and the concept of manliness is introduced, namely when Jim ‘killed a big snake’ and ‘[…] was now a big fellow.’(p. 50) [26] Their social separation, as well as the division of class, begins when the Burden family moves to the town of Black Hawk, where Jim is introduced into society and Ántonia takes the mantel of capable farmworker; a typically male role, but one she thrives in regardless. In spite of her apparent connection with the land, she is brought into town where society and class continue to divide her and Jim. During this time the apprenticeship of multiple bildungsroman are documented, and the narrator shifts from Ántonia and her family to the lives of several of the other girls, Lena, Tiny, and Frances; the girls which offer an alternative as well as more classical outcomes of the single bildungsroman genre.


These four women develop individually, following their own path based on their own interests. Frances is taken under the wing of her father and is allowed to exit the home and enter the world of business, where she succeeds. However, Frances Harling follows Langland’s assumption that women who ‘…marry exchange their aspirations for a man’s. The best they can hope for, then, is that they meet a man whose aspirations are like their own.’ (p.117) Frances finds this, and her conclusion is a husband who co-manages the Harling interests with her in Black Hawk. Tiny’s development, on the other hand, is only told only through second-hand gossip, and therefore her spiritual and emotional development is passed over in favour of information on her competence in the business and investing world. The most we learn of her development is that she went from being a girl who ‘[tripped] briskly about the dining-room on her high heels’; someone who, although able to manage the guests, was never considered for success. Instead, she ‘was to lead the most adventurous life and to achieve the most solid worldly success’ and end up as a ‘thin, hard-faced woman, very well-dressed, very reserved in manner.’ The character with the most conventional bildungsroman, however, is Lena Lingard. After a rather ambivalent, destitute childhood in the country, Lena manages to find work in Black Hawk of her own volition as an apprentice to a dressmaker. She takes this trade with her to Lincoln, and then to San Francisco. Holding the status of being the only female to not only follow the traditional path of the Bildungsroman, but to also reject to conventions of its female counterpart, Lena was someone who ‘gave her heart away when she felt like it, but she kept her head for her business and had got on in the world.’ She actively rejects the convention of marriage and utilizing marriage to bring a woman into maturity, stating that ‘men are all right for friends, but as soon as you marry them they turn into cranky old fathers, even the wild ones […] I prefer to be foolish when I feel like it, and be accountable to nobody.’ Her maturity is into society, rather than into private life. Ántonia, on the other hand, embodies the exaltation of the domestic and rural scene. Her debasing love affair left her with a child and no husband, disgraced, but not ruined, and her exalting love brings her happiness in her old age, eleven children, and, as Jim describes, ‘a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races’ (p. 353). Her mere presence makes Jim wish that he could be ‘a little boy again and that my way could end there.’ Ántonia’s conclusion, in this sense, offers readers a true conclusion to the Double-Bildungsroman and the reunion of Jim and Ántonia as well as a successful ending to the female Bildungsroman. Ántonia has not only found happiness and flourished in the domestic, pastoral life, but she has also crafted a home that is enviable and grand; something that could only come from a true maturity into the self; something not even Jim has found by the novel’s conclusion.



These heroines offer a different look at the Bildungsroman format. Maggie herself cannot be called a traditional Bildungsroman hero as her existence acts more as a puppet for ‘incipient revolutionary statements’; Maggie does not – and cannot – go out into the world and exit victorious with her maturity complete, although she is the more appropriate protagonist for her genre. The women in My Ántonia, on the other hand, offer several different conclusions for a woman in the Bildungsroman genre, with Lena, and the less-documented Tiny, completing the original arc associated with the male Bildungsroman hero, Frances who falls into the typical female Bildungsroman, and Ántonia, who returns to the domestic scene in the country, but out of belonging, rather than force, completing the circular development mandatory in any bildungsroman, as well as the Double Bildungsroman between Ántonia and Jim. Nevertheless, the late Bildungsroman offers women more freedom to grow. This freedom, Moretti concludes, is due to the fact that World War One caused the journey of growth to ‘shatter’ due to the fact that ‘unlike rites of passage, the war killed – and its only mystery didn’t decree the renewal of individual existence, but its insignificance.’ (p.229) The war itself brought a halt in the thought of development; and, as he argues, how could development and growth be on the forefront of anyone’s mind when the war killed so many young men? The war and Modernism, he asserts, is the conclusion to the Bildungsroman as a genre, and this, as well as burgeoning women’s rights, could be why the female Bildungsroman of the 20th century was finally able to conclude successfully and in their own right.

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