This article revisits the complex historical and methodological issues that surround the study of the Bildungsroman both within German literature and in a broader comparative context. It argues that the unusually narrow and well-defined circumstances of the Bildungsroman’s rise in eighteenth-century Germany contributed to the persistence of a normative and often-essentialist understanding of this genre. The article further identifies the limitations of this understanding, which at once generates a fair amount of critical frustration and hinders the use of Bildungsroman as a comparative term. The article proposes an alternative understanding of the Bildungsroman as a genre capable of transcending the context in which it originated and of leaving behind the very notion of Bildung. The genre functions as something like German literature’s disobedient child, one that we persistently attempt, and persistently fail, to discipline. This article suggests that we might wish to abandon this futile disciplinarian practice altogether.
- Comparative literature
- Victorian literature