Narratives of Female Development: Inadequacy, Rebellion, and the Feminist Bildungsroman

The novels To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, are characterised as Bildungsromans. Within the Bildungsroman genre, the existence of the female Bildungsroman has been contested. However, there has not been a clear consensus on its existence or on its characteristics, and as such it has often been denied since it did not fit the characteristics of a conventional Bildungsroman. I contest that using the characteristic of a Bildungsroman as a guideline for the female Bildungsroman is restrictive, and that the development of female protagonists could be regarded as a Bildungsroman of a different kind, deviating from the guidelines of the conventional Bildungsroman.

When examining three different novels published in 1927, 1963 and 1997, a dispersed portrayal is ensured. Within analysis several recurring themes can be seen, which in turn could entail the characteristic of a new variety: The Feminist Bildungsroman.

The first of these themes concerns the female protagonists being faced with a sense of inadequacy and self-deprecation as they failed to meet their societies’ expectation regarding gender. In To the Lighthouse, it was depicted that Lily Briscoe felt inadequate as she could not live up to the expectation of Mrs. Ramsay. In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood was self- deprecating of her own intelligence and of her abilities in comparison to the behaviour of other women. In I Love Dick, inadequacy in Chris Kraus was seen in her professional life as well as her personal life, as she was withheld from recognition in her marriage as well as in the earnestness of her work.

Within the Bildungsroman, it is seen that development of the protagonist leads to conforming to the larger societal group and thus the status quo. Within these analysed novels, however, the female protagonists deviate from the status quo in the finalisation of their development and chose their autonomy instead. In To the Lighthouse, it can be observed that Lily finalised her development through her painting and through the fact that Lily never married. In The Bell Jar, it is seen that Esther embraces her own autonomy by deviating from what is expected from her, not marrying Buddy Willard and embracing her sexuality. In I Love Dick, it is also perceived that Chris Kraus diverts to a state of autonomy by rediscovering her own identity. Chris starts writing for herself again, and she is not trying to conform to what the other artists or society expects from her.

A question which arises from these findings is what the underlying reason of this rebellion is. It is seen that these women are in conflict with what they desire and what is expected from them, and the only way for them to deviate from these expectations is to rebel against them. This rebellion signifies that the conflict in which they find themselves is of such a pressing nature that the only way to escape it is to go against the society they live in. Therefore, they must rebel against the status quo to regain their autonomy. Furthermore, the sense of inadequacy within these female protagonists has originated from their inability to conform to the expectations from their society. The portrayal of these self-deprecating manners throughout these novels attests to the impact of not fitting in. They find fault in themselves before examining the external influence. Lastly, a reason for these women writers to adapt this structure could be that this writing is a criticism of the society and their treatment of women, and subsequently to escape their own society.

Ultimately, from further analysis it could be concluded that the characteristics which were found this way deviate from those of the conventional Bildungsroman. The inadequacy seen in these female protagonists derived from their feeling of inadequacy as they were unable and unwilling to conform to the expectations of the patriarchy, and thus the status quo. Rather, they disregarded these expectations and chose their own agency. Instead of using the term Female Bildungsroman to point to narratives of female development, these themes can be regarded as the characteristics of a new genre Bildungsroman: The Feminist Bildungsroman.


Minthe Woudstra

*This is an abstract from a larger research, the full paper can be found here; *


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