The Bildungsroman as Symbolic Form

From Franco Moretti’s The Way of the World: the Bildungsroman in European Culture, Introduction: “The Bildungsroman as Symbolic Form.”


Franco Moretti begins this introduction by making a distinction between the “hero” figure before and after the Enlightenment, in particular the writings of Goethe. Before Goethe, the hero was a mature adult. Take for example Ulysses or Aeneas. Goethe brought the switch of the hero to youth. Moretti comments that Wilhem Meisters Apprenticeship “marks simultaneously the birth of the bildungsroman, and of a new hero”, the youth transitioning into adulthood (3). Furthermore, Moretti comments that the bildungsroman is the genre that dominated, “and more precisely,” made “possible the Golden Century of Western narrative” (3). Precisely what Moretti means by the Golden Age of Western narrative is at this point unclear, and perhaps even debatable, but for the time being, I will allow him that opinion to see where he goes with it. These heroes are defined by their youth. While previous heroes may have been young, their youth was never the defining characteristic. Moretti intends to examine the meaning of this symbolic shift in modern European culture.

Moretti invokes Karl Mannheim to explore the “shift” in the meaning of youth. In “stable communities,” or “status” societies (perhaps this concept can be further explored by referring to the Mannheim, which has been added to my reading list), i.e. traditional society, youth has a rather static meaning dependent solely on biologically being young (again needs further exploration). Youth here is not that important, but when society changes through movement to the cities, the socialization of youth becomes a problem. Capitalism, and its social mobility, makes socialization “uncertain exploration of social space” (4). A new type of interiority is created as the youth yearn for the hopes of this new mobility and exploration of social space, but a new restlessness and constant dissatisfaction is also born through this proces. Obviously this all needs to be further explored through reading Mannheim’s essay itself: ‘The Problem of Generations’ which can be found in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge.

This mobility and interiority is the chief characteristic of modern youth that the bildungsroman is concerned with. There are to be sure are aspects concerned with modern youth, such as the growing influence of education, but Moretti asserts that the bildungsroman chooses mobility and interiority to explore and develop a needed “culture of modernity” (5), that helped Europeans understand the processes of change they were going through as they become modern (What is modernity then? This question remains unanswered by Moretti, but my assumption is that he means capitalist). Youth becomes symbolically central to this exploration, and the bildungsroman becomes the “great narrative” to explore this symbolically central form.

Moretti next asserts that change was a major aspect of modernity as experienced in the 19th century. History became popular as a means for understanding experience; no events could be meaningless, but all change was brought about through interconnected events. Moretti takes the assumption that this is a new way of understanding the world, as brought about by modernity.

Moretti uses Jurij Lotman’s distinction in plot between the “classification” and “transformation” principles (At this point I am open to suggestions for the appropriate Lotman text to explore this distinction further). These principles in plot are “inversely proportional” and the presence of one or the other has a lot to say about “value choices and even opposite attitudes to modernity” in the texts.

“Classification” is strongest in the English ‘family romance’ and the classical bildungsroman (assuming Moretti means the German tradition here, though he does not at this point unpack exactly what he means). In any case, in these, narrative transformations lead to particular static endings. The plot takes the narrative from one classification to another. Only one meaningful ending is thought to be possible here, and the narrative is normative in that sense that it ends as it should. On the other hand, with the transformation principle, the opposite is true. A narrative is meaningful in as much as it is an open ended process where there isn’t a fixed ending possible.

In “classification” novels, youth must come to an end and must lead to a stable, final identity for the protagonist. In the “transformation” novels, the protagonist senses a sort of betrayal in the end of youth, that actually deprives youth of meaning rather than enriching it. Both forms are present in all of these novels, but always in an unbalanced fashion. Furthermore, the domination of one or the other belies a certain attitude toward modernity. Either youth, with its open-endedness or maturity with its final, stable identity are valued. The success of the bildungsroman lies in its ability not to solve this apparent contradiction between youth and maturity, but to compromise it.

Hopefully, this will be explored more in later chapters, or, perhaps I shall have to refer to Lotman’s work as well to really understand the distinction Moretti is making here. Thus far, it is unfortunately not totally clear.


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