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Since its inception with Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister in 1795, the bildungsroman, the novel of development or formation, continues to intrigue both authors and critics alike. Even though critics disagree about the nature and function of the genre, almost all accept, at least as a benchmark, Jerome Buckley’s description. A child grows up in the country or in a town where he finds “constraints” placed upon him. He leaves to make his way in the city—which usually brings disenchantment—where his “real education” begins and he is compelled to “reappraise his values,” usually after “at least two love affairs and sexual encounters, one debasing, one exalting” (17). Once he decides, after much “soul-searching, which sort of accommodation to the world he can honestly make, he has left his adolescence behind and entered upon his maturity. His initiation complete, he may then visit his old home, to demonstrate by his presence the degree of his success” (18). Although, as Buckley concedes, no one novel follows this pattern exactly, most bildungsroman novels adopt the majority of the genre’s principal elements: childhood, the conflict of the generations, provinciality, the larger society, self-education, alienation, and ordeal by love. Also, the child will normally be an orphan or [End Page 38] fatherless or repelled by a living father. According to Buckley, “The loss of the father, either by death or alienation, usually symbolizes or parallels a loss of faith in the values of the hero’s home and family and leads inevitably to the search for a substitute parent or creed” (19). David Miles notes that nature often becomes a central part of the sought-for creed, serving the protagonist as “protectress and guide, in typically Rousseauean fashion, in place of ill-advised ‘bourgeois morals’” (982). Those familiar with the protagonists of the seminal works of Native American fiction—N. Scott Momaday’s Abel, James Welch’s nameless narrator and Jim Loney, Leslie Silko’s Tayo, and Louise Erdrich’s Fleur, Pauline, and Lipsha—will notice the striking similarity of their situation to that of the hero Buckley delineates. One wonders why this essentially European bourgeois form with its middle-class hero has been so appealing to our best Native writers. I hope to provide a partial and preliminary answer to this query by focusing on the progenitor of the contemporary Native American novel, Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, but first I will attempt to extract some of the key critical issues raised by this persistent and pervasive genre, issues that Momaday’s novel embodies and engages.

Theorists of the bildungsroman cannot be divided precisely into camps, but critics do tend to oscillate between regarding the genre as one that is concerned with the integration of the hero into society or one that regards the hero as forever alienated. The movement from integration to alienation initially can be perceived historically. Jeffrey Sammons notes that after Goethe imitators of Wilhelm Meister increasingly made the protagonist an artist, an occupation that “exhibits a movement from the representative, socially integrated self with the potential of realization to the alienated, socially eccentric self with the potential of doom” (235). This trend (with variations) carried through Herman Hesse, who wrote one bildungsroman after another (Peter Camenzind [1904], Demian [1919], Siddhartha [1922], Death and the Lover [1930], Magister Ludi [1943]), to Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain [1924], Joseph and His Brothers [1934], Doctor Faustus [1947], Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years [1954]), and then to writers such as Gunter Grass (The Tin Drum [1959], Cat and Mouse [1961], Dog Years [1963]) and John Barth (The Sot-Weed Factor [1960], Giles Goat-Boy [1966]), both of whom concocted antibildungsroman novels that ridiculed the notion that an (essentially alienated) individual [End Page 39] could achieve any sense of identity in a society that is no longer meaningful. Marianne Hirsch believes one could design a typology of the bildungsroman “based on the protagonist’s participation in the social mainstream or his identity as an outsider” (297). 1 While almost all theorists agree that the bildungsroman is a genre that focuses primarily...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 38-68
Launched on MUSE
1999-03-01
Open Access
No
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