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Reading the Modernist Bildungsroman (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 359-362 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0072

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Gregory Castle has produced a masterful, revisionary study of an important genre’s transformation that is also a study of literary modernism’s emergence and character as Irish and English writers responded critically to their nineteenth-century precursors. His book reminds us anew of the genre’s continuing significance, under changing historical circumstances, for raising questions about what constitutes freedom and what it means to be human; and it reconsiders the genre’s potential for presenting the development of an individual’s subjectivity in socially embedded ways as well as modernism’s unusual actualization of that potential. Anyone who writes in the future about the Bildungsroman of the long twentieth century will have to take Castle’s detailed readings and his theoretically inflected argument into account. Joyce has been central to Castle’s thinking about narratives of development from an early article on A Portrait, through his more recent considerations of that narrative, to the large place that both A Portrait and Ulysses occupy in two of the four main chapters.1Finnegans Wake also makes a real, though cameo, appearance when Castle cites Joyce’s evocation of “buildung supra buildung” (FW 4.27) in chapter 4. Castle’s work on the book’s topic during nearly two decades helps account for the layered maturity of its argument.

Joyce is the central literary figure in the study, surrounded by substantial discussion of four other authors (Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf), and Theodor Adorno is the informing theoretical presence. My one minor reservation about the book concerns the emphatic reliance on Adorno, which is a strength that will present a challenge worth meeting for readers not already sufficiently familiar with Adorno’s thinking. Castle lucidly presents aspects of Adorno relevant to his argument, and he regularly coordinates details of his readings of specific narratives with brief citations from Adorno. Some readers will wish that terms such as instauration occurred less often than they do. The vocabulary and concepts enable the canny case that Castle builds for the dialectical negativity of the modernist Bildungsroman, which involves essentially standing in more than one place in a self-defining process of participant observation that avoids totalizing perspectives and institutional pressures to conform. My reformulation brings out the utopian impulse in Castle’s argument, which he tempers from the outset by emphasizing the failure of the modern protagonists to achieve the traditional goal of harmonious self-integration. The emphasis on failure points implicitly to Samuel Beckett, who is mentioned only twice.2 As in Beckett, the word “failure” names a self-correcting dynamic that is undeluded about its own tendency to lapse into inauthenticity.

Castle frames the study carefully in a lengthy introduction. Then, in chapter 1, he sketches (with specific reference to modernity, modernism, and subjectivity) the persistence of Bildung as a concept in the twentieth century. In chapter 2, he pursues readings of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Chapter 3, “Bildung and the ‘Bonds of Dominion,’” focuses on Joyce, Wilde, and the Irish modernist Bildungsroman as central to the argument. Chapter 4 concerns narratives about women in Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway and A Voyage Out) and Joyce (the “Nausicaa” episode of Ulysses). In a brief conclusion that points forward to postmodern and postcolonial writing, Castle extends and reformulates his argument about modernism’s radically conservative generic transformation. In addition, there are a lengthy bibliography of works cited, twenty pages of references that provide a guide to research relevant to this strong-minded book’s general perspectives, and specific readings.

Castle’s commentaries on key narratives in chapters 2 through 4 present the works with their distinctive differences but always in relation to the overarching argument about modernism and the tradition of the Bildungsroman that he lays out with detailed clarity in the introduction and the conclusion. The range of references to literary history back to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and to relevant humanistic theory is impressive, not only in the opening and closing but throughout. Castle cogently distinguishes between English and Irish social contexts and literary productions and between differently gendered narratives as he traces the development of a renewed Bildungsroman, whose newness...



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