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  • The Modernist Bildungsroman
  • Laura Savu
Gregory Castle. Reading the Modernist Bildungsroman. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. x + 328 pp. $59.95

This densely written and insightful book takes its place alongside other studies about the genre by Franco Moretti, Todd Kontje, Martin Swales, and Paul Sheehan, among others. Its purpose is to bring into sharp focus the contradictions inherent in the modernist Bildungsroman, which, as Castle contends, is characterized by a double gesture of "recuperation and critique." Thus, unlike Franco Moretti, who sees in the English Bildungsroman at the dawn of the twentieth century "the exhaustion of the form," Castle claims that the modernist Bildungsroman's failure to conform to the formal demands of the genre signals "a successful resistance to the institutionalization of self-cultivation (Bildung)." For modernists embraced the aesthetico-spiritual ideal of classical Bildung (traced back to Weimar thinkers such as Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Wilhelm Humboldt) and rejected the "ideology of pragmatic individualism" that emerged in mid- to late-nineteenth-century England. The underlying premise of the first chapter and of the book as a whole is that the development of the concept of Bildung, from the Weimar theorists to the English and Irish modernists, is best understood in the context of modernity and modernization [End Page 253] as a response to the tradition of humanism, individualism, and liberalism.

Drawing on Theodor Adorno's theory of "negative dialectics," Castle sets out to trace the development of the Bildungsroman from "an uneasy attachment to a traditional dialectic" in both its aesthetico-spiritual form and socially pragmatic form, to "an almost complete disavowal of dialectics and its utopian dream of totality" in the modernist Bildungsroman. The classical Bildung, foregrounded in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, stressed "the dialectical harmony of self and society, of personal desire and social responsibility," but, as Castle shows in elaborate detail, new social and economic pressures thwarted the fulfillment of this ideal, rendering it more and more elusive for the heroes of Jude the Obscure, Sons and Lovers, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as well as for the heroines of The Voyage Out and Mrs. Dalloway. In response to these pressures, modernist Bildungsromans developed new conceptions of self-cultivation, which often took the form of a "liberatory depersonalization." Castle brings a sophisticated critical awareness to these texts and intellectual rigor to his exploration of the broader contexts—social, political, philosophical, religious, and aesthetic—surrounding them.

In chapter one, Castle highlights important similarities and differences between Goethe's and Humboldt's conceptions of Bildung and shows how they were duplicated in an English context, with Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold following the Goethean path and advocating a notion of Bildung strongly associated with the arts, and John Stuart Mill following the Humboldtian path and arguing for a form of individualism firmly grounded in political realities but devoted nonetheless to the pursuit of self-cultivation by means of an aesthetic education. Next he turns his attention to the French and English Bildungsroman (Balzac's Lost Illusions, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Flaubert's Sentimental Education, Dickens's Great Expectations, Brontë's Jane Eyre) to illustrate how the aesthetico-spiritual Bildung characteristic of the German tradition was displaced by "new pragmatic modes of socialization."

Castle's astute analyses in subsequent chapters (two–four) continue to range broadly and cut deeply, bringing out the connections across different texts, highlighting the aesthetic dimension of self-cultivation in a modernist context, and charting the different ways the modernist Bildungsroman developed in England and Ireland. Chapter two focuses on two early modernist Bildungsromans, Hardy's Jude [End Page 254] the Obscure and Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, in which the dialectics of self-development is strongly determined by class issues and by a rejection of humanist ideals of education and identity. While both Hardy and Lawrence recognized the decisive roles women, sexuality, and marriage played in their critiques of the genre, it is Lawrence whom Castle credits with having created "a new mode of representing artistic consciousness" in reaction against the dualistic tradition of Descartes and Locke that "equates being with consciousness and opposes consciousness to the external world." As Castle notes...


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pp. 253-256
Launched on MUSE
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