Critical Essays The Bildungsroman


As opposed to the social novel, a bildungsroman (a novel of education or a novel of educational formation) focuses on its hero's education toward a meaningful idea of himself and his role in the world. Other characters are clearly subordinated to this process, often to the extent of being assigned the function of a mere stepping-stone for the hero to proceed. The various temptations and obstacles he has to surmount on his bildungsreise (educational journey) bring out his character and faculties, gradually leading him toward greater selfawareness. That much of his traveling may amount to little more than treading on the spot or moving in circles is no argument against the fact that he strives to progress. It is important to remember that while the hero of the bildungsroman proceeds, he may not necessarily progress in absolute terms.

This definition is broad enough to include the medieval quest legend, which, as some critics have claimed, is the beginning of the bildungsroman. And, indeed, Parsifal, for instance, may be regarded as the first hero of the genre, spending his life in pursuit of wisdom and eventually finding it in the form of the Holy Grail. Likewise, it is not difficult to see the Berghof as some sort of black Venusberg (mountain of Venus) which threatens our modern Tannhäuser, Hans Castorp. The question of whether The Magic Mountain is in the tradition of the quest legend was taken up in some detail at the end of Mann's 1939 Princeton address.

A brief run-down on some of the most outstanding novels of the genre will have to suffice here. There are several novels which contain elements of the bildungsroman before the end of the eighteenth century, but Agathon (1766-67), was written by the foremost novelist of German Enlightenment, Wieland, and is considered to be the first real bildungsroman. Its Greek title suggests Wieland's interest in setting up the classical concept of man as the measure of things as an ideal; appropriately enough, the novel's young hero is saved from his fatal idealist dreams by the worldly wise teachings of a sophist and a courtesan, who help him balance out the sensual and spiritual elements of his self so that he can live "in accordance with the nature of things." Keller's Der Grüne Heinrich (1855) and Stifter's Nachsommer (1857) rank as the best representatives of the genre in the nineteenth century except for Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. Though written considerably later, Hesse's novels are also in the vein of the nineteenth-century bildungsroman: Peter Camenzind (1904), Siddhartha (1922), Steppenwolf (1927), and, most notably, Glasperlenspiel (Magister Ludi, 1943). Especially the hero of Magister Ludi follows the classical pattern of the bildungsroman, which is that of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister: He renounces the perfect world of sages and voluntarily returns to this world of shortcomings to shoulder his share of human living and suffering.

The absolute climax of the genre, however, comes with Wilhelm Meister. Begun in 1776 and finished in 1829, it reflects the whole range of Goethe's character and the manifold trials and tribulations of his life. Like all bildungsroman, it is highly autobiographical. The son of a wealthy merchant, Wilhelm Meister flees the bourgeois career staked out for him and joins a theater troupe. Living through countless disappointments, he completes the apprenticeship years of his life. Setting out to get to know the world, he encounters a strange society which requires each of its members to learn a trade. This is necessary because the society has decided to emigrate to the New World, where everybody must be able to contribute something practical to community life. The hero himself becomes a medical doctor, which causes him to return to the "normal" world of duties. This return to the bourgeois world is the prerequisite for his attainment of the "humane ideal" — that of serving humanity by becoming involved in its problems. Interestingly enough, Wilhelm Meister takes good care of his son by having him learn all the arts and sciences. One of the new aspects of this novel was its explicit statement of humanism as an ideal beyond that of how to live successfully and peacefully. Education must teach people to become useful members of society.

The question concerning us now with regard to The Magic Mountain is why it is classified as a bildungsroman. One obvious answer is that Thomas Mann said so, first in his preparatory notes to the book where he talks about it as a "story on pedagogy in which a young man, placed between two equally fanatical educators, can choose." In later published correspondence between Thomas and Heinrich Mann, there are several remarks about the novel as belonging to this genre. One may well argue, of course, that an artist's evaluation of his own work is not necessarily correct or even accurate.

A better answer is that the two criteria used in our definition of bildungsroman apply to The Magic Mountain. First and foremost, it deals with Hans Castorp's education. In fact, the entire novel, beginning with Castorp's breaking away from the "world below" (the typical beginning, incidentally, of quest legends), serves the sole purpose of advancing his education. As has been demonstrated, Castorp alone is the "hero" — so much so that the other characters tend to become mere means to the end of his being educated. Second, Castorp's education comes about through the gradual development of his faculties and leads to his growing self-awareness. The words in italics are the novel's major theme under which the other themes (the mystery of time and the political implications) are easily subsumed.

One nagging problem remains in The Magic Mountain, which we do not have in, say, Wilhelm Meister: Does the hero really accomplish his goal? Despite Castorp's ever-new insights and growing awareness of his condition, he never takes the last step. He does not escape from the dilettante world of the sanatorium, hermetically shut off from the "real world below." Somehow his painfully acquired self-awareness does not lead him to follow through on his new knowledge. His education has taught him to steer a noncommittal course between different views of life, but it has also robbed him of the vigor to find the middle path between theory and practice — between what the Middle Ages called the via contemplativa and the via activa. He pays the formidable price of sterility for his prolonged flirt with the dream world of esthetical and sensual enchantment.

There can be no doubt: Castorp neither can nor wants to translate his intellectual and moral insights (that to live meaningfully is to love, and that to love is to serve) into practice. Had it not been for the outbreak of war, he would never have returned to the "world below." The argument that there is no reason for him to plunge into this world because he would probably perish anyway is no real argument. First, the war Castorp is summoned to fight is the result of the impotence and depravity of those assembled at the Berghof; second, it is only by undergoing a process of purification that Castorp (humanity in general and, on another level, prewar Europe) has a chance of being cured — or, at least, of redeeming the world as a sane place for his descendants. Thus, if we see Castorp's ideal as including at least an attempt on his part of transferring his insights into the "real world below," the answer is that he has failed.

More than any other view, this one has caused a number of critics to believe The Magic Mountain is a parody of the bildungsroman. They argue that, while Castorp's education is the result of masterful discussions, it leads absolutely nowhere. This view might make sense if we consider the hero's actual implementation of his insights (and not only his attainment of self-awareness) as a major criterion of the bildungsroman. This we have not done in our definition. Yet even if we accepted this narrower definition, would it necessarily make the novel a parody? Is it not possible to argue that Castorp does achieve his goal, if by this we mean the highest degree of insight possible for him? After all, awakening from his snow dream, he ponders: "For the sake of goodness and love, man shall let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts." Since these lines are the only ones in italics in the novel, they must have special significance — even if that same evening Castorp will barely remember what it was that he had visualized.

How did Thomas Mann feel about this? At the time he wrote the novel, he was preoccupied with having his hero transcend the several little dichotomies that clutter up his romantic mind. This transcendence is the inevitable prerequisite for any further aspiration toward his "ideal of humaneness." Yet the book emerged as the first one in which Mann tried to reach beyond this prerequisite with the express purpose of assigning a more important task to his hero. This task, quite in keeping with Mann's own changing views, came to be that of practical involvement for the cause of political and social freedom. It is probably fair to conclude that the older Thomas Mann became and the more distance he gained to The Magic Mountain, the more he came to regard Castorp's ambivalence and resulting failure to act as a serious flaw in his character.

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