Two versions of Bildungsromane: Jane Eyre and David Copperfield

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

31 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Bildungsroman Genre – Roots and definition

3. Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman

4. David Copperfield as a Bildungsroman

5. Jane Eyre and David Copperfield – Differences and 21 similarities

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

This essay deals with two well-known texts of the Victorian age, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847 and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850). Both novels give an autobiographical insight into the first three decades of the protagonists’ lives. Jane and David, the two first person narrators look back on their lives, giving very detailed descriptions of the experiences they have made at school, in their professional and their private life.

This essay will show how Jane and David’s development is presented in the novels and will examine in how far the texts can be classified as Bildungsromane.

The second part of this paper gives a definition of the Bildungsroman and detects the roots of the genre. The third chapter deals with the development and education of Jane Eyre with a major focus on Jane’s struggle with the oppressive patriarchal society and its representatives who try to manipulate her way towards maturity, self-definition and equality. The fourth chapter takes a look at David Copperfield’s development and gives a close analysis of the main issues, class and sexuality that have a crucial impact on David’s formation of self. The second last chapter then attempts to combine the analyses of the two novels on the basis of the definition of the Bildungsroman genre, which is given in the next part of the essay. Similarities and differences between the texts will be worked out by taking a close look at the central issues of both novels again.

2. The Bildungsroman genre – roots and definition

The Bildungsroman genre has its origins in German literature. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) is one of the best-known German Bildungsromane and serves as a kind of prototype of the genre. The term itself dates back to the very beginning of the 19th century but was not introduced into literary criticism until 1906, when Wilhelm Dilthey used it in order to describe Goethe’s novel. (Schellinger, 1998. p. 119)

The word Bildungsroman consists of the terms Bildung and Roman. The latter is the German word for novel, Bildung means education or formation. Therefore the word Bildungsroman is, in most cases, translated into English as ‘novel of formation’ or ‘novel of education’.

According to Suzanne Hader the Bildungsroman is “a novel of all around self-development.” (Hader, 1996) Her definition of the genre seems to be quite a useful one for this paper, as it introduces four central characteristics of the Bildungsroman that do apply to both novels. Hader states: “the Bildungsroman is, most generally, the story of a single individual’s growth and development within the contest of a defined social order.” (Ibid.) In order to get the protagonist on the journey of self-development, “some form of loss or discontent must jar them at an early stage away from the home or family setting.” (Ibid.) Hader describes the way towards maturity and the full formation of the self as “long, arduous, and gradual, consisting of repeated clashes between the protagonist’s needs and desires and the views and judgments enforced by an unbending social order.” (Ibid.) At the very end of the novel “the spirit and values of the social order become manifest in the protagonist, who is then accommodated into society. The novel ends with an assessment by the protagonist of himself and his new place in that society.” (Ibid) In chapter four it will be shown whether this definition applies to Jane Eyre and David Copperfield and it will furthermore serve as the basis for the comparison of the two novels.

3. Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman

The story of Jane Eyre is presented like a journey through the life of the protagonist Jane, who finds, at the end, her place in society, which is, in Victorian terms, a very unusual or maybe even revolutionary one. The novel shows Jane’s long way towards maturity, self-mastery and independence. According to Robin Gilmour, the protagonist’s development can be divided into “five stages, each with its symbolic house: childhood at Gateshead, school at Lowood, early womanhood and romantic love at Thornfield Hall, sisterhood and independence at Moor House, marriage at Ferndean.” (Gilmour, 1986. p. 64). The different places in the novel also represent the obstacles Jane has to overcome in order to achieve her personal freedom and, eventually the marriage with Mr. Rochester as equals. Gilbert and Gubar see Jane Eyre as

“a distinctively female Bildungsroman in which the problems encountered by the protagonist as she struggles from the imprisonment of her childhood toward an almost unthinkable goal of mature freedom are symptomatic of difficulties Everywoman in a patriarchal society must meet and overcome: oppression (at Gateshead), starvation (at Lowood), madness (at Thornfield) and coldness (at Marsh End).” (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979. p. 339)

In each section Jane’s final goal to be an independent woman is threatened in some way. Jane is tempted more than once to give in to social pressure and to live the life of a normal Victorian woman, which basically means to be the extension of a man who takes all the decisions for her. Jane constantly has to defend her independence against the men’s world’s efforts to force her into the Victorian standards of how a woman should behave. But “Jane tests the limits of social, moral, and psychological possibility, discovering the kinds of power which are in fact available to a woman.” (Moglen, 1978. p. 107) The depiction of Jane’s rebelliousness and anger towards society makes the novel quite a revolutionary piece of work, as it challenges the social norms and values concerning femininity throughout the book.

Jane’s journey of self-development begins at Gateshead where she passes the first ten years of her life. It is the “starting point where she encounters the uncomfortable givens of her career: a selfish older ”brother” who tyrannizes over the household like a substitute patriarch, a foolish and wicked ”stepmother”, and two unpleasant, selfish ”stepsisters.”” (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979. p. 342) At Gateshead Jane learns how the Victorian society works. She is repeatedly made aware of the fact that she lives in a rather patriarchal society where women do not count much. Her inferiority caused by her being a woman, is even strengthened by her lack of any money of her own. It is Miss Abbot who makes this clear to Jane:

“And you ought not think yourself on an equality with the Misses Reed and Master Reed, because Missis kindly allows you to be brought up with them. They will have a great deal of money, and you will have none: it is your place to be humble, and to try to make yourself agreeable to them” (Brontë, 1847. p. 7)

Jane’s economic situation and her the fact that she is female make her absolutely powerless. Her cousin John Reed, who continually tortures Jane physically and psychologically, works as an emblem of the male, class-centred society:

[…] it is from John Reed, the violent, spoiled, bullying son that she learns most painfully what it means to be poor and dependent in a world which respects wealth and position. It is from John that she learns the meaning of powerlessness, the meaning of being a female in a patriarchal society.” (Moglen, 1978. p. 109).

The rest of the family do not do anything to help Jane out of this situation. Even though Mrs. Reed and her daughters, Georgiana and Eliza, are females as well do not support Jane at all. They do perfectly adapt to the male-oriented society and Mrs. Reed even helps to establish it in her own household by letting John Reed act as the substitute patriarch and tyrant of the house. She tells Jane: “I don’t like cavillers or questioners […] (Brontë, 1847. p. 3), which shows that she is neither willing to let Jane rebel against the values of the time nor does she make any attempt to question the social norms herself.

Being thus unsupported and powerless the world in her head is her only retreat, which the Reeds cannot take away from her. At the very beginning of the novel the “Berwick’s History of British Birds” is her only means of escape, which leads her mind to distant places. “With Berwick on my knee, I was happy, at least in my way” (Brontë, 1847. p. 4).

When John Reed catches Jane reading the book and maltreats her afterwards, her anger and rebelliousness comes to the surface for the first time when she calls John “a wicked cruel boy!“, “a murderer” and a “slave driver” (Brontë, 1847. p. 6). But it is the incident in the red-room, which marks the first crucial step towards Jane’s self-mastery. Her being locked away in this room might, first of all work as a symbol of Jane’s enclosure and incapability to escape her station in society. According to Gilbert and Gubar the red-room, the place where Jane’s uncle Mr. Reed died, works as “a kind of patriarchal death chamber” (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979. p. 340). It is a symbol for the male society where Jane is locked in. Jane can only imagine two ways in order to escape this “unsupportable oppression [:] running away, or, if that could not be effected, never eating or drinking anymore, and letting myself die.” (Brontë, 1847. p. 9) Caused by a ghostly experience in the red-room “little Jane chooses (or is chosen by) a third, even more terrifying, alternative; escape through madness” (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979. p. 341). Jane here recognizes that there is actually a way of defending herself against oppression. By going mad, she manages to get out of the red-room, this emblem of male dominance. Helen Moglen states: “Her fainting fit marks the end of the submission of her childhood and the beginning of a new stage of growth.” (Moglen, 1978. p. 111) The red-room incident can therefore be taken as the first important milestone in Jane’s development. Seeing an alien version of herself in the mirror “[…] a strange little figure there gazing at me […]” (Brontë, 1847. p.26), Jane is made aware of another facet of her identity, another rebellious self, which is different from the typical, Victorian female identity. Having learned from this episode that she can live up to this new self and having found ways out of oppression, she gains so much self-confidence that she is able to speak up against Mrs. Reed:

“I am glad you are no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if anyone asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick and that you treated me with miserable cruelty” (Brontë, 1847. p. 26)

As a conclusion one can say that Jane develops at Gateshead from a totally oppressed girl, whose only retreat is her dream world, to a person, who discovers her rebellious and passionate self. Here she frees herself from being ruled by her aunt and her cruel son and makes one first step towards self-mastery and independence.

The next station on Jane’s pilgrimage is Lowood School where Jane is sent to shortly after her dispute with Mrs. Reed. The first representative of Lowood School Jane meets is Mr. Brocklehurst, the school’s headmaster. On her first encounter with him at Gateshead, Jane looked up – a black pillar! – such, at least appeared to me, at first sight, the straight, narrow, sable-clad shape standing erect on the rug: the grim face at he top was like a carved mask, placed above the shaft by way of capital. (Brontë, 1847. p. 22) The phallic imagery in this description underlines the assumption that Mr. Brocklehurst is another “representative of the patriarchal system”, (Moglen, 1978. p. 112) an institutionalised, stronger version of John Reed. Jane quickly has to realize that this hypothesis might be true. Under Brocklehurst’s strong command, the girls suffer from a severe lack of food: “[…] the scanty supply of food was distressing: with the keen appetites of growing children, we had scarcely sufficient to keep alive a delicate invalid.” (Brontë, 1847. p. 45) He abuses his powerful position and makes the school’s inmates live under terrible conditions. His letting the students almost starve, might serve as another means of male oppression of women. “[…] Brocklehurst projects onto their undernourished, underclass female bodies his own ruling-class male desires […].” (Fraiman, 1993. p. 102) Apart from these hardships, Jane does not have a good start with Mr. Brocklehurst at Lowood, either. He verbally attacks Jane by calling her “a liar” and “an agent of the Evil One” (Brontë, 1847. p. 50) Jane seems to be confronted with a similar situation as in the Reed household, which makes her very unhappy during the first days at the new place. But “Lowood does, paradoxically, provide Jane with a supportive environment” (Moglen, 1978. p. 114), which is, in the first place due to the fact that she is not alone anymore. “Now, because all students are victims, all are her companions and allies.” (Moglen, 1978. p. 113) The two most important characters for Jane’s development at Lowood are Helen Burns and Maria Temple. They do serve as the first positive, female role models Jane gets to know. Helen Burns, on the one hand, shows Jane an alternative way to cope with the cruelties of life. She does suffer severely from the situation at Lowood and especially from teachers like Mrs Scatcherd who seems to dislike her and punishes Helen more often than necessary. But unlike Jane, Helen does not feel the necessity to rise up against this unjust treatment; she tells Jane: “it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what is your fate to be required to bear” (Brontë, 1847. p. 41-42) Helen does not try to escape the patriarchal society, she lives in it and bears whatever she has to bear, comforted only by the goodness of Miss Temple and the teachings of the Bible. From Helen, Jane learns how a Victorian woman should be: obedient to religious and worldly authorities and self-denying, patiently bearing any fate. Therefore for Helen, the only way to escape her this disillusioning position in life is death. Facing it, being sick with typhus, she tells Jane: “By dying young, I shall escape great sufferings.” (Brontë, 1847. p. 62)

Miss Temple, on the other hand, is the first kind of mother figure for Jane. She holds her protective hand over Jane against Mr. Brocklehurst’s accusations and makes her feel comfortable at Lowood. She helps all the students whenever she can, supplying them with some extra food, when the kitchen serves rotten potatoes or other bad meals, but when Mr. Brocklehurst pays a visit to the school, Miss Temple also retreats to subordination. When she is questioned by Mr. Brocklehurst about giving out some extra food, Miss Temple does not take the opportunity to make him aware of the severe effects of hunger, but remains silent, “her mouth, closed as if it would have required a sculptor’s chisel to open it […]” (Brontë, 1847.p. 48) Although Miss Temple is, as the name tells, the “angel-in-the-house” (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979. p. 345), she is still not able to raise her voice against Mr. Brocklehurst’s male dominance. She finally makes her way into complete submission when she retires from Lowood and marries a clergyman. Nevertheless, Miss Temple gives a lot to Jane, she “is a maternal figure, an intelligent guide, a warm companion, she stimulates independence an respect for learning, pride in identity: a corrective to the oppression of male dominance” (Moglen, 1978. p. 115).


Excerpt out of 31 pages


Two versions of Bildungsromane: Jane Eyre and David Copperfield
University of Duisburg-Essen
Charles Dickens
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
595 KB
Bildungsromane, Jane, Eyre, David, Copperfield, Charles, Dickens
Quote paper
M.A. Oliver Blaha (Author), 2003, Two versions of Bildungsromane: Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Two versions of Bildungsromane: Jane Eyre and David Copperfield

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free