Bildungsroman is a novel genre that narrates a hero or heroine’s process of psychological maturation and focuses on experiences and changes that accompanies the growth of the character from youth to adulthood. “The term “Bildungsroman” was introduced to the critical vocabulary by the German philosopher and sociologist Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1941), who first employed it in an 1870 biography of Friedrich Schleiermacher and then popularized it with the success of his 1906 study Poetry and Experience” (Boes 231).
To be a Bildungsroman, the hero or heroine in a novel will experience certain forms of pain or loss that pulls him or her away from either family or home and into the journey of desiring self-identity. At the end of the story the hero or heroine finally succeeds in the society. The plot of Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Brontë, generally follows this form. The growth of the main character, Jane Eyre, is distinctively divided into phases by places that she stayed at, starting from her tragic childhood to her final destination as Mr. Rochester’s mistress. The changes of emotions and maturation of identities as Jane Eyre goes through her life provide evidence of a Bildungsroman.
Through the novel, Jane Eyre grows up, moving from a radical stage to “a more pragmatic consciousness” (Mickelsen 418). Psychological maturation is a typical trait of Bildungsroman genre. At the beginning, Jane uses the knowledge she learns from the books to defend herself when she is angry: “‘you are like a murderer – you are like a slave-driver – you are like the Roman emperors!'” (Brontë 8). Her angry and chaotic emotions have built up since she lost her parents and was adopted unwillingly by Mrs. Reed. Jane cannot find her place in this family. Her anger and desperation becomes more intense each time Mrs. Reed’s family treats her not as a family member but more like a servant. Jane’s burst of emotions against her cousin, John, resulted in her being locked ino the red-room and eventually sent to the Lowood School, where she spends the rest of her childhood and the beginning of her adolescence.
When Jane is again treated unfairly and libelled by Mr. Brocklehurst, through the support of her patient friend Helen Burns, and kind-hearted Miss Temple, she is able to release her indignation. Jane Eyre experiences a huge emotional transition when she no longer feels like a wanderer but gains a sense of belonging through the care of Miss Temple and the support of Helen. After Jane finishes her education at Lowood, she applies and becomes the governess of Adele where she will work at Thornfield. At Thornfield, Jane meets Mr. Rochester and experiences the most powerful emotion – love. Love makes Jane brave and mature.
Her relationship with Mr. Rochester makes her fell confused but respected. She feels psychologically equal with Mr. Rochester when he admits how much he loves her. However, Jane still feels insignificant that she has to depend on Mr. Rochester. The strong emotional conflict between love and shame makes Jane run away from Thornfield and go to Marsh End where she meets St. John. The final emotionally transitional state for Jane Eyre happened when St. John asked her to marry him and go to India to serve as a missionary. Jane strongly refused St. John’s proposal and decided to follow her heart and marry her lover, Mr. Rochester. The story concludes when, Jane Eyre, who is a successful Bildungsroman character, finishes her emotional maturation process.
Another significant feature of Bildungsroman is that the character will go through a series of challenges and changes in order to finally achieve complete self-actualization. Jane Eyre undergoes a period which she was called “a mad cat”, or titled “less than a servant” in Mrs. Reed’s house (Brontë 9). Deep in her mind, Janestrongly refuses these names; therefore she often hides and reads books in order to educate herself [rep] in order and build up her inner-self. In constructing a sense of inner self, Jane is able to differentiate her identity from the rest of Mrs. Reed’s family members. Jane has similar experience at Lowood School where she is incorrectly labelled “an interloper and an alien” and also harshly, “a liar” (Brontë 56). However, Miss Temple and Helen trust Jane which allows Jane to rebuild her point of view and establish new identity. In Jane’s life, they were the first to acknowledge Jane’s unique identity. Under Miss Temple’s protection and guidance, Jane completes her education at Lowood; however, Jane lives more like a shadow of Miss Temple.
Jane then later became the governess of Adele in order to break away the image of Miss Temple and create her own. There in Thornfield, she continues to educate herself by painting and reading to build up the real Jane Eyre identity. When Mr. Rochester asks Jane to marry him and gives e her the title of “Mrs. Rochester”, [p_voice] it stunned Jane that she will no longer be “Jane Eyre” but under the name of “Rochester”. Losing her self-identity frightened Jane and the shadow of class differences and unfairness from her childhood experience affected her and made her leave Mr. Rochester.
Later in the story, Jane finds her relatives in Marsh End and sheinherits a considerable amount of money, which makes herreconnect to family. Moreover, her newfound wealth makes her economically independent; these conditions eliminate Jane’s self-contempt and complete her desired image as an independent woman in society. At the end of the story, she choses to give up her independence and reunite with Mr. Rochester. “Indeed, Bildungsromane typically conclude with the protagonist making some choice, thereby confirming that the protagonist has achieved a coherent self”
The story of Jane Eyre starts from her helpless childhood until “the last step of [her] maturity when [she] finally finds self-knowledge (“she” in the original source is “he” for it was referring to hero)” (Kern 6). After all Jane has experienced, from an adopted orphan to a gentlemen’s mistress, she finally comes to a successful and independent state which she can make her own decision and will not be restricted by anything. The various challenges during Jane’s growing process that educate and change her emotions and identities align with the basic definition of a Bildungsroman genre. Although the story of Jane Eyre falls into a fairy tale ending, the novel Jane Eyre functions as a Bildungsroman.