Tuesday, June 02, 2009


The five volumes of Doris Lessing's Children of Violence follow a protagonist over the course of her life. At the start we meet Martha Quest in her youth and over the course of the books see her develop well into adulthood, the entire work hung together by the consciousness of the heroine. This is a revolutionary work. Lessing has broken through the boundaries of the traditional Bildungsroman form, extending the central character's journey well beyond what has come before.

What, you may ask, is a bildungsroman? It denotes a work of self-development, a fictional tale along the lines of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations wherein we follow along as the central character grows and develops within the context of a defined social order. It can be described as a quest tale the object of which is to find meaningful existence within society. Typically such a tale is limited to a single novel; what's more, coming into the twentieth century it applied exclusively to male protagonists.

Lessing has done more than change the gender of the hero. She has also made the development of the heroine's self contingent on relation to the greater collective. Whereas the dominant motif of the bildungsroman has been that by the novel's end social values become manifest in the individual, Lessing leaves the question open; an undetermined future remains open to Martha Quest whereby she will continue to pursue education and experience.

Beyond Doris Lessing's invaluable contribution to novel forms, there is more to the "female" bildungsroman yet to explore. Circularity, according to Helen Paloge, is foundational to the evolution of the form, "cyclical" time characterized by non-linear events. What is not remembered from the protagonist's past, and how is memory manipulated to create the sense of a fresh start? Events are revised as they are repeated, thus laminating the self over history. Without incorporating these new features to the form, a bildungsroman is doomed to being chained to the dusty past.

No comments: