Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Bildungsroman, Crucible, and Not to Forget Episode

bildungsroman--a novel about the growing-up process of a young person, seeking admission into the hallowed chambers of adulthood and supposed maturity; a youthful journey through painful experiences and idealism to a more pragmatic awareness of conventional behavior and ethics, often rendered in first person, autobiographical point of view, such as Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, and The Adventures of Augie March, but equally effective in third person, with he or she narrators, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and The Member of the Wedding.

Although some writers have deliberately set forth to write a bildungsroman, most have done so through the simple expedient of choosing an interesting, talented, or energetic young person as a protagonist (See Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis.), then following an arc if not the entirety of that person's life. Accordingly, some scholars, critics, and reviewers will call such a novel a bildungsroman. If said bildungsroman appears to be a cautionary tale or one with a strong dose of moral choice, then said scholars, critics and reviewers will be showing off their knowledge of the original intent of bildungsroman, which was to give young readers a means of measuring their own goals, behavior, and responses against some topical paradigm.

One American author, Horatio Alger, Jr., Americanized the Germanic construct to "rags to riches" in a series of inspirational and hortatory novels, a hobby horse he rode to fame well beyond his death in 1899, inspiring generations of young men to work their way to the top. All these many Horatio Alger stories could be thought of as bildungsromen.

Writers do themselves no good when they allow themselves to be reined in by a catch-all term or concept, regardless of how conventional the concept has become, nor how trendy and accepted it is. Stories of young men and women coming of age for a two-sided target, one for authors, the other for readers.

crucible--a scene or series of scenes in a narrative in which plot and character elements collide, intensify, and boil over to point of dramatic consequences; the narrative sense of increasing tension, building toward pressure; a bowl- or cup-shaped laboratory container, designed to heat chemical compounds to extreme temperatures. Hence the useful metaphor for the writer of a scene as a container of volatile elements to which the heat of dramatic pressure has been applied. To extend the metaphor from the physics of chemistry to the dynamics of drama, the notion of the crucible extends to the results of the heat hurrying along the inevitable change that is a part of story.

episode--a dramatic incident or event that is part of a larger work; scenes involving characters with whom the reader is familiar, being moved to activity if not action by accelerating circumstances of a plot design; a separate segment of a published work. The writer is most often likely to hear the word used about a particular work as an indication that the tail is wagging the dog--the incidents and moments are distracting the reader from the story. A work thought to be episodic is by not necessarily lacking suspense or other vital elements of drama, instead the work is seen as lacking the force of causality.

In a well-constructed story, characters behave as they do because the circumstances of their agenda and of the plot force them to do so or offer them unanticipated opportunities to do so, thus the sense of the presence of causality. Episodic narratives may be big on activity and movement but they emerge as not being relevant to the main force of the story. Think determinism, a concept that everything that happens is the antithesis of free will and is in fact the result of previous events. Stories are if not entirely deterministic, well guided by the principle of determinism. Think law in the sense of precedent-setting cases informing the rendering of new decisions; called stare decisis among legal scholars, their judicial reach for determinism is visible. No episodes for them.


Querulous Squirrel said...

Very interesting thoughts on episode and crucible. Never knew what bildungsroman referred to, embarrassed to admit. Now I just have to pronounce it correctly. And why German? The Sorrows of Young Werther?

Anonymous said...

I recently finished a novel (Careless In Red) that was one, long, episodic tale. I couldn't figure out why I wnated to put it down every few pages, since the characters, setting, and voice were all pretty compelling, but I realized that each scene was episodic in nature- creating a kind of go-halt-go response that I found very irritating after awhile.