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'Is a woman a thinking unit at all, or a fraction always wanting its integer?' Representations of female education in four English and French Bildungsromane

Voyce, Katherine Elizabeth Madden (2022) 'Is a woman a thinking unit at all, or a fraction always wanting its integer?' Representations of female education in four English and French Bildungsromane. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94025) (KAR id:94025)


This thesis considers George Sand’s Valentine (1832), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) and Thomas Hardy’s

Jude the Obscure (1895) as female Bildungsromane to analyse representations of nineteenth-century female education in England and France. The research

presents a justification for an inclusive approach to the Bildungsroman genre, the parameters of which remain widely contested and often exclude the consideration of the female protagonist. Fundamentally, this work asserts education as being a critical component of the development, well-being and contentment of women as represented by the female protagonists in these novels. The approach adopted combines perspectives from feminist criticism and Bildungsroman genre theory with comparative historical analyses and detailed close readings of the novels to highlight the centrality of female education in the struggle for gender equality. Education is essential to shaping both the individual and society. It reflects and reinforces ideological assumptions, morality and notions and realities of personal worth and potential, and thus, it was a key focus for nineteenth-century feminist campaigners, both in England and in France. Formal education for girls was of a utilitarian nature, designed to prepare them for roles within the private rather thanthe public sphere, which was the preserve of men. Many feared that educating women beyond the requirements of domesticity would disrupt the social hierarchy and interfere with male privileges, rendering debates on the nature and purpose of female education highly contentious. While the traditional male Bildungsroman of the period assumes the eventual accommodation of the individual by broader society after a prolonged period of formation, social expectations and assumptions about the female remit hindered such complex development, rendering comfortable integration of the developed or educated female self into society structurally impossible. Reading these novels as female Bildungsromane illuminates the struggle of the individual woman against then-contemporary patriarchal conventions, including obstacles to and the psychosocial consequences of female education in all its facets. ‘Successful’ Bildung, culminating in the protagonist’s acceptance into society, occurs only in Jane Eyre, whose linear structure adheres most closely to the traditional male model of the Bildungsroman, albeit not without compromise. The success of Jane!s formation hinges on her ability to delay marriage until she can commit on her own terms after an extended period of development. She is able to resist unsatisfactory marriage proposals by means of self-assertion, cultivated by her reading and the establishment of female support networks. In contrast, the protagonists’ development in the other narratives is more circular as they are unable to extricate themselves from the mistakes of their youth, rely on female companionship, or overthrow the prejudices of their respective societies. In each novel, the outcomes of a utilitarian model of formal education are represented as damaging. Not only does a system based on control of women thwart the development of the individual, but such methods actually encourage the rebellion they are designed to prevent. Self-education, and, in particular, selfdirected reading, is represented as an act of resistance against the established order. In all four novels, the development of female Bildung appears thwarted by society’s refusal to grant women the process of trial and error which is integral to male Bildung. With the exception of Jane Eyre, there is a negative correlation between the development of self-knowledge and the social opportunities available. By centralising the plight of the female protagonist, the novels become vehicles of social criticism that present the dire consequences of a system predicated on female dependence and repression. They present powerful counter-narratives to the traditional educational remit for women, reflecting the growing social unrest that instigated social reform and fuelled the gradual movement towards female emancipation.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Schaffner, Anna
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94025
Uncontrolled keywords: Education; Bildung; Bildungsroman; Feminism; Nineteenth Century
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Culture and Languages
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 13 Apr 2022 08:10 UTC
Last Modified: 01 May 2023 23:00 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Voyce, Katherine Elizabeth Madden.

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