A Novel without a Self: Decentering the Protagonist in the Modernist Bildungsroman




Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



This dissertation offers a new way of conceptualizing the modernist Bildungsroman, one that accounts for the oft-noted incongruity between modernist experiment and the entrenched realism of the Victorian Bildungsroman. Specifically, I argue that modernist novels such as Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, and James Joyce’s Ulysses reject the conventional hierarchical arrangement of characters, according to which minor characters collectively shore up the centrality of the protagonist, and posit in its stead a more flattened system, one in which the old model of “protagonism” nearly disappears. This shift clears a space for a developing self that is conditioned by its exposure to other selves—a self, in other words, that is constituted by and develops alongside the other selves to which it is exposed. Thus, despite the fact that the aforementioned novels hardly resemble their Victorian counterparts, they nevertheless participate in the same generic tradition insofar as they attempt to retain a workable narrative framework for both a different conception of selfhood and an attendant conception of Bildung or development. Adapting the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, I argue that the development narratives of “high modernism” attempt to accommodate an ontology of “being-with” through what I am calling a “becoming-with.” Thus, the most significant intervention of the modernist novel within the form of the Bildungsroman is not, as others have argued, its emphasis on failed or protracted Bildung plots, but rather its emphasis on a leveled character system that challenges the centrality of the atomic self (represented by the strong protagonist) and the ideology undergirding it.



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Committee Chair

Kronick, Joseph



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