A paradox haunts the bildungsroman: few protagonists successfully complete the process of maturation and socialization that ostensibly defines the form. From the despondent endings of Dickens’s Great Expectations and Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel to the suicide of Balzac’s Lucien de Rubempré and the demise of Eliot’s Maggie and Tom Tulliver, the nineteenth-century bildungsroman offers narratives of failure, paralysis, and destruction: goals cannot be achieved, identities are impossible to forge, and the narrative of socialization routinely crumbles. Examining the novels of Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Henry James, Samuel Butler, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust, Falling Short reveals not only a crisis of character development but also a crisis of plotting and narrative structure.

From the inception of literary realism in the 1830s to the height of modernism a century later, the bildungsroman presents itself as a key symptom of modern Europe’s inability to envision either coherent subjectivity or successful socialization. Rather than articulating an arc of personal development, Stević argues, the bildungsroman tends to condemn its heroes to failure because our modern understanding of both individual subjectivity and social success remains riddled with contradictions. Placing primary texts in conversation with the central historical debates of their time, Falling Short offers a revisionist history of the realist and modernist bildungsroman, unearthing the neglected role of defeat in the history of the genre.

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