Culture, Crisis, and Death in American Bildungsroman

by PammyMcB

The American bildungsroman is the search for ones identity, and when a person comes of age. In the American bildungsroman there are three common characteristics. These are the pressures the culture of the protagonist has to endure, the crisis that comes from these pressures, and the death of someone the protagonist does or does not know. Through looking at The House on Mango Street, The Bell Jar, and The Bluest Eye, I will attempt to prove that the above-mentioned characteristics are some of the most prominent characteristics of the American bildungsroman.

In the American bildungsroman, the culture exerts extreme pressure on the protagonist. The culture of the protagonist normally acts as a character itself, an antagonist. It is the culture that places the obstacles in the path of the protagonist. These obstacles are the driving force of the protagonist. They are what compels the story to move forward, and they motivate the protagonist to work for something different. Through the pressures of the culture the protagonist is able to decide they want something more than what the culture offers them.

As seen in The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood wants something more out of life than offered to her by her patriarchal dominated society. Her culture expects her to either be a wife or be a career woman. Esther does not understand why she cannot have both. Dr. Gordon is representative of the patriarchal forces that work against Esther. He and the people she cares about question her sanity because she wants something more out of life than what she is offered. She does not want to be a wife, who dies slowly and is a slave. Furthermore, Esther does not want to be “the place the arrow shoots off from” as Buddy Willard’s mother is.

Similarly, Esperanza Cordero of The House on Mango Street does not want to be a wife either. In her Mexican-American culture, Esperanza is only given one choice, to be a wife. Esperanza lives in a patriarchal dominated society just as is the culture that Esther lives in. The men are the ones that make the rules, such as “the man,” Mamacita’s husband. He demands that his wife speak English and tells her that he will never take her home. Therefore, she sits in the window just as other women, such as Rafaela, on Mango Street do, longing for something more than what their culture has offered them. Esperanza, however longs for much more than that.

Pecola in The Bluest Eye also longs for much more than what she is offered. However, Pecola wants something she can never have, the bluest eyes in the world. In the culture that Pecola, Frieda, and Claudia live in, the idea that black is equated with ugliness and white is right is more than evident. Claudia, however, does not understand this. For instance, she does not want the white baby doll that she is given. For a matter of fact, she refuses to love the baby doll that was given to her for Christmas. Furthermore, Claudia despises the white girls in her neighborhood, Rosemary and Maureen. However, she still fears not being white, but she also does not want to be like Geraldine, who tries to act white. Also, Claudia also cannot understand why her mother offers so much love to her employer’s white child, but cannot seem to show that kind of love to her own children, her black children. It is also the whiteness on Pecola’s underside of her foot that drives Cholly to rape his daughter; and it is the whiteness that Pecola covets so much that she makes the wish to Soaphead Church to have the bluest eyes. The pressure to be white, which is put on the girls, is what causes the crisis in their lives.

In all of the novels, the culture drives the crisis. Therefore the crisis is the effect of the culture, which is the cause. As stated before, The Bluest Eye’s crisis is the rape of Pecola, which results in her pregnancy. Another crisis that occurs is Frieda being fondled by Mr. Washington. Not only does crisis drive The Bluest Eye, but crisis also drives The Bell Jar. For instance, crisis is an obstacle in Esther’s life that she must overcome. She is put under so much pressure by her culture, that Esther falls into a deep depression that she has difficulty conquering. Esther cannot do what she is expected of her, but she has difficulty doing what she should not do. For instance, she tries to be like Doreen and tries to get back at Buddy by sleeping with Constantine, but she is unsuccessful in her endeavors. Therefore, Esther seems to be at a standstill in her life and cannot seem to move forward throughout The Bell Jar. Some examples are when she is almost raped by Marco, and she becomes obsessed with suicide, which she attempts later. Furthermore, Esther is also put through electroshock therapy, which has an adverse effect and causes immense pain in the young woman. Another time the girl is in pain is when Esther has sex for the first time. Because she is a one-in-a-million case, Esther almost hemorrhages to death.

Likewise, Esperanza having sex for the first time is also a crisis point in The House on Mango Street. She is raped at the carnival in the novel, and becomes angry with Sally because of how traumatic the experience was and how Sally had said sex was wonderful. Sally, however, is also a person that experiences a great deal of crisis in the book. Her father beats her constantly, and Sally’s mother does not do anything to help her daughter, other than rub lard on her bruises to make the pain go away. Therefore to escape from her father’s angry hand, Sally marries at a very young age. Unfortunately, Sally is still being beaten. However, she seems to think it is okay because she has some freedom that she would not have if she were left in her father’s home. Sadly, this freedom is not a freedom to do what she pleases, for she, too, is locked away in her home as if she were a prisoner or a possession sealed away in a vault.  To sum up, all of the American bildungsromans discussed in this paper have some sort of crisis, which is significant to the story. It often serves as a life-changing event.

Another life-changing event that can be seen in the American bildungsroman is death. All three of the stories mentioned have a death in them. For instance, Pecola’s baby dies and so do the marigolds in The Bluest Eye. This incident drives Pecola mad, and changes the life of Claudia forever. It is when she realizes that people like Pecola are often shut out of society, and she freely admits that she is also guilty of shutting the girl out of her life. The marigolds not growing represent the loss of innocence. Naively, Claudia believed that making a promise to God to be good and by planting the marigolds, she would be able to save Pecola’s unborn child since everyone had said the baby would not survive. When the marigolds die, Claudia must come to the understanding that not all wishes are granted; and there are some things in life that you just cannot do anything about.

Similarly, Esperanza realizes that there are things in life that she cannot do anything about as well. However, after the death of Rachel and Lucy’s baby sister, she knows that she can do something to help the women who “cannot out.” She learns from the three old women that she has a purpose, and it is not what society is offering her. This funeral is representative of the loss of Esperanza’s innocence and the end of her childhood.

In The Bell Jar, Esther also undergoes transformations when death is evident. For instance, in the first chapter of the book, Esther talks of the death of the Rosenbergs, who are executed around the time that she meets Doreen. Before Esther meets Doreen, she is just like all of the other girls that received the internship for the magazine. After she meets Doreen, Esther begins to want more freedom in her life than she is offered. Her old self, her false self dies. This, however, is not the only instance that death is mentioned in the novel. The Rosenbergs’ death is representative of the first change in her life, and it serves as the beginning of her depression, or metamorphosis. The second death in the novel serves as the emergence from Esther’s cocoon, and is when she is reborn. This death is the death of Joan Gilling, who hangs herself. When Esther goes to the funeral, she severs ties with her past; and with the body, Esther’s past is buried. She emerges from the world as a new person with new hopes and possibilities.

As proven, not only does Esther change from the deaths that occur in her life, but also all of the protagonists in the three novels change form the deaths in their lives. This is the point in their lives that signals a turning point and represents the finding of themselves and their identities. Esperanza learns that language will give her power and is her way out. She finally embraces part of her culture, but rejects the parts that oppress her. Claudia also accepts the part of her culture that keeps her oppressed, her blackness, but she is hopeful in the end that she will be able to rise above that oppression. From the pressures of their oppressive cultures, the crises that the girls in The House on Mango Street, The Bell Jar, and The Bluest Eye must endure, and the death that is evident in the three novels, Esther, Esperanza, and Claudia all have been able to redefine themselves and form a new identity separate from the identities expected of them.