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Through the Second Looking Glass: Inventing the Minority Bildungsroman


My dissertation argues for the importance of what I term the minority Bildungsroman, a genre that twentieth-century writers adopted in order to represent racial anxiety as well as to imagine a way for the minority subject to move beyond it. By looking at the minority Bildungsroman as a literary form that exposes the process of Bildung not as self-formation but as self-dissolution, I aim to offer an important new perspective into how minority literature uses genre and literary history: only close attention to plot, character, and narrative reveals how these texts create a new genre to depict the minority subject's escape from the complex of socially-imposed identities originating from the dead mother complex. Unlike the subject of the traditional Bildungsroman, who achieves social integration and a stable ego, the minority subject in this new genre fails to successfully internalize the social roles that he is assigned. The instability and suffering imposed by double consciousness and racial anxiety cause him to throw off his prescribed identities. The narrator of Invisible Man, for instance, pursues experiences aimed at achieving social integration. Yet these paths result only in failure. He excels at college and glimpses a future of affluence and prominence, for instance, but only to be summarily expelled. Such experiences fail to produce what they promise, eventually thwarting his desire for normality and success. Seeking to be more than the poor, rural blacks that haunt his memory, yet unable to assimilate, Invisible Man progressively casts off elements of his social identity, and, in the novel's climax, reaches a state of social formlessness, or invisibility. The structures of white society, Ellison implies, cannot but deform those minorities who attempt to live in accordance with them. This movement towards self-disintegration, however, opens the space for the radical conclusion of the minority Bildungsroman. As a subject without subjectivities he begins what I call a "second mirror stage." By combining Lacan's notion of subject formation with Du Bois's conception of the end of double consciousness as a "longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self," I argue that the second mirror stage allows the subject to reconstitute his ego and identity. This process terminates racial anxiety and the double consciousness that engenders it. Reworking the form of the traditional Bildungsroman, these authors use formal innovation as the means of reimagining the self and, I argue, show that literary analysis is capable of recovering otherwise hard-to-access originary psychic traumas.

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