For years, my thesis adviser kept telling me, “Clarissa, these are not real people you are discussing. These are characters. You are not analyzing historical accounts or ideological manifestos but works of art.” I had no idea what she was trying to tell me and kept getting annoyed.
And then I started reading criticism on female novel of development and realized that the following argument keeps being offered by the critics who write on the subject: “Novels reflect reality. The reality of women in the 19th century was that they were miserable, stunted, and oppressed. After the women’s liberation movements achieved important successes in the 1970ies, women became liberated, happy and a lot less oppressed. Ergo, novels about women written in the 19th century will be populated by oppressed, miserable female characters who are incapable of developing. After the 1970ies, novels will show crowds of happy, fulfilled female protagonists.”
When you start reading actual female Bildungsromane, you discover that both novels and reality are a lot more complex than such facile definitions allow us to imagine. These works of fiction do not conform to the critical expectations in the least. Often, they present the exact opposite of what the above-mentioned argument leads us to expect.
This is probably the rule of literary criticism that it took me the longest to learn: characters are not real people.