Initiation, apprentissageCours

Individuals develop from children to mature adults thanks to education, rites and experiences. Young boys and girls first discover and experience the world through their parents' eyes as well as their own; they mingle with other children and learn how to behave in society at school. Interacting with others enables them to see the world from different points of view and become independent and free-thinking people. People grow up thanks to initiation and experiences, which enables them to develop a personality of their own, as is chronicled in children literature and bildungsromans. Adults continue to grow as they navigate through life juggling successes and failures, and learning from their mistakes and unexpected disappointments. 


Growing up through initiation and experiences 

Growing up consists in a gradual move from innocence to experience with ordeals and challenges every step of the way. Through this process, children become teenagers and, later, adults who have to find ways to exist as individuals among others. 


From innocence to experience 

Children are said to be innocent because they know very little about the world and the people around them. They are kept ignorant of evil, danger and hardships until they experience them at school or at home. 


Children's experiences 

Childhood is the first stage of one's development into an adult. It is also the moment in life when individual are the most dependent and vulnerable, because their knowledge of the world are very limited. That's why the experiences people have as children are so impactful that they shape their minds and might even direct the course of their lives.

Matilda by Roald Dahl tells the story of a little girl feeling out of place in her family who treat her as an ugly duckling. 

Matilda, Roald Dahl

Contrary to her shallow mother, Matilda prefers books to clothes and make-up and is not interested in her looks. As for her father, he wishes she were a boy. Matilda is considered odd and useless by her own. She finds refuge at school, where she has both friends and books. Her experience of rejection makes her particularly intolerant of injustices, so much so that she develops supernatural powers she uses to punish naughty pupils and the harsh headmaster. An unusually mature and clever girl, Matilda quickly learns to fend for herself and earns herself a better life at the end of the story. She arranges to be adopted by her school mistress after getting redress for her. What this story tells readers is that bad experiences can be turned into strengths, as is metaphorically evidenced by Matilda's magical powers. Rejection and loneliness have strengthened her courage and determination. Matilda also deals with the power of books and literature, i.e. education and the imagination, which are essential parts of an individual's development, as will be studied in greater depths further on. 

"Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it's unbelievable."

Roald Dahl


© Puffin, 1988

Another famous novel about life-changing childhood experiences is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960 in the US. Set in 1930 racist Alabama, it tells the story of Scout, a little girl who learns about tolerance and justice.

English French
To juggle Jongler entre
An ordeal Une épreuve désagréable
Hardships Des difficultés
Shallow Superficiel
One's own Les siens (= sa famille)
An ugly duckling Un vilain petit canard (d'après le conte d'Andersen)
To fend for oneself Se débrouiller seul

Being a teenager 

Adolescence, also referred to as one's teenage years, is the transition period from childhood to adulthood. Teenagers undergo tremendous physical and psychological changes, while struggling with their elusive identities in the making.

Rejecting one's parents' standards is often part of the growing up process, hence the need to transgress and rebel. To come of age therefore implies negotiating dilemmas, as is exemplified in Lynn Barber's autobiographical book An Education, which was adapted into a film. 

"Was Simon a con-man? Well, he was a liar and a thief who used charm as his jemmy to break into my parents' house and steal their most treasured possession, which was me. Of course Oxford, and time, would have stolen me away eventually, but Simon made it happen almost overnight. Until our "engagement", I'd thought my parents were ignorant about many things (fashion, for instance, and existentialism, and why Jane Austen was better than Georgette Heyer) but I accepted their moral authority unquestioningly. So when they casually dropped the educational evangelism they'd sold me for 18 years and told me I should skip Oxford to marry Simon, I thought, "I'm never going to take your advice about anything ever again." And when he turned out to be married, it was as if, tacitly, they concurred. From then on, whenever I told them my plans, their only response was a penitent "You know best".
What did I get from Simon? An education − the thing my parents always wanted me to have. I learned a lot in my two years with Simon. I learned about expensive restaurants and luxury hotels and foreign travel, I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. All this was useful when I went to Oxford − I could read a menu, I could recognise a fingerbowl, I could follow an opera, I was not a complete hick. But actually there was a much bigger bonus than that. My experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford, I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, straightforward boys my own age, no matter if they were gauche or virgins. I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Simon to thank.
But there were other lessons Simon taught me that I regret learning. I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but to watch what they do; I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of "living a lie". I came to believe that other people − even when you think you know them well − are ultimately unknowable. Learning all this was a good basis for my subsequent career as an interviewer, but not, I think, for life. It made me too wary, too cautious, too ungiving. I was damaged by my education."

Lynn Barber

An Education

© Lynn Barber, 2009

An Education focuses on a bright and promising seventeen-year-old lower middle-class student who wants to study at Oxford or Cambridge. Both her family and teachers are encouraging her, because they see her destined to a brilliant future. To her parents, this would mean climbing up the social ladder. However, this carefully laid-out plan is suddenly compromised when Lynn meets a rich man and takes a more winding path. The title Lynn Barber chose for her book subtly sums up the dilemma she faced at the time. She was torn apart between going to college and learning about life through experience. Lynn didn't have to make a decision after all, because she got both. Lynn did go to Oxford after learning a harsh life lesson that precipitated her into adulthood at an early age, but also made her world-wiser than she would have been without this man. She found out the man she had fallen in love with was a married father-of-two. She also found out her parents knew all along and watched her get on with it, so that she would learn from her mistakes. It taught her to make her own decisions and to take responsibility for her actions. That's the conclusion the more mature Lynn draws at the end of her book. 

J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is a story of initiation into adult life through the character of Holden Caulfield. The reader follows him up and the down the streets of New York after he dropped out of school to discover life on his own. His empirical education includes dangerous encounters, sex and homelessness. This journey of initiation teaches Holden to get to grips with existential fears and issues.

English French
Elusive Insaisissable 
To come of age Atteindre la majorité
Winding  Sinueux
Torn apart Écartelé
World-wise Lucide sur le monde 
A con-man Un escroc
A thief Un voleur
To drop out of school Arrêter l'école 
To get to grips with Prendre à bras le corps

Ordeals and achievements 

To grow up is also to face ordeals and challenges that enable children and teenagers to fight their own battles and prove their worth. This doing, they enhance their skills to go beyond their own limits.


Fighting one's own battles 

Fighting like a hero or heroine to defeat evil characters or dark forces is a very common theme in children's and teenagers' books. Winning the fight means overcoming one's fears and difficulties to upgrade to the next level and grow up.

The protagonists come out stronger, braver and cleverer, teaching young readers the value of courage and perseverance. Life is about fighting one's own battles to become who one wants to be, which is sometimes achieved fulfilling one's destiny as in Harry Potter. Like Jesus, Harry Potter was born to save his fellow wizards and witches from evil through self-sacrifice. This was foretold in a prophecy voiced before he came into the world. In each of the seven volumes included in the saga, Harry and his friends have to fight and win a battle that takes them each time another step closer to the final battle. Losing friends, companions and relatives on the way forces them to grapple with death and loss. Each victory hardens them a little more in preparation for the greatest of challenges towards adulthood: destroying Voldemort. The latter is Harry's evil twin, a nightmarish of who he could have become if he had chosen to join the dark side. Although he is fated to take him away, killing him is a way for Harry to choose what sort of man he wants to be. His year-long struggle against Voldemort is metaphoric of his struggle to find out who he truly is, regardless of his parents' legacy and assigned mission on earth. 

"Having ensured this two-fold connection, having wrapped your destinies together more securely than ever, two wizards were joined in history, Voldemort proceeded to attack you with a wand that shared a core with yours. And now, something very strange happened, as we know. The cores reacted in a way that Lord Voldemort, who never knew that your wand was a twin of his, had ever expected. He was more afraid than you were that night, Harry. You had accepted, even embraced, the possibility of death, something Lord Voldemort has never been able to do. Your courage won, your wand overpowered his. And in doing so, something happened between those wands, something that echoed the relationship between their masters."

J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

© Bloomsbury, 2007

Here is an excerpt from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, just after Harry was hit by Voldemort, but didn't die. Albus Dumbledore appears to him in a sort of dream to explain to Harry why he survived Voldemort's attack and defeated him. 

In an essay offering a philosophical approach to Harry Potter, Marianne Chaillan argued in an essay that Harry Potter becomes a full-fledged adult when he decides to sacrifice himself. Indeed, contrary to his opponent whose ultimate goal was to defeat death, Harry accepts and even embraces his mortality. This doing, he reaches wisdom and serenity because he is no longer afraid of death. 

English French
To prove one's worth Faire ses preuves
To enhance Augmenter/améliorer
Two-fold Double 
Mortality La finitude
Full(y)-fledged Accompli
Wisdom La sagesse

Proving one's worth 

Quite a few stories of initiation feature teenagers or young adults left to their own devices and forced to fight for their survival, which offers them opportunities to prove their worth to others as well as themselves.

Teenagers are often struggling to survive teaches one self-reliance, courage and determination, as in William Golding's Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of young boys wrecked on a desert island after their plane crashed. They learn to hunt and build shelters, whilst trying to found a small-size society. Rivalry and tension arise when the boys start competing for power and authority, which revives basic instincts. Two leaders rise to prominence, both determined to become the group's saviour by proving himself to be the strongest and hardest boy. Values such as courage and solidarity, which the boys should be able to demonstrate at difficult times, are gradually replaced by violence and physical strength. The boys grow wilder and wilder. Manhunts are organised resulting in brutal killings. However, the one proving himself the smartest and strongest is Piggy. Although asthmatic and near-sighted, he is the only one able to devise rational and well-thought survival strategies. He embodies the last remnant of civilization, which is why his death marks the end of civilised. Ralph, the physically strong leader, would never have held on without Piggy's intelligence. They are the two sides of the same coin attesting that both brains and muscles are needed to survive in society. That's why he is so distraught when Piggy is thrown off a cliff: "His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy." Piggy's demise symbolises the end of childhood for Ralph and the boys. 

English French
Left to one's own devices Seul pour s'en sortir
Self-reliance Autonomie
Wrecked Échoué
A shelter Un abri
A manhunt Une chasse à l'homme
Near-sighted Myope
To devise a strategy Élaborer une stratégie
The last remnant Le dernier pan/bastion

Existing among others

One of the biggest challenges individuals growing up have to face is how to find their role and place among others at school, university and in society. This is called belonging.

Humans are known to be a gregarious species, meaning that they cannot exist independently from their fellow creatures. They need to be integrated in a community and society to feel both useful and important, which contributes to defining their individual identities. Some communities or societies are particularly influential, to the extent that they may preside over their members' destinies. University clubs and societies in the US and the UK are very powerful, so belonging to one of them can ease or hamper members' starts in life. This is the subject of The Riot Club, a movie about the Oxonian Bullingdon Club. 

The Riot Club

The Riot Club is a closed circle of wealthy students, most of them of aristocratic descent, whose main life principle is hedonism. They gather once a year to carouse in a restaurant in the country. The film focuses on one specific dinner, when the young men became so imbibed they ended up killing the pub owner in a violent spree. The end of the movies shows us how they stick up for each other to get away with murder. The first one who dares to betray the others is as good as dead socially, which is why the incident will remain a binding secret between them – the one rotten thing that makes them stick together as a group. The Riot Club perverted the usual values of solidarity, support and trust by making them subservient to selfish ambitions, immoral goals and unethical pursuits. Guilt and empathy are insignificant in this dark world whose powerful members operate from behind the scenes to control politicians. 

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron was a member of the Bullingdon Club, when he was a student in Oxford, as was Boris Johnson, who is currently at the head of the British government. 

Donna Tartt's The Secret History tells a similar murder story on campus. A group of idle affluent students happens to kill a man during one of their esoteric experiences in the woods near campus. The protagonist, who is an outsider, becomes an accomplice after finding out about the crime. He had worked hard to be part of their world, earning his place among a Greek teacher's group of pet students through hard work. His sense of belonging to their close social circle derives from their shared secret, which unites them. 

English French
Gregarious Grégaire
Belonging Appartenance
Oxonian D'Oxford
To hamper Entraver
To ease Faciliter
Imbibed Éméché
A spree  Un accès de
To stick up for someone Couvrir qqn
To get away with S'en sortir
Binding  Contraignant
Behind the scenes Dans les coulisses
An accomplice Un complice
Pet students Des chouchous

The development of individuality and personality

Asserting oneself as an individual with a personality of one's own forms an essential part of one's development as a fully-fledged person. Education and travels enable young people and adults to discover the wider world as well as themselves. This has been explored by 18th and 19th century writers in bildungsromans, known as novels of development or apprenticeship in English. 



Education is necessary to acquire greater knowledge of the world through reading and learning to think for oneself. The protagonists in novels of development are described learning, debating and reflecting. 


Acquiring knowledge 

In order to form and express opinions of their own, young individuals need to be taught history, science, literature and the arts. They also have to learn how to use this knowledge to make their way through society and the world. Without knowledge, they don't stand a chance to fulfil their ambitions or dreams and become someone.

Historically, boys and girls were not educated the same way, because they were not destined to hold the same positions in society. While young men are taught Greek, Latin, economics, politics, and the art of war, their female counterparts are instructed on playing an instrument, singing, sewing, embroidering and managing the household. This was reflected and questioned in many novels, like George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. The novel centres on the Tulliver siblings, Tom and Maggie, who have two very different approaches to life. Whereas Tom boasts practical skills and favours pragmatism, Maggie unconventionally aspires to become a learned young woman. She wants to learn Latin and Greek and likes discussing books and philosophical theories with her intellectual soulmate, Philip Wakem. Tom Tulliver is nonetheless taught Greek and classical literature, but makes a poor learner because he can't see the use of this knowledge to run a business of his own. Maggie envies her brother his education. She doesn't aspire to be a tamed bird in her future husband's home, she wants to be learned. Through the protagonists, Eliot showed that education, being key to individuals' self-development, it should be better suited to their needs, tastes and aspirations, regardless of gender. What one learns determines the course of one's life. Education was considered by Eliot as the best and quickest way to emancipation and free-thinking, especially for women. Her novels follow female characters' winding progress towards greater knowledge of the world and independence to be able to exercise personal judgement and make their own decisions. 

Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch, wishes to marry a man who will enlighten her on any and every subject to enable her to rise intellectually. Indeed, Dorothea's sole aspiration in life at the beginning of the novel is to learn as many things as possible. She sees her match in a callous middle-aged man named Casaubon, who is engaged in writing a book that will be the key to all mythologies. Seeing the possibility of intellectual partnership and a unique opportunity to extent her knowledge, she becomes adamant she should be his wife to assist him in the enterprise. Here is an excerpt from chapter III, which explains Dorothea's high hopes and goals. 

If it had really occurred to Mr. Casaubon to think of Miss Brooke as a suitable wife for him, the reasons that might induce her to accept him were already planted in her mind, and by the evening of the next day the reasons had budded and bloomed. For they had had a long conversation in the morning, while Celia, who did not like the company of Mr. Casaubon's moles and sallowness, had escaped to the vicarage to play with the curate's ill-shod but merry children.
Dorothea by this time had looked deep into the ungauged reservoir of Mr. Casaubon's mind, seeing reflected there in vague labyrinthine extension every quality she herself brought; had opened much of her own experience to him, and had understood from him the scope of his great work, also of attractively labyrinthine extent. For he had been as instructive as Milton's "affable archangel;" and with something of the archangelic manner he told her how he had undertaken to show (what indeed had been attempted before, but not with that thoroughness, justice of comparison, and effectiveness of arrangement at which Mr. Casaubon aimed) that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed. Having once mastered the true position and taken a firm footing there, the vast field of mythical constructions became intelligible, nay, luminous with the reflected light of correspondences. But to gather in this great harvest of truth was no light or speedy work. His notes already made a formidable range of volumes, but the crowning task would be to condense these voluminous still-accumulating results and bring them, like the earlier vintage of Hippocratic books, to fit a little shelf. In explaining this to Dorothea, Mr. Casaubon expressed himself nearly as he would have done to a fellow-student, for he had not two styles of talking at command […] Dorothea was altogether captivated by the wide embrace of this conception. Here was something beyond the shallows of ladies' school literature: here was a living Bossuet, whose work would reconcile complete knowledge with devoted piety; here was a modern Augustine who united the glories of doctor and saint. […] she found in Mr. Casaubon a listener who understood her at once, who could assure her of his own agreement with that view when duly tempered with wise conformity, and could mention historical examples before unknown to her.
"He thinks with me," said Dorothea to herself, "or rather, he thinks a whole world of which my thought is but a poor twopenny mirror. And his feelings too, his whole experience—what a lake compared with my little pool!"

George Eliot



Dorothea's idealisation of Casaubon is manifest in her enthusiastic description of him through hyperboles and metaphors extolling his scholarly virtues: "a living Bossuet," "complete knowledge," "a modern Augustine who united the glories of doctor and saint." She totally idealises and worships him as a god of knowledge, which can only result in disappointment. Indeed, assist him she does once they are married, but she is never repaid with either greater knowledge or affection. As Dorothea soon finds out at her own expense, nothing but his work matters to Casaubon, who dies before he could fulfil his unachievable scholarly ambition. Dorothea's mistake in marrying a man without properly knowing him is part of her education, since it made her aware of her blindness and taught her to better adjust her ideals to reality. 

English French
Apprenticeship Apprentissage
To boast Se targuer de 
A soulmate Une âme sœur 
Callous Bourru 
To worship Vénérer
At her own expense À ses dépens

Learning to think and act

Being able to think for oneself with judgement and hindsight means using one's knowledge and experience of the world and other people to generate personal ideas on a variety of subjects.

It can sometimes lead one to break away from society to live according to one's own values and principles, as did Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild. The book by Jon Krakauer and film adaptation by Sean Penn are both based upon the true story of a young man, fresh from university, who gave up his comfortable life to live in the wild with the bare essentials. He symbolically disposed of his credit card to manifest his rejection of capitalism and the consumer society. After going to college and graduating, as his parents expected him to do, Alexander thought it was high time he abided by his alternative standards, inventing a way of life tailored to suit his aspirations to authenticity and simplicity. It was his knowledge and experience of life and people that put him off the conformist world he grew up in and made him want to think out of the box and walk off the beaten tracks. However radical it might seem, Alexander's hard life off the grid allowed him to free himself from societal and familial strains while putting his own ideas about life to the test. He described his self-exploratory journey into the wild as the actual beginning of his life, like a rebirth. 

"Dear Diary, 

Today, I finally reached the great white north of Alaska, the birthplace and beginning of my great odyssey! This is the final and greatest adventure that I will ever undertake. […] I will live in the wild, away from civilization and without money. Being alone without government control and the poisonous civilization, I can truly live as a free spirit in ultimate freedom. "I now walk into the wild.""

Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild

© Random House, 1996

Alexander is determined to live as a self-made outcast who doesn't need the company of superficial hypocrites, aka "the poisonous civilization," or politicians to guide him through life. He professes self-reliance and self-government, which are the only means to think freely for oneself. 

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac used the metaphor of the journey on the road to depict his characters' sense of aimlessness and desperate attempts to give meaning to their lives. 

English French
The bare essentials Le strict nécessaire
An outcast Un paria

Discovering the wider world 

Travelling Europe and the wider world started to become fashionable in the 19th century, at the same time the British Empire expanded to include India and parts of Africa. This growing interest for foreign places and far-away countries was reflected in literature and the arts. 


Journeys and travels

To visit a foreign country is to discover new sceneries, adapt to new customs and encounter new people, which may prove a challenge to people with misconceptions or narrow worldviews. That's why travelling is often used by writers as a metaphor for learning to see the world as it is through unprejudiced eyes. 

Edward Morgan Forster's novels include travels and confrontations between foreign people and territories. Through these culture clashes, he explored individual reactions to change and difference. His characters are made to question themselves and their conceptions of or ideas about life, society, religion or art. The title of the novel is a metaphor for the fact that people consider the world from established standpoints. It through this process that they open up to the world and grow morally and intellectually, like Lucy Honeychurch, the protagonist of A Room with A View. She travels to Italy, where she gradually learns to look at things with her own eyes instead of through the lens of her English education and mindset. At the end of the novel, Lucy is able to make decisions and choices for herself, regardless of what propriety or etiquette would prescribe. The following excerpt presents readers with an inexperienced Lucy, who sets out to discover Florence and visit the Santa Croce without her Baedecker. It comes as no surprise that she should soon be totally lost in the city.

"Certainly, they had seemed a long time in reaching Santa Croce, the tower of which had been plainly visible from the landing window. But Miss Lavish had said so much about knowing her Florence by heart, that Lucy had followed her with no misgivings.
"Lost! lost! My dear Miss Lucy, during our political diatribes we have taken a wrong turning. How those horrid Conservatives would jeer at us! What are we to do? Two lone females in an unknown town. Now, this is what I call an adventure."
Lucy, who wanted to see Santa Croce, suggested, as a possible solution, that they should ask the way there.
"Oh, but that is the word of a craven! And no, you are not, not, NOT to look at your Baedeker. Give it to me; I shan't let you carry it. We will simply drift.” […] How could she find her way home? How could she find her way about in Santa Croce? Her first morning was ruined, and she might never be in Florence again. A few minutes ago she had been all high spirits, talking as a woman of culture, and half persuading herself that she was full of originality. Now she entered the church depressed and humiliated, not even able to remember whether it was built by the Franciscans or the Dominicans. Of course, it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold! Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were? She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin. Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy."

E.M. Forster

A Room with a View 


The episode is emblematic of the young woman's inability to fend for herself. It symbolically teaches her that her education is quite useless, because it hasn't prepared her for unexpected difficulties. However, she seems to enjoy discovering Italy unchaperoned with only her eyes to see and mind to marvel at so much unfamiliar beauty. Once inside the church, she is free to study its architecture and paintings, but finds it hard to make sense of it all on her own. As she had so far been used to seeing the world in a certain way and light, she fails to understand everything and mistakes Machiavelli for someone else. The reference to John Ruskin, the most influential art critic and historian of 19th century England, highlights the fact that Lucy's Victorian education is to no avail. Discovering Italy and its treasures on her own and by herself becomes a metaphor for self-emancipation and development. 

E.M. Forster was a member of the intellectual circle known as the forward-thinking Bloomsbury Group, to which Virginia Woolf also belonged. Their fellow members would gather regularly to discuss literature, art, politics and economics and suggest new ideas. They rejected Victorian values and standards, which they found stifling and limiting. Together, they intended to initiate an artistic renewal and help build a new English society.

English French
Prejudice Préjugé
Baedecker Un guide de voyage (la référence des Anglais à l'époque)
Forward-thinking Avant-gardiste

The Grand Tour 

Going abroad was a necessary part of any young aristocrat's education. They would discover a wide range of different landscapes and customs, enhance their command of foreign languages and complement their sentimental education. These final formative years were known as the Grand Tour, because these young men travelled across Europe to visit Paris and the French coquettes, meet philosophers in Germany, experience awe in the Swiss Alps and lose themselves in art galleries and museums in Italy.

Many artists and writers, like Turner or Lord Byron embarked on long journeys in search of new sources of inspirations or ideas. Since these journeys were so eventful and varied, they provided novelists with rich material to write their books. 

Henry James wrote his own bildungsroman entitled The Portrait of a Lady. It features a female protagonist, Isabel Archer, who undertakes a personal grand tour from the US to Europe, leading her to greater knowledge of the world and its people. Isabel Archer is a young and somewhat naïve woman redolent of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. She dreams of an independent and exhilarating life, rejecting the traditional wife-mother pattern, claiming that there are many more interesting things to do than to get married. With enough money to be her own woman, Isabel can afford to proclaim that "to be rich is to be able to meet the requirements of one's imagination." Isabel discovers England, France and Italy with her grandmother, broadening the scope of her knowledge in many ways. It her fateful encounter with Lord Osmond in Italy that will prove the most enlightening experiences of all. No sooner has she married him than she realises she was tricked into expecting a life of aesthetic and intellectual pleasures in Rome. Osmond, who is a bankrupt, was after Isabel's money. Through this story of an heiress's life-changing grand tour, James examines the consequences of delusions and thwarted expectations as suffered by his heroine who fails to see the world as it is for want of greater experience. 

"Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her imagination was remarkably active. It had been her fortune to possess a finer mind than most of the persons among whom her lot was cast; to have a larger perception of surrounding facts and to care for knowledge that was tinged with the unfamiliar. It is true that among her contemporaries she passed for a young woman of extraordinary profundity; for these excellent people never withheld their admiration from a reach of intellect of which they themselves were not conscious, and spoke of Isabel as a prodigy of learning, a creature reported to have read the classic authors—in translations […]It was almost as unnecessary to cultivate doubt of one's self as to cultivate doubt of one's best friend: one should try to be one's own best friend and to give one's self, in this manner, distinguished company. The girl had a certain nobleness of imagination which rendered her a good many services and played her a great many tricks. She spent half her time in thinking of beauty and bravery and magnanimity; she had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action […].
England was a revelation to her, and she found herself as diverted as a child at a pantomime. In her infantine excursions to Europe she had seen only the Continent, and seen it from the nursery window; Paris, not London, was her father's Mecca, and into many of his interests there his children had naturally not entered. The images of that time moreover had grown faint and remote, and the old-world quality in everything that she now saw had all the charm of strangeness. Her uncle's house seemed a picture made real; no refinement of the agreeable was lost upon Isabel; the rich perfection of Gardencourt at once revealed a world and gratified a need. The large, low rooms, with brown ceilings and dusky corners, the deep embrasures and curious casements, the quiet light on dark, polished panels, the deep greenness outside, that seemed always peeping in, the sense of well-ordered privacy in the centre of a "property"."

Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady

This excerpt from the novel offers a very accurate portrayal of Isabel Archer a young woman of parts driven by her staunch will to live by her personal standards and guided by a vivid imagination. She even seems to be living outside reality in an imaginary world she invented for herself and seems to think is the real world. The character tends to appraise what she sees through her imagination, and consequently views the world around her as it suits her to see them, which results in idealisation and misreading. The description of England through her eyes shows Isabel's imagination at work on her surroundings ("Her uncle's house seemed a picture made real"). That's why her discovery of Europe can only nurture her imagination, when it should make her world-wiser. 

James's The Portrait of a Lady partakes of a tradition of female novels of development initiated in the eighteenth century by writers such as Daniel Defoe, Frances Burney and Jane Austen.

Turner brought back many sketches and watercolours from his travels across Europe. These works of art would later serve as inspirations for his larger oil paintings and pictorial experiments.


© Wikimedia Commons

English French
Redolent of Qui rappelle
A bankrupt Un homme ruiné
An heiress Une héritière
A sketch Une esquisse
A watercolour  Une aquarelle

Adulthood and maturity

Adult life comes with its fair share of achievements and disappointments. Children and teenagers see it as the time in their lives when their dreams come true to live up to their many expectations. They act and err in their pursuit of personal fulfilment and happiness. 


Learning from one's mistakes 

Adults make mistakes, just like children, and have to make sure they won't repeat them.

Learning from them is the best way to self-improvement and greater self-knowledge, as Emma by Jane Austen shows readers. Emma Woodhouse is a sharp young woman who prides herself on being an excellent matchmaker, although she herself is unwilling to tie the knot. However, when she tries to marry off her friend Harriet Smith, she fails for lack of better judgement. Indeed, Emma repeatedly mistakes civility for affection, going as far as imagining her friend to be the object of a young gentleman's infatuation. When she finds out he is engaged to another woman called Jane Fairfax, Emma begins to doubt her ability to probe other people's hearts. 

"Had you any idea," cried Harriet, "of his being in love with her?—You, perhaps, might.—You (blushing as she spoke) who can see into every body's heart; but nobody else—" 
"Upon my word," said Emma, "I begin to doubt my having any such talent. Can you seriously ask me, Harriet, whether I imagined him attached to another woman at the very time that I was—tacitly, if not openly— encouraging you to give way to your own feelings?—I never had the slightest suspicion, till within the last hour, of Mr. Frank Churchill's having the least regard for Jane Fairfax. You may be very sure that if I had, I should have cautioned you accordingly." 
"Me!" cried Harriet, colouring, and astonished. "Why should you caution me?—You do not think I care about Mr. Frank Churchill." 
"I am delighted to hear you speak so stoutly on the subject," replied Emma, smiling; "but you do not mean to deny that there was a time—and not very distant either—when you gave me reason to understand that you did care about him?" 
"Him!—never, never. Dear Miss Woodhouse, how could you so mistake me?" turning away distressed.
Emma's eyes were instantly withdrawn; and she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched—she admitted—she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet's having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself! Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling.

Jane Austen


It turns out Emma has neglected her feelings. She has been too busy making matches to realise she loves her childhood friend Mr Knightley, whom Harriet Smith sees as a suitable match for her. Emma's jealousy towards her lady friend enlightens her on her own feelings, causing the usually poised Emma to grow restless as she is overwhelmed by her emotions.

English French
To tie the knot Se marier
To pride onself on + V-ing/+ N S'enorgueillir de
A matchmaker Une entremetteuse
Civility La politesse
To probe the heart of Sonder le cœur de 

Dreams and disillusionments

Not all dreams are fulfilled, hence disillusionments and disappointments is adult's hardest lesson to learn. That's why adults often find themselves dealing failures and disappointments.

Young men and women who have just come of age are often full of hope and ambitions which they expect to fulfil in due time. They work hard and strike up useful friendships to that end, as did Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. He expected much of his connection with the aristocratic Flyte family – influence, recognition, love. He first got acquainted with them at college in Oxford, but learnt to know them as their close friend, he became disappointed in them over the years. He could never understand their full commitment to what they regarded as their religious duty. It is the family's Catholic legacy that prevented Julia Flyte to divorce her husband to elope with Charles, as she had promised to do. Charles ended up so bitterly disappointed that he felt he wasted his life on empty promises and useless expectations. The book opens on a rather cynical description of his disillusionment. 

"Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be very old. I felt stiff and dreary in the evenings. […] I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster."

Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited

© Chapman & Hall, 1945

Everything seems to bore him, since he can't see any possibility of happiness or joy. Love is an illusion and marriage a social sham to keep up appearances. He feels as good as dead, as his whole life amounts to a series of negations of what it should be, but will never be. The nagging repetition of "no" gives reader the impression Charles Ryder keeps butting his head against obstacles. That's why he clings to the past, seeking refuge and solace in his memories of the years he spent among the Flytes, which forms the bulk of the book.


Life as a writer

Writers' careers follow a course similar to that of adult life, consisting of achievements and failures, high goals and disappointments. Their writing skills and inspiration develop concurrently thanks to their life experiences.

Margaret Atwood explains how and why one becomes a writer in her partly autobiographical essay On Writers and Writing, written in retrospect. Here is an excerpt in which she tries to define writing as a job, a self-assigned mission and a way of life. 

"It [the essay] is about writing, although it isn't about how to write; nor is it about my own writing; nor is it about the writing of any person or age or country in particular. How to describe it? Let's say it's about the position the writer finds himself in; or herself, which is always a little different. It's the sort of book a person who's been labouring in the wordmines for, say forty years – by coincidence, roughly the time I myself have been doing this – the book such a person might think of beginning, the day after he or she wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders what she's been up to all this time. 
What has she been up to, and why, and for whom? And what is this writing, anyway, as a human activity or as a vocation, or as a profession, or as a hack job, or perhaps even as an art, and why do so many people feel compelled to do it? […] And what exactly do we mean when we say writer? What sort of creature do we have in mind? […]
A good many writers have had isolated childhoods; a good many have also had storytellers in their lives. My primal storyteller was my brother; at first I featured only as audience, but soon was allowed to join in. […] Our main saga involved a race of supernatural animals that lived on a distant planet. […] These stories were adventures: war, weapons, enemies and allies, hidden treasures, and daring escapes were the main features. […] Around the age of seven, I wrote a play. The protagonist was a giant; the theme was crime and punishment; the crime was lying, befits a future novelist."

Margaret Atwood

On Writers and Writing

© Cambridge University Press, 2002

According to Margaret Atwood's attempted definition of a writer, it appears the job is more akin to an existential quest, like life in many ways. As for each and every individual man or woman, childhood plays a major part in writers' self-development. Reading and writing from an early age onwards or having storytellers in one's family are essential incentives. As Atwood herself explains, her early literary Atwood describes her becoming a writer as a call to write stories, poetry, essays which she couldn't resist. It was something she had been born to do: "How did I become a writer? It wasn't a likely thing for me to have done, nor was it something I chose, as you might choose to be a lawyer or a dentist. It simply happened, suddenly, in 1956."

English French
To befit Convenir
To befall s.o. Être dévolu à/échoir à