Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Bewilderment Trilogy” as Bildungsromane

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In this essay, Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Bewilderment Trilogy” is read as a series of Bildungsromane that test the limits of that genre. In these thematically unrelated novels, characters reach critical points in their lives when they are confronted with the ways in which their respective childhoods have shaped their grownup expectations and professional careers. In each, the protagonist has a successful career, whether as a musician (The Unconsoled), a detective (When We Were Orphans), or a carer (Never Let Me Go), but finds it difficult to overcome childhood trauma. Ishiguro’s treatment of childhood in these novels foregrounds the tension between individual subjectivity and the formal strictures and moral rigors of socialisation. In this respect, he comes close to modernist narratives of becoming, particularly James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Narrative strategies such as epiphanies and the control of distance and tropes such as boarding schools and journeys to foreign lands provide the analytical coordinates of my comparative study. While raising the customary questions of the Bildungsroman concerning socialisation and morality, I argue, Ishiguro manipulates narration very carefully in order to maintain a non-standard yet meaningful gap between his protagonists’ understanding of their lives and the reader’s.

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