Definition of Bildungsroman
A bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story, which focuses on a narrative of a young adult growing morally and psychologically into an adult. Thus, a bildungsroman is also sometimes called a novel of formation or novel of education. The most important element of a bildungsroman is the character development that the young adult undergoes through the course of the narrative.
The word bildungsroman comes from German, and is a compound of the words bildungs, meaning “building or formation” and roman, meaning “a novel.” The German philologist Johann Karl Simon Morgenstern created the definition of bildungsroman in the early 1800s, and it was later popularized in the early 1900s.
Common Examples of Bildungsroman
There are many television shows and movies which feature a similar coming-of-age narrative to the bildungsroman. Here are some examples:
- The Breakfast Club
- Almost Famous
- Can’t Hardly Wait
- American Pie
- Now and Then
- Boy Meets World
- Freeks and Geeks
- Gossip Girl
- Malcolm in the Middle
- The Wonder Years
Significance of Bildungsroman in Literature
There are some older examples of bildungsroman, such as the Telemachy from Homer’s Odyssey (which concerns Odysseus’s son Telemachus), written in the 8th century BC. However, the genre didn’t become popular until about the 18th century. There are many famous examples of bildungsroman novels from the 18th century to the present day, including Voltaire’s Candide, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
While many novels that qualify as bildungsroman examples are taught to young adults in school, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, bildungsroman novels are not at all the same as the genre of young adult literature. Bildungsroman novels are generally told about the past of a character in a way that suggests an adult perspective that has developed over time. Bildungsroman novels are popular because adult readers can identify the formative experiences in their own lives which helped them develop psychologically.
Examples of Bildungsroman in Literature
“I am glad you are no relation of mine. I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to visit you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty.”
’Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.
(Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë)
In Charlotte Brontë’s novel, the eponymous character Jane Eyre starts off as an orphan raised by her cruel aunt. She utters the outburst excerpted above before her aunt sends her away to a boarding school. Jane was always an independent person, but this outburst helps cement her path and cut any final ties to her blood relations. Though she is still a girl in this moment, Jane moves toward her destiny and liberty by way of asserting herself. Throughout the rest of the novel, Jane continues on her path toward adulthood and moral and psychological education.
The adults in Maycomb never discussed the case with Jem and me; it seemed that they discussed it with their children, and their attitude must have been that neither of us could help having Atticus for a parent, so their children must be nice to us in spite of him. The children would never have thought that up for themselves: had our classmates been left to their own devices, Jem and I would have had several swift, satisfying fist-fights apiece and ended the matter for good. As it was, we were compelled to hold our heads high and be, respectively, a gentleman and a lady.
(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a famous example of bildungsroman. The character of Scout narrates the novel, but at a chronological distance. She is an older woman looking back at the events which led to her loss of innocence and journey toward adulthood. The trigger for this development is a legal case her father took on and unjustly lost. In this quote from the novel, Scout acknowledges that the serious events of the novel require her and her brother to act more like adults and less like the children they still are. They realize they have to start to settle their disputes in a more adult way.
“Friends of Great-aunt Birte,” Mama said quietly in response to Annemarie’s questioning look. Annemarie knew that Mama was lying again, and she could see that Mama understood that she knew. They looked at each other for a long time and said nothing. In that moment, with that look, they became equals.
(Number the Stars by Lois Lowry)
Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars is a novel about the Holocaust and one girl’s attempt to help save her Jewish friend and friend’s family. In this quote, the character Annemarie understands not only that her mother is lying but why it’s so important that she’s lying. Annemarie loses some of her innocence here and becomes briefly equal to her mother in adult understanding.
You know, you spend your childhood watching TV, assuming that at some point in the future everything you see will one day happen to you: that you too will win a Formula One race, hop a train, foil a group of terrorists, tell someone ‘Give me the gun’, etc. Then you start secondary school, and suddenly everyone’s asking you about your career plans and your long-term goals, and by goals they don’t mean the kind you are planning to score in the FA Cup. Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg – that your future will not be the rollercoaster ride you’d imagined,that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing dishes, going to the dentist, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor-tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of ‘life’.
(Skippy Dies by Paul Murray)
Paul Murray’s contemporary novel Skippy Dies is set in an Irish boarding school and shows the development of several characters as they begin to really learn about life. This is a more recent bildungsroman example and, in the excerpt above, the narrator describes the key epiphany that turns children into adults: the future does not hold endless wonder, but instead relatively monotonous life. Though it is a depressing epiphany, the children begin to temper their own expectations due to it.
Test Your Knowledge of Bildungsroman
1. Which of the following statements is the best bildungsroman definition?
A. A novel in which a character undergoes a mid-life crisis.
B. A novel in which a character undergoes moral and psychological development during youth or young adulthood.
C. A novel in which characters realize the importance of staying young psychologically.
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2. Which of the following plot lines could be called a bildungsroman example?
A. A young orphan is raised by a rich older woman, comes into money, and becomes a gentleman, learning about love and loyalty along the way.
B. A man learns that his wife is really his mother and that he has killed his own father.
C. A man moves to the East Coast and learns about class and privilege one summer as he attends the parties of a neighbor.
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3. Which of the following quotes from Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies best shows the character’s moral and psychological development?
Halley believed that a kiss was the beginning of a story, the story, good or bad, short or long, of an us, and once begun, you had to follow it through to the end.
Their faith in him is at once touching and alarming — their trust that they are safe simply because he’s with them, as if an adult presence warded of all possible threat, emanated an unbreachable forcefield.
Life makes fools of all of us sooner or later. But keep your sense of humor and you’ll at least be able to take your humiliations with some measure of grace. In the end, you know, its our own expectations that crush us.
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