Writing

What Is a Bildungsroman? Definition and Examples of Bildungsroman in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Jun 21, 2019 • 3 min read

Novels that follow a protagonist from a troubled childhood along their path to enlightenment and maturity are enjoyed by a wide range of audiences. Coming of age is a universally relatable theme—and its own literary genre, too.

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What Is a Bildungsroman?

A Bildungsroman is a literary term describing a formative novel about a protagonist’s psychological and moral growth from their youth into adulthood. Bildungsroman novels are generally written in the first-person and often feature the name of the protagonist directly in the title, such as Emma, Jane Eyre, and David Copperfield.

The Bildungsroman literary genre originated in Germany. The German word “bildung” means education” and the German word “roman” means “novel.” Thus, “Bildungsroman” translates to “a novel of education” or “a novel of formation.”

The History of the Bildungsroman

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1795-96), about a man who lives an empty life as a businessman and embarks on a journey of self-realization to find happiness, is widely considered the first published Bildungsroman novel. It grew in popularity in Britain after it was translated into English in 1824.

The actual term “Bildungsroman” was first coined by philologist Karl Morgenstern during his lectures at the University of Dorpat in 1819. It was born out of criticism he received from Friedrich Wolf, a former teacher who was disappointed in how his career unfolded. Wolf believed the more Morgenstern wrote about art and philosophy, the more boring and vain he became. This criticism of his intellectual journey inspired Morgenstern to invent the term “Bildungsroman.” Psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey reprised it in his work Leben Schleiermachers (1867-1870) and popularized the story structure for a wider audience.

How a Bildungsroman Is Structured?

A Bildungsroman centers on the main character’s transformation to reach maturity. Here’s how the plot generally unfolds:

  • Loss: The protagonist experiences a profound emotional loss at the beginning of the story, typically during their childhood or adolescent formative years.
  • Journey: Inspired by their loss, the protagonist sets out on a journey, either physical or metaphorical, to find the answer to a big question and gain life experience that will help them better understand the world.
  • Conflict and personal growth: The protagonist’s path toward maturity is not an easy one. They make mistakes and are usually at odds with society. But as the story continues, the protagonist slowly accepts the ideals of society and society accepts them back.
  • Maturity: The protagonist demonstrates immense psychological growth, change, and maturity by the end of the novel. The story sometimes ends with them giving back and helping someone else on the path to maturity.

How is a Bildungsroman Different From a Coming-of-Age Novel?

The terms “Bildungsroman” and “coming-of-age” are sometimes used interchangeably, which is not always correct. A coming-of-age story is a catch-all term for a novel about growing up that can fall into nearly any genre; a Bildungsroman is a specific genre of literature about the growth and education that a character undergoes from lost child to mature adult. Many novels about maturation can be considered coming-of-age stories, but not all of them can be considered a Bildungsroman.

5 Examples of Bildungsroman Novels

Read these Bildungsroman novels to better understand the genre’s specific voice and concept of finding maturity along a journey:

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847): Follows a young woman from her abusive childhood to her life as a young adult making friends, working as a governess, and falling in love with her employer. Along her journey of self-development, Jane struggles to find her place and her purpose in society.
  2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861): Tells the story of an orphan named Pip who comes into money, leaves his life of poverty, and starts over living the life of a gentleman. The novel follows his personal growth and development over the course of decades.
  3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1916): Tracks a young man named Stephen and his religious and intellectual awakening as he questions the teachings of the Catholic church. As he matures, his new beliefs trigger a rebellion and he exiles himself to Europe.
  4. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951): Follows Holden, a jaded teenager expelled from boarding school who is easily annoyed by everyone and everything. The book follows his journey from living a life of angst to finding true happiness.
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960): Tells the story of a young girl who experiences hate from her community when he father defends a black man accused of committing a crime in the south. At the beginning of the novel, she’s an innocent, immature girl. But as the story progresses and she witnesses injustice and racial prejudice, she learns that life isn’t always fair.

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