BILDUNGSROMAN: THE COMING OF AGE NOVEL
Bildungsroman is a very long, intimidating German word for a type of book that many of us know and love – the coming-of-age novel. M.G. Scholtz says the Bildungsroman, a novel genre made popular in the Victorian era, “tends to focus primarily on the change in the protagonist (from youth to maturity) who, by the end of the novel, has developed a distinct personality and has become sufficiently mature to cope with life” (qtd. in Noomé 127). Typically, the YA novel focuses on this same kind of growth. Frequently, the protagonist must overcome some type of obstacle in order to develop into adulthood or gain wisdom.
Bildungsroman has evolved into a generic term that has been applied to a range of works, and the definition of the genre has continued to evolve over time from its German roots to later English adoption and so on. In “The Bildungsroman Genre: Great Expectations, Aurora Leigh, and Waterland,” Susanne Hader outlines the most common characteristics of the English version:
- A Bildungsroman is, most generally, the story of a single individual’s growth and development within the context of a defined social order.
- To spur the hero or heroine on to their journey, some form of loss or discontent must jar them at an early stage away from the home or family setting.
- The process of maturity is long, arduous, and gradual, consisting of repeated clashes between the protagonist’s needs and desires and the views and judgments enforced by an unbending social order.
- Eventually, the spirit and values of the social order become manifest in the protagonist, who is then accommodated into society. The novel ends with an assessment by the protagonist of himself and his new place in that society.
As noted, YA novels are “coming of age” works that frequently feature teens struggling to discover how they fit into the world. Parents, teachers, and other authority figures may represent social order as Hader describes it. Teen protagonists “clash” with and struggle to find their place in the hierarchy of this social order. Many YA novels come to some type of resolution when the teen matures and understands how they fit into society. Ideally, a Bildungsroman is a novel of self-growth, in its loosest terms. It is only fair to note that Bildungsroman have typically referred to novels that see a single character grow from childhood to adulthood. Most YA novels would not be classified as Bildungsroman in the strictest sense due to the shorter passage of time – most of them end before we see the teen become an adult. Instead, we are left with the impression that the teen knows what kind of adult they want to be. However, the spirit of the Bildungsroman has many similarities to contemporary YA novels.
Essentially, the Bildungsroman genre demands internal movement in its protagonist – from innocence to maturity, from ignorance to knowledge. This internal movement is mirrored by external movement, as the protagonist is compelled (or expelled) from the safety of home to the world at large. The external movement acts as a catalyst to introduce the protagonist to obstacles and challenges that teach the rules of society. Martin Swales describes the English version of the Bildungsroman as “the English novel of adolescence
Teen readers find meaning in this journey of “self-fulfillment.” Cairns points out that “teens in our culture who wish to have power and agency in the world, but are often trapped by many forms of dependence, especially economic, may relish identification with a fictional subject who moves from passive stasis into dynamic agency” (60). The Bildungsroman subverts this dependence by requiring its hero be pushed out into the world. Without a security blanket of home and family, the hero must find their way in the world in a solitary fashion. The physical journey into a new world mirrors the internal “quest for self-fulfillment.”
BREAKING IT DOWN
So to break it down in its simplest terms, a Bildungsroman novel features:
- A hero or heroine who will grow and develop within the world they live in.
- A hero or heroine is pushed out of the nest to take on some kind of journey – can be emotional or physical. (Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, anyone?)
- The hero or heroine is tested when what they want isn’t what the world gives them. Maturity sucks, but it’s a quest.
- At the end of the day, the hero or heroine comes to terms with the world they live in and finds their place in it.
Does any of this sound familiar? Check out yesterday’s post on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
WHY IS THIS HELPFUL?
When you are writing in a genre or working with a certain type of literature, it can be helpful to know the customs. Essentially, the majority of YA novels share the spirit of the Bildungsroman novel and, while the YA novel is relatively new, coming-of-age stories aren’t. Understanding the history of the coming-of-age novel has informed my writing and impacted how I approached my novels.
And YA writers, consciously or not, are using this as a backbone for their stories. Think of Stephanie Perkins’ ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS. Anna has an understanding of her world in the US and her relationships with her parents. She is sent to a boarding school in Paris, and embarks on a journey of self-discovery. She is tested by the relationships she has with her friends, the boy she likes, and fitting in at a foreign school. And, at the end of the story, she figures out what she wants and what her place is at the school and with her friends. Coming of age novel? I would say an emphatic “YES!”
NOTE: Some of this post was taken from a research paper I did for my MFA program entitled “The “Parent Problem” in YA Literature: Three Bad Parent Archetypes Give Rise to the New Orphan.”
Cairns, Sue Ann. “Creative Imagination and Subjective Agency in Wynne-Jones’ The Maestro.”
Children’s Literature in Education 40 (2009): 59-74.
Hader, Suzanne. “The Bildungsroman Genre: Great Expectations, Aurora Leigh, and
Waterland.” The Victorian Web <http://www.victorianweb.org/genre/hader1.html/>.
5 January 2009.
Noomé, Idette. “Shaping the Self: A Bildungsroman for Girls?” Literator 25.3 (2004): 125-149.
Swales, Martin. The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse. Princeton: Princeton U,
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Wednesday Writer’s Vocabulary are a recurring feature on this blog. Have you ever found yourself struggling to offer critiques because you don’t know the lingo? Every Wednesday I define a writing or editing term and provide practical examples from novels and short stories.
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