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What’s a “Bildungsroman”?

man reading book on a bench

April 15, 2021

Recently, I came upon a word I’ve never seen before; I discovered it while doing a bit of research on a book I was about to read. The word seemed so odd, so I switched my attention to finding a definition for it. The word is Bildungsroman. It is a literary term for a genre describing a protagonist’s formative growth, both physical and psychological, often through painful or trying life experiences.

The word itself originates from the German word “bildung” meaning “education” and “roman” meaning “novel.” So a “Bildungsroman” translates to “a novel of education” or “a novel of formation.”

Though stories and details vary, the Bildungsroman often has a particular structure. According to masterclass.com, here is 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 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 is 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 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.

Some may call this a “coming of age” story, but technically, they are a bit different. A coming-of-age story can simply describe one or more characters’ growing up years, a catch-all term that can fit into any type of book. However, a Bildungsroman focuses on a protagonist’s passage from immaturity and conflict with society to understanding and accepting the world around him and his place in it. It is often written from the point of view of the adult protagonist looking back upon his life, pondering the experiences that formed who he has become.

The appeal of the Bildungsroman endures because of the universal desire to find one‘s place in the world and, in the words of Thoreau, "to live deliberately." The urge to find our true selves is often experienced more intensely in adolescence, when the world is unexplored and dreams are yet unhindered.



“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (The Bible, I Cor. 13:11)

Through books and movies, we have the opportunity to travel this journey alongside companions that may become friends, and to grow vicariously in wisdom and experience through their life journeys.


Some examples of Bildungsromans in classic literature are:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

 

Some contemporary examples are:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khale Hosseini

 

This genre translates easily into movies and TV shows. Some examples include:

The Breakfast Club

Dead Poets Society

Forrest Gump

Lady Bird

Eighth Grade

 



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