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"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

This month’s post will focus on a genre you may be unfamiliar with – Bildungsroman, which is a type of coming-of-age story. Bildungsroman is a conjunction of the German words bildung, meaning “education” and roman, meaning “novel.” Therefore, in English, Bildungsroman means “novel of education” or “novel of formation” and generally describes stories that focus on the protagonist’s moral and psychological growth from youth to adulthood.

In such stories, character growth is extremely important. As the story progresses, the protagonist undergoes noticeable mental, physical, social, emotional, moral, and often spiritual advancement and strengthening before the readers’ eyes. The story often represents a time of formation when the protagonist has to figure out who he is and where his place is in the world.  At the beginning of the tale, the protagonist often has a lot of potential, but lacks refinement and solidarity of character—something he/she is going to have to gain by the story’s end. An excellent modern example of Bildungsroman is the Harry Potter series.

The term “Bildungsroman” was coined in 1819 by a German scholar named Karl Morgenstern, but the birth of the genre normally dates to 1795-96 when Johann Wolfgang Goethe published Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Though the genre originated in Germany, it quickly spread to Britain, then Europe and beyond.

A Bildungsroman relates the growing up or “coming of age” of a person who goes in search of answers to life's questions, with the expectation that these answers will result in a better understanding and experience of the world. The genre evolved, in part, from folklore tales of a child or a naïve person going out in the world to seek his fortune. Often there is a loss, a tragedy, or some sort of discontent (e.g., death, misfortune, disillusionment) that disturbs the main character emotionally. As a result, he or she leaves on a journey (literal or figurative) to fill the vacuum and find answers. In a Bildungsroman, the goal is maturity and the overall growth of the protagonist, which he/she gradually achieves through various experiences. Eventually, after a series of defining struggles, mistakes, and disappointments, he/she finds acceptance and settles down to his/her place within society. Traditional Bildungsroman typically ended on a positive note, possibly tempered by reconciliation or nostalgia. Many modern (20th century and beyond) examples of the genre, however, may end with resignation or death.

A typical Bildungsroman has a three-part structure:

  • The set-up, which introduces us to the protagonist, most often during his or her childhood.
  • Experiences that shape the protagonist’s character, often culminating in some sort of spiritual crisis or loss of faith.
  • The protagonist reaches maturity, which usually involves finding a sense of peace, or of belonging in the world.

Though writers of Bildungsroman do not always follow this formula exactly, it is quite common in the genre.

The Bildungsroman genre has enduring appeal due in part to the universal desire for that “magic moment” when we find ourselves perfectly recognized by the world, and recognize the world, in return, as a friendly place. This urge to achieve a true version of ourselves never fully disappears, but it tends to be felt more strongly during adolescence when we reach out to the world with the hopefulness of inexperience. Another reason for the genre’s continued success is that it translates effortlessly into the 20th century’s defining art form – the motion picture. Coming-of-age stories are popular within many cinematic genres, from 80’s teen flicks to road-trip movies and even modern horror stories.

Come to the library to experience a life journey!