What Is a Bildungsroman?
The term “bildungsroman” comes from two German words bildungs, or formation, and Roman, or novel. As one might expect, the bildungsroman is a coming-of- age novel in which the central character develops from a state of childhood innocence into young adulthood. The protagonist of a bildungsroman develops as a result of both external circumstances and personal choices. Typically, the protagonist reaches a crossroads, or crisis point, after which she accepts her situation; armed with that knowledge, the protagonist is ready to live the rest of her life.
Coming-of-age stories have been popular throughout literary history, and they are still around today. Many contemporary films and television shows are modeled after the bildungsroman, charting the development of characters as they learn from early experiences. The television series The Wonder Years, which has an adult version of the main character describe plot developments in voice over, is a good example.
How Do You Identify the Bildungsroman in Writing?
Bildungsromans are novels in which the protagonist looks back on their childhood from an adult perspective that influences the way they narrate formative events. Classic bildungsromans are narrated in the first person, and these should be distinguished from other novels, like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, that contain strong elements of the bildungsroman but have a third person narrator who describes the protagonist’s development from a perspective of greater distance.
Examples of Bildungsroman
1. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, is a classic example of the bildungsroman, showing the development of a young man in early twentieth-century Dublin.
2. Frank LeCourt’s late twentieth century novel, Angela’s Ashes, is a bildungroman that owes a debt to Joyce, a fellow Irishman.
3. The Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass, is a bildungsroman that charts Douglass’s transformation from a slave child living in the rural South to a freeman in the North.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s classic novel, is a bildungsroman that charts Scout’s growing awareness of which it means to be white and female in the Jim Crow South.
5. Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations is both a bildungsroman and a powerful look at how the corporate world affects our personal development — even back in Victorian England.
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