What Is a Bildungsroman Novel?

Mark Wollacott

A Bildungsroman novel traces the main character's life from childhood to adulthood. In this respect, it is similar to the "coming of age" novel. Where the Bildungsroman novel differs from "coming of age," however, is in its focus on the psychological and moral development of the protagonist.

The very first Bildungsroman novel was written by Goethe.
The very first Bildungsroman novel was written by Goethe.

The genre originated in 18th century Germany. The idea of the genre was first discussed by Friedrich von Blanckenburg in 1774, and the term was first coined in 1819 by Karl Morgenstern. The genre's popularity soon spread beyond Germany's borders and all across Europe. It became a common way for authors to write about a person's development, particularly that of women and ethnic or religious minorities.

A Bildungsroman novel follows the life of a character from childhood to adulthood.
A Bildungsroman novel follows the life of a character from childhood to adulthood.

There are a number of common features within Bildungsroman novels. These books tend to focus on one character, though some will look at a small group of people. The important element is this development of the protagonist, who is often disassociated from society in some way and is often an actual or metaphorical orphan.

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The strictures of the society within which the Bildungsroman novel are set are clearly defined. These very strictures, along with a profound setback or sense of loss, propel the protagonist to react against society. The novel charts a long and slow process by which the protagonist finds his or her way back into society and towards accepting its values and ideas. Through this prolonged journey, the character gains self-awareness and a sense of social responsibility.

There are a number of examples of the Bildungsroman novel, with the first novel recognized as such being Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. The novel defined the genre and follows a bourgeois merchant's son, Wilhelm, and his dissatisfaction with who he is. Wilhelm finds his situation and social strictures to be empty and lifeless. He eventually finds solace and a place in a mysterious group and through acting out Shakespeare's plays, such as "Hamlet."

A more modern example is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. The novel follows three young protagonists called Ruth, Tommy and Kathy. They are literal orphans brought up in a boarding school called Hailsham. As they grow up through the three stages of the book, they learn about their fate: they are clones designed to donate their organs to the sick. While love propels them to try and defer their fate, they eventually learn to accept it.

The Kite Runner, a novel by Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini, charts the life of a boy called Amir. The novel is also divided into three parts. The first part follows Amir’s childhood flying kites in Kabul. The second shows his family's flight to Pakistan and then California after the Soviet invasion. The third follows Amir back to Pakistan to learn of the fates of his friends.

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