Any story in which the main character goes through moral development while dealing with a significant emotional crisis is considered a Bildungsroman. It is a story in which the main character grows up and becomes an adult, or at least takes significant steps toward becoming an adult. This type of story focuses on the character’s moral and psychological development from adolescence to adulthood. A Bildungsroman tells the story of a sensitive person’s journey through life as he seeks answers to his questions. The term “coming-of-age” novel refers to a book with a story like this.

Such a novel usually begins with a tragedy or loss that affects the protagonist emotionally. To fill the void, he or she sets out on an adventure. The protagonist matures throughout the story, albeit slowly and painfully. In the end, the hero has a “lightbulb” moment where he finally “gets it.” The dissatisfaction ends with the protagonist’s acceptance of societal values and in return, society accepts him as well. This type of story usually involves some kind of growth or education for the protagonist; he doesn’t just “grow up,” because he has to go through a difficult experience to come out the other side stronger and wiser.

Wilhelm Dilthey popularized the Bildungsroman story in the early 1900s after Karl Morgenstern first introduced it in the late 1800s. The genre has remained one of the most popular storytelling formats. There are countless variations on the Bildungsroman story. The genre’s salient features are mostly: the protagonist experiences an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual journey from youth to adulthood; the protagonist is often an orphan or living with a single parent; and there are usually conflicts between the protagonist and society or family.

Typically, the plot of a Bildungsroman novel revolves around the development of a single character. The protagonist, however, is not necessarily the only character in the story. Rather, he or she may be accompanied by other characters who help him or her grow and develop as a person. Bildungsroman stories typically focus on the protagonist’s psychological growth, moral development, and social maturity. Most of them depict a struggle between the protagonist and societal norms.

The protagonist in most Bildungsroman novels undergoes a variety of different experiences and encounters that shape his personality and worldview. The most common experiences in these novels are: meeting with an older person who becomes a mentor for the protagonist and helps them learn about the world around them; experiencing an event that changes their worldview, such as World War II or the civil rights movement; and meeting with someone very different from themselves, such as someone from another ethnicity or socioeconomic class.

The Bildungsroman story is accessible to readers of all ages. However, this type of story is particularly well-liked by young people, who are dealing with their own set of maturational issues and they usually can relate to it. Adolescence is an experience that affects everyone in some way and most children wonder what they’ll be when they grow up. As grownup adults, they would then reflect on the events that shaped their present selves.

Further Reading

Beginning a Bildungsroman by Ariel Katz, The Ploughshares Blog

The coming-of-age con by Cody Delistraty, Aeon

“Gender and Genre”: A Feminist Exploration of the Bildungsroman in A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and Martha Quest by Camilla Brändström, Högskolan i Gävle (University of Gävle) (PDF file)

A History of the Bildungsroman by Petru Golban, Cambridge Scholars Publishing (PDF file)

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