Bildungsroman Meaning: A Comprehensive Guide to a Classic Literary Device

If the word bildungsroman comes up as the word of the day in your literature class, this guide will help you understand the bildungsroman meaning and master this interesting literary device.

A bildungsroman is a novel that takes a character from youth into adulthood while studying the personal growth and education they receive in this time. This literary device appears in many classic books, but modern writers use it too. In literature, writers can take a character from one specific point in time through a conflict and to a conclusion. J.K. Rowling’s books are a great example of a bildungsroman.

Often the beginning point is in childhood, and the character follows their life through adulthood, gaining important education. The word “bildungsroman” was coined in the early 1800s, and since that time, several classic works have fallen within this definition. This guide will break down what a bildungsroman is, explore where the word came from, and show examples from classic and modern literature.

Definition of Bildungsroman

Bildungsroman comes from two German words. The first, Bildung, means “education.” The second, roman, means “novel.” Putting them together and the direct translation is “a novel of education.” Some literary critics call this a “novel of formation.”

In this type of novel, the main character usually starts as a child or immature young adult. It takes the character through their formative years, allowing their character to grow and develop while facing either internal or external conflict. By the end of the novel, the character has matured into an adult with meaning and purpose in their life. Because of the need to develop the character over time, bildungsroman stories are almost always novels, not short stories, because a short story gives more room for this type of growth.

Structure of a Bildungsroman Novel

The bildungsroman novel follows a distinct pattern. While there is variety in this structure, the overall theme and plot line remains the same. The pattern is:

  1. Loss: First, the main character will have some loss, often the loss of a parent or innocence. For example, in Harry Potter, the main character loses his parents and becomes an orphan. This loss may not be shown at the very beginning of the book, but it will be early in the character’s life.
  2. Character’s Journey: The loss will create a reason for the character to go on a journey or quest. It may be a clearly outlined quest or a more symbolic one as the person goes on a quest for self-discovery and personal growth. Often, this is a journey from a small town to a larger city or world outside of that town, or it might be a journey away from the family of origin to find one’s identity. In almost every example, the character must search for answers outside their home. This conflict is the majority of the story.
  3. Conflict: As the character matures and goes on their journey, they face conflict. These can be self-inflicted, such as issues created through the character’s mistakes, or they can come on the character due to their journey or society. Sometimes the conflict is simply a disappointment with the world the protagonist finds themselves in, which is not quite as glamorous as they thought it would be.
  4. Maturity: After all of the book’s psychological growth and emotional development, the character grows and changes, reaching a point of maturity. This is usually adulthood, but sometimes the character will reach maturity as an older adolescent. Often in this stage, the character returns to where the story started, or they will come to accept who they have been as a person from the beginning. The reader can see a contrast between the person at the start of the story and the end.

Bildungsroman History

Karl Morgenstern
A portrait of Karl Morgenstern

The term bildungsroman dates back to the early 1800s. At that time, Karl Morgenstern was lecturing at the University of Dorpat. He was criticized by a former teacher who felt his writing was boring and vain. This criticism of Morgenstern’s journey caused him to combine the two German words and invent the term in 1819. You might also be interested in our cliffhanger meaning explainer.

The term’s invention came after the writing of the first bildungsroman book. In 1796, Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote a book bout a man who finds his work as a businessman empty and vain. This internal conflict caused him to go on a journey to discover his true self. The book was entitled Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. It was translated into English in 1824 but was written before Moregnstern coined the term “bildungsroman.”

Examples of Bildungsroman Novels in English Literature

Though the idea of the bildungsroman originated in Germany, there are plenty of examples of this literary term in English literature, both classic literature and modern works. Here are some of the most famous.

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre

In one of her most famous books, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte tells the story of a young woman who runs away from an abusive childhood to work as a governess. As she travels on her life’s journey, young Jane goes on a journey of self-growth. She also falls in love with her employer, which creates conflict and adds to her personal growth.

Like many bildungsroman novels, Jane Eyre is written in the first person. It has five stages, starting with the character as a young girl in an abusive home with her aunt and cousins, then moving into her young adult years when she goes to school. Next, Jane moves to her work as a governess but feels conflicted when she develops feelings for her employer. This causes her to move away for a period, but she eventually returns to her love and marries him. In each stage, she grows a little more until she is ready to embrace her role as wife and mother at the end of the book.

2. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield is another example of this type of story. This book is fictional and autobiographical, as the work follows Dickens’ life journey. It starts with a dismal picture of childhood in England at the turn of the 19th century and the struggle that Copperfield had to go through to gain a place in society. Like Dickens, Copperfield grows into a successful writer, but not without experiencing several conflicts.

This book is known for its colorful characters, including a mean stepfather who pushes Copperfield on his journey. It has both tragedy and comedy woven throughout, and it remains a classic today even though it was published in 1850. The book is a true bildungsroman, starting with the character’s birth and moving through his life as a successful adult and writer.

3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Another Charles Dickens work, Great Expectations, was his 13th novel, published in 1861. It follows a character named Pip as he chronicles his life growing up as the ward of his sister and brother-in-law, the friend of convicted criminals, and the spurned lover of the beautiful Estella. Pip discovers his true self, beliefs, and values through the book. The book also takes a hard look at Victorian England’s realities, which is part of what makes it an enduring classic. It also brings many literary characters, including Miss Havisham and Magwitch, which literary critics continue to study.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
While the book takes on the difficult topics of racism and prejudice within the deep South, it is also an example of a personal journey that fits the bildungsroman genre

Moving into the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbirdpublished in 1960, is another example of this genre of literature. While the book takes on the difficult topics of racism and prejudice within the deep South, it is also an example of a personal journey that fits the bildungsroman genre. It is different in that the book does not follow the main character into adulthood, though the main character, Scout, does experience personal growth through its pages. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, establishing it as a classic.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout tells the story from her perspective, giving it a unique spin as the narrator is a child. The main plot is what happens when a black man, Tom Robinson, is accused of raping a white woman. Scout’s father decides to take the role of Robinson’s lawyer, and the young girl looks closely at what racism looks like. You might also be interested in these denotation and connotation examples.

5. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye is a classic tale that follows Holden Caulfield, a young man who keeps getting kicked out of school. He spends time in the streets of New York City, where he runs into several problems, including getting beaten up by criminals and falling victim to the appeal of the glamorous but seedy life of the big city.

Salinger published this work in 1951, which remains one of the best English-language novels. It is a short read containing profanity and adult situations that make it get banned from schools and libraries regularly. Still, when studying the bildungsroman book, it is impossible not to include this classic book.

6. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce explores what happens when a young man who is an artist enters the path of religious rebellion and sexual awakening. This somewhat autobiographical bildungsroman novel follows Stephen Dedalus, a young man who starts questioning the conventions on which he was raised. Joyce published this book in 1916.

The hero’s journey in this book is not facing down some monster but finding one’s own character. It employs stream-of-consciousness writing and quite a bit of realism. In the book, the primary conflict is between Dedalus’s religious upbringing and his love for the beauty of the human body. He becomes an artist, freeing himself from the religious throws of his childhood and moving away from Ireland to start his own life as an artist.

7. Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

The Harry Potter series of seven books exemplifies bildungsroman in modern writing. In this epic series, Harry starts as a young 11-year-old orphan who lives with abusive relatives. He discovers he is no ordinary boy but rather a boy wizard and is whisked off to a magical school where he learns of spells, quests, and quidditch. Yet through it all, he undergoes immense personal growth as he must battle his arch-enemy for his life and the protection of the wizarding world.

In Harry Potter, readers grow with the boy wizard as each book covers one year in his life from age 11 through age 18. In these books, he experiences loss and heartache and overcomes tremendous obstacles as he battles an enemy who wants to see him dead. Rowling published the first Harry Potter book in 1997 and finished the series in 2007.

Bildungsroman Vs. Coming-of-Age Story

The bildungsroman is sometimes considered a coming-of-age story, but they are slightly different. Coming-of-age novels follow a character as they grow up, but they do not necessarily follow personal growth. For a novel to be a bildungsroman novel, it must follow the character’s growth and education while they grow into a mature adult. Looking for more? Check out our guide explaining the most common homonyms!

  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.

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