The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Joseph R. Slaughter

Bildungsroman is the technical German term for the “novel of formation,” popularly known as the coming-of-age novel. There is no complete consensus on what constitutes a bildungsroman; the term can be capacious enough to cover any story of social initiation that may be found in any culture, or it can be so narrowly construed that, as one critic has quipped, only three and a half examples may be included among a small group of late eighteenth-century German novels, of which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795—96, The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister) is typically taken to be the epitome (Sammons). However, the original impulse for the genre is generally traced to the philosophical humanism of the German Romantics—including Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744—1803), Friedrich von Schiller (1759—1805), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770—1831), Goethe, and Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767—1835). In its ideal form, the bildungsroman narrates “the reconciliation of the problematic individual...with concrete social reality,” in whose structures and institutions the protagonist finds “responses to the innermost demands of his soul” (Lukács, 132—33). In other words, the early idealistic German novels imagine the possibility of the individual and society achieving a mutually beneficial and fulfilling harmony (see LUKÁCS, PHILOSOPHICAL).

As confidence in this optimistic vision of reconciliation has eroded since the eighteenth century, the term's scope has expanded to cover almost any novel that narrates the struggle between the rebellious inclinations of the individual and the conformist demands of society. If the great mass of novels we read as bildungsromane do not manifest the idealism of the early examples, we might conclude that the genre persists more in the breach of its original conventions than in their observance. Nonetheless, theorists have continually tried to articulate definitions of the bildungsroman that might account not only for the German emergence and European transformation of the form over the course of the nineteenth century, but also for the genre's deformation in the twentieth century and the expansion of its concerns and constituency in the eras of women's liberation, civil rights struggles, decolonization, and globalization. For analytical purposes, we can organize those definitions according to their emphasis on particular aspects of the bildungsroman: its plot, humanist theme, or social function. This framework helps to explain the lasting appeal (for writers, readers, and publishers) of the bildungsroman, its elastic capacity, and its steady proliferation in the body of world literature.

Plots of Development

Since the late nineteenth century, when Wilhelm Dilthey popularized the term “bildungsroman” to group together a set of German novels—including Goethe's novel, Christoph Martin Wieland's Agathon (1765—66), and Friedrich Hölderlin's Hyperion (1797)—that portray the spiritual growth of a young man who “finds himself, and attains certainty about his purpose in the world,” literary critics have often delineated the genre in terms of plot elements common to the classic examples (335). Susanne Howe characterized the typical plot pattern in rather mundane terms: an adolescent hero “sets out on his way through the world, meets with reverses usually due to his own temperament, falls in with various guides and counselors, makes many false starts in choosing his friends, his wife, and his life work, and finally adjusts himself in some way to the demands of his time and environment” (4). In nineteenth-century novels of young men successfully coming of age, the psychodynamics of this social apprenticeship were often objectified in tropes that provide still-familiar ways of imagining personal growth: rejection of the emotional, social, and financial security of the family for the hazards of independence; migration from country to city; periods of immersion in the worldly school of the streets; sexual initiation that “involves at least two love affairs or sexual encounters, one debasing, one exalting” (Buckley, 17); selection of a mate and a profession. The bildungsroman's conclusion serves to demonstrate, at least to the protagonist (the Bildungsheld), that life is meaningful and that apparently random plot events are actually linked and indispensable for becoming a well-rounded, productive member of society. Thus, at the end of Goethe's novel, Wilhelm is shown by the secret Society of the Tower that the seemingly haphazard encounters that drew him to the Society were covertly plotted by its members.

While bildungsroman plots vary, these basic elements remain remarkably consistent among nineteenth-century European examples, even in novels like Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1861) and Gustave Flaubert's L'éducation sentimentale (1869, Sentimental Education), which ironize the idealistic patterns to explore the harsh social realities and stratifications of modern city life. Fictions of female development from the period also often use irony to show some of the exclusionary assumptions behind the bourgeois male norms of the genre, splitting the storyline into “a surface plot, which affirms social conventions, and a submerged plot, which encodes rebellion” (Abel, Hirsch, and Langland, 12). Such alterations to the normative generic conventions illustrate “the improbability of the Bildung plot,” in novels such as Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) and George Eliot's Mill on the Floss (1860), where the mobility of young women is greatly restricted (Fraiman, x). Alternatively, bildungsromane with female protagonists may tell stories of delayed self-discovery, in which women seek fulfillment beyond the confines of marriage and motherhood (see FEMINIST, GENDER).

With the erosion of confidence in the idea of progress generally and in the ideal of harmonious reconciliation between the individual and society specifically, twentieth-century bildungsromane often read like parodies of Goethe. For instance, the protagonist of Günter Grass's Die Blechtrommel (1959, The Tin Drum) lives through WWII and the reconstruction of Europe in a 3-year-old child's body, refusing to join the insidious world of adults: he fathers a baby with his stepmother, joins a band of dwarves that entertain Nazi troops, and ends his days in an insane asylum. The perversion of classic plot elements in such novels reflects the corruption of the social order, if not of the soul. Distorted plots of alienation have been used to great effect by writers from socially, politically, culturally, racially, sexually, and economically marginalized groups to expose the discrepancy between the ideal of equal opportunity and the actual discriminatory practices of modern social formations. Similarly, bildungsromane from colonial and postcolonial situations often mock the dominant generic conventions to show how the promises of liberal humanism remain unfulfilled, and are unfulfillable, under exploitative systems. The Goethean plot is perhaps most fully undone in Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun's L'enfant de sable (1985, The Sand Child): a young Muslim girl is raised as a boy in colonial Morocco, marries an invalid female cousin, and runs off to join a traveling burlesque show as a drag queen, where she is abused and raped before simply vanishing from society altogether (see CLASS, RACE).

Variations on a Humanist Theme

Critics often emphasize the teleological aspect of the bildungsroman plot, aligning it with the Enlightenment themes of human progress, social evolution, and improvement. The bildungsroman was so named because it appeared to novelize the humanist values of personal growth and self-fulfillment that eighteenth-century German philosophers theorized as Bildung—a notoriously untranslatable word that connotes both form and the process of formation. The theory of Bildung represents a philosophical effort to reconcile the subjective condition of the human being with the objective social world. Bildung is sometimes discussed in egoistic terms as a matter of individual self-actualization through aesthetic education, but for most of the early philosophers it had a crucial secular component (Redfield). The ultimate goal of Bildung was to incorporate the fully realized person into the mundane world of politics and polities—in particular, into the realm of the modern nation-state, where “the roles of man and citizen coincide as far as possible” (Humboldt, 51).

In its ideal form, the bildungsroman tells a transition narrative of the modernization of the subject in such a way that the “conflict between the ideal of self-determination and the equally imperious demands of socialization” is resolved by the historical emergence of both a just social order and an individual who freely consents to its demands (Moretti, 15). A strict thematic definition of the genre might insist that a particular novel is a bildungsroman only if it achieves such balance; in practice, however, the mass of bildungsromane are spread across a spectrum of less-than-ideal resolutions to the tension between personal liberty and social constraint. The early German novels proposed slow, incremental social change as an alternative to violent upheaval, narrating, in Franco Moretti's memorable phrase, “how the French Revolution could have been avoided” (64). Many contemporary, postcolonial examples are pessimistic about both alternatives. In Arturo Arias's Después de las bombas (1979, After the Bombs), for example, neither evolution nor revolution seems possible; set in the wake of the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala, the protagonist's opportunities are as empty as the stuffed-shirts of the puppet dictators and the blank pages of the censored European novels he reads, trying to imagine life beyond a city and civil order suffocated by multinational corporations, corpses, and fear (see CENSORSHIP).

The Social Work of the Bildungsroman

Literary scholars have long held that the novel emerged with the nation-state and the bourgeoisie as the story-form most capable of representing the prosaic lives of this young social class (see NATIONAL). As “one of the cardinal documents of bourgeois literacy,” the bildungsroman illustrated to an emergent reading public both the opportunities made possible and the limitations imposed by the new social formations (Swales, 148). This is one explanation for the genre's appearance in societies around the world, wherever capitalist modernity is coming into being. The bildungsroman has been consistently described as a didactic genre that performs what it thematizes, encouraging the reader's cultivation through its depiction of the protagonist's development (Martini). This reflexivity is often represented within the novels themselves, whose protagonists tend to be not only “intensive readers of their own lives” but also intensive readers of literature and especially of earlier bildungsromane (Kontje, 6). For instance, Wilhelm Meister is obsessed with Hamlet, and Hisham, the protagonist in Saudi novelist Turki al-Hamad's Adama (2003), blends his reading of revolutionary treatises by Frantz Fanon (1925—61), Karl Marx (1818—83), and Che Guevara (1928—67) with bildungsromane by Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Maxim Gorky.

One educational quality depicted within the bildungsroman and repeated for its readers entails learning to narrate one's life as a novel—ideally, of course, as a bildungsroman. This also has a conventional manifestation in first-person bildungsromane, which often end precisely where they began, with a scene of the protagonist sitting down to write the story we have just read; the story thus becomes the narrative of the Bildungsheld's acquisition of the skills, habits, experiences, and attitudes necessary to write that story after the fact (Slaughter, 137). This is the paradigmatic form of the künstlerroman, the apprenticeship story of an artist, but we find it too in bildungsromane of social protest, in which the protagonist-narrators want to emphasize the improbability of having gotten into a position to tell their life story and to claim the right to represent themselves, both literarily and politically. Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga plays upon these conventional expectations in Nervous Conditions (1989) in order to undercut the liberal pretensions of the imperial civilizing mission, revealing in the novel's final paragraph that the story of colonial assimilation we have been reading did not, in fact, equip her to narrate her story. Dangarembga's novel seems to confirm what some postcolonial critics have argued: not only that colonialism made Bildung improbable but that the desired pedagogical effect of the bildungsroman was to produce compliant colonial subjects (Lima).

The colonial service of the bildungsroman seems to contravene its social function in nineteenth-century Europe, where it acted as a form of symbolic legitimation of the democratic order, teaching the reader, along with the Bildungsheld, to become someone who “perceives the social norms as one's own,” “not as a fearful subject but as a convinced citizen” (Moretti, 16). Whether one regards this process as benign orchestration of harmonious consent or as malignant social control, the bildungsroman has traditionally functioned as a genre of social incorporation, by which individuals from historically marginalized groups make “claims for inclusion in the franchise of modern citizenship” (Slaughter, 132). Perhaps this is most clear in the context of the women's liberation movements and the civil rights struggles of the twentieth century, when the bildungsroman assumed “its function as the most salient genre for the literature of social outsiders, primarily women or minority groups” (Hirsch, 300; LeSeur). In recent years, the bildungsroman seems to have traveled the globe with human rights, appearing wherever socially and politically disenfranchised peoples seek to assert their rights to be included in a just, democratic society. This function is not new; from its inception, the bildungsroman has made human rights claims, whether in the social protest novels of the nineteenth and twentieth century, or in the late eighteenth-century progenitors that sought to legitimize the emergent bourgeoisie as the dominant social, political, cultural, and economic class—as, that is, proper subjects of literature in their own right.

SEE ALSO: Definitions of the Novel, Modernism, Narrative Perspective, Narrative Structure.


1. Abel, E., M. Hirsch, and E. Langland, eds. (1983), “Introduction,” in Voyage In.

2. Buckley, J.H. (1974), Season of Youth.

3. Dilthey, W. (1910), Selected Works, vol. 5, ed. R.A. Makkreel and F. Rodi.

4. Fraiman, S. (1993), Unbecoming Women.

5. Hirsch, M. (1979), “ The Novel of Formation as Genre,” Genre 12 (3): 293—311.

6. Howe, S. (1930), Wilhelm Meister and His English Kinsmen.

7. Humboldt, W. von (1792), Limits of State Action.

8. Kontje, T.C. (1992), Private Lives in the Public Sphere.

9. LeSeur, G. (1995), Ten Is the Age of Darkness.

10. Lima, M.H. (1993), “ Decolonizing Genre,” Genre 26 (4): 431—60.

11. Lukács, G. (1920), Theory of the Novel.

12. Martini, F. (1991), “Bildungsroman,” in Reflection and Action, ed. J. Hardin.

13. Moretti, F. (2000), Way of the World.

14. Redfield, M. (1996), Phantom Formations.

15. Sammons, J.L. (1981), “ The Mystery of the Missing Bildungsroman,” Genre 14 (2): 229—46.

16. Slaughter, J.R. (2007), Human Rights, Inc.

17. Swales, M. (1978), German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse.