"What is a Bildungsroman?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers


What is a Bildungsroman? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Sam Schwartz, Oregon State University Senior Instructor of Literature

March 4, 2024

Chances are that if you’re watching this video, you’ve been tasked with finding a credible definition for a funny-sounding literary term called “Bildungsroman.” There’s an even greater chance that if you’re searching for this term, your teacher has assigned you to read a Bildungsroman. This makes sense—your teacher actually knows what they’re doing! Your teacher knows that if you’re a young reader, it’s highly likely that you’ll both enjoy and embrace reading novels if you identify with the experience of the novel’s protagonist--its main character. As young students, you’re in exactly the same position as the hero of the Bildungsroman: you’re beginning to navigate your way through the world, or at least searching for your bearings; or to use another metaphor, you’re trying to understand where you fit in the puzzle of family, school, church, state—the society that surrounds you and influences you. 

First of all, good luck with that. I solute your efforts. Fortunately, the Bildungsroman is here to help, or at least provides some insight into what that experience might entail. After all, the act of reading any novel can help to form who you are; by reading a Bildungsroman, you have the advantage of witnessing, from a distance, how humans before you have dealt with their own journey from youth to adulthood. So, how do we get the most out of this formative reading experience?

We’ll certainly define Bildungsroman, but before we do that, let’s return to what makes the word both hard for some to pronounce but also easy to spot. This term sounds a little different because…it’s not English. The consonant-rich “Bildungsroman” is from the German language, and while we could certainly translate this word into English and use those equivalents, there’s a reason why retaining the German word serves our attempt to situate the term historically and ultimately to define it as a literary term.

Let’s begin with the latter half of the term first: the suffix “-roman” translates as “novel.” That’s the easy part, and this suffix also signals that we’re in the realm of genre. If the novel itself is a genre, then we might say that the Bildungsroman is a sub-genre of that larger classification. The German word “Bildung” is both a thing and a process, originally referring in a Medieval Christian context to how God actively transforms the passive soul of the believer. If sin deforms the believer, the sinner must passively prepare to receive God’s grace, and this passive reception is a kind of molding by God to prepare the sinner’s soul for redemption. From the very beginning of the idea of Bildung, the word identifies how people become who they are, and it has always assumed that 'becoming' is never simply an act of the individual will.

The Bildungsroman, as a genre, is first identified by this name in the early 1800s by a German scholar who had noticed that as novels became more and more popular in this time period, a noticeable pattern began to develop, one that began with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1796 novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre, or in English, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.  This novel is about the young Wilhelm Meister’s youthful struggles as he grows into young adulthood. Wilhelm is a romantic who loves the theatre, but his family and community push him toward becoming a merchant—getting into business. If you’ve ever had a conversation with your own parents about your career prospects and what you might major in at college, you’ll be able to identify with the young Meister’s dilemma. Do I take the practical route and secure my livelihood by choosing a conventional occupation and settling down into comfortable domesticity, or do I satisfy the longing of my soul and pursue a different kind of fulfillment, even if that pursuit is riskier? Or are these pursuits really even at odds? Wilhelm makes his decision eventually, but what he learns is that 'making a decision,' which implies a straightforward act of will on the part of the individual, is never simple.

Along the way Wilhelm develops friends, enemies, love interests, learning various lessons about what it means to be happy, to suffer misery, to be in love, to fulfill familial duties, to become a member of a community, and to endure through both the everyday and the more dramatic struggles that define a young person’s life.

While the Bildungsroman is also often labeled using slightly different terminology—like “the novel of education” or the “coming-of-age novel,” the essence of the Bildungsroman is the process of the main character forming his or her own self through whatever degree of freedom and individuality they can wrest from forces that are larger than them.

Using this definition, then, you might realize why the Bildungsroman as a genre is so unavoidable. If the main requirement of a Bildungsroman is that a main character, a relatively young person, undergoing the trials of youth, reaches a fuller state of maturity or whose consciousness is exposed to new and difficult truths, then consider the following titles: Huckleberry Finn. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Invisible Man. The Catcher in the Rye. Jude the Obscure. Jane Eyre. Great Expectations. And more contemporaneously, Harry Potter, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The House on Mango Street. You got it, these are all species of Bildungsroman.

It's important to note, finally, that while the Bildungsroman is about the process of forming one’s self, this process does not always succeed in the Bildungsroman, and neither does this process always occur in the same way, which is understandable given how different a human life can be from one generation to the next, and from one environment and historical period to another.  And yet, a universal truth seems constant: reaching maturity is often achieved at great cost and only after severe heartbreak. The Bildungsroman has enjoyed its staying power because it has proven adaptable, the same adaptability that it requires of its protagonists for them to emerge through the crucible of youth.


Want to cite this?


MLA Citation: Schwartz, Samuel. "What is a Bildungsroman?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 4 Feb 2024, Oregon State University, liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-bildungsroman. Accessed [insert date].

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