A Bildungsroman is a specific type of coming-of-age story that features the intellectual, ethical and spiritual growth of a young protagonist approaching maturity. Bildungsroman novels are thought to have originated in Germany, but the genre includes the stories of a diverse range of global eras and characters.

Bildungsroman Bildungsroman

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Table of contents

    The history of the Bildungsroman genre

    The original literary Bildungsroman novel is often considered to be Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), published in four volumes between 1795–96. Bildungsromans cover coming-of-age stories that specifically deal with a young protagonist's spiritual growth and ethical character development.

    The term 'Bildungsroman' was coined by another German philologist Karl Morgenstern in 1819. He created the term in response to criticism that he had become increasingly vain and self-important after reading too much about art and philosophy. He meant the term to more positively describe his progressive intellectual journey and his self-cultivation, similar to the character Wilhelm in Goethe’s novels.

    A philologist is an academic who specialises in philology. This is the study of literary texts and written records.

    Translated into English by Thomas Carlyle in 1824, various British writers, from Charles Dickens to Charlotte Bronte, read Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. The idea of self-cultivation, a key theme in Goethe's work, was then widely developed in Bildungsroman novels by British authors during the 19th century.

    Although Goethe is often credited with starting the genre, some critics have argued that the English version of the Bildungsroman genre dates back to women writers like Frances Burney, who wrote during the 18th century. Others have said that Jane Austen created the English version in the 19th century.

    As is usual with all movements and genres, there are different and interesting points of view about when they started and who was involved. It is agreed that the literary genre spread quickly, with many famous English and German authors writing classical development novels during the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then, the genre's definition has expanded to cover a wide variety of growth journeys reflective of many different eras and global cultures.

    Like the earliest folklore examples, 19th-century literary Bildrungsromans tended to end happily. More modern versions have a broader range of endings, from enlightenment to disillusionment and even death.

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 -1842) was a German playwright, novelist, poet, scientist, statesman, artist, theatre director, and critic. He is considered one of the most influential German artists of the Romantic movement or even the modern age.

    His most famous work, Faust (1808-1832), is a two-part play about Heinrich Faust, who makes a deal with the Devil. He exchanges his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasure. The underlying theme is about the character's feeling of alienation and his need to come to terms with the world he lives in.

    Can you spot the link between Goethe's work Faust and any themes in the Bildrungsromans genre?

    The meaning of the Bildungsroman as a literary genre

    Although often used interchangeably with the term 'coming-of-age' to describe a certain type of novel, the genre of Bildungsroman is much more specific. The German word Bildungsroman means a 'novel of education or apprenticeship' or a 'novel of formation'. In the context of Goethe, the word stem 'bildung' translates more closely into ‘self-cultivation’. This word is the key to the Bildungsroman genre and is the reason it cannot be used as a synonym for just any coming-of-age novel.

    The Bildungsroman is different as it relates to characters that undergo significant character development, particularly intellectual, moral, and psychological progress. As you can see, the Bildungsroman is a subgenre of the coming-of-age story.

    Bildungsroman, books sitting on a shelf, StudySmarterFig. 1 – Bildungsromans explore transformation and maturity of the naive protagnist.

    The stages of the Bildungsroman

    A typical Bildungsroman will follow four roughly defined stages that depict the protagonist's journey. These stages can be seen in old folklore stories, novels, movies, or series as more modern forms of the genre.

    Cataclysmic event

    Often the protagonist, still a child or teenager, will experience an important event that leads to a journey. This event could be a profound loss that significantly alters their lives.


    Following the event, the protagonist goes on a journey, which may be literal or metaphorical. The journey represents the type of learning and development that usually leads to a better understanding of self and the external world.

    Conflict and personal development

    Along the way, the often rebellious protagonist will experience difficulties, make mistakes and navigate conflicts as they try to find their way within the imposed order of larger society.


    Finally, the protagonist may return home to help others reach maturity. In other examples, they may achieve a way to survive within the social order or reach a level of heightened intellectual, ethical and psychological existence. In the case of some more modern examples, they may die.

    Can you think of more modern novels, films, or series with these four stages? What about the various film adaptations of JK Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997-2007), Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games (2008-2012), or Frank Herbert's Dune (1965)

    Bildungsroman: examples of novels and themes

    The genre of Bildungsroman novels has become very broad and has many different examples. These are great ways to start to understand other cultures and times. Many of the most famous novels from the 19th century onward can be termed examples of Bildungsroman. It is worth looking at a few widely read novels in more detail.

    Jane Eyre (1847) – Charlotte Brontë

    Often seen as the quintessential 19th-century female Bildungsroman, the protagonist, Jane Eyre, is also the narrator. In Victorian-era novels, this was pretty uncommon. The story follows Jane’s journey from an abusive childhood as an orphan to a woman who is more able to decide on and define her place in society.

    As a Victorian woman, Brontë portrays Jane as aware of the need to manage her self-cultivation. She uses language to redefine what constitutes failure or success in her own life. By representing Jane’s self-aware development through her narration, Brontë gave her the progressive agency to become the director of her own life. During the Victorian era, this was not usually considered possible for women.

    Jane Eyre has been viewed as a conservative work as it ends in Jane’s marriage, but it is also possible to view the outcome as one that she freely chose rather than one that she was subjected to.

    Themes in the Bildungsroman: Jane Eyre

    • Love versus self-autonomy
    • Self-cultivation
    • Transformation
    • Self-actualisation

    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) – James Joyce

    Like Jane Eyre, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man gave its protagonist, Stephen Dedalous, ownership of the point of view by using free indirect speech. This novel is technically a subgenre of Bildungsroman, called the Künstlerroman. These novels specifically deal with the personal and creative development of an artist.

    Stephen, regarded as Joyce’s alter ego, experiences contradictory hedonism phases and all-encompassing religiosity. After a journey of extended artistic, intellectual and ethical learning, Stephen embraces Aestheticism as his place of artistic maturity.

    Free indirect speech is a type of narration style. Usually written in the third person, it retains some essential elements of the first-person narrator.

    Aestheticism is a movement that ran roughly from 1860 -to 1900. It reacted against the perceived ugliness and pragmatism of the industrial age by promoting 'Art for Art's sake'. A famous author of this movement is Oscar Wilde.

    Themes in Bildungsroman: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

    • Conflict and contrasts
    • Self-cultivation
    • Transformation
    • Self-actualisation

    Song of Solomon (1966) – Toni Morrison

    A classic modern Bildungsroman, this novel follows the journey of Macon Dead, aka Milkman, as he navigates his way to self-knowledge and awareness by exploring his family’s broader history.

    Exceptionally, Morrison depicts two distinct journeys in Song of Solomon. A literal one and a more metaphorical, even metaphysical one. Milkman goes in search of gold. The real treasure that he gains is his development to a place of maturity and a more complex understanding of his present. This development happens primarily as a result of learning about his own history.

    Themes in the Bildungsroman: Song of Solomon

    • Healing and discovery

    • Self-cultivation

    • Transformation

    • Self-actualisation

    Can you find the common themes and similarities across these different novels, written in other countries and different eras?

    Bildungsroman - Key takeaways

    • The term Bildungsroman is derived from the German root 'bildung', which means self-cultivation, and 'roman', which means novel. Bildungsroman translates roughly into a 'novel of education' or a 'novel of transformation'.

    • Although folklore Bildungsroman tales predate any novels, the genre-defining novel is generally accepted to be Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) 1795–96.

    • In the 19th century, British authors expanded on the genre with works like Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), Jane Austen's Emma (1815), and Charles Dicken's Great Expectations (1861).

    • Bildungsromans are thought to follow four key phases: cataclysmic event, journey, conflict, and development and maturity.

    • The modern Bildungsroman genre definition includes novels from many different eras and cultures, but the concept of intellectual, spiritual, and ethical transformation has remained in place.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Bildungsroman

    How can you analyse a novel as a Bildungsroman?

    First, try and ask if this is a coming-of-age story that features a protagonist who experiences great intellectual, ethical and spiritual growth. 

    Then, look for the four stages of cataclysmic event, journey, conflict, and development and maturity. 

    If you find these elements, you can probably define the novel as a Bildungsroman.

    What does Bildungsroman mean?

    The German word Bildungsroman means a 'novel of apprenticeship' or a 'novel of formation'.

    How do you use Bildungsroman in a sentence?

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre is considered to be the first Bildungsroman novel.

    Is Bildungsroman a literary technique?

    No, Bildungsroman is a literary genre.

    What are the 4 stages of a Bildungsroman?

    The four stages of a Bildungsroman are cataclysmic event, journey, conflict, and development and maturity.

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