Bildungsroman

portrait of the artist as a young man

catcher in the rye

The Bildungsroman [bil-doongz-roh-mahn] (German: ‘education novel’) is a genre of novel which focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood, and in which character change is thus extremely important. The term was coined by philologist (scholar of language in written historical sources) Karl Morgenstern in 1819, and later famously reprised by German historian Wilhelm Dilthey in 1905. The birth of the genre is normally dated to the publication of Goethe’s ‘The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister’ in 1795 in Germany. A Bildungsroman tells about the growing up or coming of age of a sensitive person who is looking for answers and experience. The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune.

Typically, in the beginning of the story there is an emotional loss which makes the protagonist leave on his journey. In a Bildungsroman, the goal is maturity, and the protagonist achieves it gradually and with difficulty. The genre often features a main conflict between the character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the protagonist who is in turn welcomed back into the fold. There are many variations and subgenres: An Entwicklungsroman (‘development novel’) is a story of general growth rather than self-cultivation. An Erziehungsroman (‘education novel’) focuses on training and formal schooling, while a Künstlerroman (‘artist novel’) is about the development of an artist and shows a growth of the self.

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