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Bildungsroman – Classic Edition

By Megan Powell, Sarah Goosem and Hannah Spruce

In literature, the German term "bildungsroman" is used to describe a coming-of-age novel: a story in which the protagonist grows and develops from a child to an adult. Typically, plots that utilise the bildungsroman trope begin with some form of loss or tragedy which acts as a catalyst for the main character to begin their journey of change. Over the course of the novel, the protagonist will be faced with multiple obstacles and hardships, ultimately forcing them to develop maturity and to learn about the way of the world. There are so many wonderful examples of classic bildungsroman novels, here are three of our favourites!

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (1817) follows the naïve Catherine Morland as she is exposed to the intricacies of Bath society for the first time. Austen writes of Catherine that “from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine” and her awareness of society, class and relationships is rooted in her fondness for Gothic fiction. The reader therefore witnesses Catherine’s maturation from a clueless teenager to a woman suitable for the competitive marriage market. Through the satirising of Gothic fiction, Austen assesses the dangers of blurring reality and fantasy and Catherine’s development is centred on her ability to finally detach her imagination from the stories. The character of Henry Tilney is a stabilising force against Catherine’s youth and vibrancy and seeks to guide and educate her to adapt to the propriety of high society. Catherine is often too honest and trusting which leads her to form unfavourable friendships and perceptions of others. However, the navigation of these events reflects the difficulties of adolescence and adapting to new environments.

Set against the backdrop of the gloomy Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s imagination runs wild and her theories temporarily threaten her prospects for an advantageous marriage. Although Northanger Abbey is light-hearted in contrast to some of Austen’s other novels, Austen highlights the vulnerability of young girls that lack the guidance required to make informed decisions regarding companionship. Ultimately, as a bildungsroman, the reader observes Catherine’s adjustment to high society and the development of her expectations for life beyond the rural countryside which informed her ideologies.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

First published in 1861, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is a classic example of a bildungsroman novel, charting the journey of its protagonist, Pip, from childhood to maturity.

The novel opens with Pip as a young boy living in rural England with his sister and brother-in-law Joe. As he grows up, Pip makes regular visits to Satis House, the home of the wealthy Miss Havisham and her daughter Estella. Pip quickly falls in love with Estella and due to her higher social class, resolves that he must rise above his station and better himself to become worthy of her. Pip is able to escape from the social class he was born into when it is revealed that he has an anonymous benefactor who will provide him with the money he needs to go to London and become a gentleman. Journeying away from home is a common trope of the bildungsroman genre, and Pip’s time in London is crucial to his development from child to adult.

In London, Pip works hard to reject the life he led before. He is ashamed of Joe, who, though kind-hearted, is an uneducated blacksmith and is horrified to discover that his benefactor is Magwitch, the escaped convict, rather than Miss Havisham. Ultimately, Pip learns that there are more important things in life than attaining a particular social class and he seeks Joe’s forgiveness. At the close of the novel, Pip’s coming-of-age narrative is complete.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird takes readers on a coming-of-age journey through the narration of Scout Finch. Like many bildungsroman stories, the central character starts the tale with innocence and limited knowledge. Lee charts Scout’s development through first-person narration, showing many events that shape the character. There is the curiosity and fascination surrounding Boo Radley, the trial with Tom Robinson and social commentary on the community. Not only do these events shape the young Scout and her brother Jem, but their father, Atticus Finch, morally educates the pair and they receive pertinent lessons that grasp imperative issues.

The story is powerfully told through the impressionable eyes of a child, which conveys a deeper meaning to the reader. While the novel epitomises the bildungsroman character it is more concerned with greater attributes that remain relevant today. The innocence and naivety of Scout is paired with maturity and observation to provide a spotlight on the importance of proper education and how impressionable children are. Lee uses Atticus Finch to present a parental figure who may seem unconventional by educating his children and promoting justice, fairness and equality. It is a remarkable story which we strongly feel that everyone must read in their lives. This story is a great introduction to classics which will also widen your bildungsroman repertoire.


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