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A bildungsroman is a literary genre that focuses on coming of age stories, following a character’s progression towards adulthood.

The word “bildungsroman” comes from the German meaning “education” and “novel.” It was coined by Karl Morgenstern in 1819 during a series of university lectures. The term was later popularized in 1905 by Wilhelm Dilthey. Although the word has its origins in the 1800s, the first noted “bildungsroman” genre stories reach back to the 1700s with Geschichte des Agathon by Christoph Martin Wieland.

The novel has had a ppweful impact on English literature, espeailly after Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang Goethe was translated into English. numerous English authors wrote stories inspired by this story.

Bildungsroman Pronunciation: Bill-dungs-row-man (bɪldʊŋs. ʁoˌmaːn)

Bildungsroman - Literary Definition, Characteristics and Examples


Definition and Explanation of Bildungsroman

A bildungsroman is a growing up or coming of age story about someone who seeks out answers to life’s big questions, struggles with the answers (or lack thereof), and enters into the world of adulthood.

Often, the story starts with an emotional loss that fuels the main character to travel or start exploring their world in more depth. The main conflict in these novels and stories in between the protagonist and society, or the wider world that they’re entering into as a young adult.


Characteristics of a Bildungsroman

  1. Loss– the protagonist in a bildungsroman will usually experience some kind of loss at the beginning of their journey. This might be something like the loss of religion, a parent, or a romantic partner.
  2. Journey– the loss should inspire the main character to set out on a journey of discovery to find answers to their questions. This journey should end in the character gaining a better understanding of the world.
  3. Personal growth– while their journey is not an easy one; it should lead to personal growth and development. The character comes to accept the facts of life, the ideals of their society, and they slowly return to their life.
  4. Adulthood/maturity– the protagonist is accepted back into society and demonstrates growth in all parts of their life. In the end, they might pay back what they’ve learned to someone else.


Bildungsroman or Coming-of-Age Novel?

These two genres are often conflated due to the fact that there is a great deal of overlap. But, they aren’t always identical. The latter, a coming-of-age novel, is a broader term that can apply to any genre in which a character grows up. A bildungsroman is more specific. It applies to a genre of literary specifically about growth and education. Many bildungsromane can be classified as coming-of-age stories, but not all coming-of-age stories are bildungsroman.


Why Do Writers Write Bildungsroman?

Writers have been interested in writing bildungsroman since the late 1700s, early 1800s. These stories speak to their authors, and to the readers, of the reality of growing up and encountering adulthood for the first time. The popularity of these novels comes from the fact that they are often so relatable. Everyone has, in one way or another, struggled to come to terms with the nature of their society, put aside their youth/childhood, and take on responsibilities that are thrust upon them.


Examples of Bildungsroman in Literature

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield is perhaps the perfect example of a bildungsroman. Its famous opening lines certainly place it firmly in this category. The novel follows Copperfield from his early years, through his mother’s death, other relationships, job prospects, the death of his wife, and the realization that Agnes was his true love all along. The novel ends happily with David finally coming to understand himself and his life.


Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

This novel focuses on the protagonist Stephen Dedalus, generally considered to be Joyce’s alter ego. The novel starts when Dedalus is quite young and then progresses through his early days at college. He experiences guilt about simple things, worries about his religion, and eventually acts out, living a sinful life. After attending a religious retreat, he’s overcome with guilt. He eventually decides that he needs to abandon his responsibilities and any possibility of religious life and devote himself to writing.


Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

This contemporary example is another wonderful bildungsroman. The novels trace Harry’s life from infancy through his young adulthood and full entry into the adult world. Unlike the other examples in this article, much of Harry’s aging and learning experiences take place against a backdrop of supernatural magic. He often has to overcome obstacles that other young people could never dream of while struggling with the normal teenage problems that everyone faces.


Other Examples of Bildungsroman Novels

  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë


Bildungsroman Synonyms

Coming of age, coming of age story, growing up, growth, and moral growth.


Related Literary Terms

  • Characterization–a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
  • Antagonist— a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
  • Dialogue— a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.
  • Anti-hero— a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
  • Tragic Flaw–a literary device that is used by writers to complicate their characters. Flaws include pride, envy, and cowardice.


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