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What are Bildungsroman Novels?

One of the most popular forms of literary fiction, Bildungsroman novel definition captures the essence of character moral and psychological growth, maturity, and understanding about the world around them. Many of the most well-known novels ever written are Bildungsroman in some way, shape, or form. A Bildungsroman novel, at its very core, is a story about a character’s maturing process, especially from childhood; in fact, it is often called a coming of age novel. These novels typically deal with the formative years of a main character or young protagonist, or their spiritual growth and education. Here are some examples of bildungsroman novels that are familiar to many students:


There are many novels that fall into the Bildungsroman category that may sound familiar to many students:



Evolution and Origins of Bildungsroman

The bildungsroman is a specific genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of a protagonist from their childhood into maturity, highlighting the personal evolution from youth to adulthood. The German word bildungsroman originated in 18th century Germany, with Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship often cited as the first major example of bildungsroman. From its early development in German literature, the bildungsroman spread internationally during the 19th century, shaping the coming-of-age novels genre as it expanded across Europe and beyond. Today, the typical bildungsroman remains a popular narrative form, capturing the universal experience of growing up through its symbolic depiction of the protagonist's search for identity and place in the world.

Defining Features of Bildungsroman Novels

The bildungsroman definition refers to a literary genre that centers on the psychological and moral growth of a protagonist from youth to adulthood. There are several defining features and characteristics that exemplify the classic example of bildungsroman form.

  • Key Supporting Characters in Bildungsroman: The bildungsroman meaning involves a journey of self-discovery, and the protagonist is often assisted by supporting characters who act as guides or foils. Common archetypes include the wise mentor who provides guidance, close friends or peers who reflect societal pressures, and authority figures who create obstacles that test the protagonist's development. These relationships and interactions shape the protagonist along their journey to maturity.

  • Recurring Themes in Bildungsroman Literature: Maturation, morality, identity, and social pressures are themes frequently explored in examples of Bildungsroman. The contrast between childhood innocence and adult experience is central. Other common themes include family dynamics, developing ideologies, and intellectual growth. The protagonist's inner transformation from youth to adulthood remains the primary focus rather than external events.

  • Narrative Techniques in Bildungsroman: These novels use techniques like frame narratives, intricate backstories, and detailed flashbacks to provide context about the protagonist's past and upbringing. Symbolism and recurring motifs are woven throughout the journey to represent key ideas. The structure follows the character's progression but may not adhere to chronological order.

  • Archetypes of Protagonists in Bildungsroman: The protagonist is typically a sensitive, naïve youth or young adult from the middle or lower classes on a quest for identity. Common types include orphans, students, artists, and other social outsiders. Their bildungsroman examples follow their adventures into unfamiliar realms where their worldview is challenged by new ideologies and experiences.


Diverse Interpretations of Bildungsroman

While early a bildungsroman example predominantly featured male protagonists on a stereotypical hero's journey, contemporary interpretations showcase more diverse perspectives. Postmodern and feminist bildungsromans may focus on minorities, women, or other marginalized groups with non-traditional coming-of-age stories. Variations like the kunstlerroman, or “artist’s novel” concentrate specifically on an artist's growth to maturity. Bildungsromans have also expanded beyond novels to mediums like film, TV, and graphic novels.

The genre continues to evolve and reinvent itself in different cultural contexts. For example, post-colonial bildungsromans examine issues of race, language, and clashing cultures as protagonists search for identity. The protagonist's journey to adulthood may involve reconciling their heritage with new environments.

Bildungsroman vs Coming-Of-Age

The bildungsroman and coming-of-age genres share similarities, but have distinctions. While both focus on a character's transition into adulthood, bildungsromans emphasize the protagonist's inner development versus external events. Coming-of-age stories have a broader scope that may explore relationships or societal issues.

Characteristics

Common characteristics of the bildungsroman include a quest for identity, maturation themes, youthful protagonists, and symbolic/metaphorical journeys. Protagonists are shaped by their relationships, environment, and societal institutions. The structure generally follows a protagonist from childhood into maturity in four main stages that mark their psychological and moral growth.

Bildungsroman novel examples range from 19th century classics like Great Expectations to more contemporary works like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, showcasing the genre's evolution. Bildungsroman book examples also include memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels depicting the author's own coming-of-age experiences.

Bildungsroman Stages

The 4 stages of bildungsroman are The Call, The Apprenticeship, Maturity, and Acceptance/Remedy. Each marks a pivotal point in the protagonist's development.

Stage 1: The Call

Much like “The Call” in the Heroic Journey, the call spurs the character on their journey towards spiritual or psychological growth. The character is often unhappy with something in their current life, and it pushes them to search for answers to their unhappiness elsewhere in the world.


  1. The protagonist is usually from a small town or village, and they journey to a more complex realm, or to a large city.
  2. The protagonist must separate from their family in order to gain an identity that is separate and distinct.
  3. The protagonist searches for answers beyond their home.

Stage 2: The Apprenticeship

The Apprenticeship is the growth process that the character goes through in order to reach maturity and moral change. This stage is called the Apprenticeship because the character must undertake an education away from their origins in order to learn and to master his or her place in society.


  1. Education is crucial to the protagonist’s progress into maturity.
  2. The protagonist is often disappointed by this new world, as it does not live up to their expectations.
  3. The protagonist finds their education in the disappointment of the new world, and this allows them to successfully mature and gain their distinct identity.

Stage 3: Maturity

Maturity is not easily won; it is a long and arduous process, with many mistakes, tests, and internal obstacles that the character must face in order to finally gain maturity. They walk away with a newfound sense of themselves, and they know they are different people now.


  1. The protagonist achieves their maturity with difficulty, and it allows them a sense of pride in having obtained it through the tests and obstacles they’ve had to face.
  2. The protagonist experiences psychological, moral, and/or spiritual growth.
  3. The protagonist and the readers accept that they are not a superior character: they are flawed, but they are fundamentally good.

Stage 4: Acceptance and Remedy

In this stage, the character typically will return to their place of origins, and they will use their newfound knowledge to help others. In some cases, the character will not return home, but they will reach out and try to remedy a situation or a problem using the wisdom they’ve gained on their journey.


  1. The protagonist usually returns to the place they left originally.
  2. The reader is able to see the contrast between the protagonist at the beginning of the novel and the person they’ve become once they return to the place they left.
  3. The protagonist is able to help others with their newfound maturity and wisdom.

Sample Activity for Teaching a Bildungsroman Novel

Teachers can customize the level of detail and number of cells required for projects based on available class time, differentiated learners, and resources.

As you read a Bildungsroman Novel, have students keep track of the different elements of this type of literature and incorporate them into a sample template, like the one below. Have students not only depict the scene, but explain how it is highlighting the characteristic of Bildungsroman literature. The following example has been created for Charles Dickens’ classic Bildungsroman novel, Great Expectations, and follows Pip’s journey to maturity from his humble beginnings in the forge.


Although this lesson can be used for multiple grade levels, below are examples of the Common Core Standards for grades 9-10.

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3: Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme

  • ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise



Bildungsroman Novel Tracking Activity
As we read and discuss the novel, identify and track the 12 characteristics of Bildungsroman novels that appear throughout the story. Create a scene for each characteristic that highlights how it is utilized throughout the work. Add a brief quote or description under each scene that highlights an important piece of the characteristic being depicted. Make sure the art in your scenes is historically and factually accurate to the novel. Your scenes need to be neat, eye-catching, and reflect creativity and care. Please proofread your writing and organize your ideas thoughtfully.
Proficient
33 Points
Emerging
25 Points
Beginning
17 Points
Bildungsroman Novel Characteristics
The 12 characteristics of a Bildungsroman novel are correctly identified and portrayed from the story. The quotes and/or explanations give context to the scene, and are accurate and appropriate to the characteristic being depicted.
8-10 characteristics of a Bildungsroman novel are correctly identified and portrayed from the story, or some of the characteristics may not be identified correctly. The quotes and/or explanations give context to the scene, but may be minimal, and are mostly accurate for the characteristic being depicted.
Less than 8 characteristics of a Bildungsroman novel are correctly identified and portrayed from the story, or most of the characteristics are inaccurately depicted. The quotes and/or explanations are too minimal, or missing altogether.
Artistic Depictions
The art chosen to depict the scenes are accurate to the work of literature. Time and care is taken to ensure that the scenes are neat, eye-catching, and creative.
The art chosen to depict the scenes should be accurate, but there may be some liberties taken that distract from the assignment. Scene constructions are neat, and meet basic expectations.
The art chosen to depict the scenes is inappropriate. Scene constructions are messy and may create some confusion, or may be too limited.
English Conventions
Ideas are organized. There are few or no grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas are mostly organized. There are some grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas may be disorganized or misplaced. Lack of control over grammar, mechanics, and spelling reflect a lack of proofreading.

Related Activities




How to Explore Bildungsroman Novels Using Storyboards

1

Introduce Bildungsroman Novels

Begin by explaining the concept of Bildungsroman novels to students, highlighting that they focus on a character's maturing process and a coming-of-age journey. Provide examples of well-known Bildungsroman novels from the list, such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "The Catcher in the Rye."

2

Create a Storyboard Template

Provide students with a storyboard template consisting of multiple cells or panels. Each cell represents a key moment or stage in the protagonist's journey throughout the novel.

3

Analyze the Stages of Bildungsroman

Break down the four stages of a Bildungsroman novel: The Call, The Apprenticeship, Maturity, and Acceptance and Remedy. Discuss the characteristics, challenges, and growth that occur in each stage. Instruct students to assign a specific number of cells to each stage, depending on its significance in the novel.

4

Visualize Character Development

Assign students a specific Bildungsroman novel or allow them to choose one from the provided list. Ask students to fill in the storyboard cells with illustrations and captions that depict significant moments in the protagonist's development. Encourage them to focus on emotional growth, moral dilemmas, and experiences that shape the protagonist's identity.

5

Compare and Contrast Bildungsroman Novels

Assign pairs or small groups of students with different Bildungsroman novels to read. Have them create comparative storyboards that explore similarities and differences in the protagonists' journeys. In their storyboards, students can visually represent the stages of Bildungsroman and the lessons learned by each character.

6

Reflect on Personal Growth

Guide students to reflect on their own personal growth and experiences. Ask them to create individual storyboards depicting significant moments in their lives where they have undergone personal growth or overcome challenges. Encourage students to connect these moments with the themes of Bildungsroman novels, considering how their own experiences align with the protagonist's journey.

Frequently Asked Questions about Bildungsroman Novels

What is the educational value of teaching bildungsroman stories in the classroom?

Bildungsroman stories can help students understand the process of growing up and coming of age, which is a common experience for young people. These stories can also teach important moral and ethical lessons, as well as encourage students to reflect on their own personal growth and development.

What are some common themes in bildungsroman stories, and how can teachers help students identify with and analyze these themes?

Bildungsroman stories often explore themes related to identity, coming of age, education, social norms and expectations, and loss and change. These themes are central to the protagonist's journey towards maturity and self-discovery. For example, the protagonist may struggle to define their own identity and reconcile it with societal expectations, or experience significant losses or changes that force them to adapt and grow. Teachers can help students identify with and analyze these themes by encouraging them to draw connections to their own experiences of growth and learning, using graphic organizers and small group discussions to facilitate analysis and interpretation, providing scaffolded analysis activities, and encouraging exploration of multiple perspectives and contexts. By engaging with these themes, students can gain a deeper understanding of the bildungsroman genre and the complex process of growing up and coming of age.

What are some strategies for engaging reluctant readers in bildungsroman stories, and how can teachers encourage all students to participate in class discussions and activities?

To engage reluctant readers in bildungsroman stories, teachers can allow students to choose a story that aligns with their interests, or use multimedia resources like film adaptations or audiobooks. Small group discussions, a safe classroom environment, and formative assessments can encourage participation from all students. Hands-on and creative activities can also engage students who may struggle with traditional forms of analysis. These strategies create an inclusive and engaging learning environment that supports all students in their exploration of the bildungsroman genre.

Find more activities like this in our 6-12 ELA Category!
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