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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post forms part of my ‘aspects of the novel’ collection. Please do note that these entries, which may appear basic, are simply my own notes on the subject. They implicitly or explicitly describe a canon not of my own making or choosing and replicate this from various sources. The original encyclopaedia articles are far more comprehensive, nuanced and worth consulting.

The bildungsroman is the “coming of age” novel. It typically follows an adolescent protagonist whose experiences transform him or her into an adult, acquiring wisdom along the way.

The term was popularized by Wilhelm Dilthey in the late-nineteenth century to refer to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-96, The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister), Christoph Martin Wieland’sa Agathon (1765-66) and Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion (1797). Bildungsroman that feature female protagonists often had to cope, in the nineteenth century, with extremely restricted social mobility for women and often told stories of “delayed self-discovery, in which women seek fulfillment beyond the confines of marriage and motherhood” (Slaughter, p. 94).

Often, the bildunsroman is narrated in the first person, as a narrative of self realisation. This also lends a metafictional trope to such works, in which the protagonist/narrator is also the author, ending in a cycle where the novel ends with the narrator sitting down to write the book that has just been read.

Further reading: Slaughter, Joseph R., ‘Bildungsroman’, in The Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 93–97