Bildungsroman Novels

By Kristy Littlehale

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What are Bildungsroman Novels?

One of the most popular forms of literary fiction, Bildungsroman novels capture the essence of character 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” story. These novels typically deal with the formative years of a character or their spiritual growth and education.

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

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Bildungsroman Stages

There are 12 key characteristics in a Bildungsroman novel, and they fall into four separate stages.

Stage 1: The Call

Much like “The Call” in the Heroic Journey, the call in a Bildungsroman novel 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.

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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 Bildungsroman 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.

Create a Bildungsroman  

Create a Bildungsroman  

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