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From Huck Finn to Jane Eyre, some of the most successful and memorable works of literature follow protagonists on their path to enlightenment and maturity.

Such books are known as Bildungsroman novels. I know what you’re thinking: a what??? But a Bildungsroman isn’t as scary as it sounds. In fact, some of your favorite stories probably fall under this category!

What Is a Bildungsroman Novel?

The term “Bildungsroman” describes a novel that deals with the protagonist’s formative years and psychological growth from adolescence to adulthood. The term and genre have German origins, with “bildung” meaning “education” and “roman” meaning “novel.” Thus, stories in this genre are “novels of education.”

This may lead you to conclude that Bildungsroman novels are equivalent to what we call “coming-of-age” stories. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but that’s not always correct.

A coming-of-age story is a more generic term for a novel about growing up that can fall into pretty much any genre. A Bildungsroman is a specific literary genre about the growth and education of a character from from lost child to mature adult.

Bildungsroman novels are generally written from the first-person point of view, and often include the protagonist’s name in the title (such as Jane Eyre or David Copperfield).

What Are the Four Stages of Bildungsroman?

Bildungsroman novels generally contain 4 stages that lead the protagonist through their transformation:

1. Loss

The protagonist experiences a profound loss at the beginning of the novel, usually during their early formative years. This could be a death, or perhaps the end of a significant relationship.

2. Journey

Following this loss, the protagonist embarks on a journey, which can be physical or metaphorical, to find the answer to a big question. In the process, they will gain life experience that helps them better understand life and the world.

3. Conflict and personal growth

The journey isn’t easy, and the protagonist makes at least a few mistakes along the way and is usually at odds with society. But as the story progresses, they slowly begin to accept the ideals of society.

4. Maturity

By the end of the novel, the protagonist demonstrates significant change, psychological growth, , and maturity. The story sometimes ends with them helping someone else on their path to maturity.

What Is an Example of Bildungsroman?

Below are 3 classic novels that can be considered part of the Bildungsroman genre:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

This novel follows the protagonist, Jane Eyre, from her abusive childhood to life as a young adult. Along the way she makes friends, works as a governess, and falls in love with her employer. Throughout this journey, Jane struggles to find her place, but eventually realizes her purpose in society.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations tells the story of an orphan, Pip, who comes into money suddenly. This prompts him to leave behind his life of poverty, as he starts anew living the life of a gentleman. The novel follows Pip over a period of decades and takes readers through his personal growth and development.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This classic follows a young girl in the South who experiences hate from her community when her father defends a black man accused of committing a crime. After witnessing injustice and racism, Scout transforms from an innocent, naive girl and comes to learn that life isn’t always fair.

Is Harry Potter a Bildungsroman?

When viewed as a whole, the seven books of the Harry Potter series can be considered a Bildungsroman.

The series follows Harry from ages 11 to 17, as he grows from a sad, lonely child to a full-fledged, heroic wizard.

More Books Like Bildungsroman Novels

Although not all books about young people and “coming-of-age” stories can be considered Bildungsroman novels, many young adult series explore similar themes.

If you’re looking for a lighter read that documents the experiences of young people, check out our list of funny books for teens.

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