Bildungsroman: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is a Bildungsroman?
  • 0:28 Bildungsroman History
  • 1:00 Characteristics
  • 2:21 Classic Examples
  • 6:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' was one, so was 'Great Expectations' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' In this lesson, we will learn what a Bildungsroman is and how characters like Holden Caulfield and Johnny Tremain overcame childhood obstacles on the way to growing up.

What Is a Bildungsroman?

A Bildungsroman is a story of education. It is similar to coming-of-age stories; however, the characters of the Bildungsroman are more specific. In order for a novel to be considered a true Bildungsroman, the main character has to experience some form of moral development. In essence, they have to grow up. The focus of the character's growth is the main thrust of the narrative.

Bildungsroman History

Bildungsroman is a German word. It was first introduced by Karl Morgenstern in the early 19th century and was later popularized by Wilhelm Dilthey in the early 20th century. The popularity of the genre first spread across the European continent and then the entire world. Today, the genre remains one of the most popular forms of storytelling. Some of the most classic stories in film, literature and stage center around the story of a young person going out into the world and learning harsh lessons on their way to finding maturity.


There are thousands of different Bildungsroman stories out there. So, although they share similar characteristics, they will not all be exactly the same. Here's a list of the genre's most prominent characteristics.

  • There is a search for meaning by the protagonist, who is usually foolish and inexperienced at the beginning of the narrative. The story typically centers on the maturation process of a single person.
  • There is some kind of inciting incident that pushes the protagonist into their journey. It's usually something akin to a great emotional loss, like the death of a parent.
  • The journey will not be easy. In fact, there will be many failures along the way. The hero will be tested, and he will fight tooth and nail to survive the unwavering rules and limits of society.
  • There is usually an epiphany, or a flashing moment where the hero finally 'gets it.' This lucidity changes them as a person. They learn what it takes to be a grown up in the real world.
  • The hero will eventually find his place in society by accepting its values and rules. The ending isn't necessarily about closure. We often do not know exactly what's going to happen to the hero. We do know that he has grown as a person from page one, and at the very least he is equipped with the maturity and knowledge to have a chance in life.

Classic Examples

Here are two of the most popular Bildungsroman novels of the 20th century.

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (1943)

We meet 14-year-old Johnny Tremain in Boston around the time of the Revolutionary War. Johnny is cocky, insolent and temperamental. He is also a very skilled silversmith apprentice. He mocks and bullies the two other apprentices who he works with, neither of whom are as driven and proficient as Johnny.

Johnny lives with his boss, Mr. Lapham, following the death of his mother. Business could be better, and when John Hancock requests a silver basin, Johnny accepts the extremely difficult order, even though Mr. Lapham has his doubts.

Johnny has a hard time with the basin but soon figures out a way to make it perfect. Then one of the other apprentices disfigures Johnny's hand in an accident. He is no longer able to be a silversmith and loses his place in life. He doesn't know what to do, and the Lapham family can't just feed and clothe Johnny for nothing.

Eventually, Johnny makes his way to the Boston Observer, a Whig party newspaper, where he meets a young man named Rab. Rab likes Johnny and agrees to give him a job delivering newspapers if he can't find any other work.

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