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Coming of Age Novel: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:46 Classic Coming of Age Novels
  • 6:00 Other Popular Novels
  • 6:51 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.

Growing up is hard to do. In this lesson, we will take a look at coming of age novels, including how a boy named Holden fought teenage angst and a little girl named Scout dealt with racism in the South.

Definition of a Coming of Age Novel

A coming of age story, also called a Bildungsroman, is all about the protagonist's journey from being a child to being an adult. It is a journey that takes a young person from naïve to wise, from idealist to realist, and from immature to mature. The path of the protagonist, or main character, can vary from story to story. Perhaps he had to go to war, or lost his mother, or experienced extreme injustice, or went on some great worldwide adventure.

There will usually be pain and suffering along the way - growing up isn't easy. However, no matter the narrative direction, the result is that the hero grows from his experiences and in some way loses the childhood innocence that helps steer him towards adulthood.

Classic Coming of Age Novels

The coming of age novel is one of the most popular genres of story telling, but it's certainly not confined to just novels. Tales of growing up are so universal and relatable that we see the sagas in all forms, including popular films and television shows.

Here are two of the most quintessential coming of age novels in American Literature:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)

This novel tells the story of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield. It is written in the first person by our protagonist narrator who tells the tale from a psychiatric facility, a place he finds himself after apparently suffering a nervous breakdown.

The story begins at Holden's high school, Pencey Prep, where Holden has failed out. He has three days before he is due home for winter break and decides to check himself into a cheap Manhattan hotel because he can't bear to tell his parents about his expulsion.

Holden is going through a rough time: he is not quite an adult but wants to do grownup things and interact with people on a mature level. For example, Holden feels ashamed that he is still a virgin because many boys at his school have already had sex. So he calls upon a prostitute, but when the young prostitute arrives at his hotel room, instead of wanting to have sex, he feels sorry for her and makes up excuses why he can't perform physically.

He also tries to form a relationship with a girl named Sally who he likes but not as much as a girl named Jane. Nevertheless, Holden confides in Sally that he is unhappy with school. He asks her to run away with him to somewhere in New England and live in a cabin. Of course, the girl turns him down, and because he is still immature, he calls her names and laughs at her.

During the course of Holden's weekend in New York City, he gets beat up, robbed a couple times, gets drunk, worries where the ducks from Central Park go in the winter, and ultimately becomes more alienated and distraught over what he sees as 'the phoniness' of the adult world. He lies, deceives, and behaves poorly in almost every situation that he finds himself in.

Holden eventually sneaks into his family's Manhattan apartment to see his younger sister Phoebe whom he totally adores. He attempts to tell her all about his fears and issues but she is too young to get it. We also learn of Allie, Holden's brother who died of leukemia. Holden admits that he hasn't been able to accept Allie's death.

At the end of the story, Holden is really unhappy and scared. But then, he watches Phoebe take a joyous ride on the merry-go-round at the park. It is in this moment that he realizes that he is trying to grow up too fast, that he's not ready to be an adult. Ultimately, Holden's weekend in New York City leads him to understand many important things about himself; especially that he needs to get expert help for his depression and anxieties.

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (1960)

This novel takes place in the American South, Maycomb County (a fictional district in Alabama), during the Great Depression. The novel examines themes of racism, social class, and gender roles. But it also tells the coming of age saga of six-year-old Scout Finch. The reader immediately finds that Scout is a young girl who is comfortable being a tomboy despite society's pressures to be more feminine.

Scout's father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer. He decides to represent a black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman. Atticus is a classic idealist, a hero who represents all that is good in the world. He teaches Scout and her brother Jem about what it takes to lead a moral life.

The story explores the good and the bad side of people. Obviously, during this era in the South, racism was a major issue. The white townsfolk do not take well that Atticus represents a black man, even though it becomes clear to anyone who can see the truth that Robinson is innocent. However, the all-white jury declares Robinson guilty, and he is shot to death after he tries to escape from prison.

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