The bildungsroman (bill-DUNGZ-ro-men, German for “formation novel”) is a genre of the novel which focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood. The driving force behind the plot (and the major impact of the work) is the main character’s search for self, so change is thus extremely important.
The birth of the bildungsroman is normally dated to the publication of Goethe’s The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister in 1796. Although the bildungsroman originated in Germany, it has had extensive influence first in Europe and later throughout the world. Thomas Carlyle translated Goethe’s novel into English, and after its publication in 1824, many British authors wrote novels inspired by it (e.g. Dickens’ Great Expectations).
A bildungsroman tells about the growing up or coming of age of a sensitive person who is looking for answers and experience. The genre evolved from folklore tales of an idiot or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune. Usually in the beginning of the story there is an emotional loss which makes the protagonist leave on his or her journey. In a bildungsroman, the goal is maturity, and the protagonist achieves it gradually and with difficulty. The genre often features an underlying conflict between the main character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the protagonist, and he or she is ultimately accepted into society – the protagonist’s mistakes and disappointments are over. In some works, the protagonist is able to reach out and help others after having achieved maturity.