It is far more difficult to locate the source of the bildungsroman—a term combining the German words Bildung, personal growth, with roman, novel—than it is to credit the book that is its exemplar. The Encyclopedia of German Literary History claims that the philosopher and literary historian Wilhelm Dilthey famously defined the term in an analysis in 1870 of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796, 4 vols.; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824), almost eighty years after the publication of Goethe’s masterpiece. In the bildungsroman, Dilthey wrote, [a] regulated development within the life of the individual is observed, each of its stages has its own intrinsic value and is at the same time the basis for a higher stage. The dissonances and conflicts of life appear as the necessary growth points through which the individual must pass on his way to maturity and harmony.
In 1942, in his comprehensive English Novel in Transition, 1885-1940, William C. Frierson applied the terms “life-novel” and “spiritual autobiography” to many of the novels that can be categorized as bildungsromans. As if unwilling to get bogged down by the Germanic bildungsroman and its cognates, Frierson never mentions the word or the novel by Goethe that exemplifies it. Other scholars prefer “education novel” or “apprentice novel.” Thousands of novels—from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), from Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925)—could lay claim, if barely, to being chronicles of passage.
This survey discusses only a select few novels that both follow Dilthey’s lead and meet the main criterion for any classic—endurance—concentrating on landmark works, most of them originally written in English. American literature is notable for writers whose oeuvres—career-long or in a sequence—have moved from innocence to experience but whose heroes, especially in contemporary novels (notably those of John Updike), are unchanging.
In the closing third of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the bildungsroman was given new vitality by novels dramatizing alternative patterns, especially women striving toward commensurate status with men. The feminist bildungsroman, given scant attention earlier, has become a major force in the revival of the form.