Coming of Age and Apprenticeship
Goethe’s Bildungsroman appropriately uses the word “apprenticeship” in its title because one distinguishing factor of the genre is the learning process that brings the protagonist from childhood into adulthood. As a coming-of-age novel, the Bildungsroman focuses on the main character’s apprenticeship. These experiences place the character near older practitioners whose roles as models the character either emulates or rejects.
The Bildungsroman is a novel of formation or development. These terms imply that the Bildungsroman is also a novel about education, yet not necessarily in the narrow sense of the Erziehungsroman (novel of educational development). Life is an education, and the process of growing up as chronicled in the Bildungsroman is a series of experiences that teach lessons. The protagonist’s education may be academic; it may also be in other areas, such as learning social graces, conducting business affairs, and gaining integrity in relationships.
Identity and the Self
The protagonist of the Bildungsroman has a unique talent. Part of the maturation process requires discovering this talent and figuring out how to use it. The journey and experiences of the hero are intended to provide an opportunity to examine the inner self and clarify important goals and how to pursue them. As part of the self-discovery, the hero gets a new perspective on his/her relationships with other people. In other words, facing the complexities of the adult world causes the protagonist to learn about others and about himself. Thus, the Bildungsroman is a psychological novel in which the main character evolves toward mature self-awareness.
In bildungsromane the hero leaves home on a journey or quest. Usually, the protagonist leaves a rural setting to travel into the wider world of the city. In this way, the character encounters a larger society that tests his or her mettle. The physical journey initiates change, and change brings growth.
Finding the right love is a component of the quest as it is enacted in the Bildungsroman. The movement into adulthood begins with separation and often resolves in maturity with adult connection. In some cases the character must negotiate among potential partners in order to discover the appropriate one. The formalization of that relationship may constitute the final event in the novel.
Search for the Meaning of Life
In the Bildungsroman, the novel of development, the hero develops through experiences that assist in clarifying the character’s mature values. Growing up involves the search for universal truths. For Victorians, this involved achieving middleclass status, marrying, and settling down as a responsible citizen. But to writers like Joyce, these truths were associated with the artist’s alienation and the necessary rejection of middle-class values.