Word of the Month: Bildungsroman

David Zapatka

Reader, friend, and fellow bridge player, Gayle Covey, writes, “This is a really favorite word; bildungsroman. My friend Judy taught me this word several years ago … and now it comes up all the time! All those YA (Young Adult) fiction writers, turning books into films … and, of course, it is the word describing Catcher in the Rye—dealing with a young boy who matures from childhood to adulthood. (By the way, it’s worth re-reading as an adult! As a young reader, I thought Holden Caulfield was so sensitive and insightful. As an adult, I thought ‘Boy, does he need therapy!’) See you at the bridge tournament, Gayle.”

Bildungsroman—noun, bil-​dungs-​ro-​man

Literature: a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character

Origin and Etymology—German, from Bildung education + Roman novel

First Known Use—1906

A bildungsroman is a novel that deals with the formative years of the main character, and with the character’s psychological development and moral education. The bildungsroman usually ends on a positive note, with the protagonist’s foolish mistakes and painful disappointments over and a life of usefulness ahead. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s late 18th-century work Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is often cited as the classic example of a bildungsroman.

Bildungsroman used on the web:

First published in 1973, the novel is essentially a bildungsroman that shatters into atrocity and gossip in its final act.—Rachel Cusk, Harper’s Magazine, 21 Sep. 2023

Unlike the biography of many famous concert pianists, the story of Vogt’s life reads less like a hagiography and more like a bildungsroman: a calling, an arduous apprenticeship and a mature artistry that was ultimately less about solitary stardom and more about musical community.—Max Norman, The New Yorker, 5 Sep. 2023

Though he’s written across a broad range of genres, from bildungsroman to zombie novel, Whitehead is above all a writer of historical fiction.—Evan Kindley, The New Republic, 1 Aug. 2023

After Blood Meridian came the sorrowful Border Trilogy of the Nineties—All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain—where bildungsroman ends not in wisdom but at the gate where the spirit falters.—Joy Williams, Harper’s Magazine, 14 Dec. 2022

Her pages feel as full as a 19th-century bildungsroman, with collapsing kingdoms, sailing ships and elaborate schemes.—Ron Charles, Washington Post, 6 June 2023

This isn’t just another multiverse slogfest but a bildungsroman.—Maya Phillips, New York Times, 1 June 2023

Although this classic bildungsroman may have been nipped and tucked in the transition from page to screen, in terms of scale and sweep and emotion, little appears to have been lost in translation.—Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times, 5 May 2023

But in Craig’s hands, it’s become something far more nuanced and interesting than mere bildungsroman anyway.—EJ Dickson, Rolling Stone, 27 Apr. 2023

What favorite bildungsroman would like to share with our readers? Please submit your experiences or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to [email protected].