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Confession: I’m not a huge fan of the Bildungsroman (or for those who aren’t pretentious lit. nerds, coming-of-age novels). It is not that I don’t like books where characters transition from childhood to adulthood, I simply prefer that they be in the context of a wider narrative, rather than the primary focus of the novel.
I find this especially true in modern day coming-of-age novels. I find John Green or Judy Blume-esque cliched and unrelatable in many ways. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Despite my general lack of interest in this genre, there are a number of bildungsromans that I have absolutely loved. The characters are relatable and engaging, the plot unique, and the writing style compelling. Overall, each of these novels stand out not only in their genre, but also as great literary works in their own right.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – This is a no-brainer. One of the most famous novels in this genre, it is rightly praised. It not only explores Jane’s personal development, but also serves as an early social criticism of class, religion, and sexuality.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – Another female author and another 19th century novel, but it’s a great one. This one stood out to me because it is telling the coming-of-age story of a monster, shunned by his creator. Ultimately, the bildungsroman is about the educational journey and search for self that the individual goes through as s/he grows up. So, what happens when that individual is a monster with no place in society? This is one of the questions that Shelley explores in this great novel.
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – Jumping to the 20th century for a bit now. This novel is fantastic on so many levels, but also for it’s great take on the bildungsroman. Bilbo is thrust into a quest and through his travels grows into the hero that Gandalf saw from the beginning. Though it is a cliche of fantasy now, this is where it began (and let’s be honest, it’s one of the best examples of this trope out there. Tolkien is a masterful story teller).
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – The list wouldn’t be complete without this American classic. Required reading in every high school English class, it’s a masterful exploration of what it means to grow up in both a class and race divided society as well as revealing the destruction of innocence in such a world. As much as we learn about Scout growing up, she is primarily outwardly focused, she comes of age by seeing the world around her. (And as much controversy as Go Set A Watchman has received…it tells a similar story – though perhaps with Scout a bit more inwardly focused).
- The Prelude by William Wordsworth – If I am completely honest, I have a pretty rocky relationship with this work of epic poetry. It was required reading for my English Romantics class and we had to read the whole thing (which is quite long) very quickly which definitely influenced my appreciation of the work. However, as I worked on my paper on it I found my appreciation and enjoyment of the work growing. It’s a masterful exploration of artistic coming-of-age. (apparently that’s technically called Künstlerroman). And it is one of the few in the genre that I really felt like I connected with what he was writing: “This is my lot; for either still I find / Some imperfection in the chosen theme, / Or see of absolute accomplishment / Much wanting — so much wanting — in myself / That I recoil and droop, and seek repose / in indolence from vain perplexity, / Unprofitably travelling towards the grave, / Like a false steward who hath much received / And renders nothing back .”*
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – Fascinating book. Well written and demanding. It’s the sort of work that requires a response from the reader, like To Kill a Mockingbird its focus is largely outward, as much a societal critique as a coming-of-age novel.
- The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd – This one is another more difficult read, but well worth the time. This one, like Hurston’s work, is focused largely on feminist issues and gender roles. Martha wants independence and freedom, but is tied down by a society where she is called to be dependent on a man. It also confronts the problem of educated women who are trapped by expectations of marriage and homemaking.
- The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglass Brown – Another one I initially disliked but found that the more I studied it the more I appreciated it. This one is more of an anti-bildungsroman. It shows the failure of its protagonist to become a man.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry – This middle grade book really packs a punch. Jonah’s tale shows a boy who comes of age within his society…and then beyond.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – What happens when you refuse to grow up? Allow yourself to remain on the cusp of adulthood indefinitely? That’s what Wilde asks in this fascinating exploration into the darker side of youthfulness.
*William Wordsworth, The Prelude 1805 Book I lines 262-269