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Jane Eyre and Other Classic Bildungsromans

By Matt Reimann. Jul 28, 2014. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Legendary Authors, Literature

A bildungsroman is a novel which follows its protagonist during a significant period of maturation. The book focuses on the main character's childhood or adolescence over a span of years as she navigates the world and investigates her place in it. The bildungsroman became highly popular in 19th century British novels, particularly in the works of Charles Dickens, but still retains its popularity today. Discover more about this form and some essential bildungsromans in the following article. 

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

bronte_charlotteOne of English Literature's archetypal bildungsromans, Jane Eyre includes many familiar tropes for a young British heroine. There's the cruel, adoptive Aunt Sarah, the strict, inhospitable boarding school, and the harsh schoolmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst - all contributing to Jane's childhood of neglect. Yet there's also her employer (and future husband) Mr. Rochester, and the devout missionary St. John Rivers, who each represents a different kind of salvation for Jane. As a proper bildungsroman hero should, Jane not only discovers herself by exploring the many paths of life, love, and religion - she illuminates and investigates the very world she lives in. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain


This Great American Novel centers on its eponymous character as he accompanies his friend Tom Sawyer on an expedition down the Mississippi River. Determined to escape his alcoholic father and the trappings of small town Missouri, Huck Finn elects to see the United States mainland, befriending a cast of characters, including one of the American canon's most controversial - the runaway slave, Jim. Twain's bildungsroman sets itself apart from many of its British counterparts by presenting a different idea of education. While the teenage Jane Eyre enrolls in school, Huckleberry Finn learns through adventure.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Joyce, in his determination to translate the processes of the mind to the page, found a natural ally in the bildungsroman. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man follows Stephen Daedalus' maturation from the ages of fourteen to seventeen. He explores the Irish Catholic morality of his day, and universal adolescent preoccupations like sexuality and independence. One of the novel's most impressive contributions to the bildungsroman (and to all of literature), is the manner in which the prose itself transforms and matures as the protagonist ages.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Much like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Cacher in the Rye features characters who experience fatigue from their surroundings and turn away from traditional institutions (e.g. church, school) and instead seek knowledge through adventure. No character quite captured the adolescent spirit of his time like Holden Caulfield, renowned for his indignance towards the phoniness of the adult world. Of course, a deeper reading of the classic novel reveals a story about more than a querelous teenager. In Holden's struggle with grief over his deceased brother and his inability to communicate sympathetically with others, The Catcher in the Rye conceives of maturity as the neverending process of dealing with loss.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

norwegian_woodHaruki Murakami's bildungsroman utilizes a different structure from many other novels of the genre. Instead of following the character's life in chronological order, the life of protagonist, Toru Wantanabe, is told through reminscences of his youth, spurred by The Beatles' song of the same name. He reflects back on his youth in the 60's - on his past loves, his life as a student, and the anti-establishment protests of the time. Murakami's take on the bildungsroman is clever in its Proustian insight, that the way one remember's his maturation, and the way ones maturation really was, are not necessarily the same. 

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

While technically a series and not a novel, no 21st century story has caught the splendor of the bildungsroman quite like Harry Potter. While Harry Potter is the only entry in this article about growing up with magical powers, the themes of the books--friendship, adversity, destiny--are intrinsically human. One of the series' unique achievements as a bildungsroman is that readers, themselves, had a chance to grow up alongside the novels' characters over the years that the books were released.

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Matt Reimann
Reader, specializing in Twentieth Century and contemporary fiction. Committed to spreading an infectious passion for literature, language, and stories.


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