One could argue that the bildungsroman was born in the 17th century, but that it came of age in the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Many critics consider Goethe’s 1795 Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship to be the first work in the genre, though of course more ancient narratives touch on themes of maturation. During the nineteenth century, works such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens dealt with the struggle to find one’s identity within a rigid class structure.
When adolescence became recognized as a distinct period of life near the beginning of the 20th century, bildungsromane such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar directly addressed the sense of alienation that often occurs during that confusing stage.
Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century the genre is evolving once again. Series such as Harry Potter and Twilight increasingly engage elements of fantasy and the paranormal, and one might also expect future bildungsromane to increasingly emphasize self-identity in a pluralistic and multicultural society.
The readings in this section explore how a range of authors have already interpreted the genre. Where do you think it will go next?