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Bildungsroman  

Anne Rüggemeier

The Bildungsroman, or novel of formation, is one of the most widely used and most adaptable genres in literary history. Characteristically, the plot unfolds through the narrative of a young person’s development and formation that ideally results in “maturity”—a rather contested concept, which is traditionally understood as the harmonious integration of personal aspirations and the demands of the social. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1795) has traditionally been discussed as the urtext of the Bildungsroman. The genre has been interpreted as a form of self-expression of the intellectually emancipated but economically powerless German bourgeoisie. The tension between inner aspirations and outer limitations remains a key topic of the Bildungsroman throughout the centuries. The history of the Bildungsroman is closely interrelated with the emergence of the novel and with the idea of Bildung as it was discussed and refined in post-Kantian thought, German Idealism, and also the movement of German Pietism. Despite critical attempts to deny the existence of the genre, the Bildungsroman continues to enjoy tremendous popularity and has been adapted, developed, parodied, and rewritten in various European and non-European literatures. Throughout the centuries, as the genre takes on ever new forms, the idea or ideal of Bildung is constantly renegotiated. The generic demarcations between Bildungsroman and the so-called Anti-Bildungsroman continuously blur as the latter marks the shortcomings of the former, demonstrating how modern understandings of self-formation and social success are unavoidably marked by contradictions.