The bildungsroman genre originated in Germany with the publication of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s novel Wilhem Meister’s Apprenticeship in 1795-1796, which focuses on the psychological growth and maturation of a clearly identifiable protagonist. Goethe’s novel was extremely popular and translated into many languages, which led to the genre being adopted by English and French authors. Examples of the English Victorian bildungsroman include Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. The genre’s popularity reflected a new interest in class mobility. The rise of industrialized capitalism meant one’s social station was no longer rigidly determined at birth. A character choosing how to make her way in the world could function as a significant plot device. More recently, the bildungsroman has expanded into a broader, “coming-of age” genre including classic works like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Catcher in the Rye.

Read about another bildungsroman, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.