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Definition: Bildungsroman from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Novel that deals with the psychological and emotional development of its protagonist, tracing his or her life from inexperienced youth to maturity. The first example of the type is generally considered to be C M Wieland's Agathon (1765–66), but it was Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre/Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795–96) that established the genre. Although taken up by writers in other languages, it remained chiefly a German form; later examples include Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg/The Magic Mountain (1924).


Summary Article: Bildungsroman
from The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Latino Literature

The Bildungsroman is defined as the coming of age novel or the novel of education. Its literary roots are German, the term bildung relating to education and formation and the term roman meaning “novel.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Lehrjahre (1796, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, 1824) is generally considered the first prototypical example of this genre.

There are two distinct approaches to defining the Bildungsroman. The first is strongly patriarchal, focusing on a young man's struggle to overcome life's challenges. This is evidenced by the classical German definition, which centers on two main ideas: that this quest for harmony is exclusively male and that the goal is extremely challenging and equally rewarding. With such a strong foundation in male rites of passage and deeds, it is apparent that this genre did not develop as a new, uninfluenced literary movement but was rather a natural progression from the classic epic (Moretti 3). This is clear when we examine the crux of the male Bildungsroman, which centers on heroic deeds and actions.

The second approach to the Bildungsroman represents a more philosophical application toward life. Jerome Buckley, in his analysis in Seasons of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding (1974), describes how the Victorian Bildungsroman alludes to the philosophical issues that the young protagonists confront within their comings of age. Most of these young protagonists are restrained by a sense of entrapment that hinders their personal and intellectual growth. Many of the constraints that the young protagonists suffer stem from their relationships with their families, especially with fathers who attempt to squash the protagonists' creative instincts. It is the repressive atmosphere of the home that forces young protagonists to leave their small towns and move to the city, where they begins their real educations in life.

Randolf Shaffner, in The Apprenticeship Novel (1984), emphasizes the philosophical roots of the Bildungsroman and significance beyond the heroic rite of passage, which he bases on five essential elements. First of all, living is an art that the apprentice must learn. Second, a young person can become adept in the art of life. Third, the protagonist must possess the potential to develop into a master. Fourth, the key idea of choice must be present. Fifth, the protagonist must display an affirmative attitude toward life as a whole (16). For Shaffner, the notion of choice is the most important component. It is the freedom and ability to choose a direction in life and to pursue mastery of a life's work that represents an idealistic perspective personifying more of the artistic search for oneself rather than a conventional, more simplified boy-to-man maturation process.

Erlinda Gonzales-Berry and Tey Diana Rebolledo, two prominent Chicana scholars, address the coming-of-age story through their critical analysis of Tomás Rivera's… Y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971,… and the Earth Did Not Devour Him, 1987) and Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (1984). In their investigation, they identify several predominant characteristics found in the Bildungsroman. First, the male hero leaves home or goes to school, subsequently undergoing a trial by his peers, overcoming adversity to eventually succeed by completing or somewhat successfully completing a heroic act. Through this process, he discovers who he is as a man and as a member of society. Perhaps most important, by the end of the novel, he integrates his consciousness, achieves self-determination, and is ready to deal with the world on his own terms (Gonzales-Berry and Rebolledo 110). Although one of the primary texts that Gonzales-Berry and Rebolledo examine in connection to the Chicano and Chicana Bildungsroman is written by a Chicana, it is evident that they characterize this genre as highly patriarchal.

Most of these characteristics that describe the Bildungsroman are prevalent in the Chicano Bildungsroman, particularly in José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho (1959),… Y no se lo tragó la tierra, and Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972). Many Chicano scholars consider these three novels cornerstones of Chicano letters, a judgment substantiated by the large body of critical work dealing with them, much of it focusing on their Bildungsroman qualities.

Pocho in many respects represents the prototypical Bildungsroman. It narrates the life of Richard Rubio, a young Mexican American growing up during World War II who is desperately searching for his identity and for the answers to life's greatest questions. Richard struggles with a number of issues, but most of all with his search for identity as a Mexican American and with finding his purpose in life. For Richard, this crisis goes beyond a regular maturation process; as he grows older, he finds it increasingly difficult to accept life as it is, to believe everything he has been taught, and, most important, to submit to a defined role within society. Richard, like any intelligent, ambitious, young man, yearns to explore the world and understand life and knows that to do so on his terms, he must eventually leave home.

One principal characteristic that distinguishes Pocho and other Chicano Bildungsromans from the traditional Bildungsroman genre is the key notion of choice. For young Chicano protagonists, the power to choose is often difficult to attain and exercise. Decisions are usually made for them, and traditions are difficult to change, as is the case for Richard. Because he is Catholic, he feels obliged to accept what the priest and his mother tell him about God. Because he is Mexican, he must one day marry and start his own family, repeating the cycle that society imposes. But because he is Mexican American, he must somehow take it upon himself to help his own people. And because he is a man, it is his responsibility to provide for his family and become the head of the household after his father leaves his mother for a younger, more obedient, traditional Mexican wife. Richard is indeed afforded few choices in his life; consequently, his story does not represent the traditional development of a young man who chooses his path into adulthood.

The nameless protagonist in… Y no se lo tragó la tierra experiences a similar upbringing in regards to the scarcity of choices. He and his family follow the crops and live in a cycle of poverty that appears almost unbreakable but is to a point tolerable because they have become accustomed to such a way of life…. Y no se lo tragó la tierra adheres to the general Bildungsroman definition by describing a boy's coming of age as the protagonist integrates into society by recovering lost memories that symbolize his growth and maturity. However, in specific terms, according to the definitions previously outlined, it does not completely or substantially resemble a Bildungsroman. The two main Bildungsroman characteristics that are consistent with the definition are the sense of entrapment and the development into adulthood and becoming a member of society. However, the entrapment in this case is not so much personal or intellectual as socioeconomic. And although his cultural and religious beliefs teach him that the meek shall inherit the earth, for now it is the earth that is keeping him and his family tied to their social and economic destitution. Here again, in one of the earliest and most important Chicano narratives, the key notion of choice that exists in the traditional Bildungsroman eludes the young Chicano protagonist.

In another example, Bless Me, Ultima broadly narrates a Bildungsroman, relating the story of an adolescent boy, Antonio, and his coming of age in northern New Mexico. The principal dilemma for Antonio is to decide upon which family tradition to pursue: that of his father's family, Los Márez, becoming a rancher, living and working on the llano estacado, or that of his mother's family, Los Luna, nurturing the land as a farmer? At first, it appears that the notion of choice distinguishes Bless Me, Ultima from the other two Chicano narratives. But as the novel progresses, it is clear that Antonio is left without choices to much the same degree as Richard and the young protagonist in… Y no se lo tragó la tierra, because, as his spirit guide, Ultima, teaches him, Antonio cannot resist fate; he must live the life for which he was destined.

Aside from The House on Mango Street, other Chicana narratives that demonstrate the Chicana Bildungsroman are Denise Chávez's Face of an Angel (1994), Norma Elia Cantú's Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera (1995), and Pat Mora's House of Houses (1997). Although the Chicana version of the Bildungsroman shares many characteristics with its male counterpart, there are also several differences that distinguish it. First, young Chicanas want a space of their own and, because their place has traditionally been in the home, they have learned to recreate the home as a metaphor for poetic space. Many Chicanas, despite their desire to have the same freedom as men, have also realized that they do not have to look outside the home for experience or inspiration when there is much to write about within the home. The home, traditionally a symbol for a woman's vocation, now becomes a blueprint for writing. Raising children, cooking, cleaning, healing, nurturing, the call to service—as Chávez describes it in Face of an Angel—have traditionally been viewed as monotonous, insignificant, and unadventurous work-related themes not meriting analysis or discussion, but in the Chicana Bildungsroman narratives they are honored for their often overlooked and underappreciated value.

The second distinction between the Chicano and Chicana Bildungsroman is that Chicana writers look to recover family history and stories by honoring their ancestors—particularly strong and resilient matriarchs. It is no accident that both Face of an Angel and House of Houses introduce the narratives with family trees as they strive to recover the lost voices of the aunts, mothers, and grandmothers who often go unnoticed in male-authored texts.

The third manner that distinguishes the Chicana Bildungsroman is the use of meta-texts that many Chicana artist-protagonists establish within the primary narrative. Aside from the physical service that many Chicanas are schooled to perform, Chicana writers also serve through the written word. Cisneros and Chávez author the novels the readers read, but within the texts the Chicana protagonists also write. In Face of an Angel writing the Book of Service is a clear sign that the protagonist Soveida is not only a waitress but also a developing writer. The desire to create manifested by the protagonist leads to another branch of the Bildungsroman, the Kunstlerroman, which describes the development of the artist—or, in this case, the writer.

As is evident, many Chicano narratives are strongly influenced by the Bildungsroman genre. The coming of age motif is popular across most cultures, but in U.S. Latino literature this personal development takes on extra significance as young protagonists also deal with cultural, linguistic, and identity issues. For this reason, the Bildungsroman genre is also employed by Puerto Rican, Cuban American, and Dominican American writers as well. Two excellent examples of this are Nicholasa Mohr's El Bronx Remembered: A Novella and Stories (1975) and Junot Díaz's Drown (1997). El Bronx Remembered is in many ways similar to Cisneros' The House on Mango Street but relates the young protagonist's experiences growing up Puerto Rican in the Bronx. Drown, however, deals with the coming of age of a young Dominican who remembers his days in the Dominican Republic, relating how he struggles to adapt to life in New Jersey. In addition to narrating the traditional coming-of-age story along with the cultural identity negotiation process, Díaz also describes a sexual and ethnic process of maturation that paints a vivid picture of the clash between the U.S. and Dominican cultures. Over the years the Bildungsroman has evolved to become inclusive of many different experiences and broadened its scope to describe a much more diverse coming of age story.

Further Reading
  • Buckley, Jerome Hamilton, Seasons of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding (Harvard University Press Cambridge, , MA, 1974).
  • Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda; Tey Diana Rebolledo, “Growing Up Chicano: Tomás Rivera and Sandra Cisneros” Revista Chicano-Riqueña Vol. 13, Nos. 3-4 (1985): 109-119.
  • Moretti, Franco, The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture, trans. Sbragia, Albert (Verso London, 2000).
  • Shaffner, Randolf P., The Apprenticeship Novel (Peter Lang New York, 1984).
  • Spencer Herrera
    New Mexico State University
    © 2002 by Cathal J. Nolan

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