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Finding Their Voice: The Female Bildungsroman

"Bildungsroman" is a German word meaning novel of education or formation. The term has become a literary category for written works whose plot deals primarily with the development and maturation of the story's protagonist.

Reading Anne of Green Gables under a tree.

Often typically referred to as a 'coming-of-age’ story, the bildungsroman developed using Enlightenment ideas of self-education and intellectual development and reinforced “the traditional male trajectory that places fulfillment in the public sphere” (Bell 133).

The genre further evolved “as a literary offshoot of educational theory… [texts used] rich rhetoric and personal anecdotes in order to entertain, as well as educate the reader on how to develop into a proper adult” (Bell 1). The books became a sort of guide to navigate the anxieties, expectations, and fears of becoming an adult. The conclusion of a bildungsroman often aims to offer some comfort, positioning the protagonist as living the rest of their life in a useful capacity, becoming a productive member of society.

“The bildungsroman… answers to the dream that the different elements and phases of selfhood might knit together into some form of unity through time” (Bell 150).

Generally, Johanne Wolfgang Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96) is considered as the first bildungsroman. While the term ‘bildungsroman’ was coined by German Karl Morgenstern as early as 1819, it wouldn’t be until the early twentieth century that it would become well known across Europe.

What About a Female Bildungsroman?

With the emphasis on men finding their place in the public sphere, it begs the question: is there such thing as the female bildungsroman? And if there is, what are the milestones in a female coming-of-age story?

For generations women were confined to the domestic sphere as society considered life outside the home as corrupting and unsuitable to women's sensitive disposition. As feminist criticism came into its own in the mid-twentieth century, bildungsroman “proved most useful in analyzing the ways in which nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women novelists had represented the suppression and defeat of female autonomy, creativity, and maturity by patriarchal gender norms” (Lazzaro-Weis 17).

A female bildungsroman gave women the ability to find their own voices and stories among the pages of novels which aimed to define the female experience and find commonalities of identity. The female bildungsroman are stories about the female experience that create a community of female writers, readers, and critics.

“Nostalgia, loss, home and community, and the generation gap, spoken predominantly in terms of mother-daughter relationship… are all themes which characterize the more recent exploitations of the Bildungsroman tradition by women writers” (Lazzo-Weis 24).

Here are just a few examples of bildungsroman novels written by women, about women:

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