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What The Hay Is a Bildungsroman?

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

--Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”


What do we need with a thirteen-letter word like bildungsroman?? Admittedly, this is a tough word to slip into a casual conversation.


Yet we’ve all read several bildungsromans—novels about someone’s education and coming-of-age. Jane Eyre, for instance, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Little Women and To Kill a Mockingbird. The Catcher in The Rye and The Kite Runner. First used in 1819 by a German professor, the term bildungsroman is now fairly well-known, especially among nerdy English teachers like me.


We even have a bildungsroman for a piglet. Think about Wilbur, the runt pig in the children’s novel Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. In the story, baby Wilbur is blissfully ignorant of a pig’s normal fate. As his education progresses he learns why humans raise pigs, becoming enlightened…and terrified.


Enter Charlotte, literature’s best educated, most thoughtful, and ever-beloved spider. (For me, the only beloved spider ever.) Charlotte weaves messages like Some Pig in her web above Wilbur’s stall, adding another element of fantasy to the bildungsroman business. Those messages turn Wilbur into a popular celebrity, thus saving his life.


I think of this novel by E.B. White as a national treasure. And thanks to the magic of language, we can now christen it with the impressive German title bildungsroman.



Recommended reading in this popular genre:


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman (2017)


Empire Falls, Richard Russo (2001)


A Painted House, John Grisham (2000)


The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd (2000)


Northern Borders, Howard Frank Mosher (1994)


Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)


A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)

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