When he was in high school, my older brother Don was a lifeguard at a lake. I was eight the summer our mother suggested he take me with him for a day and teach me to swim. He had rigged up plastic milk jugs that floated on the water with fishing line, sinkers and baited hooks tied to them. When a milk jug moved across the surface, Don rowed out in a dinghy and pulled in the line. Usually he had a fish, but he told me he was trying to catch snapping turtles. There were lots of them in the lake, he said. When he dropped me into the water, he told me not to put my feet down or the turtles would snap off my toes. Even today I can tread water all day if I have to. Eventually I managed to dog paddle to the edge of the lake where I could scrabble out. Years later, having learned to swim, it dawned on me that there probably were no turtles in the lake at all.The realization that older people would trick me marked a turning point in my emerging awareness. I began to be wary, to question the truth of what I was told. Growing up is an arduous process, and our life-changing experiences are enlightening at best, painful at worst. Some of us lost loved ones or were taught tough lessons from older friends or relatives. As writers, if we are lucky enough to live through these transformative passages, we may find that they make for good literature.A Bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story of an individual’s growth and development within society. The German word Bildung refers to forming and shaping, and roman means novel. In many ways it is a quest story — the journey toward finding oneself and the answer to the question I remember asking many times: “Why am I here and what is my life about?”The Bildungsroman has become one of the major narrative genres in European and American literature. In the English Bildungsroman the protagonist is often a poor orphaned boy whose goal is to become a cultured gentleman of means as he moves from rustic country life to the sophistication of the city. The Victorian novelist Charles Dickens used the Bildungsroman format for several of his works, Great Expectations being the most well known. Dickens was forced to go to work at age twelve to support his family. The feelings of shame he experienced in those years led to the creation of his many orphan characters, and his sympathy for the plight of the working class credited him as the first great urban novelist.
Great Expectations begins when the orphan Pip, seven years old, runs into an escaped convict who bullies him into stealing, threatening that if Pip tells a soul “your heart and your liver shall be tore out, roasted and ate.” The wealthy — and a bit mad — Miss Haversham takes in Pip to play with her ward Estella, who delights in tormenting him about his rough hands and his dim future as a blacksmith’s apprentice. Pip becomes increasingly unhappy with his situation until years later he is bequeathed money from an unknown benefactor and leaves Miss Havisham’s house to become a gentleman in London.
In American coming-of-age novels, the protagonist tends to roam about, perceiving his surroundings as an outsider, and what he witnesses awakens him to a new self-awareness. Two classics in this genre are Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. In Twain’s story, Huck is a poor, uneducated boy who distrusts the morals and precepts of the society that turns its back on him. He tries to balance his own innate sense of justice with the unethical, cruel and racist actions of those he encounters. More than once we see Huck choose to “go to hell” rather than comply with society’s rules. By the novel’s end, Huck has learned to make his own judgments about right and wrong, friend and con artist. When he protects the escaped slave Jim, he shows his maturity by putting fairness and friendship over society’s mores.
Sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye flunks out of school and confronts the idea of falling off the cliff of childhood into the “phony” world inhabited by adults. He travels to New York City where he makes several failed attempts to engage in adult experiences, including hiring a prostitute. Ultimately his younger sister shows him the error of his ways and he resolves to go back to school and try to get things right the next time.
Girls come of age, too, of course, and a story with a female protagonist is sometimes called a Frauenroman. Unlike the Bildungsroman, stories about girls turning into women tend to deal with nostalgia, romantic relationships, and experiences centered on the home. Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre shows readers how the orphan Jane grows through her love for Rochester and her determination to become his equal in marriage. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, college student Esther Greenwood falls into depression, attempts suicide, survives being institutionalized, and finally emerges with hopes for regaining her sanity. In Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, a reminiscent narrator tells the story of young Elaine Risley, who endures being psychologically tortured by her older friend Cordelia until she learns that Cordelia herself is emotionally unstable.
Readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories would do well to look at young adult books where characters are reaching out beyond their families and immediate communities to discover where they fit into a larger and more grown-up world. Because teenagers are mired in the confusion of transitioning to adulthood, the literature reflects their angst in novels like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.
If you’re interested in trying your hand at a coming-of-age story, you might follow this pattern: The sensitive, intelligent protagonist leaves home, undergoes stages of conflict and growth, is tested by crises and love, then finally finds the best place to use his or her unique talents. The protagonist begins the journey because of some loss or unhappiness and eventually the young man or woman acknowledges and accepts a new position within the social order. If you choose, your protagonist may return home to show how well things turned out. In order to keep the reader’s attention on the maturation of the hero, emphasis should be on dialogue over plot.
Often the Bildungsroman is autobiographical. But it doesn’t just tell a tale; it involves us, the readers, in the same process of education and development as the main character with the aim of influencing our personal growth as well. At some point in the narrative, we may recognize that the hero has made a mistake in judgment. In effect, we learn from the mistake before the protagonist does, or else we compare our own morals with the moral of the story that the hero eventually learns.
Think back, if you have the courage, to a journey, an event or a person in your own life that pushed you into an understanding of the adult world. Begin with a character, first person or third person, and set up challenges that show how the experiences created a lasting effect on the character, an effect that helps to mold the individual as a grown-up who has accepted her or his place in society. If we’re lucky enough to live through the transition and not to have our toes chomped off by snapping turtles, we’ll have a story to tell. As for your own story, you are the only one who can tell it authentically.