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When reading a book, do you ever feel like you have already read a plot like this before? Do you sometimes wonder if you have even read this book already? There are very similar patterns in writing books and producing movies. There are also very similar characters in these books and movies. One type of storyline in particular is the bildungsroman plot. This is the coming to age novel. Bildungsroman books trace back to Germany in the early 1900’s (Cengage). A bildungsroman story generally contains a protagonist who learns and grows as time progresses.
This growth can be physical or moral. There are many stories containing this plot. An author tries to send a message out to the reader about life and how you can change. The question is, do all bildungsroman novels have the same outcome? I think that protagonists in bildungsroman stories all have a similar, successful turnout at the end of the story.
In this growth novel, there are many things that affect the protagonist.
The main character is generally affected most by peers. The people around them can change the way they act, think, and appear. An example of that would be Joe Dirt. This comedy is about a young boy (David Spade) searching for his parents that left him in the Grand Canyon when he was little. During his search, he comes across a wide variety of people that help him along the way. After the long journey, he comes to realize that his family isn’t missing, but they are right there in front of him. He learns that his friends are the ones that truly care for him. One emotion that can heavily affect growth in a bildungsroman novel is love. Love is present in some form in almost every bildungsroman book or movie.
Forrest Gump is a great example of how love can direct the outcome of a movie. When Forrest was young, he met a young girl on a bus to school named Jenny. As soon as he met her he said, “She was the most beautiful girl I ever did saw” (Groom). As time progressed, He and Jenny are separated by war, fame, fortune, drugs, and political movements of the 60’s. All this still could not keep them apart because of the love they shared for each other. Gump’s decisions in many parts of the movie are motivated by his passion for Jenny. He soon reunites with Jenny and marries her. This shows that love can almost take over the character and form it to work with the person he or she loves. The antagonist can also form the main character. Generally, the antagonist is trying to stop the protagonist from growing in a bildungsroman novel.
A fine example of this would be Harry Potter. Harry is a young wizard who is notoriously known for surviving a deadly spell casted by the most evil wizard ever. Harry lives his whole life trying to discover more and more about Voldemort. As he learns more, he starts dealing with issues that lead him up to killing Voldemort. Voldemort tries to kill Harry in several different attempts. He uses trickery, persuasion, and built up rage in Harry. Harry learns many things along his journey at Hogwarts. He builds his beliefs and values around his constant battle between good and evil.
This shows how strong an antagonist can affect a bildungsroman plot. Lastly, setting can affect the way a character will think or act. Huck Finn was a young boy who lived in the South in a time of slavery among African Americans. He is a true red neck who floats up the Mississippi River on a raft. He comes across all types of people on his journey. The setting affects this book so much because the fact the he lives in the south during the slave era shows how he treats black people along the way. He is faced with many problems, and uses his knowledge of his surroundings to get him out of them.
My first example for a bildungsroman story is Ender’s Game. Ender is a young boy who joins a school that train young children to fight. He is training to fight against a group of aliens that look almost like insects. Ender was taken in, and he was supposedly the chosen one. He had constant arguments with the people in his battalion, and he even got into a few fights. Ender was bullied when he was the “new guy” (Maximus), and then slowly became more respected as he became a hardened soldier. The way Ender learned was very different from a lot of archetypal bildungsroman characters. Generally, the protagonist will learn from other people.
Ender learned from other people, but developed his own style based on trial and error. Ender proved to be very smart and was rewarded highly for it. He made his own moves for combat and were proven very effective on the battlefield. This book was very different because it didn’t use a common plot for bildungsroman. It focused less on character development, and more on character outcome. A bildungsroman book generally focuses more on development. At the end of the book, Ender finds out that the acclaimed killer of an enemy is actually harmless.
They are being attacked without reason, and all of Ender’s practice sessions were actually real battles. It turns out the antagonist wasn’t truly a bad species. They were just looking for a place to survive. Ender learns a lot from the fighting and why he is doing it. This book is a good example of peers affecting the main character in the sense that they were falsely leading him. Ender was lead to kill when killing wasn’t necessary. Although he did form himself through lies made by the government, he still learned about life and what war is truly about.
The next book I want to focus on is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by legendary author Mark Twain. Mark Twain is a realist writer who shows how it really was back in a time of corruption and slavery (Pool 1). Many people condemn Twain calling him a racist and a bigot, but little do they know he is trying to convey a message from a realistic point of view, rather than a romanticized point of view. Huck Finn is a country boy who gets fed up with life at home and decides to run away and live life on the Mississippi. He takes his friend Jim along with him. The complicated thing about it is the fact that Jim is black. If someone spots Jim, they will turn him in as a runaway or even kill him. Huck uses his skills of being a great con artist to get him out of many situations. Huck learns from the way people act, the way they look, and where they are from to work them.
This all has to do with setting. For example, when he meets the Grangerfords, he knows the are way classier and richer than him. He uses this to assume they don’t have much street smarts. He comes across all sorts of people, and he has to retain information about the people, the land, and the personalities to continue on with his journey. The antagonist in this novel is really a person in particular. It is more a group of people throughout the book. Anyone that remains a threat to Huck and Jim would be considered an antagonist. The outcome of this book kind of lets the reader continue the story. They drop it off and make it sound like Huck runs away again. We can assume that he ran away again for more adventures in his travels.
My third example for a bildungsroman novel is Great Expectations. Great Expectations would probably be considered a canon for bildungsroman novels. The intricate writing and detailed storyline makes it a great novel for character development (Kogan). This book is about a young boy named Pip who goes from a lower class family to learn how to become a true gentleman in a high end English family. Pip meets nearly sixty people along his journey, and learns from everyone. The characters he meet are very interesting because some of them he learns from in a positive way, and others in a negative.
Dickens focused on peers rather than setting and love, although they both play there respective parts in this book. Setting is shown when contrasting the poor lifestyle to that of the rich English lifestyle. Pip must learn to cope from on both spectrums of housing. Love also plays a key role because he develops feelings for a girl he is housing with. Although he likes her, love doesn’t steer his decision making like it does for most protagonists. The antagonist in this book is being held down by society and not making a name for himself. He learns to break free of the bonds of society and become a gentleman. At the end of this book, Pip is much older and now a hard working gentleman who is in the mercantile firm. All the people in his life ended up impacting his life greatly and for the better of things.
My next example is the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling. This is a very predominant series read by millions of people. It is one of the most famous series of the twenty-first century. Although it is highly recognized as a critically acclaimed series, it is often over looked as a true character development novel. Harry is a young boy who learns he is a wizard and enrolls in a wizard school. What Harry does not know tis the fact that he is one of the most famous wizards ever. He is the only person to ever survive an unforgivable curse.
As Harry goes through school at Hogwarts, he uncovers some of the most dark and horrible secrets about the past. He finds out about his family, his enemy, and his school and there dark pasts. Harry tries to break free of this unknown past but keeps coming back in grueling ways. Harry comes face to face with Voldemort many times, and he becomes enslaved to the battle between the two. Harry learns from all the trials and tribulations that lead up to the killing of Voldemort. Unlike Ender’s Game, Harry Potter is focused more on journey than destiny.
My last and favorite example is Forrest Gump. This movie is widely considered the greatest work of character development. This book expresses all the themes of a bildungsroman plot into one movie. It shows how love, setting, and antagonist can all affect the outcome of a person. Forrest Gump is a mentally challenged boy who experiences more difficulties than the average human. He plays All-American Football, he fights in Vietnam, He meets the president multiple times, he deals with racism, he owns a multi-million dollar company and more.
Love directs Forrest in a way like no other. His path goes off course multiple times in search of his true love, Jenny. Setting plays a big role because of the problems in the 60’s. Things like the drug movement, the sex revolution, racism, war, and an economic crisis made Forrest Gump a true American. The antagonist of this movie is not a person. The antagonist is merely separation. Separation from Jenny is the whole point of Forrest’s great journey. Through this journey we can understand what being alive is all about and living in the pursuit of happiness.
With all these in mind, we can draw conclusions that bildungsroman novels have not really veered from the path since they were invented. They all have similar plots and outcomes. They all have to do with pursuit of happiness and reaching the goal. All of the examples I have mentioned all reached their goals. It is a trend for bildungsroman novels to reach their goals and to succeed in the end. Although, this is a trend, it does not mean it is true for all of them.
Some books leave a failure at the end in an attempt to show the reader maybe life isn’t all about searching. Protagonists basically all have the same flawed characteristics that make them possible to develop. If they were perfect, they wouldn’t have any goals to reach. They wouldn’t search for a purpose in life. I think as readers we enjoy a flawed character because it is easier for us to relate to them. We enjoy reading these types of books because they almost help us decide how we want to carry out our lives and live as an individual.
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