What Is A “Coming-of-age” Story?

Coming-of-age is a type of story in which a young person becomes an adult, or heads in that direction.

There are many children’s stories (or stories about children) in which the child loses their innocence. When that character is a bit older (adolescent) then it’s called a coming-of-age story.

Sometimes people think they know you. They know a few facts about you, and they piece you together in a way that makes sense to them. And if you don’t know yourself very well, you might even believe that they are right. But the truth is, that isn’t you. That isn’t you at all.

Leila Sales
What do you intend doing with your life, from 'Love in Borneo', Young Lovers No. 139, 1966
What do you intend doing with your life, from ‘Love in Borneo’, Young Lovers No. 139, 1966

Structure Of A Coming-of-age Story

At the beginning of the story, childhood has already been left behind, and the hero has concluded that the world is not a safe or blissful place. An event that occurred prior to the beginning of the story, or the hero’s overall situation, has made the hero feel lost or stuck in a world over which she has little or no control (the death of a brother in Stand By Me; a dystopian society in The Hunger Games; the social pressure and institutional indifference of school in The Breakfast Club).

After the hero’s introduction in the setup of the story, he is presented with an Opportunity that will either make life even worse (Katniss’ sister being chosen for the hunger games; the introduction of the bully in Karate Kid), or will hold the promise of some escape from his pain (the report of a dead body in Stand By Me; the Rolling Stone assignment in Almost Famous). In response, these heroes’ outer motivations are declared, and their pursuit of those goals begins.

As with any character arc, it is in this journey that their transformation occurs. But in coming-of-age stories, the conflicts the characters face force them to realize that they are now on their own, that parents, friends and society will not save them, and they must rely on themselves. And with this painful realization comes each hero’s individuation. They now define themselves and stand up for who they are – usually in defiance of parents or figures of authority.

So at the end of the journeys in the movies above – and in all coming-of-age stories – the world has not changed. It’s as painful and inhospitable as ever. But the hero is now equipped with the strength and courage and independence to face the world head on, and to move into adulthood living his or her essence.

Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website

I have a friend who swears she can’t stand any kind of coming-of-age story. I think this is because her definition is a little narrower than mine — she’s thinking of the genre typified by the likes of American Pie.

In one sense, all memorable stories are coming-of-age stories, if what we mean by the term is a story about someone who moves from one stage of development to a more advanced one. […] Films explicitly labeled a
coming-of-age story,” however, are often about nothing more than someone’s becoming aware of sex.

Howard Suber

Film critic Robert Ebert had a separate phrase to describe these movies:

Horny Teenager Movie: Any film primarily concerned with teenage sexual hungers, usually male. Replaced, to a degree, by Dead Teenager Movies (q.v.), but always popular with middle-age movie executives, who like to explain to their 17-year-old stars why the logic of the dramatic situation and the teachings of Strasberg and Stanislavsky require them to remove their brassieres.

Ebert’s Guide to Practical Filmgoing: A Glossary of Terms for the Cinema of the ’80s

This seems to be the common message of coming-of-age stories for a young adult audience:

You’re not going to die. Here’s the white-hot truth: if you go bankrupt, you’ll still be okay. If you lose the gig, the lover, the house, you’ll still be okay. If you sing off-key, get beat by the competition, have your heart shattered, get fired… it’s not going to kill you. Ask anyone who’s been through it.

Danielle LaPorte, Canadian author

Features of a Coming-of-age Story

  • Coming-of-age stories for adult audiences are often set in the past. Coming-of-age stories for young adult audiences are more often set in the present.
  • What’s the upper age limit for a coming-of-age main character? There doesn’t seem to be a limit in years, but the main character remains childlike in some way. An example of a coming-of-age character in her late twenties is Ruth in I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore.
  • A psychoanalytic reading of a coming-of-age story done badly might “pathologize” childhood – i.e read childhood as a symptom to be overcome in the journey to mature adulthood. This is why in a lot of coming-of-age tales, the child (adolescent) grows a bit, but at the end demonstrates that they haven’t given up on childhood completely. We see it, for instance, in Monster House, in which DJ decides to go trick-or-treating after all, despite eschewing all boyish things at the beginning of the story.

What Is A Bildungsroman?

My friend who can’t stand coming-of-age stories is probably fine with the bildungsroman. (The plural, by the way, is bildungsromane.)

  • Originally ‘bildungsroman’ meant a romantic story but we’ve narrowed the definition right down to refer to a type of  story which follows a character as he or she grows from adolescence into adulthood.
  • Harry Potter is very much a bildungsroman. Pride and Prejudice probably isn’t because it only takes place over the course of a single year, but it does show a change of character. Bella Swan, in Twilight, is followed from late adolescence into adulthood so the Twilight series is indeed a bildungsroman.
  • The bildungsroman is a specific subgenre of coming-of-age story. It is especially prominent in literature and focuses on the main character’s psychological and moral growth, and thus character change is extremely important.
  • The German translates to ’novel of formation’ or ‘novel of education’.
  • The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune.
  • Usually in the beginning of the story there is an emotional loss which makes the main character leave on their journey.
  • The goal is maturity, and the main character achieves it gradually and with difficulty.
  • This makes the bildungsromane inherently Romantic, because it has an optimistic ending that affirms the main character’s entry into adulthood.
  • Another Romantic idea: belief in the individual. Romanticism is all about the individual taking responsibility for themselves, living their own best life, finding one’s own place within society and so on.
  • The genre often features a main conflict between the main character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the main character and he/she is ultimately accepted into society — the main character’s mistakes and disappointments are over. In some works, the main character is able to reach out and help others after having achieved maturity.
  • YA novels evolved from the bildungsroman.

In its broadest sense, every story is a bildungsroman, right down to toddlers who star in picture books. Doesn’t every character grow, outside those in series fiction (which Maria Nikolajeva calls ‘paraliterature’)? Some sort of character arc is a requirement for a full and complete narrative.

Some academics prefer to narrow the term to a more useful definition: Bildungsromane star characters who mature from childhood to adulthood. This, at least, is useful.

The guy who came up with the word (Wilhelm Dilthey, 1870), meant it to refer to stories in which:

  1. There is a cultural goal
  2. Which is the complete unfolding of all the natural qualities
  3. Then there’s a clear path toward that goal

By this definition, the bildungsroman is a direct path from confusion to clarity.

Here’s another definition of the bildungsroman, by Jerome Buckley.

  1. A sensitive child grows up in a  rural setting feeling confined by his entire family (but especially by the father), and the father can’t understand the boy’s imaginative life (because these stories are traditionally about boys).
  2. School proves restrictive so the boy leaves home to go into an urban centre.
  3. He will have at least two romantic experiences.
  4. One of those has the potential to corrupt him and the other has the potential to purify him. (Can you see how sexist Betty and Veronica tropes are inherent in these stories?)
  5. His initiation is complete when he does a bunch of soul-searching then triumphs over the trials he faces with his parents/money/women and accepts his own capacity for work and for love.

Which is probably a bit too specific. Also, in the traditional bildungsroman, the main character is setting out to deliberately become independent. He’s trying to cultivate himself via novel experience. These are quest narratives. The quest is ‘to find oneself and grow up’.

But have you heard of the Entwicklungsroman?

  • Another type of story about the maturation process.
  • This is a very broad category in which an adolescent character grows (some). It’s subtly different from a bildungsroman because in the bildungsroman, the adolescent matures to adulthood.
  • Entwicklungsromane can be thought of as novels of growth or development, whereas bildungsromane are coming-of-age novels sometimes referred to as ‘apprenticeship novels’. (See also: School And Children’s Literature)

I suspect a lot of young adult novels are more Entwicklungsromane than Bildungsromane, because rarely does a young adult character seem like an adult at the end of the story. More likely they’ve overcome one particular problem, but still have a lot of growing to do before they can exist in the world independently and happily. Then again, when does one become an adult?

There’s no room in the traditional definition of Bildungsromane for female characters. If a story stars a young woman, it’s probably an Entwicklungsroman. Most authors throughout the history of literature consider growing up female as a choice between auxiliary or secondary personhood, sacrificial victimisation, madness and death (paraphrasing Annis Pratt, in Archetypal Patterns In Women’s Fiction). There’s no real psychological growth or maturity there. See also my lengthy post about the Female Maturity Formula.

That said, there are examples of female main characters who seem to fit the bildungsroman perfectly. Katherine Paterson’s Lyddie is one example.

  1. Lyddie is emotionally orphaned by her father. Her mother’s out of the picture too.
  2. Though embarrassed about being illiterate she decides to journey from the family farm in Vermont. She eventually arrives in the mill town Lowell, Massachussets.
  3. She is educated in a straightforward literacy narrative by coworkers Betsy and Diana.
  4. She has two sexualised encounters with men.
  5. The first is quite debasing when her foreman harasses her.
  6. The other is more like a purifying romance in that Lyddie’s neighbour wants to marry her because he loves her mind.
  7. She returns to her home and recognises how much she has known.
  8. She decides to defer marrying Luke until she has graduated from Oberlin.
  9. Her initial reasons for leaving home have come from a self-conscious recognition that she needed to learn how to earn a place in the world.
  10. Her final decision is based on the epiphany that the only thing limiting her is her own self-image.
  11. She overcomes poverty, ignorance and personal pettiness. She learns to balance her own materialism with her love of others and love of learning.

How about the Künstlerroman?

A Künstlerroman, meaning “artist’s novel” in English, is a narrative about an artist’s growth to maturity. These stories are typically about characters on the threshold of becoming a poet, musician or painter.

James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is the tentpole example.

It could be classified as a sub-category of Bildungsroman.

Further Examples of Coming-of-age Stories

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly — First of the three big novels which define young adult literature.
  • The Catcher In The Rye — Second of the three big novels which define YA.
  • The Outsiders — The third. This book changed YA fiction forever, not least because it was written by someone who was still a teenager herself.
  • The Wonder Years — an adolescent boy comes of age in 1960s America, an especially good setting for a coming-of-age series because that’s when America herself was going through some kind of ‘psychological growth’.
  • Mad Men – in this show a number of characters come of age. Peggy and Joan are the ‘secret main characters’, set against Don Draper who will never change much.
  • Freaks and Geeks — a ‘Breaking Bad‘ kind of plot in which a good girl learns to break free of her nerdy reputation
  • The Breakfast Club movie
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower — the book is far better than the film, and I’m not someone who always says that
  • Malcolm In The Middle TV show
  • Happy Days the 1960s sit-com
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man — an example of Anglophone Bildungsroman
  • Sons and Lovers — is another, about a sexual awakening, which is one thing today’s worst teen coming-of-age movies have in common
  • David Copperfield is another stand-out Anglophone example.
  • A Mill In The Floss — there is no room in the original definition of Bildungsroman for female main characters, but this is definitely a coming-of-age example.
  • What Maisie Knew — although Maisie is still very young she loses her childhood innocence.
  • The Secret Life Of Bees
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • About A Boy — in this case the main character is far too old to be living like a teenager and his young protege is more emotionally aware than he is. This, of course, is the point of the story.
  • Harry Potter a boy learns how special he is
  • Gone With The Wind — the main character is older and of marriageable age, but still pretty inward looking.
  • Adventureland — The main character has just finished university, but as he says into the phone at the beginning of the story he has been so focused on academics that he has no life experience to speak of.
  • We Are The Best — a group of girls about 12 or 13 years old who go on a mythological journey.
  • Anne of Green Gables — a well-known classic about an orphan who finds a home with two elderly siblings on Prince Edward Island. However, when adapted for screen by Sullivan, the story was changed from a Bildungsroman into a romance.

Further Reading

  • Contemporary Female Bildungsromans — Leisha Jones writes about Bildungsroman and the ‘prosumer‘, a new word which has come out after analysis of the Twilight series. Jones looks at how the modern stereotype of the girl in love is a carefully manufactured product that is marketed very heavily toward its target audience, and how the target audience is starting to take control of that image, with the fan fiction, the blogs, sharing their impressions of the story without that mediation of the commercial product (the prosumer – a proactive consumer).
  • In 1994 Peter Hunt wrote of ‘closed—semi-closed—unresolved’ stories forming the backbone of literature. Children’s stories tend to be “closed”. Coming-of-age stories are “semi-closed”. “Unresolved” endings are more common in stories for adults.

For Discussion

Maria Nikolajeva said in her book From Mythic to Linear:

It seems that in YA novels, there may be only two ways to deal with growing up, death or self-denial.

Do you agree with this statement as it applies to modern young adult literature (and movies and TV)?

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