Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote the first European Bildungsroman in 1796, titled Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Bildungsroman is probably best translated as “novel of development.” You can also think of it as “novel of education” or “novel of formation.” But actually (and pretentiously), Bildungsroman is a universally used word for the genre. So, like many loanwords of German origin in English, we can now slap a lowercase letter onto it and sound sophisticated, like schadenfreude, gestalt, or zeitgeist.
To best explain what a bildungsroman is and what Wilhelm Meister is about I’ll recount the recent trials of soccer star Samuel Eto’o. First, Eto’o went on a journey this summer to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where the soccer club Kuruvchi was offering his current employer FC Barcelona forty million euros for his transfer. Goethe’s protagonist Wilhelm also went on a journey while conducting business and joined up with a band of carefree actors.
Barça reported that Eto’o was redundant and he could vamoose, for all they cared. Faced with a career at a low-tier club in Central Asia, Eto’o journeyed on to Barça’s training camp in Scotland, crestfallen and undesired. Wilhelm was also scorned, or at least his paranoid mind thought, by the actress Marianne. He destroyed all his writings and carried on, feeling rejected by the art world.
In preseason training for Barça, still barely hanging on to his job, Eto’o collided with a reserve player and suffered a blow to the head. Wilhelm, after finally landing the young male lead in a play, was ambushed by robbers and badly wounded.
Suddenly, after weeks of a miserable summer, Barça reported that five big European clubs were interested in signing Eto’o. Meanwhile Barça claimed they never really wanted Eto’o to go. Likewise Wilhelm experienced unexpected fortune. He enrolled in a new troupe, learned about an inspiring playwright called Shakespeare, and discovered he had a bright three-year-old son by the now-dead Marianne.
In August Barça’s new coach, who in June said he could see no role for Eto’o on his team, changed his mind and called Eto’o “one of the world’s best.” He now starts each game for Barça and has already scored a few goals. In the eighth and last book of Goethe's long novel, Wilhelm finds out that his entire journey had been watched over by the Turmgesellschaft, a secret society. He weds the beautiful woman who nursed his wounds after the ambush, the secret society declares his “apprenticeship” over, and he can enter the bourgeois world as a tried and tested artist.
The stories of the tumultuous summer for Eto’o and the years of wandering in Goethe’s Wilhelm contain four elements typically found in a bildungsroman: a journey, a major setback, rescue or deliverance, and becoming an adult with a role in society.
Works Mentioned (chronological)
- Merseburger Zaubersprüche
- Armer Heinrich by Hartmann
- Das Nibelungenlied
- Parzival by Wolfram
- Meier Helmbrecht by Wernher
- Sendbrief by M. Luther
- Fräulein Sternheim by S. La Roche
- Die Räuber by F. Schiller
- Egmont by J. W. Goethe
- Wilhelm Meister by J. W. Goethe
- Wahlverwandtschaften by Goethe
- Peter Schlemihl by A. v. Chamisso
- Ottokar by F. Grillparzer
- Romeo und Julia by G. Keller
- Geburt der Tragödie by F. Nietzsche
- Irrungen Wirrungen by T. Fontane
- Anatol by A. Schnitzler
- Der Tod in Venedig by T. Mann
- Morgens mitternachts by G. Kaiser
- Berlin Alexanderplatz by A. Döblin
- Katz und Maus by G. Grass
- Katharina Blum by H. Böll
- Kassandra by C. Wolf
- Stille Zeile Sechs by M. Maron