Definition“C oming of age” is a term that refers to the psychological, emotional, and moral transition into adulthood. Deriving from the german word bildungsroman, the first known reporting of the phrase “coming-of-age” was in 1916, though in the past two decades the phrase has grown exponentially in popularity and use. The age at which this transition happens varies in different societies and cultures, but generally is considered something everyone has to go through.
In the process of “coming of age”, often the character has many different and unique experiences that cause them to find themselves, figure out their own identity, and grow up in a sense. In the genre of young adult literature this transition and growth from childhood to adulthood is the underlying theme of the story, which usually involves the main character going through an experience or series of experiences that help them define themselves and see the world with a new and more understanding perspective. One might argue that a loss of innocence occurs in coming-of-age stories because the character has a newfound knowledge and understanding of the world that they didn’t have before. The character changes and discovers more about themselves and what really matters to them based off of the experiences they go through in the book.
Historical Context and Background
The coming of age novel is an English term that stemmed from the German Bildungsroman, which was coined in the early 1800s (specifically 1819, by Karl Morgenstern). It is typically focused on the crises of adolescence (i.e. courtship/dating, independence from family, choosing occupations and future, etc.). The coming of age genre as we understand it today seems to have been derived from the fully-developed English bildungsroman, which follows the protagonist from infancy through early adulthood, whereas the coming of age novel focuses on a more limited time span. Recent American texts derive their meaning from the eighteenth-century Bildungsroman, but are removed both culturally and historically from the German origin.The genre became especially popular in the post-war period and led to many additions to media and literature focused on the coming of age story.
Depictions of coming of age experiences can happen at any age for any character, but these are typically classified as bildungsroman, because “coming of age” specifically references adolescents. Since the generation of this term, it has been used within the parameters of age. American mythology associates coming of age with literal age and also focuses on the dramatization of innocence that childhood and adolescence are believed to exemplify. Innocence is an important aspect because it carries resonance in American national mythology. For example, the breaking off of the United States of America from Great Britain was viewed as a fresh start; the emergence of the New World and the people trying to establish new means of survival and independence, establishing a social identity independent of the Old World, parallels the typical story found in the coming of age novel, during which an adolescent is attempting to build social identity, break free of imposed restrictions, and striving to be independent in the midst of social and personal challenges found in the transition from adolescent to adult. The arising of the coming of age novel goes along with America’s own “narrative of national identity”. A majority of Young Adult texts fall within this category because the subject matter resonates so specifically with what adolescents and emerging young adults are experiencing within the context of their own lives.
Bildungsroman, widely accepted as the origin of the coming of age novel, evolved from a variety of folk stories that featured a youngest son going out into the world in order to seek his fortune and pursue a future. This genre is characterized by some form of emotional loss that serves as the catalyst for the character embarking on such a journey. Throughout the story, the protagonist works towards maturity gradually and with some difficulty (manifest in different ways). Another characteristic of this genre is the main internal conflict between the main character and society. Usually, the main character comes to grips with whatever societal issues he initially struggled to accept and, consequently, he is also accepted by society. This common theme of the relationship between the young individual and society originated in the bildungsroman genre, and has emerged in a prevalent way in Young Adult literature, specifically coming-of-age texts. The central focus tends to be the protagonist’s struggle with finding his identity and where he fits into the wider societal scope. Such elements that characterize the coming-of-age novel are found in the bildungsroman genre that came before.
Criticism and Controversy
The coming of age novel is also known as the “developmental” novel, or the “novel of formation.” Scholars have not labeled an exact definition that can encompass the wide range of plots and narratives found in young adult books. In an article by John Warner, from the Chicago Tribune, he says that novels such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Bridge to Terebithia all classify as the coming of age novels. He argues that it is “tempting to call Twilight a Bildungsroman, except that Bella has the same hyper-romanticized, oversimplified notions of love at the end of the tetralogy as the beginning.” He further says that “ A true “novel of formation” requires at least the possibility of change, but Bella is stamped in permanent (purple) ink.”
In her book Aged Young Adults: Age Readings of Contemporary American Novels and Films, Anita Wolhmann argues that if coming of age means to reach the full legal adult status, then the adult status is “not only culturally contingent, it is also a status difficult to define.” She explains that “the concept of maturity, which is generally used to define adulthood, does not specify which kinds of social experiences or psychological dispositions mark a successful transition into adulthood.”
There are still a lot of questions concerning the coming of age novel. Does the coming of age encompass a transition from one age to another (ex 15-16 years old, 17-18 years old)? Or is the coming of age a transition from immaturity to maturity? If so, how does one judge that? Is the coming of age novel about “finding oneself” and personal discovery? What is it that makes the coming-of-age genre so popular for young adult readers? Is there merit in studying coming-of-age novels?
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
American-Born Chinese by Gene Luan Yang
Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Paper Towns by John Green
Anne of Green Gables by Jody Lee and L.M Montgomery
The Only Alien On the Planet
- Millard, Kenneth. Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007. 5. Print.
- Warner, John. “Biblioracle Offers Book Recommendations.” Tribunedigital-chicagotribune. Chicago Tribune, 18 Jan. 2013. Web.http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-01-18/news/ct-prj-0120-biblioracle-20130118_1_coming-of-age-novels-young-adult-bildungsroman
- Wolhmann, Anita. “Aged Young Adults.” 47. Google Books. Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, 2014.
- Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: A.A. Levine, 1998. Print.
- Hinton, S. E. The Outsiders. New York: Viking, 1967. Print.
- Yang, Gene Luen., and Lark Pien. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006. Print.
- Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket, 1999. Print.
- Green, John. Paper Towns. New York: Dutton, 2008. Print.
- Montgomery, L. M., and Jody Lee. Anne of Green Gables. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1983. Print.
- Randle, Kristen D. The Only Alien on the Planet. New York: Scholastic, 1995. Print.