I am writing a new series to show how the Harry Potter series fits into the bildungsroman genre, shares qualities with many bildungromans from European and American literary traditions and, I will argue, represents a re-connection with the bildungsroman and contemporary popular literature.
So first, what is a bildungsroman?
Merriam-Webster: A novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character. This is it in a nutshell, although it is a bit more technical.
In the bildungsroman, the goal is maturity and their is usually a main conflict between the individual character and society at large. Generally, the protagonist will accept the values of society and in return be accepted into society.
The genre arose in Germany, but spread to other European literary traditions in the 19th century and further abroad in the 20th. The term bildungsroman was popularized by German literary critic and historian Wilhem Dilthey in 1905.
The Harry Potter series has characteristics of the bildungsroman genre from the very beginning. We will look at these chapter by chapter, beginning with the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone.
J. K. Rowling sets up a thematic element common to bildungsromans on the very first page: a conflict between the protagonist and society. The Dursley’s here represent a type of society opposed to “magic,” and I think what is metaphorically meant here is that the Dursley’s a representing society’s rejection of nonconformity. Wizards do not conform to (muggle) society’s standards so they have to be shunned.
Harry Potter is an embarrassment to the Dursley’s so he has to be relegated to a lesser position within the family. Not only is he literally an orphan, but in the muggle world he always has a lesser position because of his nonconformity. For their part, the Dursley’s are doing everything they can to suppress his development as an individual.
We may be reminded here of a similar theme in Dickens’ David Copperfield, where young, orphaned David has to face living with the simply awful Murdstone’s as they do everything they can to suppress his own development, just to name one example of a frequent bildungsroman theme.
So as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone begins, Rowling first introduces the Dursley’s. Their primary characteristic is their conformity. The Dursleys are “proud to say that they were perfectly normal” (1). They have one single fear: “They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters” (2). So already Rowling has set up the conflict between the conformity of the Dursleys and the probably nonconformity of Harry Potter.
We also find out that Voldemort tried to kill Harry Potter and was not able to. Rowling is already setting up the connection between Harry and Voldemort that will be a theme for the rest of the series.
On the other hand, we see that Harry has protectors and eventual benefactors. In this chapter we meet Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid. Often even though the protagonists of bildungsromans are having their individuality supressed by characters like the Dursleys or the Murdstones, they have protectors and benefactors that help them along their path to developing as individuals. Think David Copperfield’s eccentric Aunt Betsey Trotwood or Ms. Havisham from Great Expectations. The latter also should remind us that the benefactors may not turn out to be exactly who we think they are by the end of the novel.
These are some of the many characteristics the Harry Potter series shares with the bildungsroman genre, and I think we can argue that from the very beginning, Rowling is not only using these common literary themes, but also intentionally setting the Harry Potter series up to be a bildungsroman.