I took a class this semester called The Female Bildungsroman that I really loved and that mapped out pretty nicely with this course. We have been reading women’s coming of age stories, and so I have been thinking a lot this semester about what it really means to “come of age”. The bildungsroman is essentially a genre that is defined by a protagonist’s moral and psychological growth, but is more commonly just referred to as a coming-of-age novel. I have been really surprised as to how each new book we read challenges what I, and many theorists we read, thought a coming-of-age story looked like. This was especially present in my mind after our conversation about queering time on Monday. There is a certain timeline that is expected of us all, be it enforced subconsciously or not. Halberstam defined this societal timeline that queer individuals didn’t map onto as “birth, marriage, reproduction and death” (2). We read many coming of age novels in which protagonists did not meet the traditional structure of the bildungsroman that we learned from theorists at the beginning of the semester. The timeline or structure of the traditional bildungsroman involves an individual learning to negotiate one’s individuality within the rules of their society’s reality and then excising pieces of one’s personhood in order to reach social integration, which is the supposed goal of coming of age. But, just like how Halberstamexplored the different ways that queer individuals did not fit into the traditional timeline, many individuals’ coming of age can’t be mapped out nicely on the above structure/timeline.
The traditional female coming of age novel is Jane Eyre. Jane starts as a young girl with a fiery spirit, troubled by her familial and economic situation. When we leave her, she has matured into the role of educator and wife. Jane maps out pretty nicely onto the traditional theory of the bildungsroman. Next, we read Sula by Toni Morrison. Sula didn’t fit into the traditional timeline of coming of age because she never accomplishes social integration because the women of her community despise her rejection of monogamy, her promiscuity and her lack of regard for what others think of her. We then read Woman Warriorby Maxine Hong Kingston. Kingston’s coming of age defied the traditional definition in that she experienced her identity of being a first-generation immigrant as causing her to have a different relationship with time, between her present and her family’s past. The last novel we read that expanded upon our original conception of the bildungsroman was Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. As a trans woman, Janet wrote about how her coming of age dealt heavily with coming into her gender identity.
I think in the same way that we had difficulty agreeing on what a timeline for a “normal” life looks like, it’s difficult to define what it means or looks like for someone to come of age. One individual’s coming of age seems inherently bound to their specific circumstances, and thus a catch-all definition is sure to leave some people behind. Also, it’s interesting to think about the value systems that are behind the expected timelines of our coming of age and entire life, more fully. Not only might one’s coming of age be about something entirely different than the acceptance of reality and social integration, but also the placing of people within strict temporal boxes can be limiting for trying to understand diverse perspectives on what it means to come of age.
Source: Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place.