The Color Purple as a Bildungsroman

Genre expectations

Celie’s personal progress is consistent with an important literary genre known as Bildungsroman, sometimes referred to as ‘coming of age’ novels. The Bildungsroman is a literary genre that began in Germany and spread throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. The form focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood and character change is an important part of this process.

The Bildungsroman depicts and criticises aspects of a society that cause the protagonist to suffer in some way. The protagonist is usually male, sensitive and socially inferior and the narrative features some loss or reversal which ultimately changes the course of his life. Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1861) are classic examples of the genre.

Female protagonists, although rare, also feature in novels such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) but there is a significant difference between male and female protagonists in terms of their perceived roles and consequent freedom of choice. Whereas men were encouraged to be independent and were not domestically or morally constrained, the opposite was true for women, who were traditionally expected to remain submissive, dependent and obedient.

Tamar Katz’s article in Harold Bloom’s Alice Walker (1988) suggests that The Color Purple is a ‘type of’ Bildungsroman since it not only traces Celie’s psychological growth but also teaches or instructs the reader as they read the collection of letters.

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