Bildungsroman: The Trauma of Happy Endings


Photo Courtesy of @thoughtcatalog via Unsplash

By Alison Myers, Arts Writer


Once — and I say “once” in the liberalist, most distancing, self-deceptive sense, like we don’t still live “once” and that “once” won’t come to bite us in the ass — there was an idealist. A baby faced, bright-eyed, daydreaming — though she would have called it philosophizing — idealist who had been exposed to too many neat and beautifully contained narratives. Books the perfect size to wrap around a conclusion. Fingers up and down the seven-note scales. Poetry — AABB. This was, and is, the kind of idealist to stare outward and summon the gravity of her whole life, to feel the weight of existence, messy but meaningful. The kind of idealist to resonate with the conclusion, cry over its passing, smile over it and slowly imagine the future take hold in its vague perfection. And then all of that fades. Screen blackens and then there’s confusion again, and prayer, and that desperate, moth-fluttering vitality. 

In the end, we are stuck outside of the contained narratives bound in books. We outlive the sense, the logic, and the profound, lingering last scene. Because, in the end, we have to pick up the pieces of the last era. The year ends and we need to create the next year. We graduate and we need to keep determining who we become. That’s just it — what do we become if we never stop becoming? 

I have begun to think that there’s a particular trauma that arises out of the jarring disconnect between story and our un-storied lives. The dissonance in life trying to imitate art. One name for this trauma is bildungsroman — a literary genre. Bildungsroman focuses on moral or psychological development in the transition from childhood to adulthood. It’s the classic coming-of-age story. Young people unpacking the hidden meanings of the world. It’s Scout saying “Hey, Boo,” and walking the mockingbird home. It’s S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and every John Hughes movie. It’s Will Hunting driving off with a smirk on his face, his relationship with Sean the therapist at its peak. Leaving at the perfect moment so that time will not corrode the friendship, so that inevitable future fights with his girlfriend are bulldozed by the end credits. 

These stories are the ones that make me hopeful that the fates will tie off every era of my life with a bow. So many of these movies have one of those moments where, right at the moment of crisis, the character has an epiphany and everything begins to click. The protagonist knows exactly what to do and can, in fact, do it in three minutes. “500 Days of Summer” captures this textbook moment after the turmoil of Tom’s breakup. Suddenly he’s designing buildings again, the future full of potential. Cue the upbeat song, our hero has solved the mystery of the self. Literary critic Franco Moretti talks about “the static teleological vision of happiness and reconciliation found in the endings” of bildungsroman plots. Inevitable happy endings, oh boy. What a painful pressure for humans coming of age who still need to live out the rest of their lives. 

Instead, many of us are graduating this year and the questions everywhere are “what are you going to do? Do you have a plan? Are you going to have something to show for the heartache, make every lesson you’ve learned pay off, have a complete understanding of yourself?” Who are you — let me tell you, there is no other question like that which can make you feel like the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion all at once. We seem to be desperately looking for the overarching narrative in the world. The overarching definition of ourselves. Rarely can we appreciate moments independently. 

Many recent bildungsroman stories oppose the earlier story structure. “Lady Bird,” a wonderfully chaotic coming-of-age story, ends without Saoirse Ronan’s character resolving the relationship with her mother. It ends with her leaving her mother a voicemail, saying “thank you.” And then the screen goes dark. The ’90s movie, “Reality Bites,” ends on a positive note also, but has more loose ends. The main romantic relationship concludes, but what about the character arc of Lelaina? Who is she by the end of the movie? She tells her love interest, Troy, “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23.” The ideal crumbles. You can feel it. Life comes flooding in and, well, reality bites. “Honey,” he tells her. “All you have to be by the time you’re 23, is yourself.” Amen to that, Troy. Now if only we could understand ourselves in ways that weren’t so reliant on the temporary conditions around us. 

In bildungsroman plots, confusion acts as the great link. We’re lost in the woods, left in dark. And it’s in the dark that we begin to think. When the curtain closes, we don’t have a scene to grasp onto. Again we’re left seeking, we open the medicine cabinet to see what salves will answer life’s unanswerable questions. Last time I watched “Reality Bites” I read that line differently. All you need to be is yourself. Yourself — faltering, indistinct, questioning, seeking. While recovering from the trauma of fictional joy, it’s enough to be in pursuit of the unknowable. It’s enough to wonder, to create, to be inconclusive. I’m telling you because I need to tell myself. It’s enough. 


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