Hey folks and welcome to another edition of Food for Thought! Today we’re going to have a brief discussion on a literary device that may, or may not, help you out on your next big English paper. The Bildungsroman–AKA the “coming-of-age-story”–is a time-honored tradition that can be traced in literary history from myths, to epics, and to even modern novels that populate the average English class reading list. The Bildungsroman is also found in many of our favorite anime, films, video games, etc — because of its timeless and nearly universal plot structure. These stories feature a child (Or child-metaphor) taking a journey towards becoming an adult, with a focus on the psychological or moral growth of this child-like protagonist. Character development is integral to the success of the Bildungsroman, with the protagonist’s journey towards becoming a proper adult standing in as a metaphor for becoming a better person.
But you know what, as much as we love when things work for our heroes, for them to successfully leave behind childhood and accept the “greatness” of adulthood… We also love it when their plans fail miserably, when the Bildungsroman is actually a recipe for disaster and instead of the triumphant growth of a character, we instead are privy to their failings and the ultimate realization that growing up actually sucks.
Okay so the basic gist of the reverse Bildungsroman is that it is an “end-of-an-age” story, where the protagonist loses something instead of gaining a great, shiny, new outlook on life. While a typical coming-of-age story is filled with considerable angst, trials, and tribulations it is always to the eventual betterment of its protagonist. On the other hand, the reverse Bildungsroman protagonist looks at “growing up” with a wary eye, and maybe a wry laugh or two. After all, there might not be a neat little ending for the reverse Bildungsroman protagonist, instead they trudge on a bittersweet journey that forces the protagonist to change, grow, and adapt — but then when it comes down to the end, they don’t get that magical epiphany that makes them a better human being.
The protagonist of a reverse Bildungsroman may go through the steps of a typical hero’s journey, but they may become stagnant — never learning from their experiences, ultimately failing to become the expected hero. Or, they may change, but that change will not be for the better – with perhaps a wiser, but sadder hero left in the wake of an epic journey with the fresh taste of adventure leaving behind something bitter in its wake.
And honestly, you’d be surprised at how often the reverse Bildungsroman is woven into the tragic tales of some of our favorite films and comics.
A classic example that immediately comes to mind has to be Neon Genesis Evangelion, specifically everyone’s favorite conflicted hero, Shinji Ikari. Shinji is nearly infamous as both a disliked and yet highly popular “protagonist” — particularly for his bleak portrayal of human selfishness. Because in a world populated by aliens and giant robots, one would assume that when tasked with maintaining peace on earth with his very own fighting robot, a protagonist like Shinji would shoulder his responsibility and grow up to be the ultimate hero right? Right?
Instead the audience is treated to a character that is completely and shamelessly unheroic. When given a task that is the perfect sort of “growing up” metaphor, Shinji Ikari brilliantly refuses to do so, instead clinging to an almost childish outlook on life with a singular motivation unbecoming of a hero of a mecha genre. He pilots his Eva with reluctance, waffling between lofty aspirations and reasoning that sounds good and selfless — but the truth is the story keeps changing.
Why pilot the Eva? Because everyone tells him to do it. Because he’s the only one who can do it. Because it has to be done — all lofty sentiment, but ultimately far from Shinji Ikari’s real motivation. In fact, he only wants to please his father, to finally be accepted by him — which is, of course, contrary to the typical Bildungsroman that would instead call for the character to develop their own autonomy and make good decisions based on their own experience.
So one wonders if Shinji Ikari ever really “grows up”. There are other factors that hinder his “hero development” and make him an atypical protagonist; he suffers from depression and PTSD amongst other things. But, of all the strange and sundry things Shinji does and experiences during the course of Evagelion, his lack of actually becoming the much lauded “hero” is a constant. Yet, what we see in Shinji, and what perhaps maintains his dubious popularity is the fact that he does not have to be a hero, that it’s okay that he never grows up, and that he unabashedly is a reminder that human selfishness can win out and be the ultimate motivator.
Another well-executed example of the reverse Bildungsroman can be found in Kieron Gillen’s run of Journey into Mystery. This revival follows the misadventures of Loki — resurrected as a seemingly harmless “younger self” who seeks out to prove himself to his brother and to all of Asgard. It is the ultimate test of nature versus nurture, and it is a delightful (and painful) exercise in the power of the reverse Bildungsroman.
Here we have the potential for change with Loki starting off anew with a seemingly fresh slate after a seemingly selfless act killed him the first place. It opens up the possibility that hey, you know, everyone’s
hated favorite God of Mischief can do something good once in awhile. And this younger Loki certainly tries, to mixed results with a long-series of good intentions that are foiled by duplicitous scheming that certainly does not fit within Asgard’s perceived rules of honor and conduct. Not to say that the little brat is a saint, but the fact remains that Loki, even this younger reincarnation, is fundamentally a chaotic force, and even when he tries to do something that is good or beneficial he does so in a particularly obtuse way — definitely a nod to the mythological Loki’s trickster nature, but not a particularly good selling point when you want to be liked by people beyond your brother, Thor. (And even that is dubious at times…)
And there’s the rub — we have an arguably likable character, one that is charming enough and “innocent” enough to gain our sympathy as we watch him grow. And he does grow — certainly not out of the scheming and tricks that he’s known for, but he has a constant anxiety of becoming something like his “older” stock-villain self. It’s a constant battle to not become like that Loki, and he does a particularly admirable job of growing into a character that is different from his previous self. (Or at least, he does an admirable enough job that has won him a strong fan-base)
In the end, a mix of heroism and rather epic misunderstanding and subterfuge does get this younger Loki somewhat close to his goal of overcoming his “old” self. But due to a highly convoluted turn of events he is forced to mold with his older self, whose spirit persists and has been waiting for the moment when he could repossess a body of some sort. Now with some faith in this younger version of Loki, it’s actually quite smart to take over said body now while the going is “good.”
Not to mention the fact that the highly convoluted plot device that forces this play is something that the young Loki cannot avoid. And perhaps because he has changed so much on this journey, he makes a choice that his older self would never accomplish. For as much as he fears becoming the villain he worked so hard to avoid — the alternative doom that he would unleash upon the world by refusing this choice is one that he would avoid.
In order to “grow up,” to become a “better” person than his older self ever was, Loki makes a sacrifice move that removes himself from existence — but with the knowledge that in the end, he won. His older self may have his body now (and is currently wrecking havoc with it in Young Avengers), but he will never have what his younger version worked hard to obtain. It’s an adult decision at a point of utter despair, but the kid does go out in style, leaving his older self in a new body — but with the bittersweet victory because in the end the kid won.
It was the kid who changed, while the older, bitter Loki is still nothing more but older, bitter Loki.
So why do we love stories like this? From these two examples–and there are also many, many more brilliant reverse Bildungsromans to enjoy–we’ve encountered stories that do little to show the “best” of what people are capable of. But, it is that lack of the “best” of people that makes the reverse Bildungsroman so powerful, and ultimately fun to encounter.
We do love to see our heroes win, but there is something certainly fascinating about the opposite. There is something striking when one encounters a “hero” at their worst, it reminds us that “heroes” also do not get their “deserved” happy endings, no matter how hard they work, or what sort of lofty aspirations motivate them. Perhaps these “end-of-an-age” stories are more relatable to the average Joe down on his luck, or perhaps we find more emotional catharsis when we deal with a character forced to “change” to disastrous results. I personally find in stories like the stagnant development of Shinji Ikari and the “adult” decision-making of the younger Loki to be scenarios I would not want to be in — so to watch these characters negotiate such obstacles is riveting.
They might not be good people, but they’ve done their best — and you can’t help but relate to that on some level.
Thus the reverse Bildungsroman is a plot device that is definitely here to stay, one that serves as a profound reminder of how unromantic it is to be the hero of your own story. Because being forced to “grow up”, to become some lofty, heroic ideal is certainly not how everyone responds to such stimuli; it’s good to know even fictional characters can crack underneath their own anxiety.