Within the broad category of novels, critics and literary historians identify numerous types, each with its own conventions and each arousing certain expectations in the reader. While readers are usually told that they cannot judge a book by its cover, the fact is that readers begin to make judgments about books on the basis of the book’s type, which they typically know before reading it. Modern romance novels, for example, are defined by their adherence to certain conventions. So are westerns, science fiction novels, police procedural novels, and murder mysteries.
One important subgenre in the history of fiction is the bildungsroman (pronounced BILLdoongz-row-MAHN). This is a German word that is generally translated as something like ‘‘novel of development.’’ The German word continues to be used among English speakers, though, because translations into English seem slightly inadequate. In breaking down the German word, -roman is easy: it means ‘‘novel.’’ Bildung, though, is more complicated. It is etymologically related to the English word building, used not in the sense of an object but in the sense of a process of construction. It is variously translated as ‘‘development,’’ ‘‘formation,’’ ‘‘education,’’ ‘‘apprenticeship,’’ or ‘‘growth.’’ Hundreds of years ago, the word’s connotations included the notion of spiritual or religious development. In the twentieth century, the word came to include artistic development, that is, the development of a writer’s or artist’s artistic sensibilities. All of these meanings are folded into the word bildungsroman.
The bildungsroman originated in the late eighteenth century in, appropriately, Germany, and the word itself was used by early-nineteenth-century German critics. The first such novel is generally thought to be Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795–1796). In the years that followed, many German authors followed in Goethe’s footsteps by writing similar novels. Inevitably, the tradition of the bildungsroman was transplanted to the English-speaking world. In England, Charlotte Bronte¨’s Jane Eyre is regarded as an early English bildungsroman. Later, Charles Dickens adopted the tradition in David Copperfield and Great Expectations. In the United States, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn makes use of many features of the bildungsroman. In the twentieth century, young-adult novels widely make use of the conventions of the bildungsroman. A common theme in young-adult fiction is the process of maturation as the child or adolescent takes tentative steps into adulthood.
While any literary genre or subgenre can be a broad tent that includes variations, scholars generally agree that the bildungsroman has four important characteristics. Each of these characteristics can be found in Cold Sassy Tree. The first, and most important, is that such a novel traces the moral and social development of a single individual who lives within a clearly delineated social order. Will Tweedy fits the bill. He narrates the novel, and his perceptions of life in Cold Sassy define the novel’s emotional and physical space. He begins the novel as a fourteen-year-old who has unthinkingly absorbed the conventions and attitudes of his community, though there are hints that he is a sensitive boy who is predisposed to question those conventions and attitudes. The social order is defined by numerous characters: his mother, Mary Willis; his aunt, Loma Williams; and gossipy neighbors, such as Effie Belle Tate. His grandfather’s general store is the hub of town gossip, where the community’s moral and social codes are articulated and reinforced. Within this context, Will searches for meaningful spiritual and social truth.
A second characteristic is that some event occurs that spurs the character into searching for truth. In this sense, the bildungsroman is related to the theme of the quest. Cold Sassy Tree begins with two such events that are crucial to Will’s development. The first is the death of his grandmother, Mattie Lou. This death, along with the later deaths of Camp Williams by suicide and of his grandfather (and to a lesser extent of Lightfoot McLendon’s father), launches Will into a quest to understand the meaning of death and, more importantly, the meaning and role of God in the individual’s life. The second event is Rucker’s hasty marriage to a much younger woman, Miss Love Simpson. The marriage violates every convention in the rural southern town of Cold Sassy and becomes the topic of endless gossip and speculation. Miss Love herself, a northerner and advocate of women’s suffrage, is a challenge to the social order. Part of Will’s quest is to get to know Miss Love and to understand the motives behind her marriage to the much older Rucker.
A third characteristic of the bildungsroman is that the central character’s quest for growth and self-development is long and arduous. It does not come easily. The character makes missteps and misjudgments. He encounters obstacles on his quest, and he has to find ways to overcome them. In Cold Sassy Tree, the obstacles are not earth shattering; they consist of the normal challenges that a boy in a small southern town, or any boy, might encounter. Examples include Will’s near-death experience on the train trestle, his feelings for Lightfoot McLendon, the awakening of his sexual awareness through Miss Love, his disastrous camping trip and the false stories he tells about his aunt Loma on his return from the trip, the suicide of his uncle, and ultimately the death of his grandfather. Often, the quest comes to involve religious doubt, even spiritual despair, but Will arrives at a more profound relationship with God through the example of Rucker. All of these events conspire to bring Will to a more mature outlook on life.
The final characteristic of the bildungsroman has to do with the resolution of the central character’s relationship with the social order. Here is where these types of novels tend to follow differing paths. In the older German tradition, the tendency was for the book to present the apprentice character as naive. In the end, after serving his ‘‘apprenticeship,’’ he becomes part of the social order. In the English tradition, though, such novels tend to present the social order as limiting and ultimately destructive to the individual. The central character’s ideals are often presented not as naive and childish but as liberating. The character does not accommodate himself or herself to the social order but rather finds a way to escape its limitations while leaving a personal stamp on it.
The resolution of Cold Sassy Tree is much more optimistic than that of other novels in the genre in which the character has to sever himself from the social order. In Huckleberry Finn, for example, Huck can only escape. The social order that surrounds him is incapable of change. Will, though, witnesses ways in which Rucker and Miss Love transform the culture of Cold Sassy, at least in part. Cold Sassy may be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age, but it does change. Will can leave the community behind, knowing that its development has paralleled his own. And ‘‘Will,’’ with his future-oriented name and its implications of resolution and determination, can keep with him his souvenir piece of the Cold Sassy tree as a reminder of his roots.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Olive Ann Burns, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Michael J. O’Neal, Critical Essay on Cold Sassy Tree, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010