Near the end of J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the novel’s hero Holden Caulfield buys his sister Phoebe a ticket to the carousel in the park and watches her ride it. It begins to rain, and Holden – having spent most of the book in some form of anxiety, disgust or depression – now nearly cries with joy. ‘I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all.’
Holden watches his sister reach out for a ring from her bobbing horse, and he has a profound revelation: life is about maintaining some form of optimism and innocence – of continuing to try, even in the midst of an impossible world. Later, Holden says he gets ‘sick’, but now he is mostly sanguine: he plans to go to a new school in the autumn and is looking forward to it. Holden has had an emotional experience and, as a result, has found himself. This, in turn, will allow him to enter society, which marks his growing up.
The term Bildungsroman was coined by the philologist Karl Morgenstern in the 1820s to denote ‘the hero’s Bildung (formation) as it begins and proceeds to a certain level of perfection’. The term grew in popularity when in 1870 Wilhelm Dilthey wrote that the quintessential Bildungsroman was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796), in which the protagonist has the double task of self-integration and integration into society. According to Dilthey, self-integration implies social integration, thus the Bildungsroman is concerned predominately with leading the protagonist (and the reader) into his productive societal place. It is largely from this tradition that most contemporary coming-of-age culture, Salinger included, springs.
Take, for instance, the fact that the culminating fight scene in most superhero stories occurs only after the hero has learned his social lesson – what love is, how to work together, or who he’s ‘meant to be’. Romantic stories climax with the ultimate, run-to-the-airport revelation. The family-versus-work story has the protagonist making a final decision to be with his loved ones, but only after almost losing everything. Besides, for their dramatic benefit, the pointedness and singular rush of these scenes stems from the characters’ desire to finally gain control of their self: to ‘grow up’ with one action or ultimate understanding.
Sometimes there are slight inversions, but the coming-of-age story remains essentially the same. Mike Nichols’s film The Graduate (1967), for instance, is a supposedly inverted coming-of-age story, in which the newly graduated and existentially lost Benjamin eventually realises that he has made a mistake by ignoring social norms and eloping with the daughter of his older lover, rather than adhering to the expectation that he would just get a job and move out of his childhood home. His single moment of understanding comes in the back of the bus that whisks him away with Elaine who flees her own wedding to another man. Only here, at the film’s end, does Benjamin come to realise the error of his ways in deciding not to ‘grow up’ within the expected social boundaries.
Finding one’s true place in the world is a massive trope, not just in film and theatre, but also in literature, education and motivational seminars – any place where young people are involved. In all these cases, the search for the ‘self’ is dubious because it assumes that there is an enduring ‘self’ that lurks within and that can somehow be found. Whereas, in fact, the only ‘self’ we can be sure of is one that changes every second, our decisions and circumstances taking us in an infinite number of directions, moment by moment. And even if we think we have ‘found ourselves’, this is no panacea for the rest of our lives. In the last line of F Scott Fitzgerald’s debut, This Side of Paradise (1920), young Amory Blaine cries out: ‘I know myself, but that is all.’ Young as he is, Fitzgerald’s confused Princetonian still sees how insubstantial the knowledge of his ‘self’ is within the larger context of his life.
The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity, and instead posits the idea of staged development, or an eternally malleable sense of self that shifts as we grow older, and with the uniqueness of our personal experience.