By Erin Waks
With the start of 2021 in full swing, it’s that time of year again where everyone reflects on the past, and how to learn from the past to bring about a better future. And, with this in mind, it is clear that literature does the same. So much so, in fact, that there is even a whole genre of literature dedicated to the exploration of growth and transformation – the bildungsroman, note key examples such as Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Voltaire’s Candide. But it does not stop there. In light of the start of a new chapter, 2021, I’d like to reflect on some of my favourite novels and short stories which examine true change, development and learning.
Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project
The heart-warming tale of a socially challenged professor of genetics in search of a partner would have even a sceptic believing in fate and love. Scientifically minded, Don, the protagonist, sets out on a quest, The Wife Project, to try to find his perfect match. Enter Rosie – bubbly, fiery, and Don’s almost complete opposite. Whilst she is on her own personal journey, in search of her biological father, the pair spend more time together. Unsurprisingly, the two fall in love, much to their surprise. Don learns the valuable lesson that sometimes love is not something that can be scientifically dictated – and he develops into a man capable of loving and being loved.
Tara Westover’s Educated
Westover’s autobiographical novel detailing her upbringing in a religious Mormon family explores a huge amount of personal development. The author examines the way her thoughts were dictated by family members, and how, through her education, both in Utah and at Cambridge University in the UK, she gradually learnt to question everything, and to interrogate the world around her. The novel is well worth a read – not only from an anthropological perspective, but also for Westover’s exploration of personal growth.
Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles
This novel, full of classical allusions, delves into the homosexual relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. The protagonists grow up together, and we see their friendship blossom into something deeper; caring, passionate and intense, the text illustrates the development of a love, and the way in which the two boys grow into young men.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Fitzgerald explores the concept of ‘growing up’ through the bizarre tale of a man who is born as an old man, and ages backward. There is no limit to the things Benjamin, the protagonist learns through his life. We learn the importance of living each aspect of our lives – it would be no better if we could erase the difficult times. Playing on the idea of aging and growth, Fitzgerald captures the significance of youth, and also of the experiences of life, and their effects on one’s persona.
Voltaire’s satirical philosophical tale may not seem an obvious choice for discussing emotional maturity and personal growth, yet the novel is full of life lessons and individual development. The protagonist, through interactions with various figures in French society and the Catholic church, exposes the absurdity of religious doctrines and French government during the era. Through highlighting this, the protagonist learns how to live in civilized society, albeit losing some of his innocence along the way. A must-read for fans of political satire.
What, then, can we learn from literature? I think we can borrow from our literary counterparts, and extrapolate lessons to aid our own personal development. Don from The Rosie Project and Miller’s two protagonists teach us how to love, Westover demonstrates the importance of education, academic and social, and Fitzgerald and Voltaire elucidate the need to appreciate all experiences in order to grow and learn from them. Books, then, reflect real life, and the way each of us grows, transforms and adjusts as we go.
Image: Verity Laycock