Do you remember sitting in grade 9 English (or if you’re not in North America, the age of about 13/14) learning the word bildungsroman? It’s rather an ugly word, it’s like trying to spit your tongue out and juggle it. A bildungsroman is a novel or story in which the main character, or protagonist, comes of age or develops. Usually, young people read them because, they too, are coming of age. For example, the Harry Potter series is a bildungsroman in which the protagonists and other students at Hogwarts develop into adults and learn about the complicated morals of the (adult) world.
A lot of the time, books that follow the development of a main character will also employ archetypal representations of good and evil. Sometimes, there is a slight complication of those tropes, but, usually, they glare right at you. Consider the way that Voldemort is just evil. Consider the way that the Slytherins are, likewise, represented as evil, evil eleven-year-old children. Now, Rowling complicates our ideas of good and evil with Harry’s struggle between understanding his own goodness in the face of Voldemort’s semi-possession of his mind in book five. She also complicates it with the character of Snape. Yes, an abusive teacher that frightens his students, but also, a hero to some? I have a difficult time with Snape, but he is meant to be read as someone who changed their mind about something because it was someone for whom he particularly cared. The author sets up clear lines between the states of pure goodness (think Lily, who sacrificed herself for her child) and pure evil (think Voldemort, who tried to kill said child), as if such categories truly exist, in order to play around with ideas of good and evil. At times, Rowling complicates persons somewhat effectively such as Dumbledore, but other times she uses Dudley’s fatness as an indicator that he is bad. We are just meant to read some characters as good and some as bad, especially some bodies are good and others as bad.
This type of heavy-handed coding is also clear in Western films. You know, those racist ones where white guys ride ride horses and call themselves cowboys. There is always a lot of salooning, frisky whisky, spurring spurs, and blink-speed shooting. The good guys wore white hats, and the bad guys wore black hats. This was in part because it saved a lot of story-telling time for audiences to have a coded way to read the film and the story. It also made it easier for audiences to distinguish between two cowboys (because white people look the same). Most importantly, white, whiteness, and the white hat were meant to be read in terms of white equating with goodness, purity, and morality. Blackness, read as the opposite of whiteness, was thus sinister, evil, and immoral or, perhaps, amoral. This, of course, also applies to how race has been used in film, literature, and popular culture.
Let’s parse these things out a little bit. When Harry defeats Voldemort we get a glimpse of the heroes happy life in the epilogue. We are to read that ending as a happy ending. Our characters have developed, they have children, and their children are going to Hogwarts, where they will grow into wizards and witches and maintain the status quo. (I am not including The Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts in this discussion.) The end message is that Harry, Hermione, and Ron have triumphed and the world is good. Likewise, in a western film, when the good guy expels the baddie, all is well in the world. The order of the cosmos have returned to a state of flourishing, principled, law-abiding, and, I suppose, happy status quo. There really isn’t any development beyond that because everything that could be done is done. We move onto another story, imagining that these characters are moral and developed characters. Think about how Disney princesses get married, and the story that young viewers are told is that that is the happy ending they should want in life. The adults in the room chortle knowingly; life is far more difficult and less certain than this Romantic ideal.
When we engage with these types of stories, we need to consider the motivation of the story. Why and how does this character or these characters come of age? What lessons do they learn? What are we supposed to learn from their actions? How can we learn to grow up like these characters? What will it take for us to reach a final state of goodness? (Hint: there is no such thing, but more on that later). Inculcating people to particular behaviours is not a new concept, but specifically targeting young people and children is new enough. In the eighteenth century, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a book called The Social Contract (1762). He wanted ‘man’ to be forced to be free in his new world order; there was to be a return to nature and a lot of outdoor dancing (a noble-savage trope, popular in this era). But people needed to know how to be ideal citizens in the world, Rousseau thought. So, he taught them with his novel/bildungsroman/educational guide Emile, or On Education (1762). A young boy, Emile, and girl, Sophie, are shown to grow up and learn to be the right kinds of people.
Rousseau indoctrination à la life-style guide creates stable statuses for our two grown-up protagonists: the manly man and the passive woman. (Please note the use of creates in the previous sentence; such ideas of gender are man-made, not inherent.) A lot of bildungsroman follow the same trajectory. The character grows to be an (young) adult, and their future is boundless and hopeful because of the lessons they’ve learnt along the way.
This is rather dissatisfying. Isn’t it? Are any of our lives actually like that? I doubt it. We should be chortling at it, knowingly, because we don’t just learn a lesson once and know how to live correctly, as it were, for all of our lives. Also, I’m certain that bildungsroman novels have generally precluded the inclusion of other races because most of these growing-up opportunities were likely only available to white protagonists–boys and their dogs.
Moreover, this stasis of reaching the clarity of pubescence is rather a sham. We might be told that we are going to get to a point where we’ve reached moral untouchability, but that’s simply not true. People aren’t either good or evil. For instance, one might suppose themselves to be a good person, but perhaps that doesn’t fit with the fact that you told someone’s secret to someone else or you said something cruel about another person to make that other person feel the anger you feel. And yet, one might also do kind things, too. I wrestle with this idea of a dichotomy that seems to be solid state of good versus bad.
This is where Sherlock comes in. In the first few seasons, the characters tried to remain relatively themselves, but they rubbed off on each other provoking change. Watson learnt that he really wanted to be a soldier again. Sherlock learnt that he could be more vulnerable. Without giving any plot twists away, this new season, while a little unlikeable for other reasons, has these characters seriously interrogate their morals. There is not just a state of goodness to be occupied, but it is a conscientious journey. It is an act in motion.
Formidable story-telling reminds the reader/viewer/listener/audience to query their ideas of good and bad. We may do good or bad things, but those things have to be complicated beyond a tropism of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ (we should always be complicating how we view people as good or bad, and how we have come to understand what those terms mean). Of course, as I think about the polarized villains such as Moriarty and Magnussen, I’m sure some of you will query this stance. Recall that Sherlock and these villains have many of the same traits. It is often the uniqueness of Sherlock that is employed against him as a foil. We are meant to align Sherlock with these villains and the danger that he might easily slip into being a villain. What is it that Sergeant Donavon says to Watson? “One day we’ll be standing around a body, and Sherlock Holmes will be the one who puts it there” (“Lady in Pink”). The traits of the villains encourages the audience to view Sherlock’s character as constantly in danger of slippage into evilness, but, as we learn from Mrs Hudson, Sherlock’s responses are always emotional. Also, we cannot forget both Irene Adler and Mary and their complicated roles as both villains and heroes.
The idea of character growth within the Sherlock narrative is fitting because Watson is our meta-narrator, informing us about Sherlock and his adventures. Watson strives to paint Sherlock sympathetically to his readers. We are hyper aware of this meta-narration, particularly with the release of the “Abominable Bride,” in which the audience comes face to face with Sherlock Holmes in his nineteenth- and twenty-first-century portrayals and Watson’s intentional framing of the stories explicitly shown when Mrs Hudson rebukes him for cutting her lines. It is the on-going space for growth within a narrative of puzzles of crime that force the characters to confront their own morality and values and how they match up with their own crisis of self.
I’d like to extrapolate from these literary and filmic examples to my own life. I think we grow up reading books, assuming that we’ve got it figured out by the time we’re fifteen. We declare ourselves to be Hermiones or Lunas, but in doing so, sometimes we fail to recognize the complexities of our selves. Certainly, this is not easy, or at least, not always easy. Working to understand ourselves and quieten our ego in the face of making our world equitable and the goal of empathy teaches us how to see ourselves and other people as complex beings with multiple and conflicting emotions. Sometimes, intentions are all in order, but the heart fails to grab the bit. It’s hard to convince yourself to move past the things you feel, even if it would seem easier if you could just switch on a dime. It isn’t always possible. Learning to be fair and kind in the face of what is difficult is not an easy lesson. If it were, then we would already live in a fair world. We don’t always have kindness or the capability for kindness; that’s okay, we’ll try better together. Take the time you need, dear ones. Stare sadly into the distance, wipe that tear, look for friendship and love, feel joy, feel angst, feel ecstatic. Learn to be kind, for in our endeavour to kindness we should be the physically impossible perpetual motion of learning to have empathy and compassion. You’ll slip up. I’ll slip up. You’ll lose your temper, and so will I. But we’ll always be growing.
So, dear reader, just when you thought your journey was over, it’s time you head into the woods and find the most gnarled tree. The grooves, the slopes, the dips, the crevices, the moss growing all over, that is what your bildungsroman should look like. It’s complicated, compelled to grow and pay host to other lives.
Heaps of love,