Nicholas Taylor-Collins in front of a bookshelf

Nicholas Taylor-Collins

Literary researcher | Creative reader

Cover of Barbara Kingsolver's 2022 novel 'Demon Copperhead'.

The anti-Bildungsroman: Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Demon Copperhead’

Barbara Kingsolver’s 2022 novel, Demon Copperhead (Faber & Faber), won the author a Pulitzer Prize and, for the second time, the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The novel retells Charles Dickens’s Bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel—David Copperfield (1850).

Rather than Victorian London with its systemic poverty, its poor laws, and the debtors’ prison, Demon Copperhead is set in turn-of-the-twenty-first-century Appalachia near the eastern coast of the USA.

Most of the story is based in Lee County, Virginia, ‘world capital of the lose-lose situation’.1 Rather than Dickens’s vices of gambling and financial debt, the great vice in Demon Copperhead is scarily contemporary: painkilling, opioid addiction.


David Copperfield is considered one of the great Bildungsroman of the English literary canon. The rags-to-riches story in the end sees Copperfield in love with Agnes whose ‘dear presence […] bears me company’ while he lives. Copperfield prays that her face will accompany him ‘when I close my life’ as well.2 It’s a heartwarming story that is still read today.

Kingsolver’s version also abides by the logic of the Bildungsroman. The eponymous character, Demon, also discovers the identity of his true love in the final pages—this time called Angus—and journeys from a single-parent, low-income household to happiness.

Growing up

In many respects, Demon Copperhead is a typical Bildungsroman. Early on, Demon is asked by his social worker ‘what I wanted to be whenever I grew up’, to which Demon replied that ‘nobody ever asked me that question before, about growing up and what I wanted to be, so I didn’t know’ (Kingsolver, p. 88).

Despite this apparent ignorance, Demon is himself aware that life is about growing, telling himself at one point to ‘watch and learn’ (Kingsolver, p. 88) from his elder foster-brother. That’s how he can become a ‘strange new being, turned overnight’ (Kingsolver, p. 110).

Crucially, the Bildungsroman novel as a genre isn’t just about growing up and learning, but it is also structured by that growth. Or, to explain another way: narrative, like life, is linear. Novel plots go from A to B, and story-arcs, characters, and time move in that same direction.

As the Bildungsroman progresses, so too does the main character whose coming-of-age holds centre stage.

This is doubly interesting in Demon Copperhead. Towards the end of the book the reader learns that Demon has been given an assignment by his therapist ‘of writing a story’ to help him ‘reclaim’ his ‘narrative’ (Kingsolver, pp. 525–6) and make sense of his trauma, loss, and substance abuse.

Demon Copperhead, therefore, is a Bildungsroman that records its coming-of-age story through the art and act of storytelling.

Growing pains

And yet, one of the most engaging aspects of Demon Copperhead is the way it offers an antiBildungsroman in which Demon’s development is halted or reversed.

Sometimes this is simply demonstrated in the way that Demon’s time with his mother is abruptly cut short: ‘[B]am, back to foster life.’ (Kingsolver, p. 86).

At other times, Demon is made to think that nothing ever progresses or improves—it’s ‘the real world where nobody and nothing gets better’ (Kingsolver, p. 169). These kinds of lessons teach Demon perversely to ‘hate[] my own’ (Kingsolver, p. 220) chances to grow and develop.

There is a positive side to this anti-Bildungsroman in the way that Demon is reminded that he is a child. He is told by the housekeeper in his last foster home that his job is ‘just to be a little boy’ (Kingsolver, p. 224). This suggests that Demon can return from his vision of the ‘real world’ to the innocence of childhood.

Telling is growing

Demon tells us that he wants ‘more than anything […] to grow up’ (Kingsolver, p. 434). The anti-Bildungsroman part of the narrative threatens that wish—perhaps one of the longest-lasting desires Demon has during the course of the novel.

But the anti-Bildungsroman, while apparently arresting Demon’s personal growth, doesn’t slow down the novel’s plot. Demon is able to explain this generative inconsistency:

I’ve tried in this telling […] to pinpoint the moment where everything starts to fall apart. Everything, meaning me. But there’s also the opposite, where some little nut cracks open inside you and a tree starts to grow. Even harder to nail. Because that thing’s going to be growing a long time before you notice. Years maybe. Then one day you say, Huh, that little crack between my ears has turned into this whole damn tree of wonderful.

Kingsolver, p. 515

The anti-Bildungsroman ends up being central to—and for Demon the kernel of—his coming-of-age.

And so, in the final analysis, the anti-Bildungsroman was the Bildungsroman all along.

  1. Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead (London: Faber & Faber, 2023), p. 317. ↩︎
  2. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1997 [1850]), p. 994. ↩︎