Form and content one of the dichotomies in art

Form and content are one of the central dichotomies in art, and in literature especially. Form and content have been used terms since the 18th century in aesthetics and over the time the favoring between which of the two elements that is the most essential has shifted.


Form in literature refers to the style and how the narrative are structured. A story can be told in many ways and in many forms. It can be told with many symbols and with high density, it can be told in an epic poem, it can be told from many perspectives and so on.

The language is an essential factor regarding the form.


The content is more about what is told and analyzing a literature work from its content is to a high degree of analyzing the message

How should we interpret or read the text? Should we see it from a biographical view, from a political and so on?

Related to content is the context. When discussing a novel, for example, one could say: the novel was written in the context of the World War II and therefore somewhat overly patriotically.


To summarize in short: the form is how something is told and content is what is told.


One particular type of novel that has a specific set of content rules is the bildungsroman.

The term is German and refers to a novel in which the story depicts the development of a protagonist, typically from young to adult, including an improvement in learning and moral cultivation. Analyzing the term gives that ´roman´ is German for novel and ´bildung´ can be translated to education.

One of the earliest examples are Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the reason described by Colin Wilson: “because it treats the evolution of Hamlet’s ´soul´, his realization that killing and revenge are not simple matters of the old lex talionis, but something that he feels to be unsatisfactory as a solution of his personal problems.”1

Some classic examples of bildungsroman are Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre), David Copperfield and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The last one of the three examples could perhaps better be categorized as a Künstlerroman. A künstlerroman share features with a bildungsroman, but focus especially of how a young artist grow to maturity.


1. The Outsider Colin Wilson. 1956, p. 52