Narcissus and Goldmund appeared in 1930, following three successful novels by Hesse: Demian (1919; English translation, 1923), an examination of psychoanalysis and the subconscious; Siddhartha (1922; English translation, 1951), a meditation on Eastern philosophy; and Der Steppenwolf (1927; Steppenwolf, 1929), the story of a man torn between middle-class respectability and his baser instincts. Structurally and thematically, Narcissus and Goldmund fits between Demian and Siddhartha: Goldmund continues the personality crisis of Demian, yet he does not find the harmony that Siddhartha finds. Narcissus and Goldmund is lighthearted and clear, a natural counterpoint to the depressing and dreamlike Steppenwolf. Both novels concentrate on the “natural” or “female” side of man.
Since Hesse’s own philosophy was closer to that of the thinker Narcissus than that of the sensualist Goldmund, the escapades in the novel cannot be traced to Hesse’s life. Still, several of Hesse’s personal conflicts are evident: his departure from Maulbronn seminary, his doubts about faith, his relationships with teachers and peers, his flights into Freudian and Jungian psychology, his disgust with World War I, and the breakup of his own marriage.
Some critics claim that this novel is Hesse’s best work, while others see it as too unstructured in form and too simplistic in theme. They believe that Hesse is more interested in expressing his ideas about polarization than in forming plausible characters. Whatever the judgment of the critics, Narcissus and Goldmund has become Hesse’s most popular novel. It can be enjoyed both as a medieval romantic quest and as a philosophical tract.