Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

A central theme in Narcissus and Goldmund is the conflicting dichotomy present in the world and in every man: good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow, thinker and dreamer, male and female. Hesse has polarized the worlds of the spirit and the senses with the examples of Narcissus and Goldmund. If one such as Narcissus rarely leaves the pole of the spirit, conflicts are minimal. Narcissus is satisfied with this partial existence. Others such as Goldmund are forever trying to bridge the two worlds. At first Goldmund believes that he can fuse opposites through love and then through art, but in each attempt, he fails to attain a permanent synthesis. Finally, he accepts himself the way he is. Though one never maintains a perfect balance between mind and body, one can reconcile oneself to this dichotomy.

The topics of death and the transience of life receive special emphasis in the novel. Death in the monastery is no threat because it is only the beginning of an eternal reward. Only in the world is death a tragedy, especially death by murder, the plague, or some other unexpected form. Goldmund is repulsed by the finality and violence of death and by his inability to understand or to conquer it. Only at the end of the novel does he come to terms with the other side of death, the joy of being received by mother earth: “My mother called me and I had to follow. She is everywhere. She was Lise, the gypsy; she was Master Niklaus’ beautiful madonna; she was life, love, ecstasy. She was also fear, hunger, instinct. Now she is death...I’m glad to die; she makes it easy.”

According to Goldmund, a work of art is the union of the father and the mother worlds, the spirit and the senses; it is eternal. Art may originate either in the heart or in the mind and then lead to the opposite; it is “a merging of instinct and pure spirituality.” For Goldmund, true art is born of the senses; he produces his art only after he has the experience of love. Art alone, however, is not the answer to a happy life. If one devotes oneself single-heartedly to art, one soon becomes a prisoner to routine, loses one’s freedom, and then the lust for life dries up.