Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Steppenwolf is Hesse’s most surrealistic novel. With its cast of dreamlike characters, its Magic Theater, and its nightmarish imagery, it comes closer than any of his other works to re-creating the fevered intensity of the lost soul adrift in time and space, ensnared in its own smothering web. The only way back is the mystical process of depersonalization. Harry Haller, the main character, is a man in deep despair because he doubts his ideals and his vocation. Life has become senseless; he longs for new values. Haller first has to learn to accept himself wholly, then to perceive life as a game, and finally to expand his soul to include the whole world in its totality.
On the surface, a bourgeois world is a world of sanity. Haller looks about him at the comfortable routine of domestic existence, and although he feels nostalgia for it, he can no longer accept it. Thus when he sees a sign that says “Magic Theater; Entrance Not for Everybody; For Madmen Only,” he tries to enter, because only madmen can make any sense out of a bourgeois world. Until Haller reads the pamphlet entitled “Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” he has always thought of himself as a double personality: man and wolf, the civilized human being and the freedom-loving outlaw. So great is this inner tension that Haller has often been on the point of taking his life and indeed is able to keep living only because he plans to commit suicide on his fiftieth birthday.
After reading the treatise, however, Haller realizes that he is wrong in supposing that he is a twofold person. All people, he learns, have manifold personalities, and the common notion that each person is a single ego is...
(The entire section is 688 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The aunt, who keeps a spotless bourgeois house, is attracted to Harry Haller, the new lodger who rents her attic, but her nephew’s suspicions are aroused when the lodger asks them not to report his domicile to the police. Haller explains that he has a repugnance for official contacts. His room is always in disorder; cigar ends and ashes, wine and brandy, pictures and books litter the apartment.
Haller is about fifty years old, sometimes in poor health and addicted to painkillers. He arises very late and becomes active only at night. He is invariably polite but remote. Once the nephew finds him sitting on the stairs near a landing. Haller explains that the landing, which smells of wax and turpentine and is decorated with washed plants, seems to him the epitome of bourgeois order. Occasionally a pretty girl comes to see Haller for brief visits, but her final visit ends in a bitter quarrel.
One day, Haller disappears, after meticulously paying his accounts. He leaves behind a manuscript, written during his stay, which tells the story of a steppenwolf. The nephew, sure that Haller is not dead, makes the account public.
Haller suffered a series of blows. His wife became mad and chased him from the house. His profession was closed to him. Living a solitary life, he became a divided personality, one part of him a neat, calm bourgeois, the other, a wolf from the steppes. When he acted politely and genteelly, the world mocked his respectability. When he snarled and withdrew from society, he shocked his bourgeois self. He seemed to be a true steppenwolf.
On a solitary night ramble, he thought he saw an electric sign over a Gothic door in an old wall. The words, which he could barely discern, told of a magic show only for madmen. A little later, he saw a peddler with a similar sign. From a hawker he bought a treatise on the steppenwolf and read it avidly.
The treatise explained the popular concept of a steppenwolf, a creature that is half wolf and half human being as a result of mischance or spell. This was an oversimplified concept, however, for everyone is actually composed not of two but of many selves. The great bulk of the populace is held to one self through the rigid patterns of the sheeplike bourgeoisie; only a few individuals, ostensibly complying, are not really part of the pattern. They act like the lone wolf and are the leaders in all fields. Meditating on this philosophy, Haller understood his own nature a little more clearly, but it was difficult to think of himself as containing many selves.
An old acquaintance, a professor, met him and insisted on inviting him to dinner. The occasion was not a happy one. The professor and his wife were naïvely jingoistic and approved a vicious newspaper attack on a writer who advanced the opinion that perhaps the Germans shared the guilt for World War I. The professor did not realize that the writer was his guest....
(The entire section is 1195 words.)