Hermann Hesse, one of the most influential German writers of the twentieth century, traveled widely and lived for a time in Italy and India. Following his journey to the East, he settled in Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of his life. He began writing at the turn of the century and published short stories, essays, and poems as well as several novels. In 1946, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Hesse called Steppenwolf, which fell in the middle of his literary career, his most misunderstood novel. The work is complex and confusing because it is never clear whether the narrator, Harry Haller, is sane or not. There is ample evidence to indicate that Haller is schizophrenic, but to dismiss his account as the vision of a madman is to ignore the basic conflict of the novel. The safe, middle-class reaction that sees Haller as mad is precisely the type of reaction that Hesse and Haller find most despicable. As Hesse said, “You cannot be a vagabond and an artist and at the same time a respectable, healthy, bourgeois person. You want the ecstasy so you have to take the hangover.” Hesse’s attitude is basically Romantic, and this work is a Romantic statement.
The most dangerous way of misreading the novel is to see Haller/steppenwolf as a hero. He sees himself that way, but by the final scene it is clear that Haller is a failure. Despite the temptation to interpret the character of the steppenwolf as that of the intellectual outsider at war with the middle class, Haller, when put to the final test in the Magic Theater, suddenly finds himself responding with the middle-class values he hates. Faced with Hermine’s hallucination while she is in Pablo’s arms, Haller reacts like any bourgeois husband and stabs, or believes he stabs, the unfaithful lover. With that, it becomes clear that he did not learn how to laugh and thus that he did not become one of the Immortals, the original purpose of his quest. He tells the reader: “One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh.” Haller himself is aware of his failure.
Mirrors have an important function throughout the novel. The doubling effect of a mirror is indicative of the split that Haller sees in himself. The act of doubling abounds: Streetlights reflect on wet pavement; Haller sees himself in Hermine’s eyes; Hermine herself is a double at the ball, appearing first in the costume of a male and then in that of a female. As a male, she reminds Haller of a high-school male friend. Mirrors in the novel range from Hermine’s pocket mirror to Pablo’s magic hall of mirrors, and the reader is reminded of the standard magician’s reply: “It was done with mirrors.” Pablo is the magician who shows Haller that magic is the creative will of the imagination. Human beings are not singular or even double; each is filled with infinite possibilities, all of which can be realized if people will only open themselves to the experience.
The novel is a definition of the moral and intellectual condition of Western culture in the early twentieth century, more particularly of Germany in the 1920’s. The setting is a large, modern city filled with electric lights, signs, bars, movies, music, and impersonal streets. The culture depicted is essentially humorless, just as Haller...
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