The novel opens with Harry Haller, a man in his late forties, who rents a room in a respectable neighborhood. Barely a year later, this polite but remote and eccentric tenant mysteriously disappears, leaving behind a manuscript detailing his personal travails.

Haller has been trying to escape from the throes of a severe marital and professional crisis. He is appalled by the disintegration of traditional values around him. His solitary existence, at the same time, makes Haller aware of his own divided personality, in which a calm and rational exterior is constantly mocked by streaks of an irrational, wolfish aggressiveness. This seemingly hopeless duality drives him into bouts of depression, anger, and alcoholism.

On his way toward recovery, Haller begins to realize that he contains within him a much richer spectrum of possibilities and that he must allow all parts of his personality to express themselves. Most of all, he is asked to respect and come to terms with those aspects of his self which, up to now, he had simply lumped together as the wolfish side of his character. In the process, he is forced to forgo the deadly seriousness of his mental despair in favor of a more lighthearted tolerance of himself and others.

Hesse, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, creates a most memorable vision of cultural pessimism, while still affirming the viability and continuity of the Western tradition. His style, in which a linear...

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