In what ways can one use either Nietzschean, Freudian, or Jungian criticism to interpret the two main characters, Narcissus and Goldmund, in Hermann Hesse's novel Narcissus and Goldmund?

Expert Answers
Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Friedrich Nietzsche based his philosophies around the concept of nihilism because he saw that the modern world was becoming a nihilistic society. Nihilism is the worldview that all values are groundless, and "nothing can be known or communicated" (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP), "Nihilism"). Scholars disagree in interpreting Nietzsche as a nihilist himself or as a philosopher who was trying to prevent the rise in nihilism by reconsidering the "nature of human existence, knowledge, and morality" (IEP, "Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900)"). However, scholars agree that Nietzsche posited a plan for "'becoming what one is'" through perfecting one's instincts and reasoning abilities. Nietzsche further posited the plan would necessitate a continual battle between our psychological makeup and our intellect. Scholars have interpreted Nietzsche as arguing a type psychological egoism for, being inspired by the French Moralists, he argued that "all human actions are motivated by the desire 'to increase the feeling of power'(From The Gay Science, Book First, Sect. 13, as cited in IEP). Psychological egoism is a theory that essentially posits we are all motivated by self-interests. Hence, Nietzsche argues that we are always in a conflict between our reason and our sell-motivated, instinctual interest to increase in power. Therefore, to interpret one of the characters in Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund through Nietzschean criticism, we would be looking at how a character displays a loss of values, a desire to act upon instinct, a desire to feel powerful, and is motivated purely by self-interests. Goldmund is certainly one character who demonstrates all of the above characteristics.

Goldmund can be described as being characterized by Hesse as one who favors indulging in the senses. He first indulges at the beginning of the novel to sneak away from the monastery to flirt with girls and kisses one. Later he has his first sexual experience with a gypsy while out picking wildflowers. Though she returns to her husband after their brief affair, the instance insights him to leave the monastery in pursuit of worldly pleasures. During his pursuits, he involves himself in many adulterous affairs and even murders both a thief and a rapist. Though he engages in adultery and murder, actions that contradict the values he was taught at the monastery, he feels no sense of personal guilt. Goldmund's lack of personal guilt shows us that, as Nietzsche argued, Goldmund is embracing nihilism by developing the belief all values are groundless and meaningless.

Yet, his pursuits of sensual pleasure ultimately do not leave him feeling happy and satisfied with his life. He particularly feels depressed by the end of the novel when he realizes he no longer has the youth and beauty necessary to attract women. Because he can no longer satisfy his desires for sensual pleasures, he suffers and seeks solace in the thought of death. Goldmund's dissatisfaction with his life reflects his failure to fulfill Nietzsche's plan to become one's true self by perfecting one's instincts and reasoning abilities. Since Goldmund gave way to all of his instincts, he failed to use his rational mind to perfect his instincts. Hence, his self-motivated instincts lost in the battle with his reason, leaving him ultimately unfilled and unable to become his true self.

Read the study guide:
Narcissus and Goldmund

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question