Emil Sinclair, an innocent ten-year-old child of strict, pious German parents, lives in a world of kindness, good behavior, and love. Desperately wanting to be liked, he relates a boastful tale among a group of friends. The tale is about the time he and a friend stole a sackful of apples. Realizing the story to be a lie, bully Franz Kromer approaches Sinclair, claiming nevertheless to know the person from whom the apples were stolen, and demands money to keep quiet. Sinclair gives Kromer the few pfennigs he has, but Kromer renews his blackmail threat and extends his power over Sinclair. Terrified, Sinclair steals from his mother to pay Kromer.
Soon, a new boy in school, Max Demian, perceives the nature of Sinclair’s problem and somehow removes him from Kromer’s influence. Almost immediately, Sinclair, despite having recurring nightmares—the worst being his murderous assault upon his own father—regains his place in the security of his family’s sphere. In confirmation class, his automatic acceptance of the traditional view of the story of Cain and Abel is challenged by Demian, who sees Cain as a marked man of genius and, therefore, the target of jealous individuals. In another confirmation class, Demian impugns the story of Jesus’ crucifixion between two thieves by paying tribute to the unrepentant thief as a man of character and labeling the repentant thief as a “sniveling coward.” Demian’s insistence that, inasmuch as God belongs to his godly followers, a God for the world’s other half—the evil half—is necessary for balance, strikes a chord with Sinclair, whose memory of Kromer’s introduction into a world opposite that of Sinclair’s family is still painful.
Sinclair goes away to boarding school in Stuttgart and becomes friends with an older student, with whom he begins visiting bars and drinking wine. While his friend speaks of older women and sex, Sinclair gains fame as a youthful boozer apparently bent upon self-destruction. Threatened with expulsion from school, Sinclair remains unmoved, even after two visits from his father. Once in a park, Sinclair sees a tall, slender, young woman, who impresses him profoundly. He gives her the name Beatrice and, without saying a word to her, begins to worship her image. As darkness and evil disappear from him, he begins to seek purity and spirituality in his life. His behavior changes, becoming serious and dignified. He takes up painting. Attempting to produce a likeness of Beatrice, he idly paints a face that he later recognizes as that of Demian.
Sinclair remembers various conversations he had had with Demian, particularly one about the barely visible coat of arms on the entrance to Sinclair’s house. That night, Sinclair dreams of being encouraged by Demian to eat the decorative bird on the house and is horrified to feel the heraldic bird coming to life inside him. During the days that follow, Sinclair paints the bird, and it becomes a sparrow hawk that resembles the ancient coat of arms. Sinclair mails the painting to Demian.
Some days later in school, Sinclair finds a note from Demian directing him to the God, Abraxas. Strangely, a lecture being given at that moment by his professor identifies Abraxas as a god for “uniting the godly and the devilish elements,” meaning that Abraxas is both god and devil. Sinclair, who on his walks hears organ music, follows the music to a small church, where he frequently sits on the curb and listens. Once, afterward, he follows the organist to a bar and becomes acquainted with the eccentric musician Pistorius. They have long talks together. During this time, Sinclair meets a schoolmate, Knauer, who, tortured by the sexual turmoil of adolescence, has come to see suicide as the only answer. He seeks help from Sinclair, who is unable to provide much help.
Sinclair becomes eighteen years old and attends the university. At last, he meets Demian’s mother, Frau Eva, who invites him into her house with a number of good friends...
(The entire section is 2,927 words.)