Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 891
Demian narrates the life of its protagonist, Emil Sinclair, from the age of ten until past the age of eighteen from the viewpoint of an older Sinclair looking back upon his youth. Essentially a Bildungsroman with heavy emphasis on psychology, the novel focuses on persons and experiences that contribute to...
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Demian narrates the life of its protagonist, Emil Sinclair, from the age of ten until past the age of eighteen from the viewpoint of an older Sinclair looking back upon his youth. Essentially a Bildungsroman with heavy emphasis on psychology, the novel focuses on persons and experiences that contribute to the protagonist’s development and to his uniqueness as an individual. In his preface to the novel, Hermann Hesse emphasizes the significance of the individual human being, who “represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again.”
At age ten, Sinclair belongs to a comfortable, secure middle-class German family that includes his parents and two older sisters, yet he stands on the verge of troubling and sweeping changes in his life. One day at school, in an effort to impress other boys, he invents an account of stealing apples from a local orchard and swears to its truth. This false confession leads to distress when Franz Kromer, an older boy, informs him that the orchard owner has offered a reward for information about the theft and then blackmails Sinclair over a period of months.
During this time, a boy named Max Demian enrolls in the school and notices Sinclair. Sensing Sinclair’s anguish, Demian learns its cause, and soon afterward Kromer’s intimidation ceases, though Sinclair never learns how. Demian, who thinks for himself and seems to possess unusual psychic powers, interprets the story of Cain and Abel to Sinclair in such a way that Cain becomes the hero. Thereafter, Sinclair recognizes the mark of Cain on himself and others as a mark of distinction. Demian also assures him that although an individual does not have free will, he can achieve anything upon which he concentrates his entire will and effort.
Once freed from Kromer, Sinclair, like the prodigal son, returns to the secure and ordered family life that had been strained by his ordeal. After seeing little of Demian for several years, Sinclair encounters him again in confirmation class. The rapport between them is restored when the teacher alludes to the Cain and Abel story. Demian explains other biblical stories to Sinclair, offering interpretations different from those usually accepted. Just as he admires Cain, he also admires the steadfastness of the unrepentent thief on the cross. When the class ends, Sinclair leaves the city to enroll in a boarding school, and the tie with Demian is broken.
At boarding school, Sinclair finds himself lonely, homesick, and generally miserable. He wanders through the streets alone, drinks too much, and neglects his studies. When Alfons Beck, an older boy, boasts of sexual exploits with older women, Sinclair thinks that this bragging is degrading to the ideal of love. While walking alone, he sees an attractive girl and begins to build a fantasy based upon this brief meeting. Naming his idealized love Beatrice, he resolves to live nobly in accordance with the image he has created. He gives up his bad habits, applies himself in school, and begins to paint.
In an effort to reestablish contact with Demian, he paints a sparrow hawk escaping from an egg and leaves the painting at Demian’s last known address. Later, he finds inside a book on his desk at school a note from Demian interpreting the painting. The note mentions the Gnostic deity Abraxas, a figure unknown to Sinclair, who combines within himself both the holy and the satanic. To Sinclair’s surprise, his teacher discusses Abraxas in the daily lesson. As his ideal of Beatrice fades, Sinclair seeks self-understanding through dreams and symbols.
On one of his walks through the town, he encounters a church organist named Pistorius, a former theology student who knows about Abraxas. Pistorius becomes Sinclair’s mentor, assisting him with the interpretation of dreams and symbols. Yet Sinclair finally parts from him because the organist’s interest lies in the past, not the future. His knowledge helped Sinclair toward self-understanding, but as Sinclair recognizes, it did not help Pistorius find his own way. Sinclair has, however, learned enough about good and evil to help others. He saves a boy named Knauer, guilt-ridden over his sexual urges, from suicidal despair.
Seeking Demian once again, Sinclair finds at his former home a photograph of Demian’s mother, Frau Eva, whom he has not met. She becomes a dream image for him, an ideal and an object of Platonic love. Obsessed with her image, he searches for her and Demian until he discovers them living in a university town. In their home, where he spends many happy hours, he learns that like Demian she possesses psychic powers and knows about Abraxas. Among their circle of acquaintances, which includes a variety of seekers, Sinclair discusses and debates questions concerning philosophy and religion.
The joy and tranquillity of this life are shattered by dreams portending the destruction of Europe. Demian, predicting war, believes that humanity will be destroyed and reestablished on a higher plane. When war comes, both Demian and Sinclair are called to military service. They meet once during the conflict, as casualties in a military hospital. Recognizing Sinclair, the dying Demian kisses him and promises to remain with him. Afterward, when Sinclair looks into a mirror, he recognizes features of Demian as part of himself.