Demian Critical Evaluation
by Hermann Hesse

Start Your Free Trial

Download Demian Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian appeared in 1919 under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair. It was perceived immediately as an important work and was awarded the Fontane Prize for new writers, which required Hesse to reveal himself as the novel’s creator. The book had emanated from a series of seventy-two psychoanalytic sessions between J. B. Lang, an allegiant of noted Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and Hesse, following a series of setbacks for Hesse that included ostracism from Germany for his antiwar stance, the long critical illness of his son, his father’s death, and his wife’s mental deterioration. The book details Hesse’s inner development, depicted through the progress of Emil Sinclair, in his quest to know himself.

The novel follows the bildungsroman pattern, predominant in German novels from the era of German Romanticism, beginning in the late eighteenth century and continuing until the twentieth century. Typical of the goals of Romanticism, it explores the growth and development of the individual who is searching for a meaningful existence. Hesse includes autobiographical material that depicts family and environmental influences as well as intense psychological development. In Hesse’s bildungsroman, the innocent youth, Sinclair, has been wrenched from the peace and security of his childhood by Franz Kromer, whose vile behavior plunges Sinclair into a dark, alien side of existence.

When Sinclair’s mentor, Max Demian, rids him of Kromer, Sinclair retreats to family bliss and purity, only to experience subtle pangs of longing to escape from his family, too. His infrequent talks with Demian severely challenge his conventional thinking with regard to religious beliefs. Although Sinclair cringes at Demian’s pronouncements at the time, he thinks about them later and comes to consider their merits.

The biblical Cain’s “mark” was one of distinction, signifying those persons who resist traditional beliefs and seek earnestly to become themselves. Sinclair speaks of the “two worlds” he has recently experienced, to which Demian responds that Sinclair’s youth prevents his understanding of what is “forbidden.” Demian adds that if Sinclair continues the path he is on, he will be able to make his own laws. Obviously, Hesse’s book leads away from all conventional beliefs, including Christianity, and toward self-realization.

The long, arduous path of development for Sinclair takes stranger turns when he goes away to boarding school at the age of fourteen. Having given up the beliefs of his pietist family and finding nothing to replace those beliefs, Sinclair becomes a wastrel, sinking into drunkenness. Infatuated with a beautiful girl, whom he names Beatrice and who saves him from dissipation, he attempts to paint her likeness as an object of adoration; but the painting increasingly resembles Demian. Sinclair realizes that his salvation is connected with Demian and that his sexuality and the torment it has engendered have been transformed into the spirituality and purity of sainthood.

While the stages of guilt and knowledge of good and evil through which Sinclair passes follow the traditional bildungsroman’s progress in personal development, Hesse extends his path into a penetration of Sinclair’s psychological world. At the point in the confirmation class, when a note to Sinclair from Demian directs him to the professor’s lecture on Abraxas, it becomes apparent that Sinclair’s external reality is in the process of fading, as increasing emphasis is being placed upon his inner reality. Also, readers begin to question whether Demian, Beatrice, and Frau Eva even exist outside Sinclair’s unconsciousness.

Inasmuch as Hesse recovered from his breakdown by following the ideas of Jung through Lang—as expressed in Jung’s Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (1912; The Psychology of the Unconscious, 1915)—it becomes prudent to examine Hesse’s Demian for evidence of Jungian symbols that, along with the bildungsroman...

(The entire section is 1,050 words.)