Critical Evaluation

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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...

(This entire section contains 1050 words.)

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that, along with the bildungsroman pattern, denote levels of individual development. Some symbols, defined by Jung as expressions with many meanings that indicate things not easily identified, are associated with concepts that reflect the beginning of self-knowledge early in the novel.

Sinclair’s early discovery of the polarity of the world as “light” and “dark,” which initially exposes him to the evils of the outside world, is actually the initial step in his freedom from his childhood. Clinging to the refuge of childhood produces dreams and fantasies, which suggests the inhibition of independence and the eventual ability to know for oneself what is forbidden. Sinclair’s drunken stage at boarding school, whether true in the literal sense or the psychological one, leads to the vision of the beautiful girl (Beatrice), for whom he transfers his psychic energy or libido into worshipful adoration.

The symbols of awakening for Sinclair continue through his painting of the bird that Demian, in a dream, forces him to eat. The painting depicts the bird, traditional symbol for the soul, fighting its way out of its shell or destroying its accustomed existence to be born again. At this point, Sinclair, a reborn soul on his way to discovering his own personal God, meets Pistorius, the organist who represents Lang to Hesse.

Breaking free of Pistorius to continue alone on his path, Sinclair’s inner struggle causes him to become aware of the mark of Cain on his brow—a perhaps barely perceptible image on his face that strikes fear in weaker mortals. His meeting with Frau Eva, who also wears the mark of Cain and seems to be the mother of all beings, completes the absorption of his outside world by his inner world. Demian, Sinclair’s friend or demon, has been absorbed entirely within Sinclair, and Frau Eva, as a symbol of his inner psyche, attempts to lead Sinclair deeper within himself. After Demian’s death, Sinclair realizes he has all answers within himself. Sinclair’s absorption of all the psychic projections he encounters on his journey makes him an enlightened being who, according to the beliefs of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, exists in isolation.

Demian spoke mostly to German youths returning home from World War I, largely demoralized by the war and in need of being reminded of the value of the human spirit by one of their own writers. Hesse’s success in the United States was delayed until the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the hippie generation claimed him as a guide to psychedelic experiences and proceeded to polarize responses to his work into extreme, untenable positions.


Critical Context


Critical Overview