Demian Essays and Criticism
by Hermann Hesse

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The Theme of Religion

(Novels for Students)

Sinclair’s struggles with religion, particularly Christianity, throughout Demian, are central to the development of his personal identity and individualized belief system. This process of development occurs in two distinct stages. First, Sinclair begins to question the precepts of devout Christian faith in which he was raised. Secondly, Sinclair learns to consider the spiritual wisdom of other religions and belief systems from throughout the world and throughout history. By the end of the novel, Sinclair does not completely renounce Christianity, but picks and chooses elements of various religions and philosophies—including Christianity—by which to make sense of his true nature and his experience of the world around him.

In the first phase of his journey, Sinclair learns to question traditional interpretations of Christian doctrine. He does not, however, completely renounce Christianity, as ideas, beliefs, and stories drawn from the Christian tradition continue to play a key role in his journey toward his true inner self. He does, however, learn to interpret Christian doctrine in unconventional ways.

As the novel opens, Sinclair is ten years old and his understanding of the world is firmly rooted in the Christian precepts of good and evil. The young Sinclair perceives the world as consisting of two realms: the good, light world of religious piety; and the evil, dark world of sin. The first time Sinclair experiences an inkling of religious doubt is after he tells a lie, the consequences of which result in his feeling that he has entered the dark world of evil and sin. Because he is keeping a secret from his parents, the feeling that he possesses knowledge unknown to his father results in a perception that the “holy image” he had of his father as all-powerful has been diminished. Sinclair’s feelings toward his father represent his feelings about God—thus, his perception of the “holy image” of God is likewise diminished by his personal experience of the “dark” realm of sin.

Sinclair’s path toward the realization of his personal identity is aided by the influence of key people who open his mind to independent thought. Demian is the first such influence, encouraging Sinclair to question traditional interpretations of biblical stories, such as Cain and Abel, the Prodigal Son, and Jacob. For example, Demian interprets the biblical story of Cain and Abel, in which Cain is a murderer of his own brother, in such a way that Cain is considered the hero of the story. Demian also provides a nontraditional interpretation of the mark that God is said to have put on Cain’s forehead. Rather than being a mark of sin, Demian interprets the “mark” as a metaphor for an air of “distinction” others perceived in Cain. Demian explains that it is likely Cain had “a little more intellect and boldness in his look than people were used to.” This point is significant later in the story, because Demian and his mother, Frau Eva, describe various people (and eventually Sinclair) as having “the mark”—by which they mean such people have a quality of distinction about them which suggests a desire to strive for independent thought and true self-knowledge.

Demian goes on to explain to Sinclair that he is not claiming the biblical story of Cain to be inauthentic; rather, that “Such age-old stories are always true but they aren’t always properly recorded and aren’t always given correct interpretations.” This explanation captures the attitude toward Christianity expressed by Hesse throughout Demian: Christianity contains some age-old wisdom, valuable lessons, and meaningful iconography, but each person must look beyond conventional interpretations of religion to find his or her own personal truths.

During confirmation classes, Demian’s influence on the development of Sinclair’s capacity for independent thought increases through the regular questioning of the teacher’s traditional approach to biblical stories. Sinclair...

(The entire section is 7,329 words.)