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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Demian has as its dominant theme the development of the individual from dependency to independence, from innocence to understanding and acceptance. Hesse’s views on human development encompass a wide range of earlier psychology and philosophy. The Romantic individualism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Novalis, the primacy of will as envisioned by Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Neitzsche, neo-Darwinism, and the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Jung are among many sources influencing the novel’s perspective.

In order to explain Sinclair’s painting of the sparrow hawk, fully mature, emerging from a sphere as if from an egg, Demian wrote the following: “The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.” George Wallace Field has shown that the passage reflects Jung’s psychology of symbols, but it also represents a cryptic index to the novel’s main themes. The bird represents both the individual and mankind in general. The individual discovers his identity only by breaking ties to his past. In doing so, he experiences sorrow and guilt, which can be dealt with successfully only through dreams, myths, and symbols such as the god Abraxas, who combines or synthesizes good and evil and represents a symbol of Nietzsche’s conception of an existence beyond good and evil.

To project idealized dream visions upon persons, as Sinclair does with Beatrice and Frau Eva, is to experience what Freud called the process of sublimation. Sexual energy is thus channeled into something outside reality. To go beyond this and endow the images with symbolic significance, treating the symbols as universals, is to incorporate Jung’s view that psychic energy thus channeled leads a person to profound insights and contributes to psychic integration and development.

When Sinclair joins Demian and his mother, he finds that those in their circle study symbols in order to understand contemporary events. The novel at this point conveys a decidedly antitechnology theme, technology being viewed as destructive to individualism.

The theme of the isolated individual seeking identity through exertion of the will has its origin in the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. The idea that one survives as a seeker only if one achieves integration of personality through symbols with religious meanings derives primarily from Jung. The novel clearly reflects Hesse’s view that the unique individual represents the highest value. The purpose of the individual in life is self-discovery and development; these goals are achieved through suffering, through unconscious illumination, through interaction with others, and through an understanding of universal symbols.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A central theme of all of Hesse's novels is the necessity of life experience in the quest for an authentic selfhood (one might call it a philosophy of life), which the author believes cannot be attained through teachings and "rules." Such is the case with Emil Sinclair, who undergoes a variety of adventures and associations in the course of the plot, which covers a period of ten years (probably representing the years 1904 to about 1915). During the course of this time, Emil learns a great deal about life in general and himself in particular. In essence, the learning experiences result from Emil's meeting with and getting to know a series of characters, each of whom "teaches" him something significant, often by example and not precept.

Possibly the most succinct expression of the lesson that is closest to the core of the novel can be found in the "Prologue " (sometimes translated as the "Introduction"), where Hesse says that "every man's story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every man, as long as he lives and fulfills the will of nature, is wondrous, and worthy of every consideration." One may hear in this statement an echo of Albert Schweitzer's doctrine of "reverence for life."...

(The entire section is 1,543 words.)