Just as in his earlier novels Demian (1919; English translation, 1923), Siddhartha (1922; English translation, 1951), and Narziss und Goldmund (1930; Death and the Lover, 1932; also known as Narcissus and Goldmund, 1968), Hermann Hesse explores in his final novel, The Glass Bead Game, the struggles between the spiritual and the material, between feminine and masculine, and between the individual and society.
The narrator, who lives some years after the death of the famous magister ludi, Joseph Knecht, records the history and practice of the game and explores the changes that have occurred to the game and in Castalia since Knecht’s death. The narrator also announces his intentions to preserve what little biographical material about Knecht that can be collected. The scarcity of such material arises from the order of life in Castalia, whose ruling principles are the obliteration of individuality and the integration of the individual into the hierarchy of the order.
The second section of the novel records Knecht’s biography from his call to the order to his defection and his death. The novel’s third section contains some of Knecht’s writings, including thirteen poems and three fictitious lives, or biographies, which he wrote during his student years.
The Glass Bead Game, the best-known English-language title, was written over a period of ten years. The novel is a fitting culmination to Hesse’s writings because it brings together many of the ideas and themes that dominate his earlier novels and poems. As in those earlier writings, Hesse’s protagonist in this novel, Knecht, embarks on a quest or journey to discover the keys to reconciling the demands of the spiritual with the desires of the material world. The quest is both internal and external, for once Knecht discovers the ability to reconcile these diverse impulses in his own soul, he must teach others how to discover their own ability to reconcile the spiritual and the material.
While in his earlier novels, such as Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund, women represent the temptations of the material world, women are largely absent from The Glass Bead Game. The temptations have less to do with the flesh—although the narrator couches Knecht’s admiration and love for Tito Designori in decidedly erotic terms—and more to do with politics and power. The powerful leaders of Castalia have closed themselves to the world and live in a cloistered existence that magnifies their own power over the younger students in the order. These older men revel in their authority and reject any intimation that their lust for power has helped to corrupt the ideals of Castalia. They brook no opposition, as the rivalry with the Benedictine monastery at Mariafels illustrates. It is only when Knecht points out the shortcomings of the order in...
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