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 his circular letter that the Elders slowly begin to realize the destruction their actions and ideals have visited upon the order. Even so, they reject Knecht’s letter, and Knecht leaves the order realizing that he can only reconcile fully the spiritual and the material while actually in the world.
Many critics have called The Glass Bead Game a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age story, and the novel does have many similarities to this genre of literature. A young man sets out to gain some kind of knowledge about himself and his world, encounters challenges along the way, overcomes those challenges, and in the end grows into the new knowledge that he has discovered. Much like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824), The Glass Bead Game follows its protagonist from his early student days...
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through his “apprenticeship” to his emergence as the master,magister ludi, of the game. Once he achieves his status as magister, Knecht is then free to question the laws of the order and act on his individual will.
By the end of the novel, and the end of his quest, Knecht comes to the knowledge that society cannot subsume a person unthinkingly and that a person can make changes to the fabric of society so that others may benefit from those changes. The polarities of Knecht’s story are evident even in the play on words of his name and title; Knecht means “slave,” and magister (meister) means “master.” As some critics have pointed out, The Glass Bead Game resembles even more closely Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre: Oder, Die Entsagenden (1821, rev. 1829; Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, 1827) and its more modern and less Romantic structure. In both novels there is an emphasis on the ways that a collective society diminishes the role of the individual. In addition, the plots of each novel are driven not by action but by reports on the action, thus enabling the narrator and the protagonist to reflect, or contemplate, on his actions.
Music also plays a significant role in The Glass Bead Game. The structure of the game itself combines music and mathematics. Unlike music in Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (1947; Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, 1948), which often has demonic overtones, music in Hesse’s novel is a model of morality, a model for human behavior. Knecht observes that classical music is the epitome and essence of culture and expresses most clearly the heritage of classical antiquity and Christianity. Music expresses what he calls Heiterkeit, or serenity and balance. Classical music, Knecht points out, possesses a spirit (Geist) of cheerful and brave piety. Such music, illustrated in the novel by pieces from Johann Sebastian Bach, Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, among others, demonstrates knowledge of the tragedy of the human condition and affirms human destiny, courage, and brave serenity.
The great shortcoming of the game is that it is purely aesthetic and joyless; it does not affirm human destiny nor does it result in the kind of balance between spirit and life for which Knecht is striving, and for which society should strive. Playing the game is an act of enjoying art for art’s sake. Through his journey, Knecht comes to realize that the classical music of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries (the music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is, to him, irrational and degenerate art) best represents the perfect balance, or synthesis, of spirit and life. Because the game cannot achieve this balance, Knecht must leave the game behind to teach his new insights about the power and unity of music to a new generation, embodied in Tito.
The Glass Bead Game not only serves as an appropriate culmination of Hesse’s own life and work but also contributes to an emerging modern tradition in German literature that would defy the traditional structure of the novel and introduce contemporary themes into German literature. The Glass Bead Game joins Hermann Broch’s Die Schlafwandler (1931-1932; The Sleepwalkers, 1932), Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930-1943; The Man Without Qualities, 1953-1960), and Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), among others, in its challenge to a German society searching for ways to achieve unity and spiritual balance in the wake of the defeat and loss of World War I.