(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Glass Bead Game Herman Hesse

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Hermann Lauscher and Emil Sinclair) German-born Swiss novelist, poet, short story writer, editor, and critic.

The following entry presents criticism on Hesse's novel Das Glasperlenspiel (1943; The Glass Bead Game).

Hesse's last major novel, Das Glasperlenspiel (Magister Ludi; later translated as The Glass Bead Game), is often considered his most complex and ambitious work. Published in 1943, the novel took Hesse eleven years to write and incorporates several of his long-standing thematic concerns: the relationship between the mind and the body, the tension between the contemplative life and social interaction, and the role of the artist and intellectual in society. The Glass Bead Game remains one of Hesse's more obscure works, despite the resurgence of his literary reputation in the 1960s.

Plot and Major Characters

Written in four parts as a historical biography of Josef Knecht in the year 2400 by an anonymous narrator, The Glass Bead Game chronicles Knecht's rise to Magister Ludi, or Master of the Glass Bead Game, in Castalia, a utopian province where artists and intellectuals strive to attain perfection. The Glass Bead Game is described as a very complex sign system involving glass beads strung on wires, with each bead symbolizing a theme or idea. The game functions to synthesize relationships between disparate thought systems and organize all human knowledge around a central idea. Hesse visualized the game as a panacea for the evils of modern civilization. Knecht, however, finally becomes disenchanted with the timeless, abstract, purely contemplative existence of Castalia and defects. Ironically, he finds a sense of identity and permanence within the ephemeral realm outside Castalia while tutoring a student named Tito. One day, Tito challenges Knecht to jump in the icy cold lake, and Knecht is overcome by the cold and drowns. After Knecht's tragic death, Castalia reforms and once again becomes a center of learning and a revitalized city.

Major Themes

The Glass Bead Game is replete with polarities—isolation and interaction, transition and permanence, dissonance and harmony—and the novel explores man's resolve to synthesize these opposites. The game itself functions to bring together disparate thoughts and ideas to attain perfection. Moreover, music is an important symbol integral to the creation of balance and harmony in the novel. Other recurring thematic concerns in Hesse's work are the roles of disillusionment and dissatisfaction and the inevitability of change—whether it is on the individual or collective level. In The Glass Bead Game, Hesse rejects his long-held ideal of a cloistered community of intellectual elites and affirms the value of asserting one's creativity and individuality. In fact, the role of the artist and intellectual in modern society is a recurring theme in Hesse's work. Knecht's life story has been perceived as a quest tale, following the archetypal stages of such stories: seclusion, escape, discovery, return, and celebration. A few commentators have found parallels between the Glass Bead Game and Hesse's literary career, and view Knecht as an autobiographical character.

Critical Reception

The Glass Bead Game has received little critical and popular attention. Most critics find the game itself to be the dominant and unifying symbol in the novel and a welcome diversion from the portentousness and dullness of the rest of the story. Critics have noted the vague rules of the Glass Bead Game, and assert that this ambiguity was Hesse's intention. The representation of Castilia as a utopian state or a symbol or decadence and decline has also been a topic of critical consideration; several commentators have analyzed the limitations of Castalia as a social and political entity. Stylistically, reviewers have lauded the rhythm and clarity of Hesse's prose. There has been debate about the anonymous narrator in the novel; most commentators deem him to be irritating, pedantic, and lacking in humor. Critics have investigated the role of humor in the The Glass Bead Game, as well as the influence of Wilhelm Leibniz on Hesse's conception of the game.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Eine Stunde hinter Mitternacht (short stories) 1899

Hinterlassene Schriften und Gedichte von Hermann Lauscher (short stories) 1901

Peter Camenzind [Peter Camenzind] (novel) 1904

Unterm Rad [The Prodigy] (novel) 1906; also published as Beneath the Wheel, 1968

Gertrud: Roman [Gertrud and I] (novel) 1910

Roßhalde [Rosshalde] (novel) 1914

Demian: Die Geschichte einer Jugend von Emil Sinclair [Demian] (novel) 1919

Märchen [Strange News from Another Star, and Other Tales] (short stories) 1919

Siddhartha: Eine indische Dichtung [Siddhartha] (novella) 1922

Piktors Verwandlungen [Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies] (short stories) 1925

Der Steppenwolf [Steppenwolf] (novel) 1927

Krisis: Ein Stück Tagebuch [Crisis: Pages from a Diary] (poetry) 1928

Narziss und Goldmund: Erzählung [Death and the Lover] (novel) 1930; also published as Narcissus and Goldmund, 1968

Die Morgenlandfahrt [The Journey to the East] (novella) 1932

Das Glasperlenspiel: Versuch einer Lebensbeschreibung des Magister Ludi Josef Knecht samt Knechts hinterlassene Schriften. 2 vols. [Magister Ludi] (novel) 1943; also published as The Glass Bead Game, 1969

Krieg und Frieden: Betrachtungen zu Krieg und Politik [If the War Goes On: Reflections on War and Politics] (essays) 1946

Klein und Wagner (novel) 1958

Mein Glaube [My Belief: Essays on Life and Art] (essays) 1971

The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (short stories) 1995

Ignacio L. Gotz (essay date November 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gotz, Ignacio L. “Platonic Parallels in Hesses's Das Glasperlenspiel.German Quarterly 51, no. 4 (November 1978): 511-19.

[In the following essay, Gotz explores the similarities between Das Glasperlenspiel and Plato's ideas, especially the Republic.]

Like all Western literature, Das Glasperlenspiel is in a sense “a series of footnotes to Plato.”1 I do not mean this as detraction. But the fact is that the wealth of insights expounded in the Platonic corpus renders it, to quote Whitehead once more, “an inexhaustible source of suggestion.”

Hesse's Das Glasperlenspiel forces us to confront the problems of the one and the many, permanence and flux, twenty-four hundred years after their formulation by Plato. And lest the connection with Plato's formulation be missed, Hesse clearly places the action of the novel in the year 2400 A.D. Indeed, by the very structure of the novel with its recurring cycles of lives, Hesse also wants to convey the point that such problems are truly perennial.

It is my intention in the present essay to seek a fuller understanding of the meaning of Das Glasperlenspiel by exploring some themes not fully developed hitherto. I will dwell briefly on some of the parallels between the novel and Plato's work, and shall suggest some others that might be fruitfully studied.

Many scholarly commentators have remarked how Hesse's novel exemplifies the pursuit of a Platonic idea, not merely through contemplative insight, but in concrete existence as well. In a letter written in 1944, Hesse himself expressed this view clearly: “In Wirklichkeit ist Kastalien, Orden, meditative Gelehrsamkeit etc. weder ein Zukunftstraum noch ein Postulat, sondern eine ewige, platonische, in diversen Graden der Verwirklichung schon oft auf Erden sichtbar gewordene Idee.”2 The “narrator” in Das Glasperlenspiel says the same thing. He identifies the Game with the ideal sought since ancient times: “Jeder Bewegung des Geistes gegen das ideale Ziel einer Universitas Litterarum hin, jeder platonischen Akademie, jeder Geselligkeit einer geistigen Elite, jedem Annäherungsversuch zwischen den exakten und freieren Wissenschaften, jedem Versöhnungsversuch zwischen Wissenschaft und Kunst oder Wissenschaft und Religion lag dieselbe ewige Idee zugrunde, welche für uns im Glasperlenspiel Gestalt gewonnen hat” (VI, 85).

In talking about “eine ewige, platonische … Idee,” Hesse is clearly referring to the Platonic eidos, the “Forms” that stand at the pinnacle of Plato's vision of reality, and are the unchangeable, stable, supremely knowable, and eternal paradigms of every changeable reality. (Republic VI. 509ff.).3 The “Universitas Litterarum” that is the Glass Bead Game, is for Hesse an unchangeable reality, one among the many which constitute the entire realm of the Forms.

That Hesse has in mind one such Form is clear from the passages quoted above, but also from the ways in which he describes the ideal in question. Thus, the novel opens with a quotation from Albertus Secundus, purporting to summarize the objective of the book: “Nichts ist doch notwendiger, den Menschen vor Augen zu stellen, als gewisse Dinge, deren Existenz weder beweisbar noch wahrscheinlich ist” (VI, 79). We are also told that such “Dinge” cannot be written about, so that there is no book or treatise to teach the Game to a tyro (VI, 83), a disclaimer similar to Plato's: “There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject [of the Forms]. For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge” (Letter VII. 341C).

Furthermore, the very structure of the novel as a series of five biographies of the same reincarnated individual person, Josef Knecht, clearly indicates the undying, inexhaustible nature of the eidos. This theme is repeated often in Knecht's poems. As Mileck points out, Hesse thought that “reincarnation could be an excellent symbol of the element of stability existing in the midst of life's flux.”4 This structure could not have been more Platonic in its symbolism. For the Forms represent for Plato his understanding and adoption of the Parmenidian claim of the absolute permanence of reality, a claim, however, that Plato sought to juxtapose to the fluid nature of the empirical, Heracleitian dimension he also considered “real.” Thus the contrast between Geist and Leben, contemplation and action, Idea and History, symbolized in the novel by the contrast between Castalia and “the world,” Knecht and Plinio, the Altmusikmeister and Pater Jakobus, clearly and closely parallel the contrast between knowledge and opinion, the intelligible and the visible, permanence and flux, the worlds of Parmenides and Heracleitus, that Plato sought to synthesize and in some ways bring together in his own life and work.

Therefore, from the point of view of the nature of its central idea, as well as from its structure, the novel can be seen to be more Platonic than has otherwise been recognized.

The parallel between Das Glasperlenspiel and Plato's ideas, especially as expounded in the Republic, is not to be found only in the relationship between the general structure of the novel and the Platonic schema of reality and knowledge. Plato constructs also an educational scheme based on the gradation from the fleeting to the permanent described in the Republic. The general premise is that if reality itself ranges from the very fleeting (at the lowest level of the visible) to the absolutely permanent (at the top of the intelligible realm); and if knowledge varies in degrees of certainty from the very questionable knowledge of shadows and imaginings to the absolute certainty of intuitive apprehension, then there must be a way to effect the passage from uncertainty to certitude, from shadows to clarity, from imagination to intuition. Plato offers the Parable of the Cave as an example “to illustrate the degree in which our nature may be enlightened” (Republic VII. 514). But besides this, he provides a detailed description of the ways in which the process could be institutionalized, as it were, so as to provide the passage from the darkness of ignorance to the light of perfect knowledge. The development of such a program constitutes Plato's educational scheme.

Now the schooling stages through which the young Josef Knecht progresses, parallel the Platonic stages with uncanny similarity. Plato does not say much about the young child, ages one through seven, but the presumption is that he would stay at home, for the most part. Between the ages of seven and ten he would learn the three R's and the practical rudiments of arithmetic. He would then proceed, at about ten years of age, to the first formal school setting, where he would begin to occupy himself with literature. It is at this stage that we encounter Josef Knecht for the first time. He is at the Latin School of Berolfingen (VI, 120), and he is described as a “Lateiner” (VI, 127).

By age thirteen, Plato would have the young initiate concentrate on the study of music. Although music has been practiced up to this point, the emphasis has not been on study. Josef Knecht, too, has been involved with music. In fact, it is because of his excellence in music that he stands out and is recommended to the hierarchy of the “pädagogische Provinz.” And it is at this young age, too, that he moves on to Eschholz, the junior elite school, where he stays until age seventeen.

Between the ages of seventeen and twenty, Plato would have had the young scholar take time off, as it were, and engage in the military service customary in his time. Young Knecht had this experience of the “outside” world at a later age, during his sojourn at the monastery of Mariafels. At this time, however, there is a break in his studies, marked by a brief stay at Monteport, where he is the guest of his old mentor, the Altmusikmeister (VI, 148-60). Back at Eschholz he receives the news that he has been assigned to further his studies at Waldzell.

Normally, we are told, students stay at Waldzell for a period of five to eight years. This period marks their formal initiation into the complexities of the intellectual life. For most, it is also the most immediate preparation for entry into “the Order.” This period corresponds very closely to the period Plato would place following the ephebeia. This is a time for abstract studies, for synthesis of the knowledge acquired formerly, for deepening inquiry, understanding, and commitment.

This stage culminates for some in entry into the Order. Many, the majority, in fact, of those finishing this period of study, would then go back into “the world” as teachers in schools and universities. A few, however, “der kleine Rest” (VI, 136), would stay at...

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Osman Durrani (essay date July 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Durrani, Osman. “‘Cosmic Laughter’ or the Importance of Being Ironical: Reflections on the Narrator of Hermann Hesse's Glasperlenspiel.German Life and Letters 34, no. 4 (July 1981): 398-408.

[In the following essay, Durrani reviews some of the conflicting interpretations of Das Glasperlenspiel and considers Hesse's use of irony in the novel.]

The reputation for obscurity which Das Glasperlenspiel has acquired among lay readers and professional critics alike derives to no small extent from the fact that the author's text is communicated through an intermediary narrator, who seems intent on hiding his identity behind a smoke-screen...

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Osman Durrani (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Durrani, Osman. “Herman Hesse's Castalia: Republic of Scholars or Police State.” The Modern Language Review 77 (1982): 653-69.

[In the following essay, Durrani examines the fictional province of Castalia, which functions as the setting of Das Glasperlenspiel.]

Even the most vociferous admirers of Hesse's last novel, Das Glasperlenspiel, may be forgiven for failing to form a favourable impression of the ‘pedagogic province of Castalia, where much of the novel is located. The author, scrupulously screening his identity behind the mask of an anonymous narrator, is far from generous in his comments on its history and organization. Its principal...

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I. A. White and J. J. White (essay date October 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: White, I. A., and J. J. White. “The Place of Josef Knecht's ‘Lebensläufe’ within Hermann Hesse's Das Glasperlenspiel.The Modern Language Review 81, no. 4 (October 1986): 930-43.

[In the following essay, White and White investigate the function of the three appended biographies at the end of Das Glasperlenspiel.]

Proportionately few interpretations of Hesse's Das Glasperlenspiel (1943) devote much attention to the concluding ‘Lebensläufe’ which take up about a third of the text and which the narrator himself describes as ‘der vielleicht wertvollste Teil unseres Buches’.1 Readings of Hesse's novel often treat Knecht's...

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Kurt J. Fickert (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fickert, Kurt J. “The Mystery of Hesse's Das Glasperlenspiel.” In Forms of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Third International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, edited by Jan Hodenson and Howard Pearce, pp. 219-25. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Fickert discusses the central role of the glass bead game to Das Glasperlenspiel.]

The fantasy underlying Hermann Hesse's futuristic novel Das Glasperlenspiel is rather limited in scope. The world in the twenty-third century, as Hesse envisions it, has not changed in essence from what it is in the twentieth. As a matter of fact, means of...

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Lawrence Wilde (essay date winter 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilde, Lawrence. “The Radical Appeal of Hermann Hesse's Alternative Community.” Utopian Studies 10, no. 1 (winter 1999): 86-93.

[In the following essay, Wilde considers Hesse's portrayal of flawed utopias in his novels.]

I am at odds with the political thinkers of all trends, and I shall always, incorrigibly, recognise in man, in the individual man and his soul, the existence of realms to which political impulses and forms do not extend.

(ITWGO [If The War Goes On … Reflections on War and Politics], 11)1

Detachment, Autonomy, and the quest for spiritual...

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John Krapp (essay date summer 2002)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Krapp, John. “Herman Hesse's Hegelianism: The Progress of Conciousness Towards Freedom in The Glass Bead Game.Studies in 20th Century Literature 26, no. 2 (summer 2002): 342-62.

[In the following essay, Krapp discusses the influence of Hegaelian ideas in most of Hesse's works, specifically in The Glass Bead Game.]

It is a commonplace in criticism of Hermann Hesse's fiction that the novels' major characters expend considerable intellectual, emotional, and spiritual energy to bring into balance a variety of ideological oppositions that otherwise cause the characters equally considerable anxiety. Hesse's tendency to incorporate a dynamic of...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Antosik, Stanley. “Utopian Machines: Leibniz's ‘Computer’ and Hesse's Glass Bead Game.Germanic Review 67, no. 1 (winter 1992): 35-45.

Antosik finds parallels between Hesse's and Wilhelm Leibniz's conceptions of utopian machines and assert that both bear “some striking similarities to the modern computer.”

Friedrichsmeyer, Erhard. “Hagiography and Humor in Hesse's Glasperlenspiel.” In Herman Hesse Heute, edited by Adrian Hsia, pp. 259-69. Bonn, Germany: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, 1980.

Friedrichsmeyer finds humor in Das Glasperlenspiel.

Rath, Sura...

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