The Glass Bead Game Summary
by Hermann Hesse

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In reaction to the shallowness and frivolousness of their age, a number of groups interested in fostering the intellectual and the spiritual capacity of society begin to develop. Among these is the League of Journeyers to the East, which focuses on the contemplative elements of culture and introduces them into the glass bead game.

The history and development of the game is an interesting one. Like any great idea, the game itself has no real beginning, for it is foreshadowed in ancient philosophies that range from Pythagoras’s mathematical theorems to the ideas of harmony and peace of ancient Chinese thinkers. The present form of the game had developed in Castalia, a province of intellectual elites whose quest for wholeness and unity finds its highest expression in the game. The origins of the Castalian order and the establishment of the game had grown and evolved in reaction to the age of the feuilleton, where bourgeois writers discussed such mundane and superficial topics as the role of the lapdog in the lives of great courtesans.

At first the game is little more than a witty exercise for musicians and students interested in the intellectual commonalities of music and mathematics. Eventually, a musicologist named Lusor, or Joculator, Basiliensis invents a new language of symbols and formulas for the game, whose glass beads resemble an abacus, and reduces mathematics and music to a common denominator. The game becomes the essence of intellect and art, symbolizing the mystic union of literature, music, art, and mathematics.

An orphan named Joseph Knecht possesses a tremendous musical aptitude. After his teachers recognize his musical genius, they invite the Music Master to hear Knecht play. Although Knecht is nervous at the audition, the Master puts the child at ease by playing himself. During this moment, Knecht learns the harmony and unity that lies at the heart of all music.

After this audition, Knecht is invited to Eschholz, where he studies music with the hopes of being invited to one of thirteen advanced schools. At the age of seventeen, he goes off to Waldzell, the elite school where students study the glass bead game. There he meets Carlo Ferromonte, a gifted musician who encourages Knecht’s passion for music so fervently that Knecht does not attend to his other studies. Knecht also meets Plinio Designori at Waldzell. Unlike the other students, Designori is an outsider, a hospitant, a student from a wealthy family who is allowed to study as a guest. As an outsider, Designori recognizes the shortcomings of the Castalian order and begins a series of debates with Knecht about the order. Even though Designori’s questions are unsettling to Knecht, his own studies of the history of the order in preparation for these debates provide a deeper knowledge about the order’s structure and its vision for unity.

At the age of twenty-four, Knecht is allowed a period of free study, a privilege that is granted only to those pupils who demonstrate a firm grasp of the spiritual discipline of Castalia. During this period, Knecht must write an autobiography in which he places himself in another time and place and gives a fictional account of his life. As a result, Knecht writes three fictitious lives. In a letter to his friend Fritz Tegularius, Knecht explains how he intends to spend his free study: investigating the synthesis of forces that make up the glass bead game and tracing them to their sources. When he realizes he must learn Chinese to foster his study, Knecht seeks out the Older Brother, a Castalian elite who is an expert in the I Ching. Once a year during this study, Knecht returns to Waldzell to take part in an advanced course on the game. His uncertainty about his vocation becomes clear during these sessions, as he asks himself whether or not the game represents what is best in Castalia and whether or not it is worth dedicating his life to.

At the end of his period of free study, Knecht is summoned by the presiding magister ludi ,...

(The entire section is 1,781 words.)