Hermann Hesse

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Hermann Hesse Biography

Hermann Hesse, one of Germany’s most celebrated writers, had a troubled childhood, bouncing from school to school and fighting with his parents. The culmination of these problems occurred in 1892 when he attempted suicide and was placed in two separate mental institutions. He tried several apprenticeships before finally working in a bookshop and beginning his own writing career. Hesse first composed poetry and later moved to writing novels and essays. Always suspicious of authority, Hesse tried to support artists who were persecuted by the Nazis, but he had to endure criticism for not being vocal enough for or against either side. Hesse’s novels, mainly Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, gained popularity in the 1960s because many saw them as aligning with counter-culture values.

Facts and Trivia

  • The rock band Steppenwolf is named after Hesse’s famous book about spiritual crisis.
  • Hesse is the most popular German language author in Japan. This is most likely because an educational minister in Japan once assigned students studying German to read a Hesse novel. The practice stuck.
  • Hesse received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 for his last major work, The Glass Bead Game.
  • In 1933, Hesse helped Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann go into exile in an attempt to thwart Hitler’s anti-art campaign.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2606

Article abstract: Writing in the tradition of Romantic individualism, Hesse produced novels and novellas that brought him literary acclaim. Highly autobiographical and confessional, his prose works employ modernist thought and aesthetic principles to narrate the development of existential protagonists.

Early Life

Hermann Hesse was born on July 2, 1877, in Calw, a village on the edge of Germany’s Black Forest. His parents, Johannes and Marie (née Gundert), were German Pietists, and his maternal grandfather was a distinguished Indologist. In Hesse’s youth, the family lived for six years in Basel, Switzerland, where his father taught at a mission school. His own youth and schooling were marked by years of unhappiness, primarily because of conflict with his father and other authority figures. After experiencing severe depression in a Protestant seminary at Maulbronn, he entered a Gymnasium but remained only briefly. Subsequent service as an apprentice in a tower clock factory in Calw was similarly dispiriting. Employment in bookstores, first in Tübingen and later in Basel, enabled him to develop his intellect through reading. With the success of his first novel, Peter Camenzind (1904; English translation, 1961), he resolved to devote his life to literature.

The personal and psychological strife and unhappiness of his early life persisted through most of his writing career, at least until his third marriage, when he was in his fifties. Following the failure of his first marriage in 1916, he suffered a mental breakdown. Disillusioned with German militarism even before World War I, he became a Swiss citizen in 1923. After settling in Montagnola, Switzerland, in 1919, and particularly after his marriage to Ninon Auslander in 1931, his life assumed a measure of stability.

Life’s Work

Hesse’s literary career spanned more than six decades, and over that period he drew his ideas, themes, and narrative techniques from rich and eclectic sources. Among German Romantic writers, the influence of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jean Paul, Novalis, and others was so extensive that critics have placed Hesse in the tradition of Romantic individualism. Among philosophers, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche impressed him most deeply. Further, he was steeped in Eastern philosophy and religious thought, including classical Chinese poets, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. The historian Jakob Burckhard, the psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski also exerted strong influence on his thought and art. From the individualism of the Romantics with their emphasis on intuition, from the psychology of the will in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and from the depth psychology of Freud and Jung, Hesse developed a Romantic individualism akin to modern existentialism—one that escapes the sentimentality of earlier German Romanticism. His writing, confessional and highly autobiographical, is essentially concerned with the development of the individual through what he termed an inward journey.

Hesse’s artistic production was also exceptionally varied. His first book was a collection of lyric poems, and throughout most of his life he continued writing verse—hundreds of lyrics in all. Moreover, he produced essays, articles, book reviews, and short stories in abundance. He mastered watercoloring and illustrated some of his volumes. His major literary achievement, however, lies in the novels and novellas produced during the period spanned by the two world wars, from Demian (1919; English translation, 1923) to Das Glasperlenspiel: Versuch einer Lebensbeschreibung des magister Ludi Josef Knecht samt Knechts hinterlassenen schriften (1943; Magister Ludi, 1949; also as The Glass Bead Game, 1969).

Individual development, Hesse believed, was thwarted by two major forces: nationalism and technology. Because he considered these obstacles to be dehumanizing, Hesse consistently rejected their standardization and regimentation and portrayed characters who transcended...

(This entire section contains 2606 words.)

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them in order to reach the highest level of self-expression. In his earlyKünstlerromans, such as Klingsor (1920; Klingsor’s Last Summer, 1970), he presents the view that to excel one must escape middle-class conformity through either asceticism or sensuality. Hesse’s protagonists usually engage in these extreme forms of self-denial or self-assertion.

Highly autobiographical and unendingly confessional in form, Hesse’s novels belong to literary genres originating with Jean-Jacques Rousseau in which confession becomes an avenue to self-justification. Yet the prized inner journey implied more than a Romantic celebration of individualism. It meant the development of individual talent and capacity through an effort of will in a Schopenhauerian sense, an essentially existential emphasis. Hesse’s protagonists are engaged in a journey; they are seekers who, unable to control reality outside themselves, strive for individual development, fulfillment, and meaning.

Accompanying this individual quest centered in the self is a set of assumptions about the outside world. Hesse’s orientalism treats Asia as a source of renewal, both personal and spiritual, but it also reflects his view that Europe is in decline because of spiritual and intellectual bankruptcy. This theme surfaces boldly in Klingsor’s Last Summer. In an almost Spenglerian pessimism, Hesse endorses the decline of Europe, and much of his later fiction is influenced by this perceived reality. Often presenting external decline through expressionistic techniques, Hesse has his protagonists view external events as grotesquely distorted and chaotic. Avenues of their escape are isolation, which Siddhartha attempts; sensuality, Harry Haller’s means in Der Steppenwolf (1927; Steppenwolf, 1929); or projection into the future where an ideal society replaces a failed one, as in The Glass Bead Game. Hence, the plight of the individual soul enmeshed in a declining civilization sets the conflict for the major prose fiction.

Hesse’s first novel, a Bildungsroman, Peter Camenzind, a story of adolescent friendship and poignant young love based upon his own early life and schooling, is rich with descriptions of nature and the idyllic mountain valleys he knew as a child. The second novel, another Bildungsroman, Unterm Rad (1906; The Prodigy, 1957; also as Beneath the Wheel, 1968), is more darkly pessimistic. Its title comes from a statement of the schoolmaster to the young protagonist Hans Giebenrath admonishing him to keep up in his studies to avoid falling beneath the wheel. The novel is based on Hesse’s unhappy experience at Maulbronn, with a lengthy account of life in a boarding school and work in the Calw clock factory. It introduces a theme significant in Hesse’s later fiction—adolescent friendship as a preface to romantic heterosexual love.

With the publication of Demian, Hesse received recognition as a major voice in modern literature. Another Bildungsroman and highly influenced by Hesse’s experience with psychoanalysis, Demian shows the protagonist Emil Sinclair developing through three stages. In the first, he is secure in childhood innocence and family warmth. In the second, he departs in order to establish his own identity and thereby incurs guilt and sorrow. In the third, he accepts a spiritual point of view that combines and unites good and evil, symbolized in the novel by the gnostic deity Abraxas. Heavily dependent upon dreams and symbols, Demian portrays a divided and conflicted psyche that develops through transforming experiences. Sinclair’s growth is aided by friends and role models who guide and inspire him, the Christlike Demian being the most significant.

The quest for spiritual development appears subsequently as the primary theme in Siddhartha (1922; English translation, 1951), a novella set in India. Here, the Nietzschean division between the Apollonian and Dionysian spirits emerges when the protagonist first becomes a Hindu holy man and then turns to a life of sensuality, finally becoming a ferryman at a river crossing and experiencing spiritual growth. Siddhartha finds that he must seek to know himself before he can pursue a transcendent ideal; the novel suggests that self-knowledge grows out of sensuality, which in turn must be transcended. In the role of ferryman, he learns through revelation that love is a greater force than knowledge. Like Sinclair in Demian, Siddhartha has a close friend in the more spiritually oriented Govinda, who follows the Eastern principles of asceticism. Unlike Sinclair, however, Siddhartha has to discover the way suitable for himself rather than following a role model.

The theme of self-discovery through Dionysian sensual experience is more fully developed in Hesse’s best-known novel, Steppenwolf. The protagonist, Harry Haller, an essentially alienated hero, forsakes middle-class values to become either a saint or a sinner. Abandoning his career as a writer, he experiences sensual pleasure through a romantic attachment to Hermine, a symbolic as well as real heroine. From this experience he proceeds into a surrealistic fantasy world of violence and homosexuality. Haller thus transforms his life by encountering and transcending sensual experience.

Narziss und Goldmund (1930; Death and the Lover, 1932; also as Narcissus and Goldmund, 1968), set in the turbulent German Middle Ages, returns to the theme of two chief male characters, presenting like Siddhartha a conflict between asceticism and sensuality. Narcissus is a clergyman, and Goldmund, his close friend, is a sensualist and restless artist who justifies his existence through a life of struggle, artistic creation, and varied experience. His diverse experiences enrich even the life of his ascetic friend Narcissus.

In Die Morgenlandfahrt (1932; The Journey to the East, 1956), a novella with another individualistic protagonist, H. H., Hesse anticipates his greatest work and longest novel. Both The Journey to the East and The Glass Bead Game explore the relationship of their protagonists and organizations, a mystic and elusive order in The Journey to the East and a larger ideal society in the later novel. In The Glass Bead Game, set four centuries into the future, the society of Castalia has achieved admirable order based upon mathematics and music. Its hero, Joseph Knecht, is impelled to leave society at the end of the work to become a seeker instead of remaining in the Utopian world of Castalia. Essentially a work of Utopian fiction and a roman à clef, the novel represents Hesse’s most complex fictional work.

Writing in the tradition of Romantic individualism, Hesse was highly influenced by modern intellectual currents and developments, both in content and in technique. He was among the first novelists to grasp the potential for character portrayal using Freudian psychology, although he reveals a greater debt to Jung than Freud. In his fiction, Hesse places significant emphasis upon Eastern religious thought, an important strand in his intellectual perspective. He employs the narrative technique known as mirroring, in which an image is transformed before the eyes of the protagonist. This often suggests the importance of symbols of transformation in the sense that Jung used the term. In addition, Hesse makes heavy use of symbols and recurrent motifs to enrich the texture of his narratives. As for the description of the external world, he follows the expressionistic movement in art to describe the world of reality as chaotic and at times grotesque.

Once he had settled in Montagnola, Hesse lived as a reclusive man of letters. He seldom traveled, though the need to publish in Germany made occasional trips to his native land mandatory. Throughout most of his career, he remained little known outside German-speaking nations. Following World War II, his fame began to spread worldwide, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. After a long struggle with leukemia, Hesse died at Montagnola on August 9, 1962.


Hermann Hesse’s inclination to lead a reclusive life meant that during his lifetime he remained a shadowy figure. He once attended a meeting of a local Hesse society without anyone there recognizing him. Further, he was out of sympathy with the society that published his works because of his opposition to German militarism and the National Socialist movement. Although he raised objections in letters and comments, his opposition, unlike Thomas Mann’s, was muted because of his awareness that his works needed to be accessible to his main audience, the German-speaking public. Following the award of the Nobel Prize in 1946, his works became much more popular worldwide, and their impact extended beyond the German-speaking world.

Even during his lifetime, Hesse’s critics placed him within the tradition of German Romanticism. His emphasis upon individualistic protagonists whose lives are a journey of self-discovery, who live in remote or exotic settings, and who experience angst reflects the conventions of a long tradition of Romantic literature. Like the Romantic heroes, his protagonists live at an extremely high level of intensity, not by performing great feats but by experiencing intense emotions and transforming experiences that enable them to develop as individuals. Yet Hesse advances the tradition by including in his works modern intellectual and aesthetic developments such as analytic psychology and expressionism.

The emphasis upon individual growth and definition made Hesse’s writing highly popular in the West during the period of existentialism from about 1950 until the early 1970’s. Following their translation into numerous languages, the novels were widely read as accounts of personal development. With the decline of existentialism, Hesse’s works lost some of their popularity, yet he remains one of the most widely read German authors of his era, and his works appear destined to endure.


Baumer, Franz. Hermann Hesse. Translated by John Conway. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1969. A brief and readable introductory overview, the book provides a biographical account and an assessment of Hesse as a writer. Baumer relies heavily on a personal interview with his subject. The book is especially informative about the judgments of Hesse’s contemporaries and, through judicious use of quotations, reflects Hesse’s own view of his achievement.

Boulby, Mark. Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967. A study of the major novels, the book concentrates on themes of Hesse’s fiction. More than other critics, Boulby relates Hesse’s themes in the prose fiction to those of his poetry and of the Germanic tradition of letters that preceded Hesse. Boulby finds a high degree of consistency in Hesse’s thought and characters. He draws upon the poetry, the letters, and the minor works to explicate the themes of the novels.

Field, George Wallis. Hermann Hesse. New York: Twayne, 1970. A one-volume critical analysis of Hesse’s entire literary achievement, with a helpful bibliography. Field clarifies themes of the novels, drawing frequently on Hesse’s autobiographical writing, letters, and criticism. He places earlier critics into perspective, providing an analysis of their work.

Freedman, Ralph. Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. A fully developed biography of Hesse, giving a thorough account of his literary career. The book advances the thesis that during his life Hesse confronted numerous personal and public crises that led to his contemplation and dedication to creative work. Illustrated.

Mileck, Joseph. Hermann Hesse: Life and Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Mileck’s critical biography identifies major stages in Hesse’s development and accounts for the works produced. The book clarifies Hesse’s views on controversial issues such as war and peace, racism, and the role of the artist. It explores Hesse’s development as an artist. Illustrated.

Otten, Anna, ed. Hesse Companion. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1977. The volume begins with a lengthy overview of Hesse’s literary career and then includes reprinted essays dealing with the major novels exclusive of Demian, with two chapters devoted to The Glass Bead Game. The final section, by Joseph Mileck, provides an assessment of Hesse’s poetry.

Stelzig, Eugene L. Hermann Hesse’s Fictions of the Self: Autobiography and the Confessional Imagination. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. A penetrating analysis of autobiographical elements in Hesse’s fiction. Stelzig clarifies the intellectual influences on Hesse’s work and explores the author’s conflicted personality.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. A study of Hesse’s major novels, it concludes that he stands intellectually between Romanticism and existentialism. The interpretation emphasizes the genesis of each novel, its similarities to novels by other writers, and, most important, the intellectual currents that inform each novel.


Critical Essays