Hermann Hesse Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although they are not as well known as the novels, Hermann Hesse wrote many short stories; in fact, the short story was one of the two genres (the other was poetry) which preoccupied him all of his life. The stories show a variety of themes; the early ones tend to aestheticism and decadence. Those written in Hesse’s middle years are realistic with touches of humor or irony, and the later ones are frequently magical or surreal. The themes of Hesse’s short stories parallel those in his novels. As in other works by Hesse, the short stories emphasize inwardness and subjectivity and are often autobiographical. Many of the protagonists are outsiders who are alienated from the bleak reality of civilization and who try to find self-fulfillment. This inner quest for self-awareness and fulfillment, frequently unsuccessful, is a central theme in Hesse’s stories.

“A Man by the Name of Ziegler”

“A Man by the Name of Ziegler” foreshadows the surrealistic style of Hesse’s later works and shows his predilection toward Eastern pantheism, even before his trip to the East. In this story, Hesse depicts modern civilization as empty. Ziegler, the protagonist, is representative of modern human beings: He is smug and self-satisfied; he exists rather than really lives. Ziegler is unaware of the emptiness of his own life. At the beginning of the story, Hesse describes Ziegler as one of those people whom one sees everyday yet never remembers because he has a “collective” face. Ziegler is neither stupid nor gifted; he likes money, pleasures, and dressing well and is always concerned about what other people think of him. He judges people only from the outside, by how they are dressed, and treats them accordingly. Ziegler respects money and science; he has no appreciation for beauty but values practical results alone. Because his father has died of cancer, he admires cancer research, hoping that a cure can be found so that he will not suffer the same fate. Hesse shows readers a mediocre, superficial person who is full of his own importance. Ziegler’s life is not ruled by the promptings of his inner nature but rather by prohibitions and fear of punishment. He believes that he is an individual; in reality, Hesse explains, he is merely a specimen. Hesse describes him ironically as a “charming young fellow.”

After arriving in a new town, Ziegler decides to go sightseeing. His choice of where to go is determined by money: The museum is free on a Sunday, and the zoo can be visited for a moderate fee on the same day. The museum bores him. While killing time there until lunch, he notices a display of medieval witchcraft which he dismisses contemptuously as childish nonsense. He nevertheless takes a pellet from the display, and when another visitor enters the room, he hurriedly hides it in his pocket. While waiting for lunch in a restaurant, he smells the pellet and then swallows it. After lunch he goes to the zoo.

To his surprise, the pellet has given him the power to understand what animals say. To his horror, he hears the contempt and disdain that the animals have for humans; to them Ziegler is no better than vermin, “an absurd and repulsive bug.” The animals themselves are more noble than human beings. Ziegler is dejected and wrenched from his usual habits of thought in which he thinks of human beings (and himself in particular) as the pinnacle of creation. Ziegler now also looks at people through the eyes of animals and finds no dignity in them at all; he sees only a “degenerate, dissembling mob of bestial fops.” In despair, he throws away his formerly treasured fashionable gloves, shoes, and walking cane and sobs against the bars of the elk’s cage. He is taken away to an insane asylum. The sudden realization that he is nothing drives him mad.

“Walter Kömpff”

“Walter Kömpff,” set in Gerbersau, a thinly disguised Calw, is a good example of Hesse’s Swabian tales. In these stories, Hesse emphasizes realistic portrayals of people. The humor and irony with which he describes people’s failings is reminiscent of the nineteenth century Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, particularly The People of Seldwyla (1856, 1874) tales. The story opens with the death of Walter’s father, Hugo, whose dying wish is that Walter should carry on the family business. Against the wishes of his mother, Cornelia, Walter accedes to this request. In so doing he makes a fatal mistake, choosing a false way of life at odds with his real nature. Although Walter has certain traits of his father, he also has his mother’s more sensitive soul. In him, maternal and paternal traits are unable to blend and remain in conflict with each other.

Walter’s first position as an apprentice shows him the essential dishonesty of the merchants; he is taught how to shortchange the customer, and his conscience rebels, forcing him to leave the job. His second position with the pietist Leckle is more successful. Later, however, his guardian forces him to leave Leckle in order to travel and see something of the world. For Walter the struggle for money seems crude and cruel; it cannot satisfy the demands of his imagination, and he has to struggle...

(The entire section is 2127 words.)