Hermann Hesse Hesse, Hermann (Vol. 17)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hermann Hesse 1877–1962

German-born Swiss novelist, poet, short story writer, editor, and critic.

In 1946 Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature; at that time, he was virtually unknown outside German-speaking countries. Today he is admired by the youth of several countries as he was by earlier generations of Germans. Students readily identify with his characters who struggle within a system which seeks to stifle individual creativity. Hesse wrote from his own experience. By the age of thirteen, he had decided to become a poet. When he went away to school, he soon learned there was no curriculum for would-be poets as there was for teachers, doctors, and scientists. His school novel Unterm Rad (Beneath the Wheel) represents Hesse's own rebellion against such a system. It depicts the educational institution as being fatal to the human spirit that does not conform.

All of Hesse's major novels are autobiographical in some way. Demian reflects Hesse's experience with psychoanalysis and his abhorrence of war. Siddhartha is the result of an extended visit to India where Hesse sought the peace of mind that he believed could be found in oriental religions. Hesse even gave his characters names that have his own initials, such as Harry Haller and H. H., or forms of his name, such as Hermine.

Within many of Hesse's works there is a theme of the conflict of spirit and flesh within the individual. Der Steppenwolf is perhaps the best example of this struggle, in which the animalistic urges of the intellectual Harry Haller strive for release. Music is a major influence in Harry's beginning awareness and acceptance of the opposing elements in man. Hesse himself was devoted to the violin, which he learned to play at an early age. For him, music could be a harmonious blending of the inner conflicts and tensions which he sought to resolve in his writing.

In Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game or Magister Ludi) Hesse treats nearly all of the themes present in his previous works. He contrasts the active world with the contemplative world and this time finds the world of the spirit lacking. There are critics who feel, however, that Das Glasperlenspiel is Hesse's slightest work, for here he deviates from his earlier effective portrayals of passionate youth.

In 1912 Hesse left Germany never to return. In 1923 he became a Swiss citizen. Hesse could not associate himself with the German militarism and chauvinism of the two world wars. Still, his books were read by the youth of Germany. Hesse's work finds sympathizers in all generations and nationalities because he addresses the theme of the individual's search for truth and personal identity. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18, and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Felix Anselm

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like every great artist [Hesse] has essentially but one theme, of which all his works are only maturing variations. Hesse's fundamental fable is the endless struggle of the individual for self-recognition and self-realization, and the resulting conflict with the equalizing forces, the temptations, and taboos of a given environment. (p. 355)

Hermann Hesse is neither a "realistic" nor a "symbolistic" writer, in the loose and hazy sense in which these terms are commonly applied, but it is his perfect integration of both spheres, of the real and the phantastic, the unbroken simultaneousness of the world without and the world within and their constant interplay that produce the "magic realism" (to give it a name) which is his rare achievement and the lure of his books and wherein lies his greatness as an artist. Contemplating the microcosmos of the human heart, he perceives the macrocosmos created in its image, and thus also are the characters that populate his books brought to life: from within, literally being part of their Creator, the blood and flesh images and projections of his encompassing self. (pp. 356-57)

None of his novels have what is called "social significance," they are concerned with the...

(The entire section is 27,799 words.)