In Narcissus and Goldmund, Hesse reaches into the past to explore the theme of the reconciliation of opposites. The conflict between artistic and scholarly existence had always been a problem for him, and in this novel Hesse embodies those opposites in the personalities of two close friends whose interdependent lives take meaning from each other. Both young men meet as novitiates in a monastery, but it is clear from the beginning that they are destined for very different vocations. Narcissus is a scholar who searches for meaning in abstractions, whereas Goldmund is a sensualist who seeks meaning in the concrete world of the senses.
At the end of his novitiate, Narcissus takes final vows and starts his prescribed ascetic exercises, dedicating himself to a life of service to the spirit even though he is aware of its one-sidedness. Goldmund, on the other hand, runs away from the monastery and meets a young gypsy who surrenders herself to him and then leaves him to return to her husband. Thus Goldmund’s first experience in the world of the senses teaches him how unstable and fleeting it is. Yet he continues his search for worldly satisfaction. He has an adventure with a peasant woman, then joins the household of a knight, from whom he flees after getting involved in a triangle with the knight’s two daughters. Shortly thereafter Goldmund experiences the violence of the world when he kills a thief, hides the corpse, and escapes.
Goldmund next becomes a disciple of Master Nicholas, a sculptor whose statue of St. Mary he admires. When Goldmund fashions a statue of the disciple John, the features are clearly those of Narcissus. Master Nicholas realizes Goldmund’s possibilities and decides to admit him to the guild and give the young man his daughter in marriage. Goldmund, however, does not want to live a bourgeois life and deserts his master. It is the period of the Black Death, and Goldmund meets two refugees, a vagabond cleric and a girl the cleric thinks he has rescued from the plague. For a time the three live together in a country cottage, but once the girl falls ill with the disease, the cleric flees, leaving Goldmund to nurse her until her death. Goldmund then returns to Master Nicholas, who, he learns, has died from the disease.
Soon thereafter Goldmund is caught in bed with the governor’s mistress and condemned to death. When a priest comes to give him extreme unction, Goldmund considers killing the priest and escaping in the priest’s habit, but the priest turns out to be Narcissus, who has become Abbot John. As Narcissus had promised, he has come to his friend in the hour of his direst need, when the world of the senses and the world of violence and disease have led him to contemplate the sin of premeditated murder. Through Narcissus’s influence, Goldmund is released, and the two friends return to the monastery, where Goldmund is given a shop in which he can create sculptures. Once again Goldmund cannot submit to the discipline of monastic life and flees. Years later he returns to the monastery as a tired old man. The world has become too much for him; he longs for peace but harbors no grudge against fate. He has no faith in a life after death but still looks forward to dying, seeing it as a happiness in which his mother will take him by the hand and lead him back into the innocence of nonexistence.
Although Narcissus is portrayed from the beginning as being well on the way to perfection, in the end he has not yet achieved it. His life seems complete only when it is seen as a frame of reference within which Goldmund’s experiences acquire meaning. The life of Goldmund is developed in stages as he moves upward from innocence through experience to attain, through sensuality, the higher innocence that Narcissus has sought through spirituality. Neither, however, can make it alone. As halves of the same entity, they need each other. This reality is the interdependence that is the theme of all of Hesse’s works.
(The entire section is 1,603 words.)