(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 691 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Narcissus and Goldmund is a tale about the vagrant and erotic adventures of Goldmund (golden mouth) and his quest for the meaning of life and death. The novel, written in the third person, contrasts Goldmund’s spontaneity and sensualism with the scholarly Narcissus’ orderliness and rationalism. Hermann Hesse also provides historical insights into the medieval monasteries, the artistic guilds, the persecution of the Jews, and the Black Death.

As the novel begins, the naive eighteen-year-old Goldmund is sent by his father to the Mariabronn cloister, where knowledge of the arts and sciences is passed from one generation to another. Goldmund, an extroverted adolescent, becomes an eager student because he is attracted to his teacher, Narcissus, a young man of keen perception and analytical thinking. Goldmund is also drawn to Abbot Daniel because of his saintliness. As a result of his regard for these men—the humble abbot and the brilliant scholar—Goldmund finds himself pursuing the idealistic but unachievable goal of emulating both, thereby causing himself much suffering. Narcissus, sensing in Goldmund his own opposite and complement, wants to guide him in his confusion, but he holds back, aware that his jealous brethren might accuse him of falling in love with a pupil. His duty is to educate the mind, not to become emotionally involved.

One night, some students persuade Goldmund to sneak out to the village, where they are to meet some girls. Goldmund only observes, but when leaving, he is kissed by a girl. Later, he forgets the excitement of sneaking away from the cloister, but he cannot forget the girl’s kiss. Troubled and undecided about life in the cloister, Goldmund is sent out to the fields to contemplate nature and pick flowers, where he fortuitously meets a young woman who teaches him about the nature of love. Exhilarated by this new experience of life, he bids farewell to the monastery and to Narcissus and returns to the woman. He tells himself that he is not leaving because of her. On the contrary, he has abandoned the shelter of the cloister because he is no longer a child or a student; he is now a man.

Goldmund ventures into the world, enduring its hardships and...

(The entire section is 912 words.)