Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 912
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 relishing its freedom. He does not want to think too much but wants simply to take things as they come. Many women of high and low rank love him briefly and then return to their husbands and homes, unwilling to give up everything, even an abusive husband, for the wandering life. While Goldmund feels a general guilt, which he identifies as the burden of Original Sin, he does not feel the personal guilt of adultery. He is often lonely yet he cherishes his freedom.
During one miserable winter, Goldmund meets and travels with Viktor, a shrewd vagrant who tries to rob and murder him. In self-defense, Goldmund kills him. This experience gives rise to meditation about death and about the fact that a man could exist and then be gone without a trace. Perhaps, Goldmund thinks, the fear of death is the root of all art; since artists themselves are transitory, they want to create something that will outlive them.
Goldmund becomes a student of the well-known artist Master Niklaus and tries to create, in art, the sorrow and joy that he has experienced in life. He wants to re-create the universal mother of men, the source of life, the face of all the women he has known. His best achievement, however, turns out to be a statue of Saint John, the artistic embodiment of his friend Narcissus. During this period as a disciplined artist, Goldmund is still much desired by women and unpopular with men. For Goldmund, love and ecstasy give life its value; ambition, power, and materialism are unimportant. Despising the spoiled burghers who live for money and routine, he leaves his artistic post to taste more of the beauty and horror of the world.
The horror is soon evident in the plague, the Black Death. He learns that the plague is indiscriminate and ugly, but at the same time it is sweet and motherly, an enticement. He and his female companion Lene set up house in the forest, away from the plague-stricken city. Soon he kills again; the victim this time is a rapist who was attacking Lene. After a while, Goldmund knows that he has had enough of the domestic life and must move on. Lene dies of the plague, and Goldmund is again liberated.
Caught with the count’s mistress, Goldmund comes face-to-face with his own death when he is sentenced to hang. He wants to accept his death, but he is still unwilling to leave everything and every woman. Regardless of whether there is an eternity, he wants this insecure and transitory life, even if it means that he must kill the priest who will hear his last confession and escape in the priest’s clothes. He recognizes the priest as his old friend Narcissus, who has brought Goldmund a pardon for his sins.
Narcissus, now the abbot of the monastery, gives Goldmund a workshop where he can continue his artwork. After completing an art project, Goldmund feels empty; his life is in disorder. He is no longer young and attractive to women. Growing old and full of suffering, he leaves the cloister only to return before the winter. In the hope that dying will be a happiness as great as love, Goldmund finally welcomes death, his mother.