Narcissus and Goldmund

by Hermann Hesse

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Characters Discussed

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Goldmund

Goldmund, an extroverted and worldly individual whose name means “Golden Mouth.” He is a highly sensual, handsome man who is very attractive to women. An intuitive and artistic person, Goldmund devotes himself to a life in pursuit of the senses and to a quest to find the archetypal figure of the nurturing mother. At the beginning of the novel, he is sent by his father, at the age of eighteen, to the medieval monastery of Mariabronn, where he plans to study and become a monk. His teacher, Narcissus, helps him to realize that his inner nature is not suited to the vita contemplativa of the monk and scholar but rather to the vita activa. Goldmund embarks on a series of adventures involving numerous seductions of women, war and violence, and the threat of death from the plague. Later, he studies with a famous artist and himself becomes an excellent woodcarver. He ends up in prison, to be executed, but is saved at the last minute by his friend. He returns, sickly and aged by life, to the monastery. He dies before he is able to finish his final masterpiece, a carving of the eternal “Eve-Mother” figure.

Narcissus

Narcissus, a monk and scholar in the monastery of Mariabronn. He is a highly intellectual and analytical individual who is devoted to the reclusive life of the scholar. He serves, in the allegorical mode of the novel, as the opposing pole to the artistic Goldmund. As the latter’s teacher, he realizes that the young boy is temperamentally unsuited to the monastic life and that Goldmund seeks to recapture the lost union with his mother. Narcissus gives him the courage to leave. When Goldmund returns after roughly ten years, his former teacher cares for him until his death.

The Characters

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In Greek mythology, Narcissus is the youth who rejected love from others and, as a consequence, contemplates only himself. He falls in love with his own reflection in a pool and eventually turns into a flower. In Narcissus and Goldmund, Narcissus represents one pole in the dichotomy of human nature, the mind. Hesse writes, “All was mind to him, even love; he was unable to give in to an attraction without thinking about it first.” His home is the world of ideas rather than of experience and the senses. Even as a novice in the monastery, he was singled out as the disciple of Aristotle and Saint Thomas, as a man worthy of teaching his peers.

Narcissus is attracted to his opposite, the sensual Goldmund, but he knows that they will never understand each other completely. Yet Goldmund teaches Narcissus that there are many paths to knowledge, that the path of the mind is not the only one. Narcissus also learns that the artist translates thought into art, thus re-creating God’s order. Narcissus has been enriched by Goldmund, but at the same time he has been weakened: “The world in which he lived and made his home, his well-constructed edifice, had been shaken and now filled with doubt.”

Although at peace with the spiritual life in the monastery, Narcissus is challenged by Goldmund: “But how will you die when your time comes, Narcissus, since you have no mother? Without a mother, one cannot love. Without a mother, one cannot die.”

Goldmund, named for the golden-mouthed preacher Saint John Chrysostom, is the main character and the complement to Narcissus. Whereas Narcissus is “analytical, a thinker,” Goldmund is “a dreamer with the soul of a child.” Something they have in common bridges those differences; “both were refined; both were different from the others because of...

(This entire section contains 604 words.)

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obvious gifts and signs; both bore the special mark of fate.” Goldmund is more than simply the opposite of Narcissus; he is a complex figure who, at different times, plays the pliable student, the sensual vagabond, and the disciplined artist.

Goldmund takes his character from his mother, whom he lost at an early age. He is forever trying to recover her in women, nature, and death. He goes through several stages in his search, and in each he experiences both joy and suffering. He learns that death and ecstasy are one. Eve, the mother of life, is for Goldmund “the source of bliss as well as of death; eternally she gave birth and eternally she killed; her love was fused with cruelty.” Goldmund discovers that the ecstasy of love brings the suffering of birth; the sensual life gives birth to the painful creation of art. Throughout his life, Goldmund attains temporary understanding of the polarization of the world. Still, he is not satisfied. He continually quarrels about “God’s imperfect creation,” but in the end, he accepts life’s dichotomy.

All the minor figures in the novel appear as archetypes, basically unperturbed by life. For example, Abbot Daniel is a saintly ascetic in his own spiritual kingdom who belongs neither to the world of the mind nor to the world of the body. The women all belong merely to the world of the senses: The peasant woman is lusty, the daughter of the knight is aloof and unwilling to forgo her inheritance, and the middle-class Lene is satisfied simply to have a man and a house. Viktor, who exploits friends and society, represents the evil side of the vagabond. Master Niklaus is an artist who is so driven by the ordered discipline of art that he misses out on life.

Bibliography

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Boulby, Mark. Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art, 1967.

Digan, Kathleen E. Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund: A Phenomenological Study, 1975.

Field, George Wallis. Hermann Hesse, 1970.

Mileck, Joseph. Hermann Hesse: Life and Art, 1978.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure, 1965.

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