Rosshalde is the story of an unhappy marriage, perhaps Hermann Hesse’s own unhappy marriage. Written after his return from India, it may depict the incompatibility between him and his wife that led to his trip to the East in the first place. The manor house, Rosshalde, is based on the house of a deceased painter which the Hesses rented in 1912 just outside Berne. Adele Veraguth is patterned after Hesse’s own wife, Maria. Yet the novel is more than an autobiographical fiction; it is also a thesis novel which argues that the artist is not suited for marriage, for his necessarily detached role as an observer and recorder of life renders him incapable of the kind of intimacy that marriage requires.
Rosshalde is an account of a brief period in the life of a famous painter, Johann Veraguth, who because of incompatibility with his wife lives in a bachelor’s studio on the grounds of his manor house. His wife, Adele, and their seven-year-old son, Pierre, the darling of both parents and the only link between them, live in the main house. Their older son, Albert, has been sent away to boarding school.
Although Veraguth has been living apart from his wife for several years, this situation, which has become increasingly intolerable to him, comes to a head in the novel as a result of two factors: Albert, who is devoted solely to his mother and who hates his father, returns from school and Veraguth’s old friend Otto Burkhardt arrives from his plantation home in India. Veraguth’s awareness of the intensity of Albert’s hatred for him and Burkhardt’s efforts to convince Veraguth to come back with him to the East make Veraguth’s dissatisfaction with his current situation more intolerable. It is little Pierre, however, who has kept Veraguth from leaving before.
Veraguth tells Burkhardt that he is living among ruins and that Pierre is all that he has, to which Burkhardt argues that Veraguth has been living among dead things too long and has lost his contact with life. In his torment over trying to decide about leaving Pierre, Veraguth creates a large painting which reflects his situation; it depicts a man and a woman self-immersed and alien to each other and a child playing tranquilly between them. Burkhardt’s invitation for Veraguth to return to India with him torments Veraguth, for although he feels his joyless existence coming to an end, he fears the loss of the boy.
This conflict intensifies when Pierre becomes mysteriously ill. Yet, in spite of Pierre’s illness, Veraguth is primarily dominated by his sense that his life is driving toward the future and freedom for the first time in years. While Veraguth believes that he can begin living again, the prognosis for the boy is just the opposite; his sensitivity to sounds and smells leads the doctor to diagnose his illness as meningitis and to warn the parents that he does not have long to live.
Veraguth’s first reaction to this news is despair, but then a new thought occurs to him—that the boy’s death will be his ultimate suffering, that after his death nothing else will remain to bind him or hurt him, and that he will go forward with no peace and inertia but with a kind of all-consuming creative joy. Thus, when his wife promises him that if Pierre lives, then Veraguth may keep Pierre with him, the painter finds it absurd that the child should be his at the moment when he is doomed to die.
At the novel’s conclusion when, after prolonged agony, the boy does die, Veraguth believes that he has never loved as much as he had during the boy’s last days. Only his art remains for him now. Thus, Veraguth has the consolation of an outsider with the paradoxically barren yet fruitful passion to observe and to create. The residue of his existence will be the cold and lonely delight of art, which he will follow for the rest of his life without detour.