(Short Story Criticism)

Siddhartha Hermann Hesse

The following entry presents criticism on Hesse's novella Siddhartha: Eine indische Dichtung (1922; Siddhartha: An Indian Poetic Work.

Siddhartha (1922) is often considered the high point of Hesse's art in fiction, as well as the pinnacle of his fascination with orientalism. The novella is concerned with the individual's search for truth and identity by means of what Hesse termed the Weg nach Innen (inward journey), a recurring theme throughout his works; in fact, Siddhartha was written after a difficult period of introspection in Hesse's own life. Although the novella was completed by 1922 and was widely recognized and appreciated in Europe, it did not become popular in the United States until the 1960s and 1970s. During that period, American youth, embroiled in an era of cultural upheaval, identified with the title character and his struggle to transcend meaninglessness and materialism through mysticism and love, and a near cult following for Hesse ensued. The popularity of Siddhartha, while no longer near that of the 60s and 70s, remains steady. It was written during Hesse's second and most productive period—1916 to 1925. A crisis initiated by multiple personal problems led Hesse to undergo psychoanalysis during the early part of this stage, an intensive therapy which provided Hesse the incentive to begin his Weg nach Innen toward self-awareness and ultimately to greater self-realization, all of which helped shape the writing of Siddhartha.

Plot and Major Characters

The title character of Siddhartha is the son of a Brahman who with his friend Govinda leaves home and caste to join the ascetic Samanas. For three years Siddhartha and Govinda deny the body's senses and external world, yet Siddhartha fails to find the true path he is seeking. He renounces this life of ritual and asceticism and departs with Govinda to hear Gautama Buddha speak. Govinda decides to stay with Gautama, but Siddhartha does not accept the Buddha's teaching and declares that one must seek truth through living, not preaching. Leaving Govinda and the Buddha, Siddhartha encounters a river, which becomes a symbolic motif throughout the narrative, representing the boundary between two universes and two lifestyles. Siddhartha now immerses himself in the world of the senses, the physical universe—the polar opposite of the austere nature of repressed sense perception he was previously pursuing. Siddhartha travels across the river to a city where he meets Kamala, a courtesan, who introduces him to a life of wealth and pleasure—sexual and commercial. Siddhartha eventually realizes that “sensual lust is related to death,” and that he must leave Kamala and the merchant way, unaware that she is now pregnant with his son. Siddhartha returns to the river, which now functions as the symbol of a turning point, rather than a boundary. There, in despair, he nearly commits suicide, but, in observing the mystical symbology of the river, does not. Siddhartha decides that both his years as an ascetic and as a profligate allow him “to live again,” as he explains to Govinda, who comes across Siddhartha sleeping. Determined to stay by the river, Siddhartha lives with the ferryman Vasudeva: a figure based on both Eastern attributes and Charon, the boatman of the river Styx. After twelve years Kamala visits the river bringing the son Siddhartha fathered and dies from a snakebite. Siddhartha cares for the boy and discovers that he loves his son desperately. But the child is spoiled and longs only to leave the two boatmen and return to the city, which he eventually succeeds in doing. Through his son's departure, Siddhartha experiences first the pain of love and then pure, unselfish devotion, eventually learning the lesson of the river: “All voices, all aims, all yearning, all suffering, all pleasure, all good and all evil, all together made up the world.” When Vasudeva dies, Siddhartha carries on the tradition and knowledge he has been taught by the ferryman and the river. When Govinda passes by, he sees that Siddhartha, like Buddha, has achieved absolute peace and harmony, that he has finally “found the Way.”

Major Themes

Hesse's Siddhartha reflects much of the literary and intellectual history of Germany and Western Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century. In particular, the work has many points in common with the romantic movement, neo-romanticism, and expressionism. The years after 1918 in Europe were filled with literary turmoil and experimentation, and the results of both the psychoanalytic movement and the new orientalism then in vogue are much evidenced in Siddhartha. The importance of what Hesse termed Weg nach Innen—the individual's struggle to transcend the materialism of bourgeois society through art, mysticism, and love—is especially palpable in Siddhartha. Highly influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Hesse had vowed to reject traditional religion and morality and lead a life of individualism and isolation. Siddhartha also rejects traditional religion and morality, and ultimately finds that pure individualism is an embrace of unity, with love as the synthesizing agent. In his essay My Faith (1931), Hesse stated that “Siddhartha puts not cognition, but love in first place; that it disdains dogma and makes the experience of unity the central point. …” The inner perfection Siddhartha—and vicariously through him, Hesse—seeks is an awareness of the unity, totality, and simultaneity of all being. Siddhartha's life contains strong similarities to that of the historical Gautama Buddha, who, in addition to the proper name Gautama, was called Siddhartha in secular life, meaning “the one who has reached the goal” or “the one who has found the Way.” Other names in Siddhartha function similarly in their usage of Eastern religious motifs: Vasudeva is a name for Krishna, meaning “he in whom all things abide and who abides in all”; and Kamala can be associated with Kama, the Hindu god of love and desire. Hesse portrayed the dominant mythic overtones in Siddhartha by borrowing various facts from Gautama the Buddha: Gautama left his wife for a life of asceticism, much as Siddhartha left Kamala; the Buddha spent several years meditating on a riverbank and received his revelations under the Bo-tree, just as Siddhartha spends his final years beside a river and discovers enlightenment beneath a mango tree; and Siddhartha's final vision of the world as a simultaneity and totality corresponds to the Buddha's vision of interconnectedness. But there are also fundamental differences, due to the fact that Hesse's overall philosophy is explicitly opposed to that of Gautama the Buddha, who made a conscious attempt to put forth an established pattern of religious development. Hesse hoped, in Taoist fashion, “to fulfill the will of God precisely by letting myself drift (in one of my stories I called it ‘letting oneself fall’) …” The plot, characters, and setting of Siddhartha are indicative of Hesse's lifetime interest in the East: “I experienced religion in two forms,” the author commented, “as the child and grandchild of pious upright Protestants and as a reader of Indian revelations in which I give pride of place to the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and the sermons of Buddha. … From early childhood I lived just as much in the atmosphere of Indian spirituality as I did in that of Christianity.” Hesse's interest in the East was partially reinforced by the popularity of orientalism in his time and by the influence of the book Travel Diary of a Philosopher (1919) by Count Keyserling, whom Hesse had praised as “the first European scholar and philosopher who has really understood India.” Hesse traveled to Ceylon, Malaya, and Sumatra in 1911, but, confronted with appalling poverty and a commercialized Buddhism, he found the trip a disappointment. He commented later to a friend that he had failed to get beyond “the charm of the exotic” and enter into “the world of the Indian spirit.” Disenchanted, Hesse returned home without actually visiting India. In contrast to his own physical journey to the East, he described Siddhartha as “an Indian poetic work,” a realistic narrative with a strong impulse toward lyricism, a symbolic projection of his internal vision through geographic symbolism. Thus, Siddhartha fits well both in the genres of the Erziehungsromane, or novel of education, and the Bildungsroman. Hesse addressed in Siddhartha, as in most of his other works, characters who struggle to come to terms with themselves, individuals who passionately attempt self-realization.

Critical Reception

Siddhartha has generated a vast body of critical commentary and has profoundly affected readers throughout the world, though its popularity peaks most notably during periods of social ferment. During the Weimar Republic in Germany, from 1919 to 1933, much politically motivated criticism of Hesse was in evidence. Throughout the Third Reich Hesse experienced both political and literary rejection. After National Socialism collapsed and Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, there was a rebirth of interest in his writing among German critics and scholars. During the last period of Hesse's life, when he wrote relatively little, his work was made more readily available in many reprints, new editions, and collections. Although Hesse's highly romantic prose style does not always lend itself easily to translation, many of his writings were translated into English after World War II, affording Hesse a wider audience. In the 1960s and 1970s Siddhartha was well received in the United States; the novella garnered an almost cult following, especially among the youth of the era. Hesse's extreme individualism and focus on the inner self, along with his disparagement of modern society and interest in the East, all spoke to a generation who often viewed America as a materialistic, mass-oriented, and morally bankrupt society. Hesse's belief in the ultimate meaningfulness of life became an inspiration for dissidents and seekers from both the establishment and the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. The author's ability to universalize private agony and personal crises, as demonstrated in Siddhartha, has allowed Hesse to achieve an ongoing international popularity.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Eine Stunde hinter Mitternacht 1899

Knulp: Drei Geschichten aus dem Leben Knulps [Knulp: Three Tales from the Life of Knulp] 1915

Zwei Maerchen 1918

Klingsors letzter Sommer [Klingsor's Last Summer] 1920

Siddhartha: Eine indische Dichtung [Siddhartha: An Indian Poetic Work] 1922

Piktors Verwandlungen 1925

Die Morgenlandfahrt: Eine Erzaehlung [The Journey to the East] 1932

Weg nach Innen 1932

Tragisch 1936

Romantische Lieder (poetry) 1899


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Mimi Jehle (essay date 1951)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The ‘Garden’ in the Works of Hermann Hesse,” in German Quarterly, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January, 1951, pp. 42–50.

[In the following essay, Jehle discusses Hesse's use of the garden motif in Siddhartha and other works.]

A study of Hesse's works reveals the fact that through the garden motif much of his inner world and development can be studied, and the symbolic character of the use of gardens becomes more and more apparent. A number of critics of Hesse's works have suggested that a study of the use of water and clouds should be most interesting. It seems strange that the garden as a motif worthy of study was not mentioned, although Hesse's love...

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Johannes Malthaner (essay date 1952)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha,” in German Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 2, March, 1952, pp. 103–09.

[In the following essay, Malthaner discusses the relative “unpopularity” of Hesse's writing in the United States prior to the early 1950s, due to Hesse's preoccupations with autobiography and “Weltanschauung,” a philosophy of life, and how Siddhartha is such a work of literature.]

Herman Hesse, the German-Swiss poet and novelist, is relatively little known in this country although a good deal of publicity has been given him since he was granted the Nobel prize for literature in 1946. This “unpopularity” of Hesse is only partly due to the...

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Leroy R. Shaw (essay date 1957)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Time and the Structure of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha,” in Symposium, Vol. 11, No. 1, Fall, 1957, pp. 204–24.

[In the following essay, Shaw assesses Hesse's attempt in Siddhartha to transcend the limitations of time and to experience temporal unity.]

In 1911 Hermann Hesse set out upon a voyage to India, “to see,” he tells us, “the sacred tree and snake [of Buddha] and to go back into that source of life where everything had begun and which signifies the Oneness [Einheit] of all phenomena.”1 The vagueness of these words, written some ten years after his return to Europe, testifies to Hesse's uncertainty concerning...

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Robert Donald Spector (essay date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Artist against Himself: Hesse's Siddhartha,” in History of Ideas Newsletter, Vol. 10, Summer, 1958, pp. 55–58.

[In the following essay, Spector comments on Hesse's belief that the communication of essential truth can take place only in a person's own experiential circumstances, and the effects of this belief on literary art.]

In Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, considered for what it has to say about the purpose of art, rests the fundamental failure of existentialist philosophy as a doctrine for the literary artist. Given the truth of Hesse's message, the artist must deem himself incapable of fulfilling the basic function of the creative writer....

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Hans Beerman (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hermann Hesse and the Bhagavad-Gita,” in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, October, 1959, pp. 27–40.

[In the following essay, Beerman explains the influences of the Bhagavad-Gita on Hermann Hesse and on his novella Siddhartha.]


It is difficult to overestimate Hermann Hesse's literary achievement. There are few works in modern literature comparable to his. When he received the Nobel Prize in 1946, an author of no less stature than Thomas Mann said of him: “his life work belonged to the highest and purest spiritual aspirations and labors of our epoch.” Unfortunately, Hesse's highly romantic prose style does not...

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Ernst Rose (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Turn Inward,” in Faith from the Abyss: Hermann Hesse's Way from Romanticism to Modernity, New York University Press, 1965, pp. 68–78.

[In the following essay, Rose comments on the artistic logic that prompted Hesse to use the influences of his own life experience in writing Siddhartha.]

Demian as well as Klingsor's Last Summer already had visualized an ironical acceptance of the world as a possible solution for the problem of human existence. Yet because of their contemporary connotations both stories were open to misunderstanding. It was not conformity that Hesse was advocating, but a reshaping of the world from within. The Turn...

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Theodore Ziolkowski (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Siddhartha: The Landscape of the Soul,” in The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure, Princeton University Press, 1965, pp. 146–77.

[In the following essay, Ziolkowski discusses the influence Eastern thought and religion had on Hesse's writing of Siddhartha, and finds parallels between the life of Buddha and that of Siddhartha.]

One of the most salient characteristics of the reaction against the nineteenth century was a reawakening of interest in the Orient. The East, with its aura of mystery, has been a symbol of revolt against rationalism in Germany at least since the twelfth century, when the authors of medieval...

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Mark Boulby (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Siddhartha,” in Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art, Cornell University Press, 1967, pp. 121–57.

[In the following essay, Boulby describes Hesse's familiarity with the East, apparent in Siddhartha and many of the author's writings.]

Hesse's journey to the East began in his childhood. His parents' personal experience of Southeast Asia, the indological expertise of grandfather Hermann Gundert with his specimens, books, and mastery of several oriental languages, the Asian visitors who came frequently to the house at Calw—the sources were early and varigated. This was, in any case, the age of the “Oriental Renaissance” in Europe. That movement which...

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Kenneth Hughes (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hesse's Use of Gilgamesh-Motifs in the Humanization of Siddhartha and Harry Haller,” in Seminar, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1969, pp. 129–40.

[In the following essay, Hughes strives to illuminate Siddhartha in light of motifs important in the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic.]

Hermann Hesse's indebtedness to oriental literatures and philosophies has been noted frequently. However, the ancient Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh has been neglected in the investigation of his Eastern sources, although Hesse knew and appreciated this work and recommended it in 1929 for inclusion in his ideal library of world literature.1 Reference to...

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George Wallis Field (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Siddhartha: The Way Within,” in Hermann Hesse, Twayne's World Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999, pp. 1–13.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1970, Field comments on the background and social setting in which Siddhartha was written.]


The first part of Siddhartha was written in the winter of 1919, at the end of that first exuberant productive year in Montagnola. Hesse has told us how the composition was borne along on a surge of creative energy which suddenly came to an end, and he was not able to complete the work until two years later:


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Colin Butler (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha: Some Critical Objections,” in Monatshefte, Vol. LXIII, No. 2, Summer, 1971, pp. 117–24.

[In the following essay, Butler opposes Hesse's presentation of human existence in Siddhartha, adding that he finds the novel “laboured and unconvincing.”]

Like all the novels on which Hesse's reputation chiefly rests, Siddhartha is a fictitious biography. A sort of Bildungsroman, it records the passage of a special individual through selected key experiences until he attains to a position of competence in dealing with what little life is left to him. The nature of Siddhartha's preoccupations and development,...

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Roger C. Norton (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Paths to the Future,” in Hermann Hesse's Futuristic Idealism: The Glass Bead Game and its Predecessors, Herbert Lang/Peter Lang, 1973, pp. 45–53.

[In the following excerpt, Norton examines the future as a significant component of idealistic projection in Hesse's writing.]

Hesse's novels of the 1920's and early 1930's—Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Journey to the East—continue to draw the consequences of the new outlooks which arose from his personal crisis of the war years. Like Demian they focus on the problems of the creative individual and his way to self-knowledge. At the same...

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Madison Brown (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Toward a Perspective for the Indian Element in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha,” in German Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2, March, 1976, pp. 191–200.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses various theories about the Indian elements in Siddhartha.]

First contact with Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha indicates quite clearly that things Indian abound in the novel. Titles, names, settings, and cultural background are all Indian. For an author who grew up in a household having close ties to India and who was the enthusiastic inheritor of the eighteenth and nineteenth century German interest in India, such a preoccupation with the subcontinent and its culture...

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Joseph Mileck (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rebel-Seeker: Montagnola 1919–1931,” in Hermann Hesse: Life and Art, University of California Press, 1978, 159–72.

[In the following excerpt, Mileck examines the influences that led Hesse to write Siddhartha, which he calls “a depiction of the human condition … and a sublime statement of faith in man and life.”]



Klingsors letzter Sommer marked the end of the wildest and the most prolific summer of Hesse's life. His frenzy of activity subsided when autumn set in and, before winter, he had again become withdrawn, given to reflection and to...

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Sanjay Narasimhaiah (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Herman Hesse. Siddhartha: Between the Rebellion and the Regeneration,” in The Literary Criterion, Vol. 16, 1981, pp. 50–66.

[In the following essay, Narasimhaiah discusses several shortcomings in Siddhartha, writing that Hesse's novel is hopelessly deficient in enactment, frequently confusing, and that the novelist becomes a perpetual commentator instead of letting the characters define themselves.]

Herman Hesse first came to Indian attention with his Siddhartha, not as novel but in its film version. It was one of those films which drew to the cinema house even those normally indifferent to films, largely because of the title. From...

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Carlee Marrer-Tising (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Siddhartha,” in The Reception of Hermann Hesse by the Youth in the United States: A Thematic Analysis, Peter Lang, 1982, pp. 317–35.

[In the following excerpt, Marrer-Tising provides an analysis of thematic elements in Siddhartha.]

Siddhartha, the most ‘Indian’ of Hesse's works outwardly, is, in actuality, more Chinese in its solution; the setting of the story is Indian, the names of the characters are Indian, but, as will be demonstrated, the Chinese influence is ultimately the key to understanding the conclusion of the work as well as Hesse's intention. In a letter to Stephan Zweig, Hesse mentions Siddhartha and confirms the...

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David G. Richards (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “From Demian to The Glass Bead Game: Themes and Variations,” in The Hero's Quest for the Self: An Archetypal Approach to Hesse's Demian and Other Novels, University Press of America, 1987, pp. 105–11.

[In the following excerpt, Richard examines Hesse's idea of unity in Siddhartha, and asserts that it is an intellectual construct not based on personal experience.]

In Siddhartha it is the river that serves as a symbol of the pleromatic fullness and synchronistic timelessness of the unconscious. Unlike Klein, who must actually drown himself to be reborn, Siddhartha is saved from drowning by the illumination that...

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Eugene L. Stelzig (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ticino Legends of Saints and Sinners,” in Hermann Hesse's Fictions of the Self: Autobiography and the Confessional Imagination, Princeton University Press, 1988, pp. 173–87.

[In the following excerpt, Stelzig discusses Siddhartha in terms of authobiography, biography, life and art, and the subjectivity evident in modern literature.]


Hesse began his “Indian legend”1 in the winter of 1920; the writing proceeded rapidly, and by spring, he was halfway through Part 2, when he bogged down in the “By the River” chapter. For a time it seemed that the book would be consigned to his collection of...

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Bryan A. Bardine (essay date 1993–94)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha as Divine Comedy,” in University of Dayton Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter, 1993–94, pp. 71–79.

[In the following essay, Bardine explains his view that Hesse's Siddhartha should be categorized as a divine comedy, evidenced by the fact that the work contains all eight characteristics of divine comedy suggested by Eugene R. August.]

Comedy has always been more difficult to define and pin down than tragedy. Part of the difficulty may be that comedy is, by its very nature, more protean than tragedy: comedy often takes delight in breaking the rules. Moreover, tragedy has been so memorably described in The...

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Rudolph P. Byrd (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Oxherding Tale and Siddhartha: Philosophy, Fiction, and the Emergence of a Hidden Tradition,” in I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson, Indiana University Press, 1999, pp. 305–17.

[In the following essay, Byrd explores how Charles Johnson—American author and scholar who won the National Book Award in 1990 for Middle Passage—was influenced by Siddhartha in writing his novel Oxherding Tale.]

Charles Johnson has written a searching introduction to the Plume edition of Oxherding Tale, originally published in 1982, in which he carefully sets forth the genesis and publishing history of his second...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Buber, Martin. “Hermann Hesse's Service to the Spirit.” In A Believing Humanism: My Testament, 1902–1965, pp. 70–79. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

Major twentieth century philosopher, Buber, compares and contrasts Hesse's works as parts of a series, with central consideration given to the position of the spirit in each.

Casebeer, Edwin F. “Siddhartha: The Completed Hero.” In Hermann Hesse, pp. 23–54. New York: Warner Books, 1972.

Presents Siddhartha as the best introduction to studying and understanding the life of its author.

Additional coverage of...

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