Steppenwolf is Hesse’s most surrealistic novel. With its cast of dreamlike characters, its Magic Theater, and its nightmarish imagery, it comes closer than any of his other works to re-creating the fevered intensity of the lost soul adrift in time and space, ensnared in its own smothering web. The only way back is the mystical process of depersonalization. Harry Haller, the main character, is a man in deep despair because he doubts his ideals and his vocation. Life has become senseless; he longs for new values. Haller first has to learn to accept himself wholly, then to perceive life as a game, and finally to expand his soul to include the whole world in its totality.
On the surface, a bourgeois world is a world of sanity. Haller looks about him at the comfortable routine of domestic existence, and although he feels nostalgia for it, he can no longer accept it. Thus when he sees a sign that says “Magic Theater; Entrance Not for Everybody; For Madmen Only,” he tries to enter, because only madmen can make any sense out of a bourgeois world. Until Haller reads the pamphlet entitled “Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” he has always thought of himself as a double personality: man and wolf, the civilized human being and the freedom-loving outlaw. So great is this inner tension that Haller has often been on the point of taking his life and indeed is able to keep living only because he plans to commit suicide on his fiftieth birthday.
After reading the treatise, however, Haller realizes that he is wrong in supposing that he is a twofold person. All people, he learns, have manifold personalities, and the common notion that each person is a single ego is false. The road to enlightenment is to surrender the idea of a central ego and to expand the soul until it includes nothing less than everything. To achieve this enlightenment, one must experience certain symbolic rites of passage that will remove one from the clutches of the bourgeois.
Haller has such an experience when he encounters a professor of comparative folklore with whom he once studied and accepts an invitation to dine with him and his wife. During the meal, Haller is forced to behave courteously and exchange social lies with his host and hostess. When the professor, a right-wing nationalist, ridicules a newspaper article denouncing the kaiser, however, Haller declares angrily that he is the author of the article and cares nothing for the professor, his scholarship, or his politics. Calling himself a schizophrenic who is no longer fit for human society, Haller storms out, relieved; the lone wolf in him has triumphed over the bourgeois.
Haller then meets Maria, who becomes his mistress, and Pablo, a handsome young musician with extensive experience in sex and drugs. One evening Pablo invites Haller to his quarters for a little entertainment—“for madmen only,” he explains—the ticket of admission being one of Pablo’s drugs. When Haller has succumbed to the influence of the drugs, Pablo holds up a small mirror in which Haller sees himself in a double vision, as a man whose features blend with those of a shy, beautiful, dazed wolf with smoldering, frightened eyes. Next Pablo leads him into a theater corridor where there is a full-length mirror. Standing before it, Haller sees himself in a hundred forms: as child, adolescent, mature man, both happy and sad, dressed and naked. One form, an elegant young man, embraces Pablo.
Turning from the mirror, Haller walks down the corridor, off of which are dozens of doors, each offering the fulfillment of a thwarted or unrecognized aspect of Haller’s personality. Haller goes through a sequence of bizarre experiences climaxing in the symbolic murder of Hermine and culminating in his appearance before a dozen robed judges who, instead of sentencing him to death as he expects, condemn him to “eternal life.” Then all but Haller laugh. He is left feeling that he still has much to learn about how to live but promises himself that he will...
(The entire section is 4,178 words.)