Analysis

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Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 for the body of his work, much of which can be considered interlocking pieces of the same thematic puzzle. In Steppenwolf, Hesse explores the central problem of making peace with a disturbing, illogical, and—perhaps worst—mediocre world. The essential question is how one accepts the world on its own terms without doing violence to one’s soul. In a critical passage near the end of the novel, Mozart confronts the fatalistic Haller and condemns the latter to life. Furthermore, he instructs Haller to develop the ability to see, hear, and feel through and past the “bim-bim” (nonsense, lack of perfection) of life and see the pure essence and goodness behind the façade.

Through the surrealistic, grotesque, and fantastic events of the Magic Theatre, Haller comes to recognize a way he can begin to face life rather than reject it. Ironically, he does so by enacting scenes of violence behind the theater’s many doors. The theater consists of a huge hallway lined with multiple doors, each labeled with a different adventure. Some of Haller’s adventures include the “Great Automobile Hunt,” in which he partakes in arbitrary, random shooting of drivers; “Guidance in the Building of the Personality,” in which he confronts parts of himself broken into various chess pieces on a playing board; and the “Marvelous Taming of the Steppenwolf,” in which alternate sides—the brutal and bestial and the tame and docile—of the wolf are shown to be possible. Finally, behind the door marked “How One Kills for Love,” Haller destroys a phantom representation of Hermine, who initially brought him to the theater and to the brink of self-discovery. For this latter deed, he is sentenced to live his life to the utmost.

The Magic Theatre as an element of fantasy parallels elements found in the work of such writers as Franz Kafka (Hesse’s contemporary) and Gabriel García Márquez (a later writer who employs Magical Realism) and is prescient in its anticipation of virtual reality, with its many perceptual possibilities. The overall structure of Steppenwolf has been identified by Hesse scholar Theodore Ziolkowski as a “sonata in prose” that underscores the musical quality of the book in which, thematically and structurally, a kind of “counterpoint technique” enables a double vision. This vision results from the contrast of the real and the unreal and of the demeaning and the exalted, thus providing an enactment of alternating viewpoints. Thus, Hesse has achieved in the very fabric of his structure the essence of his message: Neither the limited perception of a divided self nor the illusion of the unidimensional self is possible or feasible in a multilayered world.

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Steppenwolf