Critical Evaluation

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Hermann Hesse, one of the most influential German writers of the twentieth century, traveled widely and lived for a time in Italy and India. Following his journey to the East, he settled in Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of his life. He began writing at the turn of the century and published short stories, essays, and poems as well as several novels. In 1946, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Hesse called Steppenwolf, which fell in the middle of his literary career, his most misunderstood novel. The work is complex and confusing because it is never clear whether the narrator, Harry Haller, is sane or not. There is ample evidence to indicate that Haller is schizophrenic, but to dismiss his account as the vision of a madman is to ignore the basic conflict of the novel. The safe, middle-class reaction that sees Haller as mad is precisely the type of reaction that Hesse and Haller find most despicable. As Hesse said, “You cannot be a vagabond and an artist and at the same time a respectable, healthy, bourgeois person. You want the ecstasy so you have to take the hangover.” Hesse’s attitude is basically Romantic, and this work is a Romantic statement.

The most dangerous way of misreading the novel is to see Haller/steppenwolf as a hero. He sees himself that way, but by the final scene it is clear that Haller is a failure. Despite the temptation to interpret the character of the steppenwolf as that of the intellectual outsider at war with the middle class, Haller, when put to the final test in the Magic Theater, suddenly finds himself responding with the middle-class values he hates. Faced with Hermine’s hallucination while she is in Pablo’s arms, Haller reacts like any bourgeois husband and stabs, or believes he stabs, the unfaithful lover. With that, it becomes clear that he did not learn how to laugh and thus that he did not become one of the Immortals, the original purpose of his quest. He tells the reader: “One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh.” Haller himself is aware of his failure.

Mirrors have an important function throughout the novel. The doubling effect of a mirror is indicative of the split that Haller sees in himself. The act of doubling abounds: Streetlights reflect on wet pavement; Haller sees himself in Hermine’s eyes; Hermine herself is a double at the ball, appearing first in the costume of a male and then in that of a female. As a male, she reminds Haller of a high-school male friend. Mirrors in the novel range from Hermine’s pocket mirror to Pablo’s magic hall of mirrors, and the reader is reminded of the standard magician’s reply: “It was done with mirrors.” Pablo is the magician who shows Haller that magic is the creative will of the imagination. Human beings are not singular or even double; each is filled with infinite possibilities, all of which can be realized if people will only open themselves to the experience.

The novel is a definition of the moral and intellectual condition of Western culture in the early twentieth century, more particularly of Germany in the 1920’s. The setting is a large, modern city filled with electric lights, signs, bars, movies, music, and impersonal streets. The culture depicted is essentially humorless, just as Haller lacks humor. Throughout the novel, Haller and the reader are told that they must learn to laugh, that is, to laugh at themselves and at their condition. They must achieve detachment....

(This entire section contains 1355 words.)

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When readers first see Haller, he is taking himself far too seriously. At the age of forty-eight, he promises himself the dramatic gesture of suicide at fifty.

The novel falls into three general sections: the introduction of Haller, the education of Haller, and the test of Haller. The introduction is divided into three parts. There is the burgher’s view of Haller; Haller’s own view of himself as a split personality, both middle class and steppenwolf; and the view represented by the treatise. Whereas the burgher’s view is superficial and Haller’s view is subjective, the treatise is the objective observation of a higher intelligence. Haller sees only the conflict between his steppenwolf character and the middle class, but the treatise distinguishes three types of individuals: saints, middle class, and sinners. The burgher must resist the temptation to either extreme. It is with this burgher mentality that Haller is at odds. The treatise points out that this is the wrong battle. Haller is pulled in all three directions: He wants to be burgher yet hates it; he enjoys the role of steppenwolf yet loathes it; and he desires to be an immortal but does not have the humor to achieve that level. The introduction gives an exposition, development, and a recapitulation, the same structure as that of sonata allegro form in music.

Music is central to much of Hesse’s writing. He played the violin, and his first wife was a gifted pianist. In Gertrud (1910; Gertrude, 1955), Hesse tells the story of a composer; in Die Morgenlandfahrt (1932; The Journey to the East, 1956) he writes of a violinist; and in Das Glasperlenspiel: Versuch einer Lebensbeschreibung des Magister Ludi Josef Knecht samt Knechts hinterlassenen Schriften (1943; The Glass Bead Game, 1969), there is a pianist and a musical theorist. In Steppenwolf, too, music plays an important role. Pablo is a jazz musician, and the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart epitomizes the level of the immortal. Music becomes the synthesis of opposites, harmony within dissonance. Music, for Hesse, is the ideal abstract statement of harmony: It is written, heard, and felt. Moreover, it is timeless or outside time at a level that language can never achieve.

During the middle section of the novel—the education of Haller—the narrator, on the verge of mental collapse, discovers his initiator to self-understanding to be a strange young girl named Hermine. Under her tutelage, Haller must first learn to dance; that is, to experience the sensual side of his nature without disgust. Following the direction of Hermine and her friends, Maria and Pablo, Haller is forced to realize that the self has infinite possibilities. By experiencing the sensual, Haller is following the downward path to wisdom and sainthood. The trip is essentially a mystical one, and Haller experiences what so many mystics before him discovered. Many of the Christian saints were first profligates who rose from sinner to saint. Other mystics, such as Walt Whitman, relate that salvation is through indulgence of the flesh, not through denial of it. As T. S. Eliot discovered in the Four Quartets (1943), the way down and the way up are one and the same. In learning to dance, Haller learns to divest himself of his ego. On his way to the intuitive mystic vision that all Romantics eventually achieve, he experiences dance, drink, music, sex, and drugs. Haller is flawed, however. Like the quester in Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Haller, when put to the final test, fails.

In Pablo’s Magic Theater, Haller, on a hallucinatory drug trip, experiences the recapitulation of the first two sections of the novel and sees his personality in all of its aspects. Pablo tells him: “I help you make your own world visible, that’s all.” From the Magic Mirror spring two versions of himself, one of which goes off with Pablo, implying the homosexual side of Haller that Sigmund Freud insisted exists in all men. During the Great Automobile Hunt, Haller, the pacifist, learns that he loves to kill. All things contain their opposites. In his third vision—The Marvels of Steppenwolf Training—Haller sees a surrealistic presentation of the main metaphor of the novel that reappears from the introduction. It is with the final vision of Hermine being unfaithful to him that he is unable to cope. In the hallucination, he stabs her, but Pablo cannot take it seriously, just as Haller cannot laugh at it. Because Haller cannot let his ego dissolve, he cannot join the universal flow of things.