The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Steppenwolf, the story of a man’s psychic journey, moves progressively inward and then, by extension, outward to apply to all of thinking, disillusioned, post-World War I humankind. The locus of the story is in the third section, in which protagonist Harry Haller meets Hermine (a café house prostitute) and Pablo (one of her lovers) and experiences the metamorphosing effects of the latter’s “Magic Theatre.”

The storyline of Steppenwolf appears to be relatively straightforward. An unidentified narrator begins the tale by stating in a “preface” that he is in possession of Haller’s papers, which were left behind when Haller departed a room he had rented from the narrator’s aunt. In the preface, the “bourgeois” voice of the nephew is contrasted with his depiction of the mysterious, intellectual, and inordinately morose Steppenwolf, a term Haller applies to himself. This initial narrator justifies his disclosure of Haller’s personal papers with the explanation that they are not merely the document of one man’s experiences but are “a document of the times” because “Haller’s sickness of the soul” is indeed “the sickness of the times themselves, the neurosis of that generation to which Haller belongs.”

The second narrator, Haller himself (via his papers), takes the reader through a series of increasingly bizarre and unexplainable events—events that tend to blur the line between reality and...

(The entire section is 521 words.)


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

Hermann Hesse, a German neoromantic novelist, wrote Der Steppenwolf in 1927 when he was fifty years old. In the book, Hesse's only novel set in a city during the late 1920s, a young businessman discovers the diaries of a middle-class intellectual named Harry Haller in the apartment of his aunt, Harry's landlady. Harry, who refers to himself as a Steppenwolf; or a wolf of the steppes, is in effect, a wanderer in search of himself. Harry's surrealistic records reveal a depressed fiftyish man on the verge of suicide. He is rescued by the music of a nearby dance hall where he encounters a peddlar with a placard that advertises the attractions of a Magic Theater; Not for Everybody. In the first portion of the novel, a Treatise on the Steppenwolf, Harry reveals himself as half man (his civilized bourgeois qualities) and half wolf (his instinctual urges in search of expression). He is guided in his quest by the classical immortals Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and also his new friends; bar girl Hermine, prostitute Maria, and jazz musician Pablo. With Hermine as his alter-ego, Harry learns to enjoy life again, with Maria, he discovers the joys of sex, and with Pablo, he explores jazz and mind-expanding drugs. The second part of the novel deals with Harry's experiences in the Magic Theater, where he is immersed in dreams and wish fulfillment. He makes war on automobiles, makes love to all the women he ever desired, and commits murder. Finally, he discovers his multiple selves and is tried and condemned to enjoy life and not take himself so seriously by the laughing immortals he had mistaken for pompous intellectuals like his former self. His idol Mozart reveals himself at the end as a lover, a rebel, and a romantic; a precursor of a counterculture Hesse had discovered in the 1920s....

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Magic Theater

Magic Theater. Literally, the hell of Steppenwolf’s mind and soul. Although the trip to the Magic Theater does not occur until the end of the novel, it is there that Hesse puts forth his ideas about the fractured soul of modern man manifesting the existential and the suicidal, here represented and embodied by Harry Haller. Hermine, Haller’s lover—a prostitute who herself has a death wish—teaches him to dance and takes him to a great ball. When he descends to the basement for a drug-induced experience brought on by laudanum, opium, and cocaine, Hell reveals itself to be a place where one can get anything one wants. Seeing himself repeatedly in a magic mirror that displays his many schizophrenic personalities and selves, Haller can fulfill any want he can imagine, whether real or illusionary. His Magic Theater contains one hundred doors, each of which has a name designed to seduce and satiate, such as “All Girls Are Yours.”

Rented rooms

Rented rooms. Residence of the Steppenwolf from the beginning of the novel until his suicide at the end. For reasons never explained, Haller arrives in the unnamed town and takes up residence in a private home, in which he meets the initial narrator of the story, a young man who is the nephew of the owner of the house. Haller is attracted to the home because it is, as he repeatedly describes it, “bourgeois.” He likes its middle-class cleanliness, the smells...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Weimar Republic

In an attempt to create a parliamentary democracy in 1919 following World War I, German social...

(The entire section is 784 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Realism and Surrealism

The novel is told on two levels, the realistic and the surreal. The bourgeois narrator's preface...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The critic Ziolkowski has described Steppenwolf as "A Sonata in Prose," examining the musical aspects of the novel's structure. In...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

It would be helpful, in considering Steppenwolf, to review the characteristics of Surrealism (noting that the word derives from French...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, the German novelist Hermann Hesse was searching for answers to some important questions in...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1920s: Many in Europe are convinced that it is only a matter of time before another war breaks out on the continent. The...

(The entire section is 332 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Research the counterculture of the 1960s in the United States and make a class presentation that explains why Steppenwolf had such...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Surrealism appeared in visual arts and poetry long before it appeared in prose (a striking example is Victorian poet Robert Browning's...

(The entire section is 111 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

None of Herman Hesse's other novels bears much likeness to Steppenwolf, though some of his later books, like Journey to the...

(The entire section is 46 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • Steppenwolf was made into a film in 1974, written and directed by Fred Haines, starring Max von Sydow as Harry Haller and...

(The entire section is 46 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Hesse's novel Siddhartha (first published in 1922) is the story of a young Indian man who seeks the path of spiritual knowledge and...

(The entire section is 258 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


"Beastly Nightmares," in The Guardian, June 21, 1929, n.p., (accessed April 26, 2006).

Field, G. W., Hermann Hesse, Twayne's World Author Series, No. 93, Twayne Publishers, 1970, pp. 86-108.

Hesse, Hermann, Steppenwolf, translated by Basil Creighton, Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1929.

Further Reading

Boulby, Mark, Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art, Cornell University Press, 1967, pp. 159-205.

As of 2006, this was one of the most detailed readings available. Boulby discusses such topics as the significance of music for the...

(The entire section is 233 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Boulby, Mark. “The Steppenwolf.” In Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967. Compares the structure and motifs of Steppenwolf with those of Hesse’s other novels. Discusses how depersonalization becomes an essential element in the solution of Harry Haller’s dilemma.

Casebeer, Edwin F. “Steppenwolf: Siddhartha Today.” In Hermann Hesse. New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1972. A Jungian interpretation of Steppenwolf. Sees Hermine as the anima and Pablo/Mozart as the Self of Harry Haller, especially in the Magic Theater dream world that the Self...

(The entire section is 245 words.)