Themes

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The quest theme is important in Steppenwolf as it is in other Hermann Hesse novels, but the tone of the search here is darker. As the book opens, Haller is forty-eight years old, out of work, and at odds with his wife. He is a social outcast and he is suicidal—he has resolved to kill himself when he turns fifty. An important parallel with Siddhartha becomes evident as Harry immerses himself in "real life," the life of "ordinary people." In doing so, he quarrels with Erica, his estranged spouse, and with a professor and his wife when they invite him to dinner because Harry has written an article in which he blames Germany for the great war of 1914-1918.

Haller eventually discovers the Magic Theatre and the influential characters—the musician Pablo and the prostitute Hermine, whose name has led some literary scholars to conclude that she is a counterpart of the author. In fact, late in the novel, Harry notes that she reminds him of a childhood friend named Hermann. Haller also encounters images of various famous historical figures like the writer Goethe and composer Mozart. The entire experience of the Magic Theatre and those characters who are related to it help Haller deal with his two natures: the beastly and the human (or spiritual). The narrator says in reference to Haller and to artists in general: "These persons all have two souls, two beings within them. There is God and the devil in them."

In these words and similar passages, echoes of the message of unity in Siddhartha and Demian are heard; however, as the literary critic Casebeer points out, the last third of the novel is a "delightful" and "amazing" conclusion, one that truly sets it apart from other Hesse novels.

Haller's moment of truth is more scornful and satirical. As he declares at the close:

I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh.

Haller's comparison of his quest with a game echoes the ironic tone that permeates the narrative; some readers have enjoyed this aspect, but it has repelled others.

Elements of existentialism, a complex philosophy that is rooted in concern for human freedom and personal responsibility and the importance of the individual's need to make choices in life, emerge in Steppenwolf, as in some of Hesse's other books. Harry Haller cannot arrive at a point of sufficient self-knowledge until he has suffered despair. The despair in this book is complicated; Haller experiences various surrealistic adventures, including murders, as he works to achieve his goal. A vital step in this process is his recognition of the nature of the laughter of the Immortals, those elevated spirits who have achieved what Siddhartha would call "nirvana." In this case, Hesse refers to Goethe:

For the first time I understood Goethe's laughter, the laughter of the immortals. It was a laughter without an object. It was simply light and lucidity. It was that which is left over when a true man has passed through all the sufferings, vices, mistakes, passions and misunderstandings of men and got through to eternity and the world of space.

Harry Haller sees that his goal can only be achieved by trial, by enduring misery, and by much travail.

It could be argued that too much has been made of sexual elements of Steppenwolf. Certainly, they play a part in...

(This entire section contains 878 words.)

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Haller's awakening and in his love affair with Maria. They are an essential aspect of his "development." However, the other items in his "journey" are of greater importance: his shooting at cars with Pablo, his conversations with Hermine, his experiences in Pablo's Magic Theatre, and his "murder" of Hermine.

Perhaps the most striking statement about Harry Haller and his quest for enlightenment is uttered by Mozart. After Haller has stood trial for killing Hermine and has agreed to be executed for his act, Mozart says to him:

Of course! When it is a question of anything stupid and pathetic and devoid of humour or wit, you are the man, you tragedian. Well, I am not. I do not care a fig for all your romantics of atonement. You wanted to be executed and to have your head chopped off, you Berserker! For this imbecile ideal you would suffer death ten times over. You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live. The devil, but you shall live!

As Mozart condemns Haller to life, the thematic strands of this long, complex novel finally come together.

However, as some literary scholars have pointed out, the story's ending may not be as positive and optimistic as it seems at first glance. As the critic Tusken notes, if a reader cannot find a true "affirmation of faith" in Steppenwolf, that may be because too much is expected not only of the novel, but of life itself. Tusken goes on to say that "according to Hesse's self-directed irony, life demands that we laugh not only at the distorted music itself, but also at how seriously we listen to it."

Themes

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The Search for a Higher State of Consciousness

In a note to the novel written in 1961, Hesse declared that many readers had failed to understand the message of Steppenwolf. The book was not only about Haller's many miseries and failings. It pointed also to a "second, higher, indestructible world beyond the Steppenwolf … a positive, serene, superpersonal and timeless world of faith" (published as the "Author's Note" in the English translation of Steppenwolf). Hesse emphasized that the book was not about despair but belief.

This timeless world is glimpsed on a number of occasions by Haller. Since he is an extremely cultured, refined man, his knowledge and appreciation of the arts has given him moments of serene contemplation in which he is elevated into an eternal realm of the spirit, far above the messy push-and-pull of human life. He describes such moments early in the section of the novel entitled "Harry Haller's Records." One of them came when he attended a concert. Listening to piano music, he was entranced, and a door opened to "another world," in which he "sped through heaven and saw God at work." It was a moment of complete acceptance, knowledge, and love in which he was able to contemplate all his human experiences in the light of eternity. The experience only lasted about fifteen minutes, but it gave him solace every time he thought about it in the many desolate days that followed. Sometimes he could for a moment see this other world clearly "threading my life like a divine and golden track." It came to him again in moments of spontaneous poetic inspiration or in reading poetry or contemplating a philosophical thought. At such moments, he felt complete and whole, and his heart was open to the truth of life, like a lover. Haller associates this world with the music of Mozart and Bach and the poetic world of Goethe. He refers to it as the realm of the immortals who live "in timeless space, enraptured, refashioned and immersed in a crystalline eternity like ether, and the cool starry brightness and radiant serenity of this world outside the earth." Her-mine, in her capacity as another aspect of Haller's own mind, calls it the "kingdom of truth … the kingdom on the other side of time and appearances. It is there we belong. There is our home. It is that which our heart strives for." But Haller is bitterly aware of how hard it is to find this divine spark even for a moment in the humdrum human world. His abiding problem is how to achieve a higher state of consciousness, how to become one of the immortals, when he is confronted at every turn by the mediocrity of the bourgeois society in which he lives, its cultural decline, its obsession with the trivial and the degraded, with war and mechanization that debase the human spirit. Having once glimpsed this transcendental reality, he cannot forget it, and it is this that sets him apart from the rest of society: the man who sees the highest truth, however fleetingly, is doomed to be an outsider in a society that does not recognize its existence. At the end of the novel, it cannot be said that Haller has been successful in his quest to experience the divine level of life, but he is in a better position than he was at the beginning. He has been through the necessary processes of psychological healing (thanks to Pablo's "magic theater"), and with his new knowledge, he feels optimistic that the realm of the immortals is not beyond his grasp.

The Need for Psychological Wholeness

A precondition for attaining the highest spiritual perception, the novel seems to imply, is the need for Haller to repair his own psychological condition. He must first learn to experience the fullness of his own being. At the beginning of the novel, Haller, for all his intellectual power and refinement, is a psychologically maladjusted man. He is a misfit, at odds with the society in which he lives, rigid in his ways, tormented by what he sees as his dual personality, the "wolf" element in him—his desire to be independent, uncompromising, strong—always fighting with the human element that might otherwise be more sociable and agreeable, but is also cowardly and stupid. This psychologically crippled man, full of self-hatred, comes close to committing suicide since his life has become a "waste and empty hell of lovelessness and despair." He fails because he has been unable to live according to the truth of his own being. He has created a prison for himself by narrowing and limiting his concept of who he is. He thinks that the dual personality with which he so strongly identifies is fixed and immutable, not realizing that he is repressing a myriad of other selves, each of which in reality has a claim on him. "Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves," writes the author of the "Treatise on the Steppenwolf," according to whom the idea of a stable, unified personality is an illusion. In the treatise, Haller is compared to a gardener who cultivates a garden of a thousand flowers but then divides them into only two categories, edible and inedible. Since this is too crude a distinction, he misses nine-tenths of the beauty and value of the garden. According to the treatise, "This is what the Steppenwolf does with the thousand flowers of his soul. What does not stand classified as either man or wolf he does not see at all."

Since Haller represses so much of himself, and since the thrust of the psyche (according to the psychologist Carl Jung) is to wholeness and inclusion, he is fighting against the tide of life. At the most basic level, in his austere intellectual detachment, Haller has repressed his need for love and sex and his need to mix with others and enjoy himself socially. He must learn to be less stuffy, judgmental, and snobbish, to appreciate life in all its manifestations, both inner and outer. For this purpose, his new friends Hermine, Maria, and Pablo serve him well, opening him up to a new world of experience. The magic theater that Pablo encourages him to enter is "for madmen only"; that is to say, it is for those who are able to let go of the powerful grip of the rational mind and experience their unconscious desires and motivations. In particular, Haller is able to recover his erotic self through meeting once more the girls and women he has known in the past, but this time with more successful outcomes: "All the love that I had missed in my life bloomed magically in my garden during this hour of dreams." He learns that the personality is not fixed and rigid but contains a thousand different elements that can be moved around and recombined in different ways like so many pieces of a chessboard. This thinking frees him from the man/wolf dichotomy that has previously dominated and limited his awareness and makes him ready at least to attempt to experience the divine even within the hurly-burly of the human world.

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