Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse cover image

Steppenwolf is an easy book to write about; the semiotics are so strong, the tropes are so plentiful, and the plot so powerful, that a critic has a wealth of material to seize on. At the same time, like all great works, it contains paradoxes and ambiguities which make it difficult or impossible to sum up the “meaning” or main idea of the book. Hesse himself, who lived to see the age of postmodern criticism, wrote that it was a “poetic work” in which the reader should find his own meanings. In the same author’s note, however, he states,

Yet it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more frequently and more violently misunderstood than any other, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly.

By these words we can infer that he did indeed have an objective message in mind and that he felt that at least some readers would be able to discover it.

The book is set in Weimer Republic Germany between the World Wars. It is a time of political and cultural uncertainty in which many of the old ideals and cultural norms no longer seem relevant. While the bourgeoisie, the class least affected by ideals and culture, continue their stolid lives, relatively unaffected, the rest of the society is adrift and devotes their lives to vice and transient material pleasures–living for the day because they know that the next war will start soon and be even more horrible than the last one. In this setting we find Harry Haller, a middle-aged intellectual who is almost completely alienated from his society, thoroughly lonely, and deeply depressed. Unable to form lasting relationships and convinced that the high culture he loves is dead, Haller repeatedly considers suicide but lacks the courage to go through with it. Haller’s life changes when he meets a “courtesan of moderately good taste” named Hermine. Hermine makes it her project to teach Haller to enjoy life, forcing him to learn to dance and engage himself with the beau monde of the city, associating with party girls, jazz musicians, and others whom he would never have approached on his own.

The book can be understood in various ways. Most literally, it is the story of a man’s mid-life crises. Like all of Hesse’s novels, it is partially autobiographical. Hesse wrote the book when he was fifty years old an “dealing with the problems of that age”. And so, the book is at least partially the story of a man who is approaching fifty who feels like his life has been wasted and compensates by dating younger women and trying to fit in on the modern musical scene. On a slightly deeper level, it is a case study in paranoid schizophrenia. Haller is far from “sane” in the conventional sense. Right up to the end of the book it is unclear which characters and events are real and which exist in his own mind. The word “schizomania” appears several times in the text and Haller himself excuses himself at one point by explaining that he is a “schizomaniac”. The parallels with other works treating with schizophrenia, such as A Beautiful Mind are quite obvious.

Beyond these interpretations, however, Steppenwolf is fundamentally an investigation into the concept of personality. All men, particularly men of genius, have personalities made up of many facets or aspects. Haller, who is still dealing with his divorce, is having trouble with his long distance relationship, has recently been fired from his writing job for his political views, and has moved to a city where he has no close friends, is clearly under massive stress. In this situation he is forced to integrate the various aspects of his personality or go mad.

This is far from easy, because his mind is occupied by a number of “people” who aren’t necessarily compatible. One of these is Harry Haller The Man, who is the somewhat artificial personality that Haller tries to present to the world. Shaped by bourgeoisie norms and long education, The Man is the least flexible (and likable) of Haller’s personalities. Opposed to The Man is The Steppenwolf, which represents both Haller’s animal nature and his individuality. The Steppenwolf is dangerous, because there is no place for him in civilized society but he gives Haller the strength to stand up for his convictions about the war and other issues. The beautiful and sensual Maria represents the part of Haller that loves freely and lives for pleasure, as well as the feminine part of his nature. This personality is initially completely suppressed, but waxes stronger as the book goes on. The wise and androgynous Hermine is Haller’s aspirational self. She represents mature sexuality and a balance of sensuality in which one pays for one’s pleasures but enjoys them unreservedly. She also represents religion, which used to be a factor in his life and will be again. Pablo, the brilliant young jazz musician who never talks about music but only plays it, represents Haller’s artistic soul–true art, not The Man’s dry intellectual analysis of art–and his emotions. He keeper of the “Magic Theater” i.e. Haller’s subconscious mind. Only by “meeting” each of these aspects and following the relationships between them through to their conclusions can Haller integrate the best parts of each of them into his core personality.

Max von Sydow and Dominique Sanda as Haller and Hermine in the 1974 movie adaptation of Steppenwolf

Max von Sydow and Dominique Sanda as Haller and Hermine in the 1974 movie adaptation of Steppenwolf

Major Tropes and Themes

Unification of Eastern and Western Thought – Like most of Hesse’s middlew and late works, Steppenwolf is infused with several ideas from Buddhism. Haller himself is represented as being a scholar of Eastern religion and it is implied that the ultimate end of his process of self discovery is to extinguish the self so as to become one with the all, a very Eastern concept.

Man is Never the Same Over Time – Haller at first seems like a static character, who has always been as he is now. It soon becomes apparent that he has changed greatly over time and is still changing. As Horace said, “Non sum homo eram” (I am not the man I used to be). His quest for self awareness and actualization is thus a never-ending process.

The “Real Man” – Society creates artificial men who are conformist and hypocritical. Real men are individualist and pursue their drives, particularly sexual drives, naturally and without guilt. Compare T.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, from the same period, particularly the character Oliver Mellors. The real men often feel that they should have been born in a different time and place.

Conflict Between Intellectuals and the Bourgeoisie – Intellectuals can see the way things “ought to be” but the bourgeoisie won’t listen. As much as the intellectuals rebel, they can never completely escape their own bourgeoisie roots.

The Fine Line Between Genius and Madness – One of the most memorable monologues of the book contains the lines, “[M]any persons pass for normal, and indeed for highly valuable members of society, who are incurably mad; and many, on the other hand, are looked upon as mad who are geniuses.”

Substance Abuse to Suppress the Personality – Many of us writers, especially, have chosen to sedate our personalities with alcohol and other drugs rather than dealing with them, as Haller does early in the book.

The Inevitability of Death (and War) – Everyone dies, and all societies eventually go to war. It is useless for men to try to oppose these forces; they must learn to accept them.

Suicide as an Ongoing Process – Suicide has bad and good sides. On the one hand it can be a cowardly escape. On the other, it can represent killing the ego to seek enlightenment. In either case, it represents and ongoing decision or commitment to kill ones personality and actual physical death is strictly ancillary.