Hermann Hesse is one of the most recognized writers of the 20th century. His most famous works include Siddhartha, Damian, and, of course, Steppenwolf. I would also like to point out that, in addition to being a novelist, Hesse was also the author of many essays and poems.
Hesse is a well-documented author who expressed his influences in his work. He was fascinated by German romanticism and admired Goethe and Nietzsche. He also admired Mozart and Indian and Chinese philosophy strongly influenced him. Reading Hesse is a journey through all of these cultures and inspirations. It’s also a journey into Hesse himself, and human nature.
Steppenwolf is one of Hesse’s most recognized works and many young people read it in the 20th century. It’s a short but profound novel. In Steppenwolf, the author combines some fantastical elements with his own thoughts and ideas. Hesse presents the plot with a literary device we call “found manuscript.” In a found manuscript novel, the author disconnects from the book and a new author appears: the author of the manuscript. Other authors have used this technique throughout history, most notably Cervantes in Don Quijote.
“Nothing belongs to true men. Time and money belong to those who are mediocre and superficial.”
Autobiography in Steppenwolf
We find many similarities between the character and the author in Steppenwolf. In this regard, the plot corresponds to some notes written by the protagonist, Harry Haller, during his stay in a rented room. The landlord’s nephew finds the notes and gives a brief introduction.
The protagonist narrates the rest of the book in the first person. The book has three parts. First, “Harry Haller’s Records: For Madmen Only”. In this part, the protagonist describes himself as a “Steppenwolf.” He describes his dreams, deliriums, thoughts, and also his disagreements. The second part is called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf.” This is a philosophical and psychological essay that allows the reader to delve deeper into Harry’s world and understand his personality. Lastly, we find a continuation of “Harry Haller’s Records: For Madmen Only.”
Thus, the novel submerges us into Harry’s world, into his thoughts and feelings. He’s a solitary man who doesn’t quite fit in the world. Harry’s character invites reflection. In this regard, the book invites us to find meaning in life in modern society. This modern society for the masses in which it seems there’s no room for intellectuals or those who are different. Steppenwolf has been so popular amongst teenagers as a result of these plotlines. After all, adolescence is a time when we start to find our place in the world and understand ourselves.
The novel is sort of autobiographical. It’s a hermetic novel that critiques the bourgeoisie of the age. Also, it’s a book that delves into the deepest part of the protagonist. It probes into his personality and his inner world.
In this book, we see different ways of life, starting with the isolation of the protagonist. We also discover the nocturnal world, where people take pleasure to the extreme. Everything is possible, there are no rules. The characters envelop themselves in a cloud of drugs, music, fun, and sex.
Some clues of the autobiographical nature of this novel are:
- The initials. The protagonist of Steppenwolf is Harry Haller. His initials coincide with those of Hermann Hesse.
- Living between two ages: the author and the protagonist live between two ages. They’re caught in a time of transition, and they’re both misunderstood and solitary people.
- The idea of suicide: this idea of “not fitting in” was the plague of intellectuals in the twentieth century. This idea is very present in the book. The idea of suicide is recurring and Hermann Hesse himself tried to commit suicide.
- The woman: one of the most significant events in Hesse’s life was his divorce. In the book, the author reflects a lot on divorce. Harry tells us that he was married, but his crazy wife ruined his family life. As a result, he isolated himself and became Steppenwolf.
- Hermine: this is the most significant female character. Her name is the female version of Hermann, and it implies a split personality. She’s the other side of the protagonist.
This description of the protagonist corresponds to the construction of the superfluous man archetype. This archetype is common in literature. It paints the picture of a cultured, intelligent, and melancholic man who tends toward nihilism. Harry Haller lives in a world he feels he doesn’t belong to. He is a “superior” man. Heller is an intellectual who isolates himself. The protagonist lives in a constant state of “to be or not to be.” He’s always trying to understand himself. He’s a kind of 20th century Hamlet.
“How could I not be a Steppenwolf and a poor hermit in the middle of the world, none of whose ends I share, none of whose pleasures call my attention?”
Steppenwolf, a psychological reflection
The book Steppenwolf displays the main characteristics of Menippean satire. This genre ridicules intellectuals. We see this in Hesse’s book, especially in the last part. Indeed, the book is a reflection that starts with the agony of the protagonist. Then, it takes us to the search for laughter.
Harry Haller is a cultured and also misunderstood man. He’s convinced that he has a wolf and a man inside him. Haller has lost interest in life, he’s a pessimist and nothing around him makes him happy. Haller scorns the world he lives in and the people who live in it. For him, life is meaningless. That is until he comes across a lit sign that invites him to go to a place called Magic Theater.
The Magic Theater is similar to the rabbit that Alice chases in Alice in Wonderland. It calls his attention, although he doesn’t dare enter at first. Alice ends up in a new world, completely different from the world she’s used to living in. In this new world, everything is possible and she has to confront numerous dilemmas. She doesn’t recognize herself, she doesn’t know who she is anymore. Likewise, in Steppenwolf, the same thing happens when Harry discovers the Magic Theater. It’s the beginning of a new world that he’s about to discover.
At the end of the play, Harry will fall down the rabbit hole of theater. As a result, he will start his journey towards this new, undiscovered world: the true nature of his being and its complexity. Through games, historical figures, and strange situations, we will discover the true nature of this man-wolf, who has to learn to laugh at himself.
In this place, Harry will understand that he’s made up of many “I’s” which live together in a type of chess game. He isn’t limited to man or wolf; a great multiplicity of personalities make him who he is.
In conclusion, Steppenwolf shows us a non-metaphorical masquerade in which the protagonist has to find himself. This is a hermetic and reflexive work on the dark side of intellectuals, which also represents a state of mind.
“Schizophrenia the beginning of all art and all fantasy. Even learned men have come to a partial recognition of this, as may be gathered, for example, from Prince Wunderhorn, that enchanting book, in which the industry and pains of a man of learning, with the assistance of the genius of a number of madmen and artists shut up as such, are immortalized.”