In my 2009 essay For Madmen Only (now a page on this site), I presented my idea that the ending of Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf isn’t at the end of the book, but at the beginning.
For several years that was a page on the previous Alan Conrad/Shy Highway website where it received more visits than the rest of the site’s pages put together. Because of that, I’ve reproduced it on this site, and now I’ve decided to say something more.
Not everyone agrees with my interpretation of Steppenwolf, which doesn’t surprise me, but it is a bit surprising that the person who leads this opposition is Herman Hesse himself.
He probably wouldn’t have disagreed with my idea about the ending of the book. He obviously wrote it that way intentionally. It’s the importance of the central character Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, that troubled him.
Hesse believed the book was widely misunderstood. He said near the end of his life that he accepted that the truth of a book isn’t limited to the author’s intentions,
‘Yet it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly. Partly….this may occur… by reason of the fact that this book, written when I was fifty years old and dealing with … the problems of that age, often fell into the hands of very young readers.’
I wondered about that statement for a long time. Exactly how is the story perceived differently by young vs old readers?
In my case I read it when I was young and when I was old. I first read the book in 1975, age 29, in a university course. Later I read it when I was in my 40s, then again in my 60s. The only thing that seemed to change with time was my increasing awareness of Hesse’s hand at work behind the scenes. Otherwise, I’ve always had the same reaction to the book.
Remembering the other students in that 1975 class, all younger than me, and who almost all liked the book, I think it’s fair to say that they were attracted by three things – (1) Harry Haller’s aloneness, (2) his rejection of the rampant falseness, dishonesty and hypocrisy of the modern world, and (3) the magic in the story.
In my book The Shyness Guide, I’ve commented on the strange affinity many people have for loners in stories and films. From the reticent loners in Hemingway’s stories, to the silent characters portrayed by Clint Eastwood in many of his films, loners have had a disproportionate presence in our culture. Harry Haller is one of them.
Hesse didn’t think it was only young readers who misunderstood Steppenwolf. Among those his own age, he found:
some who …. perceived only half of what I intended. These readers …. have recognized themselves in the Steppenwolf, identified themselves with him, suffered his griefs, and dreamed his dreams; but they have overlooked the fact that this book knows of and speaks about other things besides Harry Haller and his difficulties, about a second, higher, indestructible world beyond the Steppenwolf and his problematic life.
The ‘Treatise’ and all those spots in the book dealing with matters of the spirit, of the arts and the ‘immortal’ men, oppose the Steppenwolf’s world of suffering with a positive, serene, super-personal and timeless world of faith.
There it is. That’s where Herman Hesse parts company with Harry Haller. He uses Harry to draw readers into the story, then turns away from him.
But the Steppenwolf is a tough character and refuses to be ignored, or manipulated.
He’s interested in the ‘immortals’ too. He talks about them too, but he doesn’t see them as gods the way Hesse does.
Goethe and Mozart are portrayed as if they exist above everyday life, as if this world is unimportant, less real. But that’s Hesse’s view, not Harry’s. Harry is sceptical of that ‘higher’ world.
Harry is more down-to-earth, not only in his cynical Steppenwolf view of high ideas, but also in his love of simple things, like the araucaria plant and the clean-swept polished landing where it lives. His ‘problematic life’ is not as misguided as Hesse thinks.
While Harry insists on wandering the night streets of this world, Hesse tries to draw our attention away to this higher universe, to the possibility of a nirvana where all things are okay if we can just see beyond the everyday, to a place where good and evil are not opposed, where everything bad happens for a good reason.
Harry sees the world differently.
At the table in the Black Eagle, on that night when he’d been trying to finally face up to suicide, he does temporarily give himself up to the enchanting Hermine. When she admonishes him about how he drinks his burgundy and says he has to be told things as if he is a little child, “Oh, I know …. only tell me everything.”
But part of him resists her. After he complains of how his peers long for war, a war which he says will be more terrible than the one just left behind (written in the 1920s, Steppenwolf was profoundly prophetic), Hermine, in her all-knowing way, tells him that resistance to war is pointless. The ‘war against war’ she says is noble but ‘always hopeless and quixotic’.
Just let it go she says. Just let this horror come and do whatever it wants to do. Get on with your own life. Laugh at it like Goethe and Mozart.
Of course, we have the advantage of hindsight. We know about the Nazis, the holocaust, and the war that would kill 60 million people and traumatize far more. Goethe and Mozart would not have laughed.
Don’t forget that Harry arrives at the Black Eagle after the heated argument with the professor and his wife. Harry describes that event to Hermine in a way that makes him appear foolish, but he wasn’t foolish. He didn’t start the argument. He’d written a letter to a newspaper criticizing the growing appetite for war, and had received vicious public attacks in response. As soon as he stepped through the door of the house, the professor, holding a copy of the newspaper, spoke scornfully (not realizing it was Harry) of the man who had written stupidly, opposing the need for war. What was Harry to do?
Let’s talk about Hermine for a moment. She is charming, magical, one of Hesse’s most memorable characters. But her view of pre-war Germany is apathetic and cynical. Harry needs her, but he doesn’t need that.
I suspect that voices like Hermine’s were common in pre-war Germany. Stop thinking about politics, enjoy life while you can.
Well, look what happened. Those who did try to stop Hitler failed due to public apathy.
Hitler could have been stopped up to 1934 when General Hindenburg was still alive, and president of Germany. The army was still loyal to him. Hindenburg was too old and ailing to face up to it, but there were many officers in the army who despised the Nazis and were eager to take on the much larger, but poorly trained and inadequately armed SS corps.
Instead, when the atrocities began, Germany turned its collective eyes away. They refused to listen to the steppenwolves among them.
By 1935, Harry Haller would have been in mortal danger, no matter what Hermine taught him.
So we shouldn’t be fooled by Hermine. Yes, Harry needs to learn to dance, and he needs the intervention of women, but he doesn’t need to forget his mission.
Where is Hesse in all this? He’s ambivalent. Hesse was always opposed to war. When Harry stops complaining about the war, Hermine starts, totally reversing her position.
No, Harry isn’t the only mistreated, misused character here. Hermine is abused too. For example, the restaurant scene where Hermine tells Harry that he will one day have to kill her. Where does that come from? It comes from an intruding author. He forces words into her mouth that don’t fit.
Later Hermine tells Harry that earlier in life she’d had high hopes for herself. But she doesn’t complain that she might have been a great actress or poet. She says instead – “I could have been the wife of a King, the beloved of a revolutionary, the sister of a genius, the mother of a martyr.”
Was Hesse just following a patriarchal culture? Well, there were as many female novelists in 19th century Germany as there were in Britain. In the 1920s, the German theater exploded with creativity, and women were part of it. That only ended when the Nazis took power and artists had to run for cover, many leaving the country.
Yes, Hesse keeps a tight reign on Hermine. But he couldn’t control the Steppenwolf. I’ll demonstrate that shortly.
Before that though, let’s look at the enigmatic, shimmering message on the old stone wall.
So much has been written about ‘magic realism’ in Latin American literature that we often forget that it began in German literature. Goethe’s Faust makes strong use of magic realism, and in E. T. A. Hoffman stories you meet it on every second page. It’s probably from the pre-Christian forest religions in northern Europe, which were never completely extinguished by Christianity.
To me, the message on the wall – ‘Magic Theater – For Madmen Only’ – followed by the tired man walking home in the dark with the signboard, who gives Harry the little treatise book, is the finest introduction of magic into a realistic novel in all of literature.
But the Treatise is something else. Hesse intrudes in a heavy-handed way. He lectures Harry – and us – about how the world should be perceived and how life should be lived.
It’s one thing to say that two souls (man/wolf) are inadequate to understand an individual, but when you start talking about thousands of selves in one person it becomes meaningless.
When the treatise derides Harry’s ‘ludicrous’ idea of his dual personality, calls it childish, scorning his wolf-theory, I think many readers object.
The wolf is real, and important.
It refuses to get out of the way. In the Magic Theater, when Pablo says to Harry, “You will learn to laugh like the immortals yet. You have done with the Steppenwolf at last”, he is forced almost immediately to qualify that with the more guarded comment – “I wish you good riddance of the Steppenwolf for today, at any rate.”
Yes, I like the magic, but I’m suspicious of the Magic Theater.
Harry is guided through doors that are not his choosing. The automobile hunt does seem to satisfy something in him, and it is entertaining. But why doesn’t Harry choose ‘Mutabor – Transformation into any animal or plant you please’? Harry would have chosen it, but he had no choice. Why doesn’t he go through the door of ‘Solitude, the substitute for all forms of sociability’?
No, instead he has to be led to ‘Guidance in the building up of the personality’, something he couldn’t realistically be attracted to, then to ‘Marvellous taming of the Steppenwolf’, which he at least had to have misgivings about. He meets the wolf tamed and cowardly, but leaves it tearing up and eating innocent animals and the human trainer. Even in the Magic Theater the wolf can’t be controlled.
Badly mistreated, Harry dashes out the door, trying to escape.
He’s given the interlude of love with Rosa Kreisler from his past, but finally he has to be driven towards “How One Kills for Love”. On the way, he meets Mozart. We’re supposed to see Mozart as a positive figure – he is an immortal after all – but it is peculiar how his laughter is said to be ‘shrill’ and ‘ice-cold’.
“Life is always frightful”, Mozart says to Harry. “We cannot help it and we are responsible all the same. One’s born and at once one is guilty. You must have had a remarkable sort of religious education if you did not know that.”
Well, that is reality according to the prevailing Christian viewpoint in the West over the last few centuries, and maybe of an Eastern viewpoint as Hesse understood it, but it is not the view of the Steppenwolf.
Harry, dismayed by the Magic Theater, now says:
I was now thoroughly miserable. I saw myself as a dead-weary pilgrim, dragging myself across the desert of the other world, laden with the many superfluous books I had written.
One reason that we love the Steppenwolf, is that he disparages himself in the face of adversity. When he calls his books superficial, we don’t believe him. But Harry is miserable because his author is mistreating him, and it gets worse.
But the wolf is anything but passive. When Mozart mocks Harry’s sad look, Harry grabs him by the pigtail and throws him. They fly off together into the realm of the immortals, which is cold – “These immortals put up with a rarefied and glacial atmosphere”, Harry says.
But in his pocket, from one of the earlier theaters, Harry carries the pieces of a magic chess set. As he enters ‘How One Kills for Love’, he says,
Desperately I felt in my pocket for the little figures so that I might practice a little magic and rearrange the layout of the board.
The Steppenwolf is preparing to fight the author. Among novelists, the phenomenon of the character who resists the author’s directions is well known. This is one of the best examples in fiction.
But, of course, he’s manipulated into finding Hermine naked with Pablo, and he has to stab her to death. Hesse has dictated that it should be so.
This is said to be not real. Later in Harry’s trial, the prosecutor says he ‘stabbed to death the reflection of a girl with the reflection of a knife.’ But it is supposed to be important.
Whose idea was the stabbing? Pablo, obviously the agent of Hesse here, refuses to accept the blame for it, and it doesn’t even fit well with Hesse’s other-worldly views. Pablo says to Harry:
You forgot yourself badly. You broke through the humor of my little theater, and tried to make a mess of it, stabbing with knives and spattering our pretty picture-world with the mud of reality. That was not pretty of you. I hope, at least, you did it from jealousy when you saw Hermine and me lying there. Unfortunately, you did not know what to do with this figure. I thought you had learned the game better. Well, you will do better next time.
You see? They blame the wolf.
The story could have gone differently. Harry could have made love to Hermine. That’s what he wanted and much could have come from it. It could have been good, stronger and more liberating than the hollow meetings with the vague Maria, or the platitudes about the immortals.
But the Steppenwolf, still not attracted by the pristine world of the immortals, forces the ‘mud of reality’ into the story, then walks away satisfied with what he has done.
I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart ….. I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket. A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to start the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh.
In spite of all the mistreatment, the attempts by the author to belittle him, mock him, and undermine him, the wolf remains at large. Harry Haller and the Steppenwolf are no longer divided. They have become one. When Harry learns to laugh, the wolf will be laughing too.
Yes, the Steppenwolf has won his freedom. He has freed himself from the oppressive tactics of his author, and is entitled to his rightful say in this book named after him, regardless of what Goethe or Mozart would have said, or what Herman Hesse would say for years afterward.
That’s why I think so many young readers like the book.