Harry Haller, a middle-aged intellectual, moves into a lodging house in a medium-sized, generic town, which is never named. Despairing and melancholy, Harry feels himself to be “a wolf of the Steppes,” or “Steppenwolf,” adrift and alone in a world that is incomprehensible to him and offers him no joy. Steppenwolf recounts Harry’s pain and anxiety as he tries to overcome his crippling sense of dislocation and despair at the futility of humanity.
Harry is repulsed by the productive, organized, and diligent optimism of the bourgeoisie, or middle class. Even so, he is bewitched by its charms. Caught between the urges of his wolf-half and his man-half, Harry can neither completely disavow nor embrace a conventional way of life. He regularly contemplates committing suicide.
One night, while Harry walks unhappily through an old quarter of the city, he sees a sign over a door he has never noticed before. The sign reads “MAGIC THEATER—ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY.” More letters reflected on the street spell out “FOR MADMEN ONLY!” Harry cannot open the door, but a sign-bearer advertising the Magic Theater gives Harry a booklet entitled “Treatise on the Steppenwolf.” This booklet contains a precise description of the way Harry feels as a Steppenwolf. It speaks of a person who is half man and half wolf who hates the bourgeois lifestyle but who is also at the same time incapable of surrendering himself to the pleasure of the senses.
Harry soon becomes even more certain that he must kill himself immediately. At a professor’s house, Harry gravely insults his former colleague about the way Goethe, the famous German poet, is represented in a portrait that hangs in his home. Feeling that he has at last severed all ties to humanity, Harry plans to commit suicide that evening. However, Harry meets an enchanting young girl in a tavern that night, and she gives him sensible and maternal advice. The two meet again the following week. Because the girl resembles a boyhood friend of Harry’s named Herman, Harry guesses that she is called Hermine. He is correct. Hermine begins to help Harry. Grateful that she has broken through his isolation, he agrees to obey all her commands. Hermine informs Harry that eventually she will make him fall in love with her, then she will ask him to kill her.
Hermine teaches Harry to dance, finds him a lover named Maria, and introduces him to an enigmatic and beautiful jazz musician named Pablo. Through Hermine and her friends, Harry begins to immerse himself in a hedonistic, or pleasure-filled, way of life. He comes to appreciate all the sensual aspects of life he had previously disregarded because of his strict bourgeois upbringing. With Hermine and Maria, everything from buying little love gifts to picking duck meat from its bones becomes a delightful affair. Harry blooms and becomes happy during these weeks of change. Despite the enjoyment he feels, however, part of him remains repulsed by his transformation. Part of Harry continues to aspire toward the spiritual and the divine, away from the sordid pleasures of the flesh. When Harry confesses his feelings, he finds that Hermine understands him perfectly. In fact, she understands him better than he understands himself.
Harry’s concerns peak at the Fancy Dress Ball, a gala masquerade dance Harry attends. After several hours of liberating, riotous revelry, Harry consummates his love with Hermine through a nuptial dance. As the ball comes to a close, Pablo invites Harry and Hermine to enjoy his Magic Theater. Pablo explains to Harry that the goal of the theater is the dissolution of the personality, a goal that can be accomplished only through laughter.
Once inside this “school of humor,” Harry laughs at a mirror image of himself and goes down a corridor lined with dozens of strange doors, some of which he enters. Each door opens on a new, surreal world. Harry runs from one world, in which men and machines are engrossed in a bloody war, to another, where all the women he has ever wanted are available for him to enjoy.
Reality quickly falls away as the novel brings us deeper and deeper into the psyche of the Steppenwolf. Harry ends up in a room where he finds Hermine and Pablo’s love-spent, naked bodies lying on the floor. Believing that the moment has come to fulfill his promise to kill Hermine, Harry stabs her with a knife that has magically appeared in his pocket. The celebrated classical composer Mozart appears and tells Harry that he has abused the Magic Theater with such excessively serious behavior. Mozart explains that life is always compromised and full of less-than-ideal circumstances, and that the task Harry must face now is to greet these aspects with laughter. Although Harry has failed this time, according to Pablo, he leaves the theater with the deep belief that one day he will get things right.
Analysis of Major Characters
The Steppenwolf (Harry Haller)
Hesse published Steppenwolf in 1927, after a failed marriage and two subsequent years of debauchery. Harry Haller’s age, profession, intellectual interests, and unpopular pacifist journalism match Hesse’s own. Hesse suggests that Harry is actually a reflection of himself. Just as the concept of “the Steppenwolf” is useful to Harry for self-analytical purposes, Harry is useful to Hesse as an illuminating fictional construction.
Harry is more like a theoretical framework than a believable, realistic character. He appears out of nowhere, inhabits a nameless space, and disappears again into nowhere when his usefulness evaporates. Harry is also an engaging character. The more mundane aspects of his existence—his admiration of his favorite wine, his embarrassment about his aging, his physical sufferings—are refreshingly lifelike and endearing. These touches soften Harry’s seemingly boundless despair and self-absorption.
The lovely and generous Hermine takes Harry under her wing and teaches him to live, putting him in touch with his long-ignored sensuous side. As a hedonistic young courtesan, Hermine is Harry’s opposite in many ways, yet also his close double. She enters his life by a magical accident, as Harry goes to the Black Eagle tavern, where the signboard man of the Magic Theater directs him to go. As a result, from the start Hermine is clearly something more than a realistic character. Hesse reveals Hermine’s magical, surreal aspects when Harry finds that she resembles his boyhood friend Herman and impossibly guesses that her name is a feminine version of his friend’s.
The closing passages of the novel reveal that Hermine is actually a part of Harry. When Harry stabs her, her slain body neatly shrinks to the size of a figurine. Although it is never clear whether Harry murders Hermine or merely a hallucination of her, the novel’s closing words suggest that Hermine has always been only a reflection of Harry. Once Harry has integrated back into his personality the life of the body that he has hitherto repressed, Hermine is no longer needed and is therefore dispelled. She serves as Harry’s magic mirror, calling out of him and making visible those parts to which he had previously been blind. When Harry learns to see himself clearly, he effectively destroys Hermine.
Pablo plays perhaps the most instrumental role in the changes that occur in Steppenwolf. Clues to his importance are present from his first mention in the narrative. Hermine foreshadows Pablo’s importance in her extreme admiration for him and her claim that he can play all instruments and speak all the languages of the world. The fact that Pablo is the character most associated with music provides a persistent cue to his significance. Indeed, he is a genius bandleader and therefore in charge of defining the rhythms to which all others must tune their behavior. Yet, despite Harry’s efforts to discover Pablo’s value, we have little to go on until the very close of the novel, when Pablo introduces Harry to the Magic Theater.
In the Magic Theater, the seemingly simple-minded Pablo achieves his apotheosis, revealing himself to be the most enlightened figure in the story. In fact, an earlier criticism of Pablo—that he seemed unproblematic as a child—turns out to be a marker of his profound wisdom. Pablo’s wisdom does not require the stifling books and theories under which Harry has buried half his life. Rather, Pablo’s wisdom stems from lived experience, and from a deep consideration of the world that exists within one’s own soul. As Pablo explains to Harry, the important thing is to play music and play it well—not to waste time talking or theorizing about it. Pablo’s ability to shift effortlessly between his two saxophones as he plays symbolizes the ideal integration of the spiritual and the physical to which Harry aspires.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Steppenwolf describes Harry Haller’s unusual, tragic condition. He is torn between two selves: a man-half who desires the respectability and comforts of bourgeois existence, and a wolf-half who scoffs at these vain, absurd desires. Although Hesse returns to this dichotomy throughout the novel, he also frequently dismisses it as overly simplistic and exaggerated. According to the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” the idea that Harry is composed of these two selves is useful in theory, but, like all such theoretical constructs, is ultimately unable to capture the complexity and richness of reality. According to the Treatise, “Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two.” Moreover, this is true not only in Harry’s case but is an inherent condition of mankind.
The idea of multiple identities is most fully explored in the Magic Theater at the novel’s close. Pablo speaks of the theater as a place in which to perform the dissolution of the personality. Behind one of the strange doors, a man closely resembling Pablo teaches Harry that the individual is comprised of innumerable selves that may be reconfigured in varying ways, like chess pieces. Drawing upon the Eastern ideas of reincarnation and transmigration of the soul into infinite bodies, and upon the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung, Hesse articulates a highly personal hypothesis of the multifaceted nature of the soul.
The Existence of a World Beyond Time
In her most intense and revealing discussion with Harry, on the day before the Fancy Dress Ball, Hermine emphasizes something she calls “eternity.” Eternity exists “at the back of time.” It is the realm of all the things that matter—works of genius by artists like Mozart, the strength and potency within all true feelings and acts, and the pure saints and suffering martyrs.
Hermine’s speech provides the clearest formulation of Hesse’s idea of such a world beyond time. Other figures in Steppenwolf refer to it in more or less straightforward terms; Goethe for instance, speaks of the mistake man commits in making too much of time. Indeed, the mere fact of Harry’s encounters with past geniuses points to their continuing existence in some realm freed from the mechanism of time. More subtly, the idea of existence beyond time crops up as a frequent sensation whenever Harry is operating correctly. Caught up in the collective dancing fervor at the ball, for instance, Harry says that he has “lost the sense of time.”
Since Steppenwolf is meant to be an educational text, Hesse develops the idea of a world beyond in tandem with his other major ideas in the novel. The laughter of the “immortals” is one way of entering into the world of eternity. Likewise, the failure to recognize the existence of multiple selves within the individual may be linked to an insufficient consciousness of timelessness. Indeed, when Harry looks into the gigantic mirror of the Magic Theater, he sees dozens of Harrys of all sizes, inclinations, and temperaments. One Harry even darts off impetuously before Harry’s astonished eyes. Being thus intertwined with the other major ideas of the novel, the existence of a space beyond time in a sense provides the soul of these ideas. Laughter may offer a way to confront life, but it is eternity that holds the key to the reason for doing so. Hesse suggests that our actions struggling on behalf of goodness and genius do matter in the large-scale view.
The Complex Nature of Laughter
Steppenwolf recounts the drama of a conflicted, despairing individual’s quest to resolve his internal difficulties so that he may once again live life. The novel offers a straightforward solution to this problem: laughter. Each source of wisdom in the story—the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” Goethe, Hermine, Pablo, and Mozart—advises Harry that laughter is the correct approach to life. Laughter tinkles coldly and beautifully at all of the novel’s most intense, breakthrough moments, and the story finally closes on Harry’s determined resolution to learn how to laugh.
Hesse’s notion of laughter is complex. It is neither an escape from life into pleasure and entertainment nor a recasting of the darker sides of existence with an artificial rosy light. Rather, the laughter that the enlightened possess pierces through the serious traumas of existence while at the same time superseding and transcending them. Though Harry has been correct in finding human existence full of horrors, the appropriate response to this knowledge is not to destroy one’s life through obsession with the ultimate failure. Instead, one must struggle and at the same time laugh at the world’s mess.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Harry’s profound attachment to music is obvious from the start, when the preface describes the curious changes that come over him at the symphony. Harry’s earliest and greatest idol is Mozart. Among Harry’s greatest frustrations with modern popular culture are the radio and gramophone, which he dislikes because he believes they defile sacred music. For Harry, music floats above the world of mundane realities, a perfect, transcendent sphere of the spiritual. This high estimation of music recalls German Romantic aesthetic theory, which prized music foremost among the arts because it does not attempt to represent something else, as visual or dramatic arts do. Strictly pure, divorced from having to picture or describe any physical thing, music seems to belong to the divine world beyond the visible one.
The motif of dancing operates alongside the motif of music. If music provides a sense of the immortal, lofty spiritual world, dancing suggests a tuning of earthly actions to the rhythms of the divine. Hermine teaches Harry to dance and at the same time teaches him how to combine physical and spiritual life. The fact that Pablo is a genius bandleader, choosing and directing the songs to which a multitude dances, reflects his gift for bringing the two parts of the self—the sensuous and the spiritual—into harmony.
Steppenwolf is full of many kinds of representations. The novel contains a multitude of different narrative representations of Harry, from the preface of his landlady’s nephew, to Harry’s own records, to the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” to the poems Harry pens in the course of the novel. Each narrative representation of Harry possesses its own limited share of truth. None contains the whole truth of Harry, yet each elucidates some aspect of his character. Harry himself notes this when he looks at the Treatise and a bit of his own writing. Exploring representation in this way, Hesse emphasizes his assertion that an individual is not a simplistic unit but a rich complexity of thousands of souls.
Though some representations in the novel are truthful but incomplete, many are simply inadequate. The most striking of these is the portrait of Goethe, which incites Harry’s self-righteous fervor. As Hermine points out, in his outburst Harry has committed the same error of which he accused the professor’s wife. If no one knows what Goethe really looked like, Harry’s own cherished image of the poet is just as subjective and self-serving as the portrait. Hermine’s criticism demonstrates that all representations are interpretations, each from a different angle. Each representation, though sometimes successful in its own way, is also inevitably limited.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In a novel concerned with the discovery of the self and its pluralities, mirrors occupy a central symbolic niche. The voyage in the Magic Theater is one long look into a hallucinatory fun-house mirror. Even the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” may be seen as a mirror made of words, one that speaks back to Harry specifically. Of the novel’s other, subtler mirrors, Hermine is the most important. She recognizes her mirroring function, declaring that she serves as Harry’s much-needed looking glass. Harry himself later notes that gazing at Hermine is like gazing into a mirror. Yet, as much as Hermine reflects Harry, she also draws out of him those aspects of himself to which he has previously been blind. Articulating the feelings that are hidden inside Harry, Hermine draws out both the expression of these feelings and Harry’s realization of their existence.
Harry’s relationship to the radio—the quintessential incarnation of the shabby mediocrity of modern life—is fraught with distrust, disgust, and foreboding. Harry distrusts the radio’s warping of music, and feels disgusted that the general populace tolerates and fails to notice such defilement. Harry’s negative feelings blind him to any positive interpretation of the radio, as we see in his conversation with his landlady over tea. After touching on some of the interesting philosophical implications of the radio, Harry quickly gets sidetracked into an angry polemic.
The Araucaria Plant
Harry sees the araucaria plant in the vestibule of an apartment in his lodging house as the ultimate symbol of bourgeois order and moderation. Everything about the plant, which is spotlessly clean and obviously cared for devotedly, bespeaks the routines and rhythms of bourgeois life. Harry experiences nostalgia for such a life, but he also feels excluded from it. The araucaria is thus both a beacon of a lost world and a symbol of the narrow-minded, shortsighted bourgeoisie that Harry scorns.