Steppenwolf: an Explanation

© R. Allen Hackworth  2007




























This novel maps Steppenwolf's (Haller's) quest for meaning, reconciliation of opposites and consequently, salvation. After much pain and insight, a solution is finally found; redemption becomes a possibility. However, this redemption only begins after Haller gains various insights into his own personality.


At first Haller thought he was part evil, part divine. He accepted an "apparently clear division of his being into two spheres, hostile to one another." Being part wolf, part man, the man in him loathed the wolf. Harry yearned to destroy the wolf, to cut it out of his being. He scorned the beast. Yet the beast at time scorned all human activities as "absurd, misplaced, stupid and vain."(66) Later Harry discovers his personality is much more complex and numerously divided:


“For there is not a single human being, not even the primitive Negro, not even the idiot, who is so conveniently simple that his being can be explained as the sum of two or three principal elements; and to explain so complex a man as Haller by the artless division into wold and man is a hopelessly childish attempt. Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone's does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousand and thousands.”(66)


Many of the characters which fade into and out of prominence in the book, for example Hermine, Maria, Pablo, Mozart, Goethe, Gustav, etc., symbolize various facets of Harry's personality. In addition to redemption through personality insight, Haller realizes the he must be willing to accept responsibility for shaping and giving meaning to his own personality and life.


He learns this by visiting the Magic Theater where the price for admittance is one's mind. This marvelous metaphor, the theater, provides symbols within a symbol as Hesse candidly shows the workings of Haller's mind. Various rooms in the theater provided various experiences and insights.


It is here in the theater that Haller learns to take responsibility for the shaping of his own personality. On one occasion his personality is broken into many chess pieces. The chess teacher then shows Haller that many moves and combinations are possible in playing this game of life. (220)


A third condition which promotes a healing for Haller's neurosis is a quality of mind which understands, accepts, and reconciles harsh opposites. A significant symbol which shows how this is to be done relates to music.


Music, symbolizing integrity and wholeness, is born of opposition including: the counterpoint of harmony, theory versus practice, abstract versus the concrete, the spiritual versus the sensual, loud versus soft, the rising versus the failing of melody, and fast versus slow tempo. Related to music and the theme of reconciliation is the symbol of the radio which distorts the classics with its metallic reproduction. Mozart says:


“Listen, then, you poor thing. Listen well. You have need of it. And now you hear not only a Handel who, disfigured by radio, is, all the same, in this most ghastly of disguises still divine; you hear as well and you observe, most worthy sir, a most admirable symbol of all life. When you listen to radio you are a witness of the everlasting war between the idea and appearance, between time and eternity, between the human and the divine.” (242)


With this example, Hesse states that if we do listen well, we will always sense our own divinity even if its clothed in the most "ghastly of disguises." Also with this example we again have a symbol within a symbol. This device parallels the telescopic vision of Hesse's frame narrative, a story within a story.


Music has been earlier used to illustrate a reconciliation of opposites; this idea and image is now coupled with the radio to form a new symbolic statement. However, to understand the radio-music symbol one must first realize that a major cause of Haller's pain (neurosis) is the clashing of two cultures. Speaking of this clash, Hesse writes:


“Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilization. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence.”(24-25)


Haller refers to his bourgeois 1929 world as petty and alien.(32)  He yearns for "a new orientation for an age that has lost its bearings."(33)  He continues:


“Ah, but it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in the besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, its business, it politics, it men! ... I cannot understand what pleasures and joys they are that drive people to the overcrowded railways and hotels, into the packed cafes with the suffocating and oppressive music, to the bars and variety entertainments, to World Exhibition, to the Corsos.”(35)


The clashing of the two cultures is also shown symbolically with music:


“I stood for a moment on the scent, smelling this shrill and blood-raw music, signifying the atmosphere of the hall angrily, and hankering after it a little too. One half of this music, the melody, was all pomade and sugar and sentimentality. The other half was savage, temperamental and vigorous. Yet the two went artlessly well together and made whole. It was the music of decline. There must have been such music in Rome under the later emperors. Compared with Bach and Mozart and real music it was, naturally, a miserable affair; but so was all our art, all our thought, all our makeshift culture in comparison with real culture.”(43)


(Note that even music of decline has a sense of wholeness.) The 1929 radio which plays the classics symbolizes a base bourgeois culture. Yet within this setting, the divinity of the music is not destroyed.


This situation becomes a symbol of all life and provides the reconciliation of opposites. Speaking of this symbol and these opposites, Hesse writes: "When you listen to radio you are a witness of the everlasting war between idea and appearance, between time and eternity, between the human and the divine" (242).


Mozart teaches Haller to not reject the radio music (a symbol of life, of certain aspects of our personality), but rather, "better learn to listen first!" He later continues, "You have heard your sentence. So, you see, you will have to learn to listen to more of the radio music of life. It'll to you good."


A final point relating to reconciliation is given in the book. Haller discovers that he must develop a type of gallows-humor. Here the dichotomy is also present, the seriousness of Haller versus a new, required attitude of humor. Again, out of the opposition a unity will be born. It is found at this point that the "romantics of atonement" will not do.(246)


What is needed, rather, is a willingness to live, not die, a willingness to responsibly shape one's own life, and a willingness to develop humor, that is, a certain attitude towards life. Mozart says to Haller, "You are to live and to learn to laugh. You are to learn to listen to the cursed radio music of life and to reverence the spirit behind it and to laugh at its distortions. So there you are. More will not be asked of you."


Living with the wolf we must feel reverence for the spirit behind it. In the presence of such a dichotomy, God and the devil, we must learn to laugh. And if Hesse is right, such a condition, a world of unity growing from opposites, will be everlastingly part of man's future.




We learn from the poets, but we also learn from the prophets.  Read in the Book of Mormon:


I read a fascinating, rewarding book entitled Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. Part of the book’s beauty is its complexity and its artistic vision into the mind of its principal character, Harry Haller. Making use of the discoveries of Freud, Hesse constructs a world representing both the unconscious and conscious levels of Haller's mind.


Haller also becomes a symbol of all people who suffer a particular neurosis, a neurosis which "by no means attacks the weak and worthless only but, rather, precisely those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts."(24)


This neurosis includes: a sense of despair and chaos, an inability to find meaning in one's life, and inability to solve the riddle of human destiny, an inability to reconcile various opposition including sensuality versus spirituality, time versus eternity, the human versus the divine, self-acceptance versus guilt.

Herman Hesse   1877 - 1962

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

in 1946.

2 Nephi. 2: 11, 15