Demian | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Demian | Chapter 3 : The Thief on the Cross | Summary



Emil Sinclair mentions other events that moved him forward toward self-realization as he left the bright world of his childhood behind. The pressures to move forward always came from the dark world, not the bright world, accompanied by fear and threatening the peace of his life. He says that he saw sex as an enemy, his sexual desires akin to an internal Frank Kromer, and this awareness of sex was gradual.

One day, after a year or so of generally avoiding Max Demian, Sinclair sees him outside his house. Demian is drawing the crest above Sinclair's door—a bird. A little later he encounters Demian at the scene of a downed horse in the road. A few years later, Demian and Sinclair are in the same confirmation class, Demian attending two years later than most boys normally do. One morning in class, the priest is teaching the story of Cain and Abel. Sinclair looks back at Demian, realizing once again the story could have more than one interpretation. This reestablishes the bond between the two, who become friends and sit together in class. Demian seems to have the power to make a student scratch or gesture on cue and to distract teachers from calling on Sinclair. Demian claims these "powers" are merely the result of acute observation and fixing one's will on a goal. He stresses that the goal must be attainable, not something unreasonable like getting someone to stop wearing their glasses. One trick, he tells Sinclair, is staring right into someone's eyes. The person's discomfort makes it easier to assert his own will. When Sinclair tries to make things happen by willpower, though, he fails.

Furthermore, Sinclair's religious faith is changing. Although he does not reject outright his belief in God, he is learning from Demian to interpret biblical stories in more personal and imaginative terms. When they study the Crucifixion, Demian voices his dislike of the idea that the thief next to Jesus asked forgiveness just before dying. The conversion of the thief on the cross was nothing but talk, he says, because the man was about to die and would have no opportunity to mend his ways. However, the other thief, in the last moments of life, was not such a "coward as to renounce the devil." Demian suggests this second thief is a descendant of Cain.

Demian adds that Christianity has a serious flaw: it calls half the things in the world, such as sex, sinful. He wants to "look upon the whole world as sacred" and not call parts good and parts evil. Sinclair connects this idea with his own idea of the two worlds. Demian suggests Sinclair has been trying to suppress the darker world, which is impossible once a person has begun to think. Instead, each person must find out what is truly forbidden for his own self and what is generally taboo. Soon after this conversation, Sinclair and Demian argue. Demian withdraws into himself and away from Sinclair. After both boys are confirmed, Sinclair's outlook moves more toward the dark world at home, the bright world no longer holding its previous influence. That summer Sinclair begins preparing for boarding school.


The events in this chapter begin a year or so after the Frank Kromer incident. Emil Sinclair has been ignoring Max Demian because he doesn't want to face anything having to do with Kromer. However, the workings of self-realization, once begun, move forward. Sinclair can ignore Kromer and Demian, but he can't ignore his awakening sexual drive. He feels his awareness of sexual desire is his internal Kromer—something that pulls him into the dark world. In his childhood paradigm of good and evil and light and dark, sexual feelings have clearly been categorized as part of the dark world. Sinclair mentions his parents gave him no guidance in this area, suggesting the topic was shameful or taboo at home.

However, these new sexual feelings are powerful enough that religion, with its focus on chastity, begins to lose its appeal for Sinclair. As if by fate or providence, Demian coincidently is placed in the same confirmation class as Sinclair just as Sinclair is feeling disillusioned with church doctrine. As a result, Sinclair is more open to Demian's new ideas. By the time confirmation classes are drawing to an end, Sinclair is ready to be received into something, he says, but not the Church. This something is whatever comes next on his journey of self-realization. It is significant that the passage of time and Sinclair's own physical development prepare him for the next stage of his journey.

Throughout the novel, the progress Sinclair makes often comes about in an organic way. His conscious self plays a relatively passive role in his own individuation and, in fact, seems to run away from it by suppressing the darker sides of his personality. Though for a time Sinclair runs away from Demian and all he represents, changes in himself prompt a new crisis. At this point, in response to the crisis, Demian comes back into the picture to help. Whether Demian is seen as a spirit guide or manifestation of the self, his role is to appear in response to a seemingly unresolvable conflict. He then guides Sinclair out of the crisis into new understanding.

Rather than solving an external conflict by getting a bully to leave Sinclair alone, however, Demian's help is now directed at resolving an internal conflict. He validates Sinclair's observation that there are two perceived worlds and presents a new way to think about them. He suggests the existence not of a good world and evil world but of only one world made up of parts some people call good or evil. All of the world, not just one part, should be revered. This explanation resonates with Sinclair, who feels excited by this new idea.

Demian also functions as an example of a person who has achieved some level of self-realization. He is the noble man or free spirit of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Such a person lives according to their own direction, questions assumptions, and directs their will to overcome obstacles, including their own limitations. Like Cain and the thief on the cross who did not ask for forgiveness, Demian lives courageously and fearlessly. This chapter demonstrates how Sinclair sees this aspect of Demian and wants to be like him. For example, he attempts to assert his will on his environment. His failure to do so shows he is still far from that goal, but his observation of Demian's power and strength gives him even more of a desire to emulate him.

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