Demian | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Demian | Context


Coming of Age


Demian is a coming-of-age novel, also called a bildungsroman. A bildungsroman focuses on a character's growing from childhood toward adulthood. Typically, the character experiences an emotional or a spiritual awakening that causes them to see the world differently than they did as a child. Traditional bildungsroman novels have two key concepts: protagonists must struggle against society to shape their identities, and they must successfully integrate, or settle into, their adult lives.

At the beginning of Demian, narrator Emil Sinclair sees that the world is divided into two: a bright world and a dark one. The bright world contains all the things he has been taught that are good and moral. The dark world contains the scandalous, the immoral, and the passionate. Sinclair learns to accept and integrate the two worlds, finding them both to be part of a whole he can embrace. This process happens both internally, as he learns to integrate and balance the dark and light inside himself, and externally, as he accepts the dark and light in the world around him. This way of looking at the world and at himself is part of Sinclair's journey toward self-realization.


Some scholars also see the novel as an example of künstlerroman, a type of bildungsroman. A künstlerroman traces an artist's journey to maturity. In contrast to the typical bildungsroman, in which the protagonist enters society and becomes more or less a conventional adult, the protagonist of a künstlerroman novel often rejects conventional society at the end of the novel. Emil Sinclair's life story can be considered a künstlerroman because his spiritual awakening and journey to self-realization are accomplished through intuition, through dreams, and through painting. In the end, he does not become part of the moral, conventional world, which he rejects in favor of a new way of living in and understanding a dual world, both light and dark.

Influence of Carl Jung

Hermann Hesse struggled with depression throughout his life, attempting suicide at age 15 and spending several months in a mental asylum. His depression recurred during World War I (1914–18), causing him to seek help from therapist J.B. Lang, a doctor serving under the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875–1961). Jung helped develop the field of analytical psychology after his university graduation in 1900. Hesse had more than 70 sessions of psychoanalysis, which helped him move past his mental crisis. Many of Jung's psychological concepts found expression in Demian:

  • The collective unconscious is a part of a person's unconscious that reflects universal ideas and experiences rather than individual experiences. In Jung's view, this collective unconscious is an inborn characteristic made up of "primordial images." The collective unconscious can be understood by studying mythology and classic literature or by analyzing an individual, especially their dreams. Emil Sinclair, for example, becomes infatuated with a young girl he spies during a walk in the park. He names the girl Beatrice, alluding to the great love of Italian poet Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321). Although Beatrice marries another man and dies at a young age, Dante dedicates most of his work and his life to her as a symbol of the divine ideal. While Sinclair never meets his Beatrice, she similarly spurs his rejection of evil.
  • Jung was, like Emil Sinclair. a painter. One of the recurring subjects of Jung's paintings is the mandala, a symbolic, geometric form, usually circular or square, with a unifying image at its center. Jung believed this design represented "the psychological expression of the totality of the self." Thus, painting mandalas is a way of accessing the self, including its unconscious elements. Jung also believed that studying dreams revealed the unconscious parts of the self.
  • An archetype is a part of the collective unconscious that is a model for a specific character type, pattern, image, behavior, or aspect of personality. Jung theorized all people tap into archetypes, which are universal in nature and shared by the entire human race. Some typical "character" archetypes include the mother archetype, the hero, and the wise old man. For example, Mother Eve in Demian is an archetypal mother figure. Jung also proposed four main archetypes that exist within each person:
    • The persona is the face a person shows to the world and may not reflect the person's true personality. A person may have different personas for different situations, such as for interacting at work versus hanging out with friends. The persona can hide the real self. Emil Sinclair, for example, shows a different persona to Frank Kromer, an older boy he fears, from the one he shows to his parents.
    • The shadow is any part of the personality, either positive or negative, that a person keeps separate from their persona. Shadow aspects are often repressed thoughts or feelings that exist as part of the person's unconscious. For example, a person might repress "unacceptable" feelings or beliefs such as greed or prejudice. A person's shadow may also be projected onto someone else, typically an enemy or disliked person. Thus, a person who does not accept a certain quality about themselves, such as anger, may be quick to see that quality in their enemy. Emil Sinclair's shadow side is represented by Frank Kromer, whom Sinclair fears and hates but who is important in drawing Sinclair into the dark world—a world he must accept as part of himself. Sinclair's experience with Kromer is his first real contact with the dark world and sparks in him feelings of guilt and shame. Sinclair's journey to self-realization, or individuation, means confronting and accepting the shadow—accepting the reality that he is not all light or all dark.
    • The anima is the unconscious, universal feminine aspect of a man, while the animus is the unconscious, universal masculine aspect of a woman. In Demian Beatrice and Mother Eve represent Sinclair's anima. Although Beatrice is based on a real person in the story, Sinclair never shares her real name and barely interacts with her. Rather, she is a manifestation of the part of his inner self that is feminine. As she is transformed in Sinclair's imagination and painting, she becomes the image of Mother Eve.
    • The self is a combination of the conscious and unconscious aspects of an individual's personality. Jung believed each person must try to know and understand this self to achieve their greatest potential. Self-knowledge happens through individuation, the process of becoming aware of and integrating all aspects of the self—conscious and unconscious, feminine and masculine, shadows and personas—into a unique, whole personality that can achieve its greatest potential. In Demian Emil Sinclair goes through this process, acknowledging that both dark and light worlds are important and necessary and integrating these dark and light aspects of his own self. He is guided along the way by Max Demian, who is both an external mentor and an internal guide leading Sinclair to his true self. In some ways Max Demian is a manifestation of Sinclair's self, and once Sinclair has achieved some level of self-realization, Demian is no longer needed as an external guide for he is completely assimilated into Sinclair's inner self.

Other Influences

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), a German philosopher, questions the foundations of society. Nietzsche regards with skepticism societal institutions and belief systems, including religion. According to his notion of perspectivism, there is no one way of looking at life and no one "correct" truth. Each person's experience of life (their reality) is unique because they see the world from only their own perspective. This perspective includes the beliefs they have adopted, the time and place into which they are born, and the aptitudes and health of their physical body. Nietzsche argues that institutions and belief systems try to mold people into one way of understanding the world. To him this goes against man's essence as an individual with a unique perspective. In Demian Emil Sinclair is raised in a family that teaches a religious view of the world. He learns one set of moral rules, one interpretation of biblical texts, and one way to seek wholeness after transgressing the moral code. As he steps into the darker world of what his family would call immorality or sin, and as he learns new ways of seeing biblical texts, he moves away from this rigidly religious worldview. This shift allows him to progress along the path of self-realization.

In Nietzsche's 1886 work, Beyond Good and Evil, the philosopher critiques the morality of Western Europe and the way it encourages mediocrity as normative. Nietzsche asserts that humanity must move beyond the absolute concepts of good and evil to bring about progress. Nietzsche's view, which is reflected in Demian, is that the traditional understanding of the world and of morality is full of opposites, such as moral and immoral or truth and lie. He rejects these opposites because truth, as such, does not exist as an objective thing. He also suggests that free spirits unburden themselves of these notions of good and bad and embrace all of life, even the parts others dislike. These free spirits often end up isolated and lonely as a result of their pursuit of reality. In contrast, the herd morality encourages people to submit to communal values such as consideration and moderation. He criticizes placing one's faith in the herd and wants the free spirits of the world to prevail so that a better humanity can emerge in the future. Demian is heavily influenced by these views, and Max Demian is clearly the model of a free spirit, calling Emil Sinclair away from the herd mentality and into a worldview free of traditional notions of good and evil.

Georg Friedrich Philipp von Hardenberg (Novalis)

Georg Friedrich Philipp von Hardenberg (1772–1801), a German Romantic poet and philosopher, went by the pen name Novalis. Novalis wrote on topics such as religion, science, nature, and art, and has been called a mystic for his ideas on achieving union with God through self-knowledge. In Novalis's view man is but one part of a universal consciousness that may be called God and which includes all of nature. Man was originally separated from God and nature to explore individual consciousness. Knowledge of individual consciousness, in turn, helps the universe understand its own nature as a whole. Man can return to God consciousness through this same process of self-exploration.

In Demian Emil Sinclair notes the influence of Novalis's work on his ideas, quoting this statement: "Fate and soul are the terms of one conception" (standard translation: "Fate and character are the same conception.") This phrasing is another way of saying that character determines fate. In the novel this destiny drives all of Sinclair's actions, reactions, dreams, and longings. Novalis's influence can also be noted in Emil Sinclair's need to integrate both light and dark worlds into one whole—all of nature—and suggests that this whole is divine. Aligning with Nietzsche's understanding of good and evil, these ideas provide the key to Sinclair's self-realization.

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