Demian | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Demian | Symbols


Sign of Cain

The biblical story of Cain and Abel concludes with Cain, who killed his brother, being marked on his forehead as a sign of his crime. In Chapter 2 of Demian, Max Demian reinterprets the story, with the mark of Cain appearing before the murder as a possible sign of courage and character, thus frightening others. The mark may not have been a literal mark on the forehead, he thinks, but rather a person's indescribable "look" that is evident to others and especially to others who have the sign. As the novel progresses, the sign of Cain becomes the symbol of self-realization or, as Carl Jung would name it, individuation. Strongly evident when a person is well on the path to self-realization, the sign fades when the person veers off course.

Cain's sin and his mark are connected, for it shows he has murdered his brother. As Emil Sinclair progresses further along the path of self-realization, this destructive aspect of Cain's story is still essential to its meaning and further manifests itself. Although Demian says he saw the sign of Cain on Sinclair even when they were children, Sinclair first feels it after he breaks his intimate friendship with Pistorius. This feeling suggests the progression along the path to self-realization requires some acts of destruction.

The Hawk and the Egg

One of Emil Sinclair and Max Demian's first conversations is about the crest above the door to Sinclair's home. It is a faded picture of a bird. Later, when Sinclair first begins to paint, he paints this bird. However, he does not paint it by referring to the original picture. Rather he creates it from an imprecise memory, sharpening the details with imagery from his subconscious mind. The resulting image is of a hawk breaking free of a sphere, as if struggling free from an egg in the process of hatching. Shortly after painting this, Sinclair finds a note that reads, "The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever will be born must destroy a world."

The hawk fighting its way out of the egg, breaking it apart in the process, becomes the symbol of the self in the process of self-realization. The hawk is the person seeking self-realization. The world-egg is the old "world" of the person—their beliefs, rules, behaviors, fears, dependencies, ideas of self, and so on. These must be destroyed for the person to move forward, just as the hawk must break apart its egg to be free of it. Later the hawk becomes a symbol of the rebirth of the world after the destruction of World War I.


Storms generally represent events beyond a person's power to control. The first mention of a storm occurs moments after Frank Kromer begins to hold Emil Sinclair's lie over his head and extort money. Through his lie Sinclair feels he has set in motion a terrible chain of events. He worries Kromer may have gone to the police. As he worries, he mentions the possibility of storm clouds breaking over him, a metaphor for events beyond Sinclair's control. In Chapter 6, as Sinclair wrestles with his painting the way Jacob wrestled with God in the Bible, he hears the noise of a storm. This noise is part of a mystical experience in which Sinclair is transported into his own preexistence. Later in the chapter he feels as though he were being blown along by a storm. The storm is a force that overcomes Sinclair and moves him along; it is the working of fate.

In the final chapters of the novel, the storm grows in significance and assumes an ominous meaning. The storm itself is literal. Sinclair is caught in it, noting it as "rain mixed with hail" accompanied by a "short burst of thunder with an unnatural and terrific sound." Sinclair has a vision of his painting-hawk flying upward into the stormy skies. After the storm, the sun breaks through and shines on the trees. Max Demian interprets the two events to signify fate moving the world toward violence, after which will come a new beginning. The storm portends a "violent shock, the approach of fate." The terrible storm that is coming, of course, is war. Demian suggests "[n]othing new comes without death," and after the violence the world will renew itself. Thus, war may be an instrument of fate.

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