Demian | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Demian | Themes

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Path to Self-Realization

Self-realization is the dominant theme of the novel. The plot is based on Emil Sinclair's journey to individuation, or self-realization. According to the theories of psychiatrist Carl Jung, self-realization means becoming aware of and integrating all parts of the self, conscious and unconscious, into a whole. This integration is achieved first by recognizing, then accepting, those parts of the self a person hates or suppresses. Sinclair begins by telling readers he has not yet achieved his goal of self-realization. He is still a seeker, but he searches "no more in the stars or in books." Instead he listens to "the promptings of those instincts which are coursing" through his blood. Then he begins to narrate the events of his youth that were most important in bringing about his progress toward self-realization.

Several characters in Demian serve a dual function as external persons in an autobiographical narrative and as facets of the narrator's true self. The title character, Max Demian, a mentor and guide to Sinclair, is also a manifestation or personification of Sinclair's true self. The character Frank Kromer, a bully who makes Sinclair's life miserable for a time, is also the personification of Sinclair's shadow—the part of himself he hates and believes is wicked. The characters Beatrice and Mother Eve, feminine presences in Sinclair's life, are also the personification of Sinclair's anima—the feminine parts of his self. To achieve self-realization, Sinclair must acknowledge, confront, and integrate all these parts of himself. This process is a struggle, and at times Sinclair retreats from the struggle, but over time, through highly symbolic dreams and the guidance of his inner voice, Sinclair does travel toward his goal. By the end of the novel, he has integrated his anima and recognized Demian as his inner self. He has begun to integrate his shadow, though there is a suggestion of more work still to do in this area.

Intertwined in the Jungian ideas about individuation are some related ideas from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche suggests that there are those in the world who are free spirits. These people have set their wills to overcome their personal limitations and can see the world from a different perspective. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–85), a philosophical novel, Nietzsche describes a related idea: the "Superman" or Übermensch. The Superman is a superior individual who comes forth by leaving behind the morality of the "herd" and making their own values and morals. All of these ideas influenced Hermann Hesse's concept of self-realization: through individuation one might become a free spirit or even a Superman.

Integration of the Divine and the Demonic

An important part of Emil Sinclair's personal and spiritual journey is to come to terms with the "two worlds" view established in his earliest childhood. As far back as Sinclair can remember, he has been aware of the existence of two worlds: one light and one dark. The light world is the world of his parents, order, and a Church-approved moral code. It is a world informed by conventional interpretations of the Bible and an understanding of goodness and decency that aligns with traditional religious teachings. This world feels safe to Sinclair, even as he is fascinated by the other world: the dark world. The dark world is the realm of servant's gossip, scandal, domestic violence, prostitutes, and other behaviors considered immoral by the Church. This world feels dangerous to Sinclair, but it is also fascinating and holds more interest than the light world. As a young boy, Sinclair struggles in the tension between the two worlds. Eventually he experiences both external and internal conflict because he enters the dark world and has difficulty finding his way back to the light.

However, Demian is not a story about Sinclair's struggles with temptation and sin and his eventual redemption. It is a story about a boy who begins with one way of seeing the world and must learn another way of seeing it. The personal and spiritual work of Sinclair is not to learn to live successfully in the light world but to learn to accept both light and dark as part of the same world. As he does this, he can learn to accept the light and dark inside himself as equally important. In Sinclair's life, the first breakthroughs in understanding come from his friend and mentor, Max Demian. Demian has ideas that at first make Sinclair uncomfortable. For example, Demian shares a different interpretation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel from the traditional one taught in church. In Demian's interpretation, Cain was not a terrible murderer but rather a man with such a strong character that others found him fearsome and attributed terrible acts to him. The mark of Cain, then, is not a mark of wickedness but a mark of distinction. Demian also helps Sinclair begin to accept and value both the light and dark worlds, saying, "We should reverence everything and look upon the whole world as sacred."

The god Abraxas is the divine being that most fully expresses Sinclair's new understanding of the world not as two separate worlds, but one unified and divine world. Dr. Pollens, a teacher at Sinclair's boarding school, describes the god Abraxas as a "divinity on whom the symbolical task was imposed of uniting the divine and the diabolical." As Sinclair begins to pursue this god, he experiences the recurring dream of a woman who has both feminine and masculine features and who both attracts and repels him. He feels by intuition that his dream is linked to his seeking of Abraxas. "Rapture and horror, man and woman, the most sacred things and the most abominable interwoven," guilt and innocence—these are all unified in both the dream woman and in Abraxas. In Sinclair's journey this unification is the ultimate goal to which his inner self—his fate–is guiding him.

Herd Mentality versus True Community

The desire to belong is an impulse that affects Emil Sinclair's life from the beginning of the story. Indeed, his desire to be accepted in Frank Kromer's group informs his elaborate lie about stealing apples. Sinclair's loneliness at boarding school makes conversation and drinking with Alfons Beck all the more appealing. When Beck calls him "a clever rascal," Sinclair feels as though "a sweet, strong wine" were running through him. In contrast, Max Demian is from the start an outsider. He is respected but not liked at school. He doesn't try to make close friends, other than Sinclair, but keeps his own counsel and does what he likes. His self-sufficiency sets him apart. When he reinterprets the story of Cain and Abel, describing Cain as a strong, not a wicked, character, Demian seems to offer a rationale for why he and his mother are outsiders. They are more like Cain—misunderstood, not trusted, but in reality having more courage and character than the average person.

This contrast is further developed when Sinclair goes to university. Soon after arriving, he walks through the town, noticing the student societies singing in taverns and people gathering in cafés. He describes them as huddled together, taking comfort in "the warm proximity of the herd." He suggests with derision they are "unloading of the burden of destiny"—avoiding their own responsibility to follow their destiny on the path of self-realization. Later, Demian also comments on the way people in Europe tend to come together and form herds. He suggests they do it out of fear, claiming it is not true community because it is not based on love. True community, he explains, will "arise anew from the mutual understanding of individuals"—of those who are fully individuated or self-realized.

The nature of the true community is illustrated through the example of Mother Eve's household. After Sinclair meets her and is accepted among those who bear the sign of Cain, he realizes he is now part of a true community. This community is made up of those who have felt true loneliness. It is not based on comfort or merriment but on their desire to be "more and more completely awake." This community is intent on living as true individuals to bring about the future of humankind and carry out the "will of nature." By being true to themselves, they work for a future in which all humans can pursue self-realization without fear.

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