Steppenwolf | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Steppenwolf | Preface | Summary

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Summary

The preface is written by an outside narrator, who lives in a boarding house with his aunt, the landlady. Haller boarded with the pair (along with a handful of other residents) for 9 or 10 months. The narrator states that Haller, who calls himself the Steppenwolf, gave him a journal he is now publishing. He views Haller's manuscript as mostly fictitious, an expression of spiritual experiences put into words as a story. To him it is a fantasy that touches the spirit of the times, for Haller's "sickness of the soul" is widespread in society, particularly among "those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts." The narrator sees Haller's journal as a manifestation of this attitude, a literal "journey through hell." This hell happens, Haller once explained, when "two ages, two cultures and religions overlap." A whole generation can be caught between the ages in shifting times, unable to understand itself anymore—the narrator classes Haller as one of these people.

The narrator describes Haller as unsociable, lonely, intellectual, friendly, and polite, and confesses to sneaking into his rooms to satisfy his curiosity about the stranger. He has fallen "under his spell," intrigued because Haller seems so different and "alien" from other people. Haller does not have a job, spends his time with books, sleeps late, smokes cigars, drinks wine, paints in watercolors, and walks around the boarding house in his robe. Around Haller's rooms are photos and artwork of inspirational figures, from Gandhi to the Buddha, and most of his books are poetry and philosophical books. His quarters are messy, he often neglects to eat, and his overall health is poor.

Once, Haller and the narrator attend the lecture of a famous intellectual. Haller finds the speaker to be pretentious and vain, pandering to the audience—a reflection of "our whole epoch." The narrator senses from the start Haller is "ailing in the spirit," and says he "shrank from him with the instinct of the healthy." Another time the narrator finds him sitting on the landing of the stairs, contemplating an araucaria plant in a trance. It has a "wonderful smell of order and extreme cleanness," Haller remarks, "the very essence of bourgeois cleanliness." The scene reminds him of his own mother and his bourgeois upbringing. Haller then reads the narrator a philosophical passage about life and thought, and they are drawn into conversation more frequently after that. The narrator also covertly observes Haller at a concert, where the lonely man is uplifted into joy by one symphony, but his face loses its lightness with the next dreary piece. The narrator follows him into an inn for a drink after the concert, but Haller hurts his feelings with cold brusqueness, so he excuses himself. Haller is twice visited by a pretty girl and enjoys carefree, childlike moments with her, but he always returns to his "hell upstairs" and his usual state of melancholy. "I was much astonished that the hermit had his love," says the narrator.

Over time the narrator comes to sympathize with Haller, calling him "a genius of suffering" and noting his own self-contempt. The narrator speculates Haller was brought up by strictly religious parents and teachers who tried to break his will—but instead only caused him to hate himself. Haller loves and respects others, though, and tries to harm none. Toward the end of his stay Haller's behavior had changed; he was going out all night and seemed positively happy one moment, utterly depressed the next. During this time Haller has a huge blow-up with the pretty girl that upsets the whole boarding house. It is clear to the narrator Haller has suicidal tendencies. Even though Haller disappears without a word one day, the narrator does not believe he has killed himself. He imagines Haller living in some other bourgeois boarding house, living a life of continued suffering, excluded from the everyday happiness around him.

Analysis

The narrator provides the only outside view the reader gets of Haller, and this view can be used as a reality check on Haller's experiences and imaginings. The narrator is an average Joe many readers may relate to; he seems trustworthy, sensible, and in agreement with opinions accepted by society (unlike Haller). The narrator lives a typical, respectable existence, going to work and coming home punctually, abstaining from alcohol and other indulgences. He is educated, articulate, and thoughtful, if perhaps a bit uptight or judgmental. His initial negative impressions of Haller prepare the reader to be on the lookout for Haller's personality quirks and unusual viewpoints. At the same time the narrator's increasing sympathy toward Haller may influence the reader to be more forgiving of Haller's flaws, too. By positioning Haller's records as a "story within a story" in this way, Hesse gives Haller's account a greater sense of realism. The narrator serves as witness to Haller's existence, even though Haller's story itself is often unbelievable.

Although the narrator states he wishes to keep his own personality out of the manuscript, there are many clues to his mindset. He admits that, long after Haller's departure, the inscrutable man lingered in his mind. With his manuscript Haller has given the narrator a glimpse into an entirely new world or mode of thought—a fantastical life outside his own bourgeois existence. His multiple descriptions of Haller as "alien" or from another world underscore this idea and hint at the discussion of immortals that the reader will find in Haller's records. The impact of Haller on the narrator is evident in his decision to publish the records rather than destroy them. One can't help but wonder how long it will be before the narrator himself goes in search of the Magic Theater.

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