Steppenwolf | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Steppenwolf | Section 10 : The Magic Theater: The Chess Player | Summary



Back in the corridor of the Magic Theater, an excited Haller reads more door inscriptions and makes another choice: "GUIDANCE IN THE BUILDING UP OF THE PERSONALITY. SUCCESS GUARANTEED." Within the room is a man seated on the floor "in Eastern fashion" before a large chessboard. At first Haller thinks it is Pablo, for the man resembles him, but he states he has no name and isn't anybody. He offers to instruct Haller in building up the personality, and Haller agrees. The player asks Haller to hand over some of his pieces so he can demonstrate the game. He holds up a mirror, and Haller sees his personality break up again into numerous selves, and the man takes a handful of the pieces. He then explains calmly that the personality's apparent unity comprises countless souls, but when these aspects are expressed in daily life it is viewed as "schizomania." The error in this scientific view is it sees only one correct way in which these souls together can be expressed: the fixed personality. However, there are actually many ways these souls can be arranged and express themselves, the man continues. The unfortunate consequence is many who fit into society by expressing only one personality are mad on the inside. Similarly, many who are considered mad by society because they express multiple personalities are geniuses. The player teaches those whose personality has fallen apart how to build up the soul again by rearranging the pieces. There are infinite possibilities in doing so, he says.

The player arranges several of Haller's pieces on the board, old and young, men and women, each a piece of himself. As he does they begin to form their own groups and interact, creating a new little world. The people fight, marry, make war, and have children, and the board becomes a crowded drama that enthralls Haller. The player then sweeps the board clear and sets up a new game with the same pieces. Their world grows differently this time, though it is similar to the first game. Time after time the player restarts the game, and "this," he says, "is the art of life." Each game has the same pieces and origin and resembles the other games, but each is unique in how it plays out. He advises Haller may be the architect of his own game and it should give him much pleasure. He then sends Haller away with his pieces in his pocket; Haller bows to him and withdraws, finding himself in the corridor once more.


Hesse's Eastern influences make an appearance here in the form of a wise, nameless guru seated "in Eastern fashion" on the floor. Both Hesse and Haller have studied Eastern literature and philosophy, so it's not surprising Haller's guru should take the form of an enlightened soul like the chess player. The player, who resembles Pablo, is another aspect of Haller's higher self, offering instruction to his struggling self from a deeper place of knowledge. This knowledge may come from the collective unconscious (Jung), which Haller is now able to tap because he has superseded his rational brain through the use of drugs. Haller's mind chooses a metaphor that appeals to both his logical and his fun-loving sides: chess, an intellectual pursuit, yet still a game.

The symbol of the mirror is used again to reflect the many sides of Haller's personality, which break up into the pieces of the game. The various pieces, aspects of Haller's personality, may be viewed as part of the collective unconscious by extension. (When a person enters into a state of "mystic union," or unity, they temporarily step out of their own personality—all aspects of it. From the view of the collective unconscious, the personality is an illusion, with all people connected at a basic level of awareness.) The player's scientific explanation of "schizomania" (which may be schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder in today's lingo) appeals to Haller's academic side and also reflects Hesse's deep interest in psychology. Before the publication of Steppenwolf, Hesse underwent more than 70 sessions of psychoanalysis by a Jungian psychologist in an effort to lift his own depression. This was a part of Hesse's individuation process (self-exploration), as Haller's encounter in the Magic Theater is its own form of delving into the mind in order to understand himself.

The chess player walks Haller through the game step by step, like a child, and plays several demonstration games so Haller can get the hang of it. As he plays each game Haller observes how the player's choices affect the outcome, causing the action on the board to take new directions and outcomes. The most important advice the player gives him is the game should be fun. The message echoes Goethe's advice not to take life so seriously. If Haller can learn to view life as a pleasurable game he has control over to some extent, he will be able to make choices that lead him to happiness instead of misery.

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