Steppenwolf | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Steppenwolf | Section 13 : The Magic Theater: How One Kills for Love | Summary

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Summary

Once again in the corridor of the Magic Theater, Haller immediately spies a door with the sign, "HOW ONE KILLS FOR LOVE." He instantly recalls how Hermine had said he would one day kill her. He feels this terrifying fate dragging him onward and reaches into his pocket for his game pieces so he can rearrange the game board of his life. The pieces are no longer there; instead, Haller withdraws a knife. He runs to look at himself in the giant mirror and sees the wolf grinning back, though in the next instant he sees himself as a man again. He questions his own reflection, who answers he is "waiting for death," which is coming. Haller then hears ominous notes from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni coming from the world of the immortals. He thinks of Mozart, "the most beloved and the most exalted picture" he can imagine, and cold, clear laughter fills the air.

Mozart appears, and Haller eagerly follows him into one of the theater boxes, where he finds dark, empty space filled with the same music. When Haller tries to compliment Mozart with an intellectual analysis of the opera in comparison to other composers, Mozart responds, "Don't overstrain yourself." He comments lightly he has retired and only dabbles in music for fun now. At a gesture from the maestro a desert plain appears in the darkness before them. On the plain is a melancholy old man, followed by thousands of men in black. It is Brahms, "striving for redemption" because he has overpopulated his music with too many notes. The men following him are those who have had to play those unnecessary notes. Richard Wagner appears, followed by a similar dark mob and guilty of the same transgression. Mozart explains it wasn't their fault they wrote too many notes; they were simply a product of their times. Overblown orchestration was popular in their day, so that's what they wrote. Now they are paying for their musical sins. Haller finds this a harsh punishment since the composers couldn't help what was popular in their time. "They have to pay for it all the same," says Mozart; that's just the way it is. Haller glumly thinks of the books and essays he himself has written, wondering whether anything of his true self was reflected in them or whether they, too, were simply products of his era. Mozart laughs at his sadness and mocks him with a nonsensical ditty. Enraged, Haller grabs his pigtail and finds himself whisked behind it into the cold atmosphere of the immortals. He feels a momentary delight and desire to laugh wildly, then passes out.

When Haller comes to, he is before the giant mirror again. His reflected self looks just as awful as the desperate night he met Hermine at the Black Eagle, though he feels hundreds of years older now. He has gained experience and knowledge, puncturing holes in his old reality "though it held him a prisoner still." He kicks the mirror to shatter the reflection of the old Haller and retreats down the corridor again, though now the doors have no alluring signs. His wolf-man self drags him onward toward his meeting with Hermine, and he stops before the final door, desperately calling on Rosa, Goethe, and Mozart. Opening the door, he sees a beautiful picture of Hermine and Pablo, lying naked together as lovers. Haller thrusts the knife into her and her eyes open "in pain and deep wonder," then close again as she dies. Pablo stretches himself awake and smiles over the dead girl, covering her body and quietly leaving the room.

Haller envies his dead love and wonders whether he's done the right thing. He grows numb with a chill that seems to creep from Hermine's body, yet the chill holds a vibration of beautiful music, too. It calls to mind the immortals once more, and Mozart enters again, now dressed in modern clothes and carrying a radio. He tinkers with it and turns it on, and the music of Handel emerges. The rendition sounds horrible to Haller, who can't bear how such divine music sounds like distorted noise coming from the machine. Mozart laughs at Haller's distaste for the popular contraption and advises him to "just listen, you poor creature, listen without either pathos or mockery." Even though the music doesn't sound its best, the divine is still within it. The radio is a symbol for life, Mozart says. Human existence corrupts the divine nature of man in the same way the radio distorts the beauty of the original music. This is life, and the best recourse is simply to laugh at it all. Haller has no cause to scorn either the radio or the way people live, for he's certainly made a mess of his own life and talents. Mozart then mocks him for stabbing Hermine rather than finding a better use for such a pretty girl. In despair Haller agrees he is a horrible person, though he says death was Hermine's own wish. Mozart laughs again, making Haller realize how foolish he sounds. Was it really Hermine's wish to die, he wonders, or had he himself created the idea and carried it out? And why did he go through with it?

Mozart states Haller must face the consequences of killing Hermine, and Haller is fervent to "pay the penalty of annihilation." Mozart calls him pathetic and insists someday he will learn the gallows humor that is life. He asks if Haller is ready for his head to roll at "HALLER'S EXECUTION," and Haller agrees silently. He finds himself in a cold prison yard at dawn, facing a jury and a guillotine. Haller kneels down, ready to take his punishment, and a public prosecutor reads aloud a proclamation. Haller has been found guilty of "the willful misuse of our Magic Theater," polluting the beautiful picture gallery with reality. He has stabbed "the reflection of a girl with the reflection of a knife" and has tried to use the theater to commit suicide. Furthermore, he has shown no sense of humor. For these crimes Haller is sentenced to "eternal life" and also kicked out of the theater for a full 12 hours. Finally, the jury heartily laughs him out of court.

Haller awakens again with Mozart beside him, who advises him to "listen to more of the radio music of life," and above all, to learn to laugh. Mozart scolds him for being willing to die but not willing to live. Haller bristles, asking what will happen if he should refuse to do as Mozart advises. At this Mozart transforms into smiling Pablo, stating that if Haller refused he would simply offer him another cigarette. Pablo gently rebukes Haller for making a mess of the theater and missing the humor in it but predicts he'll do better next time. Pablo then shrinks Hermine and puts her into his pocket. At last Haller understands the meaning of it all and realizes the pieces of the game are all in his pocket. He was ready to play again, to "traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being." Someday he would play the game well and learn to laugh; then he would join Pablo and Mozart.

Analysis

Haller's old personality, which is "waiting for death," keeps coming back to direct the action in the Magic Theater. When Haller tries to rearrange his playing pieces to avoid killing Hermine, he finds a knife in his pocket instead. Even when he thinks of the sublime Mozart, it is Mozart's more ominous music that fills his mind. In the scene of the melancholy composers Mozart reveals Haller must rise above being a man of his own era in order to find his immortal nature, his own personal genius. All people are a product of their times and must suffer through and move past the norms of their era to achieve this; such is life. When Haller reacts with depression at this thought, Mozart's mocking ditty is meant to startle him out of his negative thoughts and see the "gallows-humor" in it. Nobody gets a free pass, so what's the point in being sad about what simply is? Mozart then gives Haller a quick ride through the realm of the immortals, but Haller immediately passes out—he's not in the right mindset to stay there.

To Haller's credit he keeps trying to defeat the Steppenwolf as it reappears. He kicks in the mirrored image of his old, suicidal self, knowing he is older and wiser now, no longer willing to be that person. His old personality is strong, though, and overrides Haller's inclination to change the script of his life. The Steppenwolf wins out when it comes to killing Hermine. Haller's own death wish causes him to go through with the killing, even though he immediately wonders if he's done the right thing. Pablo later notes he had thought Haller was "ready" to see the room where Pablo and Hermine lie together as lovers. This is a reasonable hope, as Haller has already passed through the "ALL GIRLS" room, where he enjoyed the games of love (including the threesome with Pablo and Maria). Haller has showed some progress in using the Magic Theater to find happiness instead of misery. Unfortunately, the beautiful picture of Hermine and Pablo is a step too far for the old Haller to accept, laugh at, and join with delight. His old mindset of death and suicide prevails over his nascent, pleasure-loving personality.

The modern Mozart treats Haller with tough love, using the metaphor of the radio to compare immortal consciousness with actual life on Earth. Actual life will never fully reflect the sublime state of the divine because people are human and make mistakes in life. Mozart points out how Haller has botched his own life, misusing his talents and cultivating misery; Haller is no better than anyone else in this regard. All one can do is laugh at his mistakes, learn from them, and move on, trying to do better next time when it comes to happiness. Haller must listen to the music of life "without either pathos or mockery." In other words he must suspend judgmental thoughts against others and himself. People and the world are imperfect, and the sooner Haller accepts this fact the sooner he can find his own happy, divine nature.

Mozart then proffers another test for Haller, asking if he is ready to pay for his crime against Hermine. True to his Steppenwolf self, Haller virtually begs for death, ready to pay the "penalty of annihilation." His death wish is still strong. Mozart tries to snap him out of it by calling him "pathetic," cutting him no slack for slipping back into his old personality. His trial and punishment are laughable, reflecting the gallows humor Mozart wishes Haller to develop. A 12-hour suspension from the Magic Theater is a mere slap on the wrist—just time enough for Haller to recover from the current ordeal before he can try again. If all characters in the unreality of the Magic Theater are produced by Haller's own mind, then it is he who also directs the jury. The sentence he gives himself via the jury shows an inner self-awareness the old Haller hardly knows he possesses. Deep down he knows he has screwed up, and he has a desire to try again and do better next time. For these reasons he does not sentence himself to the guillotine but rather to "eternal life," the life of those who strive for immortality. The Steppenwolf stubbornly continues to resist, asking Mozart what will happen if he refuses to live as Mozart instructs. Mozart morphs into the amused, compassionate Pablo—both men projections of Haller's mind. Pablo warmly offers him another cigarette to restart the whole process. Mozart and Pablo are reflections of Haller's own divine nature, and they are patiently waiting for him to succeed in conquering his own personality. Finally Haller understands, and he finds new inspiration to keep trying, to continue exploring his shadow side ("the hell of my inner being"). He is immortal, and he is patiently waiting for himself to figure out how to live divinely.

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