Steppenwolf | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Steppenwolf | Section 3 : The Funeral and the Professor | Summary

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Summary

After reading the treatise, Haller compares it with a self-pitying poem he once wrote about the Steppenwolf, and finds they are both right—and both hard to take. He determines he must either kill the Steppenwolf or evolve into a new persona through self-knowledge. Haller has experienced such evolution before, though, and each time it destroyed his world most painfully. He has lost his profession first, and his family and home next, after which he buried himself in a stark life of intellectual pursuits to find some measure of peace again. That, too, came to an end as Haller was driven to travel. Each time, these upheavals were "preceded by this hateful vacancy and stillness ... this waste and empty hell of lovelessness and despair" such as Haller is now experiencing. Haller admits he has gained freedom and spiritual growth with each transition, but at the price of great loneliness and increased estrangement from society. Haller no longer finds meaning in his former successful pursuits, in religion, family, or patriotism. Is it not better, he muses, to simply commit suicide and spare himself the suffering this time? He has no desire to "go through the mortal terror of another encounter with myself," to endure endless upheaval—for it never does end. Haller is "forever destroying the self, in order to renew the self." He has tried and failed to commit suicide before with a heavy dose of laudanum, a strong pain killer. Now he resolves to kill himself the next time he has need of such heavy medicine to dull his physical pains.

Haller's curiosity about the Magic Theater remains, however. Surely he is a madman, and such an experience calls to him because of it. He goes out searching for the peddler with the sign and happens onto a funeral procession, which he follows. The funeral is a sham to him, with priests trying to whip up mourning and religious fervor, while the indifferent attendees look away in embarrassed silence. After the funeral Haller spots a man he thinks is the peddler, and he follows him and asks slyly, "Is there no show tonight?" The man doesn't seem to know what he is talking about, and says if he wants a show he should go to the Black Eagle. In despair Haller walks on. Soon he encounters an old colleague, a professor he once happily discussed Oriental philosophy with on many occasions. The professor is delighted to see Haller, and gratified by the warm attention, Haller accepts his invitation to dinner. He immediately regrets it, disgusted at his craving for human warmth from a world he despises, and goes home in a rage to prepare for the visit. As he shaves and dresses, he thinks of the earlier funeral and how all life ends in death, even for the greatest of men. And just as he doesn't want to go to dinner at the professor's, so do most people spend their days doing things they don't really want to do in order to fit into society. Life is easier for other people, though, for they don't see the futility of it all, as Haller does.

Haller arrives at the professor's house and is shown into a room by a servant, where he picks up a portrait of Goethe, a well-known German writer. He finds the portrait pretentious and idealized, and it exasperates him, making him feel out of place in this happy, orderly bourgeois home. The visit goes terribly, with the kind overtures offered by the host and his wife met by Haller's sour attitude. The professor also has the misfortune to comment on a recent editorial, which ridicules a "traitor" named Haller for writing articles against war. The editorial is, of course, about Haller himself, who lets the topic lapse without making a fuss, but it throws him back into misery. Though he tries to make polite conversation, Haller finds himself having to lie over and over to avoid awkward revelations about his life and beliefs. The lying sickens him, and the conversation is forced and uncomfortable, descending into awkward silence. After dinner Haller again spots the picture of Goethe and is unable to hold in his true feelings. He insults the portrait as smug and overly sentimental, and in doing so deeply offends the wife, who treasures the picture. She hastily leaves the room, and the professor admonishes Haller for his lack of manners in speaking so bluntly.

Haller feels the shame of his actions and apologizes, excusing himself as a "schizomaniac" and turning to leave. When the professor nonetheless tries to detain him with talk of mythology, Haller says he is no longer interested in such pursuits. He further admits the many lies he has told that day and ends by announcing he is the "traitor" in the editorial whom the professor so heavily insulted. Furthermore, he says, the world would be better if more learned men stood for reason and peace rather than war. Such newspapers are trash, and such beliefs are beneath the professor, he declares. Haller exits abruptly, and "the wolf in me howled in gleeful triumph." To Haller it is clear he no longer has any connection to "the respectable, moral and learned world" he once belonged to. The day has been nothing but misery and shame, and there is no point in continuing living in such a way anymore. He resolves he will cut his throat that very night, "no more tarrying."

Analysis

The themes of aloneness, identity, and death prey on Haller in this section of the text. Haller acknowledges his life is an "empty hell of lovelessness and despair," but he is also reluctant to go through yet another painful identity shift. He is exhausted with the process of loss, change, and growth and feels death by suicide is the most expedient way to stop this endless cycle. He can't bear his loneliness, but he can't stand to be around most people, either. Actions speak louder than words, though, and Haller's actions show he doesn't actually want to die. Not only does he dread committing suicide and continually put it off, he also thirsts to know more about the Magic Theater. Whenever he goes in search of it, strange and significant events happen to keep him moving toward personal evolution rather than resorting to suicide.

The funeral Haller stumbles upon is such an event, for it again gives him another clue to finding the Magic Theater. The man Haller speaks to plants in his head the idea of visiting the Black Eagle, a suggestion he brushes off but which will later become significant. The funeral is also the first stage of Haller hitting rock bottom in his pessimistic, suicidal outlook. It shows his stark outlook on death as well as life. He sees no real mourning happening for the deceased—no connection between this unknown dead person, the indifferent mourners, and the clergy. To him the clergy seem mostly concerned with reeling in believers and putting on a good show, while the mourners simply don't want to be there.

Haller's descent to rock bottom is capped off by his foray into the professor's picture-perfect bourgeois life. Though Haller once enjoyed spending time with this colleague and his wife, he has moved beyond the world they inhabit, which is now abhorrent to him. The professor's life "satisfies him, because he believes in the value of it all," but Haller no longer sees the point of such pursuits. The man's support of the war (and his inadvertent blunder in calling Haller unpatriotic) further shows Haller how vastly their worldviews differ. Haller longs for people to embrace the high ideals of peace and brotherhood, and this desire is belittled by the war-hungry world around him. To Haller, an intellectual such as the professor ought to be able to think beyond sycophantic nationalism, so the fact he buys into it drives Haller nuts. The intolerable portrait of Goethe sums it all up for Haller. In the portrait Goethe is portrayed in an idealized, optimistic way even though Haller knows the famous poet was just as depressed as he. In a way the portrait represents the bourgeois lifestyle Haller despises, where people insulate themselves in an idealized bubble and ignore the darker side of life. Haller, on the other hand, has experienced losses and suffering too real to ignore, and it has forced him out of the bourgeois box.

While the bourgeoisie seem determined to see life through rose-colored glasses, Haller seems equally determined to view life through blackened, wolfish lenses. He views the encounter with the professor through the Steppenwolf's eyes, thus spoiling any possible enjoyment he might find in mere food and conversation. Even before he arrives, he dreads the event and kicks himself for agreeing to attend. Once inside the professor's home, his first act is to notice where the servant puts his coat so he can make a quick escape when needed. Haller is convinced from the outset the dinner will be a disaster, and his attitude creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. He takes the whole event incredibly seriously and can't lighten up enough to make it through even a few hours of what is supposed to be a pleasant time. It is obvious the professor admires Haller and is delighted to host him. Haller, though, is unable to find any common ground or fake politeness to make the evening enjoyable. He lets the wolf take charge, abdicating good manners, and ends up blowing his stack, giving the professor a hostile piece of his mind. While this unleashing of anger feels good in the moment, it only makes Haller's misery all the more evident to himself.

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