Steppenwolf | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Steppenwolf | Section 4 : Haller Meets Hermine | Summary

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Summary

After resolving to kill himself that night, Haller miserably wanders the streets once more, having a drink at a bar and visiting the train station, imagining going somewhere else and having another drink. His fear of death prevents him from returning home, where suicide awaits. He still feels "an intense yearning for life," and it drives him onward rather than home to his death. He enters the Black Eagle bar, full of crowds, music, and dancing, and is invited to sit at a table with an unknown young woman. He thankfully takes a seat, stating he simply can't go home. The girl helps him wipe his dirty glasses, orders them some wine and food, and gently scolds him for his dirty shoes, which are in "no state to come to a dance in." She chats amiably with Haller and takes care of him in a motherly way, and he obeys her gentle commands. She then guesses why he is avoiding going home, calling suicide "Silly business!" Haller disagrees, stating life is far harder than hanging oneself. Life is easy enough, she contradicts him; he's already made a start by cleaning himself up and having a bite to eat. Next she intends to get him onto the dance floor. Haller objects, saying he has never learned to dance. She scolds him, pointing out he could have learned to dance anytime he wanted to instead of locking himself up with books. Haller has not "tested life to the bottom," she says, if he hasn't explored the simple pleasures in addition to striving for higher goals such as learning.

She asks his name and then wants to know what has got him so riled up this evening. He tries to explain the scene at the professor's house, how the couple's political beliefs and the "prettified" picture of Goethe had so annoyed him. "I never knew such a baby," she remarks, reminding him the artist who made the picture and the couple who own it are entitled to their own opinion on how the long-dead Goethe must look. Instead of insulting the picture, Haller should have laughed at it, she says. She then lectures him for speaking too formally with her and for not asking her name. He immediately asks, but now she won't tell him and she gets up to go dance. He begs her to come back again after dancing, and she laughs and promises to do so, telling him to get some sleep while he's waiting.

To Haller's surprise he is able to sleep amid the din, and he dreams he is a reporter waiting to interview Goethe. The poet greets him with an arrogant statement about how young people like Haller have no appreciation of his work. Haller rises to the man's baiting and calls him "vain and pompous, and not outright enough." Goethe grins, disarming Haller, and asks him to explain his opinion. Haller states that, although Goethe had clearly understood life's futility and despair, he nonetheless preached "faith and optimism." In doing so he had sustained the myth that spiritual practices had any meaning or lasting effects. This, he concludes, is insincere and false. Goethe responds Haller must then object to Mozart's Magic Flute, which endorses the same optimistic view of emotions as "eternal and divine." Haller admits the opera is his favorite but excuses Mozart because he died young, poor, and "did not think himself so important," unlike Goethe. Goethe replies that though he lived to age 82, it wasn't all fun and games—though his childlike nature brought out his love of "idleness and play." As Goethe's face then transforms into a youthful one, he laughs and tells Haller, "You take the old Goethe much too seriously, my young friend." Immortals like himself enjoy joking; seriousness is only for those who overvalue time. Eternity has no time, he says; there is just one moment, "long enough for a joke." He then begins to dance and tease Haller with a toy of a woman's leg that both attracts and repels him. As the dream ends Goethe turns into a very old man, laughing soundlessly.

Haller awakes having forgotten the dream, and Hermine returns from dancing. Another man has asked her out and she is preparing to go. Haller hastily asks to see her again, and they set a meeting for the following Tuesday. She arranges for Haller to stay in a bedroom there so he doesn't have to return home. Before she goes she mentions she holds the same feeling about the saints that Haller does about the picture of Goethe. She despises the "sweet and silly" pictures of Jesus and the saints, for their lives were full of suffering. That's no excuse for Haller's ill manners toward the professor, she says; she only wants him to know she understands him. She leaves, and Haller retires to the bedroom awaiting him, where he feels happy over his dream of Goethe and about meeting the girl. Suddenly he feels human again; life has reached out a hand to him and offered some warmth and comfort. His sleeping soul begins to awaken, and he feels he is no longer alone.

After a few hours' sleep, Haller returns to his boarding house, where the landlady teases him about his disheveled state and invites him to tea. They chat comfortably, and she shows him her nephew's wireless radio, his latest hobby. Haller doesn't think much of it, viewing it as merely a means of escape from the self and a distraction from more important aims, but he politely makes a joke of his views for the benefit of the landlady.

Analysis

As Haller hits rock bottom emotionally, struggling with his suicidal impulses, he happens into the Black Eagle, the very place the man at the funeral advised him to go. His "intense yearning for life" drives him into the crowded, lively, jolly world he supposedly despises. By Haller's logic such a place should make him feel even worse, but in reality it is among the dancers and bon vivants he finds a spark of life again. He has listened to his instinct in entering the bar, and this instinct has guided him to the possibility of finding happiness and a reason to live.

The mystery girl doesn't cut Haller any slack. She blows holes in his carefully constructed worldview, pointing out he has not, in fact, "tested life to the bottom." Sure, he has gone far in the intellectual world, but he has neglected the lighthearted pleasures of life such as learning to dance. Haller is so absorbed in his myopic misery he neglects to even ask the name of this pretty girl who seems to be flirting with him. She doesn't wait around for Haller ask her out or to get out on the dance floor, though. She goes off on her own and gets another date—if Haller wants life he's going to have to reach out and grab it. Luckily Haller has the sense to immediately try to correct his course, asking her name and begging her to meet him again. He latches onto the girl as his savior, even though she scolds him, mocks his depression, and orders him around like a child. In fact Haller is like a child here; a new side of his personality is being born even though he doesn't yet realize it. Like a child, it is comforting to Haller simply to obey this motherly girl. She boils things down to the basics, making him eat, drink, and sleep while removing the burden of decision making from him temporarily. Haller acquiesces in relief. After all, his own decisions have only led him to a loveless life where suicide is the only way out. This strange girl may offer a new path, if he is willing to try something different and outside his comfort zone. Since deep down Haller wants to live, he has nothing to lose by trying things her way.

Both the girl and Goethe in Haller's dream have the same message: lighten up and stop taking life so seriously. Although Haller has repeatedly called himself old, Goethe lumps him in with "young people," offering perspective on aging from a 20/20 vantage point. Having lived to 82, Goethe sees 40-something Haller as young indeed. Goethe morphs into youthfulness and extreme old age during the dream, playing with age because to him, "eternity ... there is no time." As an immortal he has a broader view of human life and advises that Haller's chokehold on reality is far too serious. His childlike attitude suggests feeling "old" is an attitude more than a physical state. Goethe enjoys play, dances lightly, and loves a good joke—aspects of life Haller would benefit from embracing too. Haller can't deny some tiny part of him feels this lightness; his love of Mozart's Magic Flute betrays his own inner spark of hope. It is an optimistic story of love and enlightenment, echoing Haller's own desires and personal journey.

Change is already beginning to brew in Haller as he reaches his home at the boarding house. While he would normally retreat to his room, he instead accepts the landlady's friendly invitation to tea. He doesn't bristle at her teasing and doesn't make a big stink over the nephew's radio, even though he dislikes such contraptions. Haller manages to take things more lightheartedly, making a joke to keep things pleasant rather than dragging down this kindly woman with arguments, pessimism, or depression.

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