Steppenwolf | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Steppenwolf | Section 7 : Haller and Maria | Summary



As the "new young Haller" emerges, the old Haller begins "a death struggle," with frequent thoughts of suicide interrupting his newfound happiness. One night he is shocked and delighted to find Maria in his bed; she has been given a key to his apartment by Hermine. They become lovers, and through "omniscient and bountiful" Maria Haller touches the sublime once more. Maria is "unusually gifted in love and unable to do without it" and makes her living through her lovers. Haller comes to see that Maria and Hermine's world of entertainment and socializing is just as real to them as the intellectual world has been to him. They adore sumptuous food and jazz singers with the same intensity of feeling he adores philosophers. Maria's enthusiasm for the scene draws Haller in, and he finds himself "ready to enthuse in sympathy" with her pleasure in American jazz. He begins to see Pablo may be right when it comes to music, that its greatest importance may be in exalting the listener to an ecstatic state of enjoyment. Despite his affection for Maria, though, Hermine is still more important to Haller.

The warmth of Maria's love opens Haller's heart, and his thoughts turn to past loves, family, and friends who are no longer in his life. He nostalgically reflects on his mother, his friend "the legendary Herman, soul-brother of Hermine," and his former wife. Until the day she "deserted me without warning," he had had full confidence in her love, and now he sees deeply how her departure had wounded him. Pictures of hundreds of others arise in his mind, replaying his life before him and showing him how he has become who he is now. He sees his life has indeed had rich relationships he can feel good about, even though he has become bitter and lonely over time. For the first time since his divorce he sees himself as a part of the divine, and "my soul breathed once more."

Hermine teaches Haller the Boston and decides they will go to a Fancy Dress Ball in three weeks. During these weeks Haller is wonderfully happy. He is surprised to discover he loves Maria even though she is not a woman of intellect or high culture. Unlike his former educated loves Maria's strength is in living through the senses and enjoying life to the maximum. She teaches Haller about the importance of fashion, too. Clothes and accessories enliven the senses, give life to the world, and create a magical atmosphere conducive to love. Maria doesn't always have time for Haller because she has many other lovers, including the suave Pablo. She and Haller see Pablo often, and both partake of his assortment of drugs. Pablo shows genuine concern over Haller's unhappiness, and Haller gradually becomes fond of him. Once during a pleasurable evening at his apartment, Pablo proposes a threesome, which piques Maria's interest but "morally minded" Haller immediately refuses. Instead they smoke opium and Pablo narrates what could have happened between them all, "while Maria trembled with delight." Pablo kisses Haller's eyelids as he rests, though Haller pretends it is Maria. Pablo shocks Haller one evening by proposing to pass Maria off to him for the night in exchange for 20 francs. Haller refuses to barter over her, and Pablo asks him for the money anyway, which he needs to help a sick violinist, Agostino. Together they visit the sick man in his poor attic, where Pablo nurses him, brings him milk and medicine, and cleans his room.

Haller discovers Maria and Hermine have been lovers, too, though Hermine delays intimacy with Haller herself. She also won't reveal what her costume will be for the Fancy Dress Ball, approaching fast. The day before the ball she and Haller speak solemnly about life. Haller remarks he is quite content with Maria, but that this happiness can't last and will lead to nothing. It "lulls the Steppenwolf to sleep and satiates him. But it is not a happiness to die for," he says. His destiny is the opposite of happiness. He needs suffering and unhappiness great enough to make him long for death, and this time "more beautifully and less meanly than before." Hermine then muses that both she and Haller have believed life is about great deeds, heroism, and suffering. In actuality it's much more prosaic than that. Life is about being contented with everyday comforts, and anyone who wants more than that is a fool. Both she and Haller have immense talents and expected to be great in life, and their failure to fit into the bourgeois world has caused them much suffering. They both have "a dimension too many" to enjoy a simple life; to them belong only death and eternity, while worldly living belongs to the politicians, workers, and pleasure seekers. This eternity is not fame in posterity but rather "the kingdom of God," the place the immortals and saints inhabit. It is this sense of eternity, beyond time and appearances, that keeps people like Haller and herself going, and why they long for death. "It is there we belong. There is our home," she explains, and "our only guide is our homesickness."

Haller meets Maria that evening, but on his way there he reflects on Hermine's thoughts, which seem to come from his own mind. As he thinks of eternity and the immortals, for the first time he understands Goethe's laughter from his dream. It is an innocent laugh of "simply light and lucidity" rather than a mocking laugh; it is what remains when suffering ends.

As Haller waits for Maria to arrive, he hears the laughter around him again and writes a poem titled "The Immortals." In the poem the serene immortals observe man's pleasures and sufferings from a place of cool eternity. Human life is but a show to them who live in timelessness. That night Maria and Haller make transcendent love like never before, and they wonder if it will be their final night together. Hermine may claim Haller tomorrow at the ball, Maria says, and after that Haller will come to her no more. In his heart he says goodbye to Maria, who has taught him the childlike enjoyment of life's sensual pleasures again. Sex has become an innocent communion to him now, without the former tinge of guilt to spoil its beauty. Even in the midst of this happiness, though, Haller feels the pull of his fate, dragging him onward toward "the precipitous abyss" of "surrender and release." He feels his destiny calling him from tomorrow night's ball.


Haller discovers the world of Hermine, Maria, and Pablo is no less real and absorbing than his own. Maria's enthusiasm for jazz makes Haller take a closer look at the music he has formerly dismissed, and he develops a new appreciation for it. Even Pablo's views start to make sense. Music lifts people up to experience the transcendence of the immortals, and it doesn't matter whether it's Mozart or jazz so long as it's played with heart.

Maria's love is a balm to Haller's heart that allows it to blossom, safely surrounded by her warmth. His old wounds emerge to be healed, and from his current place of happiness he can evaluate his memories more objectively. He sees where he has had good in his life, from his mother's love to friendships that have enriched his soul. He even manages a little compassion for himself rather than self-loathing in recognizing how deeply his ex-wife wounded him by her abrupt departure. The hundreds of pictures of Haller's past that arise hint at what he will encounter in the Magic Theater later on. One of the pictures that arises is of Herman, Haller's supposed boyhood friend of whom the reader learns virtually nothing except that he is a near-twin to Hermine. Here the lines blur between author and characters, and it becomes clearer Hesse is writing Steppenwolf as a means to explore his own personality. His own first name is Hermann, and Hermine is a feminine form of the same name. Haller himself comments on the interplay of these personalities when he ponders that Hermine's thoughts seem to come from his own mind. He does not yet acknowledge, though, that both Hermine and Herman are simply parts of himself.

Like Maria, Pablo opens the door to new experiences and self-exploration for Haller, even though Haller sometimes chooses not to walk through those doors. Haller is open to experimenting with Pablo's drugs, which generally seem to be mood enhancers and psychedelics. Some typical effects of psychedelics can include euphoria, heightened sensory experiences, hallucinations, and the sense that time is moving differently (slower than usual or even nonexistent). Such mind-bending effects can make the real seem unreal and vice versa, and may cause the drug taker to examine and question reality. Haller is less open to Pablo's sexual advances, too "morally minded" to pursue such pleasures just yet. However, he doesn't reject Pablo's kisses on his face, although he pretends it is Maria, raising the question of whether he might at some point be open to Pablo's advances. Haller also misinterprets Pablo's proposal of swapping the night with Maria for 20 francs. Pablo needed the money and was simply offering Haller something nice in return rather than trying to commodify Maria. Pablo, whom Hermine suspects of being a saint in disguise, seems to be on a mission to help people feel good, in whatever form that takes. He encourages ecstasy through music and dancing, drugs, and sexual pleasure, but he also tends to those who are unwell in body and mind. Pablo cares for the ill Agostino with competent compassion, and his concern over Haller's unhappiness is genuine.

Haller's dissatisfaction with his current state of happiness reflects his general attitude toward life. Good times can't last, the old Haller thinks, and he's stuck in the mode of believing suffering is his destiny. His desire for intense suffering that makes him "ready and willing" to die may be an indictment of his own lack of follow-through in his beliefs. He has previously damned himself for not being willing to die for his beliefs, and it is that level of commitment he seems to want for himself. He sees his former sufferings as "mean" (pathetic or insignificant), and he longs for a nobler suffering—a life worth living and dying for. Haller values depth and intensity of feeling and seems to believe suffering is more intense or valuable than feelings of happiness. His final evening with Maria reflects this, too, as he prepares in his heart to let her go. Maria has taught him many lessons, including how to open himself to love, how to share himself and be vulnerable with another person again. She has helped him touch the divine through lovemaking, and now that he has learned this lesson it is time for him to let go of the teacher. He is ready to look at his suffering—at his shadow side—fully now.

But why is Maria in the story at all, if Haller is to eventually fall in love with Hermine? Hermine is too similar to Haller; he is not ready to look so closely at his own nature by embracing all Hermine is. Maria is, in a way, a simplified version of Hermine. She is all about sexuality and sensuousness and doesn't wade into the deep waters of philosophy, depression, and death like Hermine does. Maria is a delightful, enticing way station for Haller that he can't (and doesn't want to) resist. Through Maria Haller can explore a bite-size chunk of himself, his primal sexuality, without the complications Hermine entails. That will come soon enough.

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