Steppenwolf | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Steppenwolf | Section 8 : The Fancy Dress Ball | Summary



Haller sleeps the day away and wakes up to realize the ball starts in an hour. He decides to arrive late, as Hermine has advised, and to pass the time he has dinner at his old haunt, the Steel Helmet. He finds the melancholy inn with its lonely patrons no longer suits him now that he's had a taste of a livelier existence. Nostalgically, he bids the inn goodbye in his mind, enjoying a last meal and feeling sentimental over the refuge it has offered him. Still, he resists going to the ball just yet, and instead wanders into a cinema to kill some time. The film is about Moses parting the Red Sea to lead the Israelites to safety and then receiving the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai. His "worthless" followers revel below, worshipping the golden calf. He reflects it would have been better for all of them to die than for the world to become what it has today.

Finally, Haller plucks up the courage to enter the ball, where he is immediately thronged by masked revelers who try to draw him into various pleasures. Haller leaves his coat at the cloakroom, taking care to retain the number in case he needs to make his escape from "the uproar." Dancers swarm every room, and Haller spots Pablo playing in one of the bands. As Haller pushes through the crowds looking for Hermine and Maria, he comes upon a downstairs hallway that has been transformed into hell. By midnight he is overheated and annoyed, still alone and not having danced a step. He drinks some wine to try to get into the party spirit, but it just doesn't happen. In a "surrender and backsliding into my wolfishness," he heads angrily to the cloakroom at 1:00 am, but he can't find his number now. A stranger appears and hands him a new card with a scribbled message on it: an invitation to the Magic Theater, "PRICE OF ADMITTANCE YOUR MIND." The card also states Hermine is in hell.

Suddenly, the ball is magical, and an invigorated Haller hastens to the hellish corridor to look for Hermine. On the way he meets the ravishing Maria and is momentarily swept up in kissing and dancing with her. They bid each other a fond adieu, and he presses onward toward Hermine. In the darkened, devilish, frantic room he sees a young man at the bar observing him mockingly, but nowhere does he find Hermine. Haller sits at the bar near the young man, whom he suddenly recognizes as his childhood friend Herman. It is Hermine, though, dressed as a man, the costume in which she will finally make Haller fall in love with her. Soon Haller is indeed in love with her, though since she is dressed as a man Haller can't bring himself to dance with her or make a move. As they drink champagne, she talks to him about Herman and their childhoods. Youth embraces love in all its forms, "not only both sexes, but all and everything, sensuous and spiritual," in a way that evades older people except for poets and "a chosen few." Haller is entranced, seeing a whole new side of Hermine, and together they explore the club, enjoying the spectacle and enticing one another teasingly. They dance and flirt with others, and the ball becomes a "fairy tale," casting a spell of abandon on the masked partygoers. In this "wild dream of paradise" Haller finds beauty in everyone and everything, dancing with joy for hours as he and Hermine/Herman whirl past each other—always knowing they will come together at last.

For the first time in his life Haller is swept away by the intoxicating, festival atmosphere into "the mysterious merging of the personality in the mass, the mystic union of joy." His personality dissolves, and he feels at one with everyone in the crowd, "and with them all I was enraptured—laughing, happy radiant." Pablo beams at Haller's happiness, jumping up on his chair and blasting his music fervently. Haller loses track of time; "there were no thoughts left," he realizes. It is very late now, and many have gone home. He has also lost track of Hermine. Suddenly, though, he sees a woman dressed as a Pierrette (mime), "fresh and charming," who is new to the scene. Beneath the white-painted face he recognizes Hermine, and at last they come together, kissing and dancing passionately.

As dawn breaks beneath the curtains, the revelers incite the band to keep playing, and one last whirl of bliss commences. Haller is Hermine's, and she is his in "this nuptial dance" until at last, the light comes on and the door opens onto the cold light of morning. The dancers melt away, leaving Haller and Hermine alone in the building. As they gaze at each other with souls fully revealed, Hermine asks, "You're ready?" Haller nods, and Pablo appears.


The new Haller begins to say goodbye to aspects of his old life that no longer fit, such as the Steel Helmet, refuge of the depressed loner. That's no longer who he is, but he still can appreciate the inn as a former safe haven that provided comfort and escape when he needed it. During this transitional time Haller is ready to let go of things that no longer serve him but not quite ready to embrace what is to come. He delays going to the ball, for he knows nothing will be the same after this evening. In the movie Haller sees, the story of Moses parallels his own life in some ways. Moses overcomes obstacles and climbs stormy Mount Sinai to receive the word of God, while everyone else parties and worships a golden idol. Similarly, Haller has weathered many storms and obstacles in his quest to become immortal or attain the "kingdom of God," as Hermine has called it. Meanwhile, everyone around him either parties (the jazz lifestyle) or worships gold (making money and living an ideal bourgeois life). Just as Moses must part the sea to save his people from destruction, Haller must penetrate the sea of his own mind to save himself from destruction. Both struggle and suffer to attain that which they seek; it is not an easy life, and the movie strikes a disturbing chord with Haller.

Once at the ball Haller still has a few tests to pass before he can gain entrance to the Magic Theater. One is sheer endurance—can he bear the noise and activity around him while searching for Hermine? Haller does try; he looks all over the club and drinks some wine to loosen up, though the Steppenwolf is always looming in the back of his mind. Just as he is ready to throw in the towel by "backsliding into my wolfishness," Haller gets another chance to engage—the mystery note about the Magic Theater. Hermine awaits him in hell. The setting of hell represents Haller's shadow side in psychological terms. He must go into the shadows of his mind (hell) to find a missing part of himself (Hermine). Now that he knows he is on the right track again, Haller comes to life, as does the enchanting ball around him. Throughout the scene masks represent the images people present to others—variations of the thousand personalities each partygoer possesses. Haller compares the ball to a fairy tale, and as every fairy tale has its moral, so does this one. Hermine is disguised as a man (Haller's alter ego, Herman), and she is now more similar to Haller than ever. Though he still doesn't recognize Hermine as a projection of his personality, her appearance as a man suggests Haller must fall in love with himself—every aspect of himself—in order to find happiness.

Still Haller hesitates, unable to dance with Hermine because she is dressed as a man. This doesn't prevent him, though, from finally letting go and dancing with complete freedom and joy among the crowd. In his radiant happiness he experiences "the mystic union of joy," a oneness with everyone around him, male or female, in a divine mind meld of bliss. This type of shared experience may happen equally at a Grateful Dead concert or in a football stadium full of cheering fans. It is a sense of elation in which one's personality doesn't matter; the personality is put on the back burner to allow the experience itself to take over. As Haller loses his own personality and thoughts, the final obstacle is hurdled. He may now receive his reward for completing this stage of his life: union with Hermine and entrance to the Magic Theater. Haller's "nuptial dance" with Hermine is reminiscent of the ancient concept of Hieros Gamos, a sacred union between man and woman in which both are lifted up into a state of divine consciousness. In this case the divine marriage is of separate aspects of Haller's personality merging into one. The construct of Hermine/Herman is no longer needed by Haller, for he has learned to enjoy life on his own and no longer needs guidance in this regard. Consequently, the externalized aspects of his personality represented by Hermine/Herman now become integrated into his own personality. As the morning dawns, cold and bright, it is time for Haller's big moment: the Magic Theater awaits.

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