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Steppenwolf | Themes

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Many of the themes in Steppenwolf reflect the life of the author, who often wrote as a means of exploring his own identity or working through his problems. Hesse attempted suicide as a teen and later struggled with loneliness, often due to the failure of multiple relationships during his life. Moreover, he felt alienated in German society due to his unpopular pacifist stance, eventually relocating to politically neutral Switzerland to try to find peace.

Aloneness and Alienation

Haller is a lonely, lonely, lonely man. In his quest for total independence he has completely separated himself from the people around him. Both the landlady's nephew and the writer of the treatise describe Haller as someone from an "alien world." He is no longer comfortable in the existing world, feeling alienated from it in many ways. He cannot enjoy the simple pleasures it offers, and he cannot relate to the horrific thirst for war many around him have. Not only does he feel isolated emotionally, he physically isolates himself by hiding away in his escapist room. He only emerges to prowl the streets at night, when most people are comfortably at home. Haller is further repelled by those people who are out and about at night. Their enjoyment of restaurants, entertainment, and vibrant jazz clubs full of pulsing life is foreign to him. His depression is so deep he no longer knows how to enjoy such things.

Suicide and Death

Suicide and death are topics that are never far from Haller's mind. He has previously tried to kill himself by drinking a strong sedative, and he frequently alludes to cutting his own throat with a razor. However, even though he longs for death Haller fears killing himself; he can't really bring himself to maim his own body. Death lurks behind every scene in the book because it lurks in Haller's mind. Most people wouldn't follow a funeral procession, but Haller does, wallowing in the depressing spectacle of death because, well, that's what he does. He laments everyone must die, even the geniuses of the world, and end up buried in cemeteries, "mourned" over by people who don't actually care to be there. This sentiment is echoed in Haller's dream of Goethe, who says "we must all die in the end," and by Dora in the Magic Theater when she plaintively asks, "Have we all got to die then?" During this same "Jolly Hunting" episode Gustav justifies their gleeful killing spree as a form of mercy killings. "This world is done for and so are we," he explains. "The least painful solution would be to hold it underwater for ten minutes." Gustav and Haller are equal-opportunity killers, shooting all comers, once again reinforcing everyone must die.

Though the Magic Theater holds horrors for Haller, it also provides just what he wants: a way to commit suicide (or rather, kill his personality) without actually harming his body. He proves he has the strength to do it when he stabs Hermine with the knife. He can kill himself—a part of himself he no longer needs to keep separate because he has integrated it into his personality. He has learned the lessons Hermine had to teach—enjoyment of music and dancing, and falling in love with the part of yourself that desires such things—and now her persona is no longer needed. She has become a part of his whole; he is expanding his soul just as the writer of the treatise writer advised.

Identity

Harry Haller is having a major identity crisis, and it puts both his mind and his life on the line. He sees himself both as a cultured, intellectual man and a wild lone wolf, the Steppenwolf. His human side clings to the norms of society, appreciates classical music and literature, and longs for love and connectedness. His wolf side, which revels in pleasures like food and sex, abhors the falseness of society and wants to rage against the machine. (Haller describes the workaday world as a "never-ceasing machinery" in which people are the unthinking cogs, throwing their lives away one day at a time in meaningless jobs. Unlike Haller, such people never question their identity; they are too busy working to give the matter any thought.)

Haller has had some painful bumps in his life that have forced him to redefine himself and reinvent his personality. He has lost his job, his family, and his home, and is reviled in popular opinion as a "traitor" because of his pacifism in the face of war. Such events have stripped away pieces of his identity (such as "worker" and "husband"), leaving him unsure about who he is without such labels. As Haller has grown and changed, he has come to despise the bourgeois world of which he was once a happy, successful member. The more he distances himself from this world the less he can identify with it. Yet the bourgeois life still calls to him; he feels nostalgia for its familiar comforts and customs. Haller no longer feels bourgeois, having lost the trappings of that class of society (wife, job, home), but he still lives in a bourgeois way. This drives him crazy inside, and he blames his feelings of anger on his self-proclaimed wolf nature.

The Steppenwolf, however, is a fallacy, as the writer of the "Treatise on the Steppenwolf" points out. Haller does not have only two personalities but an uncountable number of selves—as do all people. Haller has been trying to fit his life into just two boxes, man and wolf, when in truth he is suppressing other sides of himself. These aspects of his personality could greatly enrich his life and even bring back some of that joy and happiness he longs for, if only he would acknowledge and develop them. Haller starts to learn this lesson through Hermine as she teaches him to stop judging things like jazz and dancing and simply enjoy them. The real elucidation of his many personalities becomes evident, though, during his visit to the Magic Theater. There Haller has a chance to explore many of the suppressed sides of his personality, from his desire to blow up the world to amorous adventures. The theater is "for madmen only," which calls to mind Haller's self-diagnosis as a "schizomaniac," or a person with multiple personalities. Moreover, the price of admission is his mind: he must accept his existing mind can and will be shattered by what he learns of his personality inside the theater.

The puppeteer behind Haller, though, is the author himself, Hermann Hesse. In examining the character of Haller, Hesse is working out his own personality conundrums on paper through the medium of experimental literature. The unnamed writer of the treatise suggests all characters in a story are simply a reflection of the author. Following this logic, all characters in "Harry Haller's Records" (written by Haller) could be viewed as aspects of Haller and then consolidated to give a better understanding of his identity. Taking this logic to another level, all characters in Steppenwolf, including the unnamed narrator of the preface, would be aspects of Hesse himself. In writing the novel Hesse hoped to better understand himself just as Haller tries to uncover his true personality in the Magic Theater.

Questions for Themes

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