Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse, is a stirring account of the battle between the opposites that intersect human nature.
In this Novel the protagonist, a middle aged man named Harry, tries desperately to find contentment in himself and his own life.
As Harry’s journey into the interface begins, he is confronted with “signs” pointing him in the direction to the answers he so desires and to his potential freedom from his own discontent.
At one point he runs into a man holding a sign, “For Madmen Only”. This man gives him a booklet; the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” which Harry feels describes himself perfectly. This booklet becomes a literary mirror for him. It describes the dilemma between the needs of sophisticated man and the animalistic, lonesome nature of the wolf. Harry believes that these two entities battle within him and are the cause of his great dissatisfaction and unhappiness in life.
Harry’s dilemma reaches culmination after a visit to a former academic friend’s home with whom he often discussed mythology. While there, Harry is disgusted by the nationalistic mentality of his friend and offends the man and his wife by criticizing the wife’s picture of Goethe; which Harry feels is poorly done, highly sentimental and an insulting photo of the genius.
After this debacle, Harry rambles through town trying to find the courage to go home (where he planned to rendezvous with a razor). During this nighttime wandering, the hero finds a beautiful young woman in a dance hall (who is also dualistic in nature) that Harry calls Hermine.
Hermine instantly recognizes Harry’s desperation and both comforts and mocks him for it. Through his relationship with Hermine, Harry is introduced to the indulgences of the “bourgeois” such as dancing and casual drug use; she finds him a lover and forces him to accept these as worthy aspects of life. Through this meeting, the hero comes to understand that his existence is more than his self-battle between Man and the Wolf.
While Harry’s interaction with Hermine opens him up to other parts of himself and in some ways helps him gain freedom from his battle between loneliness and acceptance; he also finds in her more questions, more dichotomies yet to be understood.
Although this novel is full of intense and moving scenes, one of the most poignant happened in the “The Magic Theatre”. In this place, the lines between reality and fantasy become completely blurred.
Harry enters a room of the theatre that has a stage in front. At first he sees a man with a whip and a wolf– skinny and beaten. The man does all sorts of tricks with the wolf- gets him to sit, roll over, etc. The man brings out a lamb and a bunny and sticks the wolf between them. Even though the wolf is salivating, he obeys and does not touch the frightened animals.
Next Harry sees a wolf standing with a poor man on all fours at his command. The wolf orders the man to do tricks- to sit, roll over etc. The wolf then puts the man between the lamb and the bunny. This time, the man is ordered to kill the frightened animals and he rips them apart- spouting blood everywhere. The hero is shaken by this site and runs from the room.
The Man and the Wolf are part of the mirror reflection that is Harry’s person. He sees their duality, their interplay and comes to understand that he is neither of them. Rather, he is both and in being both- becomes something more- something eternal and immortal. This allows Harry to finally be free from the constant circle that both engulfed him and trapped him.
While in the “Magic Theatre” Harry is confronted with a myriad of dichotomies (rooms) of himself. He is guided by the immortals themselves through these rooms of duality until he is finally reunited with Hermine (and perhaps himself) where he stabs her in the heart, right under the breastbone.
It is notable that the very existence of Hermine in the novel is never confirmed. In fact, when Harry asks Hermine what her name is, she turns the question around. When he is challenged to guess her name, he tells her that she reminds him of a childhood friend named Hermann, and therefore he concludes her name must be Hermine. Metaphorically, Harry creates Hermine as a fragment of his own soul.
Hermann Hesse published Steppenwolf (Der Steppenwolf) in Germany in 1927. It was first translated into English in 1929. Steppenwolf is a combination of autobiographical and psychoanalytical elements and was named after the lonesome wolf of the steppes. This story largely reflects Hesse’s own spiritual crisis that he experienced in the 1920s.