Hermann Hesse's novel Steppenwolf addresses division within the self and society, and the effects such divisions can have on an individual, such as loneliness, self-mutilation, and possible suicide. The novel is constructed from a manuscript that the principal character, Harry Haller, or Steppenwolf, leaves behind at a boarding house. The nephew of the landlady writes the preface explaining how he came to know Steppenwolf and why he chose to publish the manuscript. The manuscript, or "Harry Haller's Records," consists of three sections: events that occur prior to the treatise; "the Treatise on the Steppenwolf"; and events occurring after the treatise, namely meeting Hermine and visiting the Magic Theater.
The first section of the novel provides background information on Steppenwolf. The nephew describes Steppenwolf as aloof, intellectual, and "ailing." This description is appropriate, since Steppenwolf does not easily associate with others. His reclusion is due to his aversion of bourgeois society and everything it represents. Steppenwolf is an elitist, but he is also conflicted. He cannot tolerate the conformity, the narrow-mindedness, the empty intellectualism, and the petty pleasures of the middle-class; however, he chooses to live among the bourgeoisie because he likes to observe them. For example, even though he feels contempt for an individual like the nephew, whose pride lies in a clean home, a well-paying job, and a sense of duty, he observes and converses with him because he is fascinated by the nephew's ability to find satisfaction with these things.
Steppenwolf's internal division further complicates the novel. He is not only driven by his need to separate himself from members of an inferior social class, but he is alienated from them because of his mental state. Steppenwolf believes he has a dual nature — part human and part wolf — which prevents him from finding contentment. Society considers such internal divisions of the soul unacceptable, so in order to avoid the label "schizomaniac," Steppenwolf is forced to conceal his divided nature from those around him and/or separate himself from others as much as possible. On the one hand, such alienation is not undesirable, because it permits him to distance himself from the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, such isolation is enough to drive a person to madness. After all, "Harry wished, as every sentient being does, to be loved as a whole"; yet, such unconditional acceptance is not possible unless he is dealing with another Steppenwolf.
Death is another focal point within the novel, with the emphasis being on suicide and self-mutilation. Steppenwolf finds himself in an insufferable situation. He cannot continue living a humdrum life day to day. Such existence is intolerable, for he believes it is worse to live a life that is not worthy of discussion than to live a life of suffering:
Rather it had been just one of those days which for a long while now had fallen to my lot; the moderately pleasant, the wholly bearable and tolerable, lukewarm days of a discontented middle-aged man; days without special pains, without special cares, without particular worry, without despair; days when I calmly wonder, objective and fearless, whether it isn't time to follow the example of Adalbert Stifter and have an accident while shaving.
The problem with such a statement is that Steppenwolf cannot bring himself to commit suicide, no matter how desperate the situation, because the idea of self-mutilation is abhorrent. Even though Steppenwolf believes death is the answer — his gateway to the Immortals — he cannot actually inflict it upon himself.
The number of main characters is decidedly small for a novel. In fact, besides the protagonist, Steppenwolf, there are only two characters who directly impact Steppenwolf — Hermine and Mozart. The remaining characters in the novel that do influence him do so under the tutelage of these two characters. So, Pablo and Maria act according to Hermine's instructions. As for Goethe, he and Mozart are both Immortals, but Mozart is the preeminent one. All of these characters serve one purpose: to demonstrate the fundamental truth of the treatise, the notion that the individual is divided into a "thousand selves." Hermine takes it upon herself to teach Steppenwolf about physical sensation and pleasures. She is a hedonist (one who pursues pleasure) and she exposes Steppenwolf to various physical experiences in an effort to draw out his multiple selves. Pablo and Maria assist her. Whereas Hermine focuses on the physical, Goethe and Mozart address the mental and spiritual. Both Immortals emphasize the importance of humor and the brevity of life.
Steppenwolf is influenced by Hesse's exposure to Western philosophers such as Plato, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, as well as Indian and Chinese philosophy. First, Plato's theory of knowledge and recollection are of particular importance to Hesse. Plato argues that an individual who recognizes a lack of knowledge within himself must already know that information that is missing or he would not realize the significance of its absence. According to Socrates, the only solution for such a conundrum is the notion that individuals already possess all the knowledge they need. The result is Plato's theory of recollection, in which he explains that all knowledge can be retrieved by examining previous states of existence. Hesse embraces this notion completely within Steppenwolf, and it becomes the fundamental premise of the treatise. In other words, the notion that the self is divided can be traced directly back to Plato's theory.
Baruch Spinoza's theories also influence the novel. Spinoza argues that an infinite being, God, must exist, because everything else — individuals, animals, the stars, and so on — exists. Spinoza's belief stems from the idea that an individual cannot exist without a causal agent being responsible for the individual's existence. Spinoza continues by stating that individuals do not exist in a substantive state, but as a mode of existence. It is only through reunification with God that an individual achieves a true, real, and substantive state. Herein lies the basis of the Immortals, for Hesse structures Mozart, Goethe, and the others as spirits who exist beyond the purely physical realm of Steppenwolf. The Immortals are the only ones within the novel who have achieved unity — unity with God, the universe, and the soul. They exist in a plane where there is no division, and that is why Steppenwolf longs to be there.
It is interesting to note that Hesse was just as influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche as he was by Plato and Spinoza, even though Nietzsche is opposed to the others. Nietzsche supports nihilism, basically the idea that a divine being does not exist, nor does any type of knowledge or system of values. Nietzsche argues against any type of moral philosophy or organized religion because they do nothing but suppress natural desires, thereby annihilating the individual's true self. This philosophy forms the foundation for the wolf nature. The wolf exists in opposition to the human. The human represents bourgeois obsession with order, morality, respectability, and responsibility. The wolf on the other hand, represents a strictly hedonist and self-centered approach. The wolf's object is to gain as much pleasure — physical and sensual gratification — as possible with disregard for anyone else.
Indian philosophy also plays an important role in the structure of the novel. The "centrality of consciousness" states that individuals exist in a dual state: the finite self is characterized by the individual "I," and it centers on the physical body and individual mind; the infinite self is characterized by the universal "I," and it centers on the expansion of the mind and soul and unification with the "Godhead." Hesse incorporates this ideology into the Immortals, as well as the human part of Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf views his existence as a false shadow of reality. He cannot be at peace with himself due to the wolf inside; he cannot gain peace in society because everyone else is fixated on the finite self. The only way Steppenwolf can achieve unity with the Godhead is via suicide, for it alone will allow him to discard his finite self, inferior body, and mundane existence.
Chinese philosophy also impacts Steppenwolf. Confucianism emphasizes the importance of jen, or love, goodness, humanity, and human-heartedness. The Confucian golden rule mirrors the Christian one ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), and it is a vital component of all human relationships. In addition, rectitude, fairness, and devotion are considered trademarks of honor. Taoist theory argues that individuals move through a series of states of being in order to search for immortality. Both tenets of Confucianism and Taoism are present in Steppenwolf. The bourgeoisie commitment to respectability, responsibility, and morality reflect the Confucian golden rule and sense of honor. The notions of metamorphosis implicit in the Magic Theater, as well as the concept of multiplicity in the treatise are reminiscent of the Taoist theory of changing states.
The novel continues to affect readers today although across a varied spectrum. Some readers connect with Steppenwolf immediately because they feel society still consists of three social classes: the working class (proletariat), the middle-class (bourgeoisie), and the upper class (aristocracy). Others argue that the novel is not a discussion of class, but instead presents readers with a realistic picture of the despair and depression that can result from lack of acceptance, rejection, broken dreams, and isolation. Of course, it must be kept in mind that Hesse presents extreme characters in extreme situations. But even so, most readers have felt isolated at one time or another. Most readers have felt that no one could possibly understand their situation. Most readers have felt disappointment when contrasting their imagined dreams with lived experiences. Most readers have felt old, broken, perhaps even "ailing" at one time or another. And most readers have experienced depression. Hesse would argue that such shared experiences connect the reader to Steppenwolf on an intimate level; in other words, he would argue that there is a little bit of Steppenwolf in everyone. It's up to readers to decide whether to accept or reject that idea.