Steppenwolf By Hermann Hesse Summary and Analysis Harry Haller's Records: Encounter with the professor

Summary

Following the Treatise on the Steppenwolf, the next section of text includes an encounter with one of Steppenwolf's former acquaintances. After reading the treatise, Steppenwolf despairs over the two portraits of himself — a self-portrait portrayed in verse, and the self-portrait provided by the treatise. He decides to commit suicide.

After wandering around town, Steppenwolf stumbles upon a funeral procession. He encounters a man whom he believes was the one who gave him the pamphlet, but he's not certain of the man's identity. Steppenwolf continues to walk and meets a young professor with whom he used to discuss Oriental mythology. The professor invites Steppenwolf to dinner, and he feels obligated to accept.

Upon arriving, Steppenwolf has a premonition that the evening will not be a pleasant one, and he's right. He sees a picture of Goethe and is immediately offended and repulsed by the artist's rendition. The professor points out a newspaper article in which a man named Harry Haller is accused of being a traitor. The professor finds it amusing that the man in the article has the same name as Steppenwolf.

Steppenwolf openly criticizes the portrait of Goethe, which happens to be a prized possession of the professor's wife. She is offended and leaves the room. Steppenwolf apologizes to the professor for his bluntness. He also admits that he has lied, that he has become an ill-tempered and sick man, and that he is often drunk and inappropriate. As a final blow, Steppenwolf informs the professor that the newspaper article was, in fact, about himself. Then he leaves.

Analysis

This section of the text shows a turning point for Steppenwolf. Up until this point, he is a man who is divided against himself and society, yet he has done nothing to alleviate the situation. Now he is confronted with two conflicting, yet complementary, views of himself, and he does not like the picture they present. The first picture comes from a poem that he has written about himself which describes the life of a wolf — solitary and primal. Steppenwolf voices his desperation within the poem: "Is everything to be denied / That could make life a little bright? The hair on my brush is getting grey. / The sight is failing from my eyes."

The second picture comes from the treatise. Steppenwolf accepts most of the treatise as truth. That is, he believes that he is an individual divided against himself and society. He fails to accept the treatise's assertions that possibilities other than suicide may exist for him. This in itself is problematic, for Steppenwolf accepts both pictures as "the unvarnished truth about [his] shiftless existence"; however, he only chooses to believe whatever will help maintain his own view of the Steppenwolf and his inevitable fate. Thus, although Steppenwolf asserts that he makes his decision to commit suicide after being confronted with the two self-portraits, he really made the decision prior to that.

Steppenwolf's lament reveals the depths of his despondency:

There was nothing to charm or tempt me. Everything was old, withered, grey, limp and spent, and stank of staleness and decay. Dear God, how was it possible? How had I, with the wings of youth and poetry, come to this? Art and travel and the glow of ideals — and now this! How had this paralysis crept over me so slowly and furtively, this hatred against myself and everybody, this deep-seated anger and obstruction of all feelings, this filthy hell of emptiness and despair.

The dinner fiasco serves as Steppenwolf's initial step in his plan for self-mutilation and annihilation. He has already determined to end his life, but since a convenient opportunity has not yet presented itself, he must forcefully disassociate himself from society. This is quite different from his previous behavior. Prior to this, Steppenwolf was content to separate himself from others and live quietly in isolation. Now, however, he chooses to offend the professor and his wife openly as a means of severing his tie with them and polite society in general. Steppenwolf states, "For him [the professor], it was a disillusionment and a petty outrage. For me, it was a final failure and flight. It was my leave-taking from the respectable, moral and learned world, and a complete triumph for the Steppenwolf."

The picture of Goethe and the newspaper article serve the same purpose for Steppenwolf. Both act as catalysts for his behavior at the professor's house. Steppenwolf is offended by the pompous, noble, and respectable portrayal of Goethe. It is a tangible representation of the bourgeoisie, and since Steppenwolf regards Goethe as one of the Immortals, this is intolerable. When Steppenwolf's recollection of being labeled as a traitor is combined with his reaction to Goethe, he is compelled to take immediate action to end all connections with bourgeois society.

Glossary

doggerel any trivial or bad poetry.

transmutations things that have been changed into other things.

paltriness the state of being practically worthless; trifling; insignificant; contemptible; petty.

ignominious characterized by or bringing on ignominy; shameful; dishonorable; disgraceful.

laudanum a solution of opium in alcohol.

depravity a depraved condition; corruption; wickedness.

slovenliness demonstrating carelessness in appearance, habits, work, and so on; untidy; slipshod.

idiosyncrasy the temperament or mental constitution peculiar to a person or group.

caustic something that can burn, eat away, or destroy tissue by chemical action; corrosive.

profundity intellectual depth.

militarist a person who supports or advocates armed forces in aggressive preparedness for war.

jingoist a person who boasts of his patriotism and favors an aggressive, threatening, warlike foreign policy; chauvinist.

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Identify the source of the following quote: “You should not take old people who are already dead seriously. It does them injustice. We immortals do not like things to be taken seriously. We like joking. Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time.”




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