Steppenwolf By Hermann Hesse Summary and Analysis Harry Haller's Records: Meeting Hermine

Summary

Steppenwolf leaves the professor's house and decides to commit suicide that night; however, he realizes that he is afraid of death, and even more frightened of bringing about his own death. Unable to change his mind, he decides to walk the streets in a desperate attempt to delay his impending suicide.

He visits The Black Eagle, a public dancehall, and meets a young woman at the bar. He asks if he can join her, simply stating that he "cannot possibly go home, cannot, cannot." Steppenwolf explains his behavior at the professor's house. She admonishes him for not having learned how to dance; then she orders him to eat, drink, and sleep.

Steppenwolf drifts off to sleep at the table and dreams that he is a reporter waiting to interview Goethe. A black scorpion tries to climb up Steppenwolf's leg and then disappears. Goethe appears and states that he and the other Immortals have not been appreciated. Steppenwolf agrees but states that Goethe has fallen short because he has not been straightforward. When Goethe begins to recite a poem, Steppenwolf realizes that he is wrong, but he says nothing.

Steppenwolf faults Goethe, arguing that he has known the "consuming despair" of the human state, but he chose to deceive everyone by claiming that "faith" and "optimism" meant something. Goethe reminds Steppenwolf of Mozart and The Magic Flute, but Steppenwolf argues that Mozart and Goethe cannot be compared since Mozart died a young man. As the dream ends, Steppenwolf inquires about Molly, and Goethe opens a small box to reveal a tiny likeness of a woman's leg. Steppenwolf realizes it's the scorpion in disguise, and he awakens.

The young woman returns, informs Steppenwolf that she is leaving with someone else, then secures a room for him at the club. Before she leaves, Steppenwolf asks her to dinner, and she agrees. She informs him that she understands his feelings toward Goethe and his behavior at the professor's house because she feels the same way toward artists' renditions of the saints. Steppenwolf realizes he has discovered someone who can relate to him, and he's grateful.

Analysis

Steppenwolf's conviction to "go home and cut my throat" falls short in this section. The scene at the professor's house is important because it signals a change in Steppenwolf; basically, he is finally going to act upon his assertion that a divided individual cannot continue to exist within society. However, even though he acts decisively by renouncing all ties to bourgeois society, he is not able to sever his ties with humanity by taking his own life.

Steppenwolf admits, "Then the specter that I went in dread of came nearer, till I saw it plain. It was the dread of returning to my room and coming to a halt there, faced by my despair." This is a terrible revelation for Steppenwolf because it undermines his convictions. If he truly believed life was intolerable, then he should have no hesitation when it comes to committing suicide, but this is not the case. Instead, he regards the physical mutilation and destruction of his flesh as "an unspeakable horror." His inability to act upon his convictions forces him to question his own sincerity, plus it aligns him with all the other members of society, the bourgeoisie in particular, who value human life.

Steppenwolf's convictions go back to the idea of the "centrality of the consciousness" within Indian philosophy, of which Hesse was quite knowledgeable. According to this theory, individuals exist in a dual state — the finite self and the infinite self. The finite self, also known as the individual "I," is concerned only with the physical body and the individual mind; however, the infinite self, also known as the universal "I," looks beyond the individual and seeks unity with the "Godhead." Steppenwolf realizes that the finite self represents an inadequate state of being, a mere shadow of the possible. He cannot resign himself to such a manner of existence — a life full of cheap Goethe portraits, yet he is still tied to his finite self which cannot abide the thought of inflicting pain on the body.

Steppenwolf's encounter with the young woman will result in a sharp change in his character. Her character, later named as Hermine, seems almost surreal to the reader, as well as to Steppenwolf. She is preternaturally aware of Steppenwolf's situation — the despair, the loneliness, his occupation, his decision to commit suicide. Steppenwolf's comment that she "treated me exactly in the way that was best for me at that moment, and so she has since without exception" adds to the strangeness of her character. She is much younger than Steppenwolf, yet she treats him in a maternal manner — ordering, commanding, admonishing, and praising him.

The dream sequence with Goethe is symbolic. Steppenwolf considers Goethe one of the Immortals, those who can reveal "the track of the divine," so he longs to connect with him on a personal level. The fact that Steppenwolf comes as a reporter, rather than a friend or acquaintance, disturbs him since it excludes him from the elite circle of artists, intellectuals, and other Immortals he reveres. Such a separation can only mean that he is aligned with everyone else, particularly the bourgeoisie. To make matters worse, he is being pursued by a black scorpion, and he is afraid to go looking for it once it disappears. The scorpion is representative of death, women, and sin, all three of which will become paramount to Steppenwolf as a result of Hermine.

Steppenwolf's diatribe centers on the fundamental differences he perceives between Goethe and Mozart. Steppenwolf idealizes Mozart because he "preaches optimism and faith." This is forgivable in Mozart's work since he did not live long enough to discover that these are false values. Goethe, on the other hand, lived to be eighty-two years old; therefore, he knew the futility, the despair, the worthlessness of human existence, but he denied it. In fact, he presented faith and optimism as truths, even though he knew otherwise.

Goethe informs Steppenwolf that he is misled and mistaken in his convictions: "You take the old Goethe much too seriously, my young friend. 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."

The dream sequence is important for several reasons. Not only is Steppenwolf reprimanded by one of the Immortals, but he is excluded from their circle. In addition, the notion that the only truth of human existence is "the truth of despair" is rejected. Everything Steppenwolf has valued up until this point must be called into question, and inevitably his character will undergo a major transformation.

Glossary

prodigious of great size, power, extent, and so on; enormous; huge.

scorpion any of an order of arachnids found in warm regions, with a front pair of nipping claws and a long, slender, jointed tail ending in a curved, poisonous sting.

emblematic symbolic.

dilettantish behavior characteristic of a person who follows an art or science only for amusement and in a superficial way; dabbler.

diminutive much smaller than ordinary or average; very small; tiny.

effigy portrait, statue, or the like, especially of a person; likeness; often, a crude representation of a despised person.

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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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