A preface generally provides a short introduction to a book, and it's usually written by the author. The Preface to Steppenwolf does this and much more. It's more accurate to say that the Preface is the key to understanding the text. Hesse provided a short introductory note to the text in 1961, in which he states that "of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other." Hesse does not serve as narrator within the Preface; instead, the nephew provides readers with their first glimpse at the book and its plan.
The narrator first meets Harry Haller when he arrives at his aunt's house to secure lodging. The narrator immediately dislikes Haller due to his appearance and his strange behavior when entering the house. He strikes the nephew as shy, unsociable, intelligent, sickly, disturbing, and slightly snobbish. The narrator admits, "I often dream of him at night, and the mere existence of such a man, much as I got to like him, has had a thoroughly disturbing and disquieting effect on me."
The nephew's opinion changes as he gets to know Haller, both directly, through conversation and observation, and indirectly through surreptitious means such as snooping through his room. During their first conversation, Haller refers to himself as "a shabby old Steppenwolf," and the nephew is unable to disassociate Haller from that title from that moment on. In fact, the introduction of this label is paramount to understanding the remainder of the Preface, as well as the remainder of the text. The nephew discovers that Steppenwolf is a man divided by his fascination with bourgeois society and his inability to live in it.
Steppenwolf leaves behind a personal manuscript and directs the nephew to do whatever he wants with it; the book is the result. The nephew believes most of the events Haller describes are fictional, but not happenstance. Instead, he describes them as "the deeply lived spiritual events which he [Haller] has attempted to express by giving them the form of tangible experience."
The Preface is critical for two reasons. First, it introduces readers to the structure of the novel. This is a manuscript written and left behind by a disturbed individual. The nephew warns readers that the novel consists of Harry Haller's written records, and this prepares readers for the disjointed and timeless nature of the work. The story does not possess a sustained narrative with a standard linear plot. Nor does the story consist of plot elements in traditional order: explication, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Instead, readers are left to wonder when the events occur and how much time passes during the events described. In addition, readers are left questioning the validity of the manuscript due to the nephew's own disclaimer that they are only "partly diseased, partly beautiful, and thoughtful fantasies."
The Preface is also important because it provides readers with the only third-person view of Harry Haller outside of the text. The records are written in first person, with Haller serving as narrator. The Treatise on Steppenwolf does shift into third person; however, because the treatise exists within the records, it is inevitably filtered through Haller. The Preface on the other hand, presents readers with the nephew's view of Haller, which is important because Haller continually separates himself and describes himself as a social outcast. It is only through the nephew's observations that this can be verified.
sensibility the capacity for being affected emotionally or intellectually, whether pleasantly or unpleasantly; receptiveness to impression.
superficial of or being on the surface.
espionage the act of spying.
bourgeois a person whose beliefs, attitudes, and practices are conventionally middle-class.
mediocrity mediocre ability or attainment.
arbitrary based on one's preference, notion, or whim; capricious.
Araucarias any of a genus (Araucaria) of the araucaria family of cone-bearing trees with flat, scalelike needles, native to the Southern Hemisphere and grown as ornamentals in other areas; especially, the monkey puzzle tree and the Norfolk Island pine.
acquiescence agreement or consent without protest.