Steppenwolf By Hermann Hesse Summary and Analysis Treatise on the Steppenwolf""

Summary

The point of view changes from first person to third person within the treatise. The treatise begins much like a short story: "There once was a man, Harry, called the Steppenwolf." Steppenwolf is shocked when he reads the first line, for he believes he is reading about himself.

The treatise states Steppenwolf is incapable of being content because he is not fully human. He possesses two natures — the human and the wolf — and they are in a constant struggle for control. His dual nature drives him constantly and prevents him from being satisfied. He desires freedom and individuality, but this is only obtained at the price of isolation and loneliness. As a result, he is suicidal.

The treatise goes on to describe Steppenwolf's main conflict, namely, his inability to separate himself from the bourgeoisie. In fact, the treatise reveals that bourgeois society exists and flourishes due to the presence of the Steppenwolves.

More than one Steppenwolf exists, and each Steppenwolf consists of multiple natures, not just the human and wolf. Society does not acknowledge the existence of multiple selves, so the Steppenwolf is destined to be isolated, rejected, and misunderstood. Although he generally and genuinely feels superior to others, the subsequent detachment from society leads him to believe suicide is the only answer. The treatise refutes this idea: "Nor will suicide really solve your problem, unhappy Steppenwolf."

Analysis

Reading the treatise is a rather surreal experience for Steppenwolf. He believes he encountered the Magic Theater as a course of destiny. The fact that he is given a pamphlet that bears his name — both Steppenwolf and Harry — serves as divine confirmation for him. He believes he will finally learn the truth about himself by reading the treatise.

Initially, the treatise validates Steppenwolf's self-analogy. He has always considered himself to be part human and part wolf. Discovering that the pamphlet maintains the same comparison only affirms his self-perception while strengthening the credibility of the pamphlet and its contents.

The treatise acknowledges Steppenwolf's misery. He is a man whose nature is divided and pitted against itself. The wolf cannot tolerate living in a society with shallow pleasures and empty pursuits. The wolf considers "all human activities [to be] horridly absurd and misplaced, stupid and vain." The human in turn reviles the wolf for his simple, wild, and self-centered existence. The wolf only desires "to trot alone over the Steppes and now and then to gorge himself with blood or to pursue a female wolf." This characterization goes back to Friedrich Nietzsche and the theory of nihilism. Nietzsche argues that anything — morality, philosophy, religion — that attempts to suppress natural desires is false. Nietzsche further argues against the notion that a divine entity exists. Instead, he claims that individuals can only live in the moment for the sake of pleasure. Everything else is just a waste of time. Steppenwolf's wolf nature is Nietzsche's theory come to life.

At this point, Steppenwolf concurs with the treatise's analysis of his character and situation. His miserable existence seems to be explained by his conflicted nature. In addition, the fact that he cannot expose his complete self — wolf and man — to others without being rejected, dooms him to a life of alienation and separation. Whenever Steppenwolf does encounter an individual and desires "to be loved as a whole," the wolf surfaces and leaves the individual "horrified and disappointed." On the other hand, the individual who knows the wolf but not the human "[is] the most disappointed and angry of all" when the human is revealed. And so, Nietzsche and Plato must battle it out within Steppenwolf's mind. The wolf vies for control, threatening to annihilate anyone and everyone it encounters. The human desires peace through knowledge — knowledge of the past, knowledge of himself, and knowledge of the wolf. The only way to achieve such knowledge is through recognition and change. This mirrors the Taoist idea that individuals are constantly shifting states of being in order to pursue immortality.

The fundamental premise of the treatise can be traced back to Plato. Hesse studied Platonic theory in great detail, so it's not surprising that Plato's theories of knowledge and recollection form the basis of the treatise. According to Plato, knowledge cannot be acquired, or to put it plainly, individuals cannot learn. Plato argues that an individual who recognizes a lack of knowledge within himself must already know that knowledge that is missing or he would not realize the significance of its absence. The key to the premise is found in Socrates's response to Plato's dilemma: the theory of recollection. According to this, knowledge is always present and obtainable if an individual examines previous states of existence. Hesse modifies this idea slightly to come up with the treatise's premise of a "thousand selves." According to the treatise, the wolf and the human can coexist so long as they recognize that they are different states. This extends further to include Steppenwolf's other selves as well.

Steppenwolf feels justified and perhaps a bit liberated to read about himself and discover that his sense of internal conflict is real. He is relieved to have the truth of his wolf and human nature confirmed. However, even though the treatise affirms the notion of multiple selves, it argues that individuals are not limited to two natures: "Harry [and all other Steppenwolves] consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two." This statement is particularly important for two reasons. First, it disregards the notion that Harry Haller is the only Steppenwolf. In fact, "there are a good many people of the same kind as Harry." Second, this statement expands the concept of internal division, which haunts Steppenwolf. Not only is Harry Haller one of many Steppenwolves and, therefore, not an original, but like everyone else, his nature consists of multiple selves. Society is not capable of recognizing this state as normal, so individuals who are noticeably divided are classified as suffering from "schizomania." According to the treatise, all individuals exist in this state, but other than the labeled schizomaniac, the Steppenwolves are the only ones who are aware of it, even though they only believe they consist of the wolf and the man.

Steppenwolf's loneliness and isolation is also explained in the treatise. All Steppenwolves detest bourgeois society and everything it represents, including conformity, conventionality, respectability, and confinement. Yet, in spite of this revulsion, the Steppenwolf and all Steppenwolves are incapable of severing all ties to the bourgeoisie. They live among them, observe them, interact and associate with them, but this only serves to sharpen the contrast between them. Steppenwolf understands this immediately in relation to his own lodging at the aunt's house. He criticizes the bourgeois respectability within the house — particularly as symbolized by the vestibule — but he is fascinated by people who live so differently from himself. This is demonstrated in the following statement from the treatise:

And so all through the mass of the real bourgeoisie are interposed numerous layers of humanity, many thousands of lives and minds, every one of whom, it is true, would have outgrown it and have obeyed the call to unconditioned life, were they not fastened to it by sentiments of their childhood and infected for the most part with its less intense life; and so they are kept lingering, obedient and bound by obligation and service.

The treatise moves from the discussion of the bourgeoisie to suicide, thereby addressing Steppenwolf's final dilemma. The lack of conformity and inherent inability to compromise force all Steppenwolves to live alone and ultimately to consider suicide as the only option. They do not have to commit suicide or even attempt it to be considered suicidal. Instead, the mere fact that Steppenwolves consider suicide to be inevitable forces the classification. The treatise warns Steppenwolf that suicide is not the answer.

The treatise states, "Like all men Harry believes that he knows very well what man is and yet does not know at all, although in dreams and other states not subject to control he often has his suspicions." This statement is particularly important because it presents Steppenwolf with alternatives to suicide. Instead of terminating his life, the treatise suggests that Steppenwolf has hope because he may yet find satisfaction and self-knowledge by acquiring humor, obtaining a mirror, or encountering one of the Immortals. Some and/or all of these possibilities await him in the Magic Theater.

Glossary

abortion anything immature and incomplete or unsuccessful, as a deformed creature, a badly developed plan, and so on.

indisposition a slight illness

phenomena events, circumstances, or experiences that are apparent to the senses and that can be scientifically described or appraised, as an eclipse

metaphysically beyond the physical or material; incorporeal, supernatural, or transcendental

untoward inappropriate, improper, unseemly, and so on

protracted drawn out; lengthened in duration; prolonged

kleptomania an abnormal, persistent impulse or tendency to steal, not prompted by need

prerogative a prior or exclusive right or privilege, especially one peculiar to a rank, class, and so on

conventionalities formal or accepted standards or rules.

piety devotion to religious duties and practices.

profligacy engaging in immoral and shameless, dissolute, or recklessly extravagant behavior.

asceticism the religious doctrine that one can reach a higher spiritual state by rigorous self-discipline and self-denial.

rudimentary incompletely or imperfectly developed.

abhorrence loathing; detestation.

fleshpots bodily comfort and pleasure; luxury.

efficacious producing or capable of producing the desired effect; having the intended result; effective.

decocting to extract the essence, flavor, and so on of by boiling.

plumb to discover the facts or contents of; fathom; solve; understand.

sublimated purified or refined.

oscillates to swing or move regularly back and forth.

integuments natural outer covering of the body or of a plant, including skin, shell, hide, husk, or rind

niggardly stingy; miserly.

modicum a small amount; bit.

concordat a compact; formal agreement; covenant.

proscription prohibition or interdiction.

renunciation the act or an instance of renouncing; a giving up formally or voluntarily, often at a sacrifice, of a right, claim, title, and so on.

ether an imaginary substance regarded by the ancients as filling all space beyond the sphere of the moon, and making up the stars and planets.

bugbear anything causing seemingly needless or excessive fear or anxiety.

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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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