About Demian


Published in 1919, Demian is a crucial novel to an understanding of Hermann Hesse. Demian, whose title came to Hesse in a dream, is the direct outgrowth of his psychoanalysis of 1916-17. It marks a new direction in both the tone and message of his works. Dr. Timothy Leary has referred to Hermann Hesse as "the poet of the interior journey." Demian is the beginning of Hesse's introspection and his turning to the "inward way," as well as his discovery of "magical thinking" as answers to the dilemmas presented to us by modern life.

In its format, Demian could be classified as a Bildungsroman, a novel of education, popular in Germany's era of Romanticism. But, by combining with this traditional approach the surrealistic quality of "magical thinking," Hesse has far transcended the typical novel of this type. "Magical thinking" is a term difficult to define and would possibly be best handled by an example.

In a short, autobiographical essay, Hesse looked to the future and pictured himself in a jail cell for some act of immorality. In order to pass the time, he began painting a picture on the wall of the cell. (Painting was Hesse's lifelong love.) In the picture, there is a train traveling into a dark tunnel. Hesse imagines himself jumping onboard the train, going through the tunnel, thus escaping his captors. Somehow, this is the essence of his "magical thinking."

The combination of traumas of 1916-18 caused Hesse great mental anguish. His rejection by Germany, his father's death, and the illnesses of his wife and his son Martin caused Hesse to seek the aid of J. B. Lang, an associate of the famous psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. More than seventy sessions took place between Lang and Hesse from 1916 to 1917. One result was that Hesse began to reexamine his whole system of values and to formulate a new one. All of his novels subsequent to Demian reflect his new thinking and his increased awareness of the workings of the human mind. The latter aspect becomes more obvious after 1919, although it seems that even in his earlier works Hesse was intuitively aware, though not formally schooled, in such matters. After 1919, one cannot fully understand or appreciate Hesse without a knowledge of such terms as "unconscious," anima, and "archetype."

Demian was produced within two months' time in what one biographer and personal acquaintance of Hesse refers to as a "white heat." It was published under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair. One reason for the use of the pen name was the disfavor toward Hesse in Germany at the time. Had the novel been published under his real name, it would have been ignored. Under this guise, however, it was not only a success, but Sinclair was also awarded the Fontane Prize for new authors. Soon the truth became known through a careful style analysis. Hesse could not accept the prize, the monetary value of which he could have used, because he was already an established author. Even his friend, the renowned Thomas Mann, could not believe that this was the work of Hermann Hesse, so radical was his departure from his earlier work.

Structurally, Demian is the beginning of a pattern followed in all of Hesse's novels after 1919. The book falls loosely into three sections. The first of these deals with the protagonist's awareness of an inharmonious world and some action which causes the loss of his innocence and can be paralleled with the biblical fall from grace. The second section, which is the longest, concerns itself with the period of anguish and despair which follows the fall. The third portion contains some degree of enlightenment for the protagonist. In one manner or other, he learns to come to terms with his life and with himself. However, this is not a permanent state, and it can be assumed that the protagonist is able to achieve the heights of intense awareness and harmony only periodically, but, nevertheless, he is able to continue his existence in an easier manner than most people because he has occasionally tasted complete harmony. The only novel of Hesse's in which the protagonist both attains and maintains this concept of Nirvana is, appropriately enough, Siddhartha.