Critical Essays Major Themes within Steppenwolf


The main themes of Steppenwolf are introduced in the first section of "Harry Haller's Records." The novel is dark, and the main themes and conflicts are loneliness, division, elitism versus mediocrity, self-mutilation, and suicide. The nephew sums up Steppenwolf's character quite nicely in the preface. He states:

[T]he Steppenwolf's look pierced our whole epoch, its whole overwrought activity, the whole surge and strife, the whole vanity, the whole superficial play of a shallow, opinionated intellectuality. And alas! The look went still deeper, went far below the faults, defects and hopelessness of our time, our intellect, our culture alone. It went right to the heart of all humanity, it bespoke eloquently in a single second the whole despair of a thinker, of one who knew the full worth and meaning of man's life. It said, "See what monkeys we are! Look, such is man!" and at once all renown, all intelligence, all the attainments of the spirit, all progress towards the sublime, the great and the enduring in man fell away and became a monkey's trick.

Of course, the themes can be grouped together based on causality. Loneliness, division, and elitism versus mediocrity go together. Steppenwolf's principal problem arises as a result of his view of society and the role of the social classes. He despises bourgeois society, yet he cannot remove himself from it successfully. He aligns himself with the Immortals — artists whose work permits him to see a "divine and golden track" before him (Mozart, Goethe, and so on). Bourgeois society is synonymous with mediocrity in Steppenwolf's eyes; therefore, it is contemptible. Steppenwolf's solution is to separate himself from the bourgeoisie completely. At first, this entails physical separation and self-imposed loneliness; however, as his convictions grow stronger, he believes suicide is his only option.

Internal division is just as much a theme as social division. Just as Steppenwolf believes he is divided from other individuals due to class constraints, he also feels divided against himself due to his dual nature. From the very beginning of the novel, Steppenwolf asserts that he is part human and part wolf. He states, "I am in truth the Steppenwolf that I often call myself; that beast astray who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him." His two natures are in constant contention for dominance, so he can only find peace in rare moments, such as when he encounters one of the Immortals. In addition, Steppenwolf believes that the wolf and the man isolate him from society because most individuals see only one side of him. When he attempts to reveal his whole self, in order to gain true acceptance and to eliminate the need for deception, individuals are scarcely receptive. The wolf nature frightens individuals used to refinement, order, restraint, and logic, while the man disappoints individuals who value "the free, the savage, the untamable, the dangerous and strong."

Suicide and self-mutilation go hand in hand, although Steppenwolf distinguishes between the two. Steppenwolf's internal division and his disgust with bourgeois society convince him that suicide is the only solution. He believes that suicide will not only permanently separate and liberate him from the mundane "moderately pleasant, the wholly bearable and tolerable, lukewarm days of a discontented middle-aged man," but will eliminate the internal division he experiences due to the wolf and man within. The problem with Steppenwolf's solution is that he cannot inflict physical harm on himself. The idea of cutting his throat, hanging himself, and so on is abhorrent to him because it is self-mutilation. Luckily for him, suicide is redefined within the context of the treatise, as well as within the Magic Theater. He doesn't have to kill himself in order to commit suicide. Instead, he just has to be able to step back, look at himself in a mirror, and laugh at what he sees.