Critical Essays The Role of the Immortals in Steppenwolf


The Immortals play a key role within Steppenwolf, although it is not clear until the end exactly what that role is. On one hand, in the beginning, the Immortals separate Steppenwolf from other members of society, the bourgeoisie in particular. On the other hand, through the treatise, the Goethe dream, and the Mozart sequence in the Magic Theater, the Immortals provide the key to Steppenwolf understanding his place within society and the universe. The Immortals teach him about himself and society, thereby providing him with alternatives to suicide.

Steppenwolf's problems stem from his inability to tolerate the bourgeoisie. Even though he lives among them, Steppenwolf repeatedly denounces bourgeois society and the "fat and prosperous brood of mediocrity" he associates with it. He states, "Ah, but it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, its business, its politics, its men!" Steppenwolf is suicidal because he cannot effectively separate himself from bourgeois society. He acknowledges the presence of the divine; in fact, there are rare moments when he feels at one with God and can see the "divine and golden track" before him. Such moments of enlightenment occur while reading poetry or listening to classical music. The Immortals are the artists whose creations allow him to become one with God.

Steppenwolf uses the Immortals to justify his self-imposed alienation from society. He views the Immortals as superior and separate from everyone else. Even though he continues to live within and among the bourgeois society, Steppenwolf aligns himself with the Immortals in an attempt to distinguish himself from others. In other words, he might live in a middle-class boarding house, but intellectually, he is on the same level as Goethe and Mozart, so he is far superior to the aunt, the nephew, and the other boarders. Because he is superior, he must be alone; therefore, he distances himself from other individuals in an attempt to gain closer proximity to the Immortals. Steppenwolf realizes, however, that such a separation is only temporary. The only way that he can permanently sever all ties with bourgeois society and unite with the Immortals is through suicide. He believes his death will transform him to a higher level — the realm of the Immortals in the stars.

It is ironic that Steppenwolf views the Immortals as the great divider between himself and everyone else when, in fact, the Immortals argue the opposite. The treatise reveals the contradiction as follows:

He must look deeply into the chaos of his own soul and plumb its depths. The riddle of his existence would then be revealed to him at once in all its changelessness, and it would be impossible for him ever after to escape first from the hell of the flesh to the comforts of a sentimental philosophy and then back to the blind orgy of his wolfishness. Man and wolf would then be compelled to recognize one another without the masks of false feeling and to look one another straight in the eye. Then they would either explode and separate forever, and there would be no more Steppenwolf, or else they would come to terms in the dawning light of humor.

One of the obstacles Steppenwolf must overcome on his road to self-discovery is the inability to listen. The treatise reveals that individuals are made of multiple selves and that a soul is divided. Steppenwolf accepts this notion because it validates his theory that he is part human and part wolf. However, he fails to listen to or accept the treatise's premise that humor is the only way individuals can deal with multiplicity within their lives. As a result, Steppenwolf feels more driven to commit suicide after reading the treatise than before. He believes suicide is the only solution to his fractured nature. Because the wolf and the man cannot coexist peacefully, it's better to annihilate both all together.

The Goethe dream sequence is important because Steppenwolf is given his first opportunity to dialogue with an Immortal. Steppenwolf is moved by the thought of talking to Goethe, but his excitement is short-lived when he realizes that he is not designated as one of the Immortals himself. He states, "I was a reporter, and this worried me a great deal and I could not understand how the devil I had got into such a fix." Not only is Steppenwolf excluded from the Immortals' domain, but he is classified as an individual working a menial job. This is intolerable because Steppenwolf is categorized as one of the blind middle-class fools living a mediocre life revolving around paychecks, office hours, and intellectually stilted individuals. The beginning of the dream is a full-blown nightmare for him.

The debate that ensues between Steppenwolf and Goethe simply confirms the main premise of the treatise: Humor is the key to existence and happiness. Goethe sums it up when he says, "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." Steppenwolf accuses Goethe of not being "outright enough"; however, Goethe gives a direct answer. The problem is that Steppenwolf does not listen or accept Goethe's answer. As a result, Steppenwolf does not deviate from his plan to commit suicide. He ignores Goethe's solution and, instead, focuses on his own separation from Goethe within the dream. Goethe argues that humor will allow Steppenwolf to live peaceably despite his divided nature, but Steppenwolf interprets the dream as another sign that he is being ensnared in bourgeois society. Death is the only way out, and he must resolve himself to do it quickly. Of course, Steppenwolf overlooks the fact that he is in the Black Eagle tavern at the moment because he is too terrified and horrified to go home and kill himself.

The Mozart sequence within the Magic Theater is the most critical and revealing of all. Up until this point, Steppenwolf consistently misinterprets the Immortals. He bypasses the treatise's declaration that humor is the key to existence. He ignores Goethe's statements that he has misunderstood the Immortals and that humor is a more appropriate attitude than gravity. Steppenwolf simply picks and chooses elements from the treatise and Goethe in order to maintain his course toward self-destruction. He is fixated upon the ideas of death, suffering, and separation. He won't be satisfied until he brings about his own death, suffers (although, he isn't even sure at this point what he wants to suffer for), and finally separates himself from bourgeois society.

Mozart takes it upon himself to disprove Steppenwolf's entire theory and upset his plan. Steppenwolf describes Mozart as "the god of my youth, the object, all my life long, of love and veneration." Mozart is the most revered of all the Immortals, and Steppenwolf views him as infallible. Therefore, his voice is one of authority, basically one that cannot be disputed. Mozart explains that Steppenwolf's separatist view of society is wrong. Steppenwolf is just as much a part of bourgeois society as the next person because he consists of multiple selves, some of which are inevitably bourgeois. Mozart demonstrates this concept when he explains that Brahms and Wagner are the same: "Such contrasts, seen from a little distance, always tend to show their increasing similarity." In addition, Mozart informs Steppenwolf that every individual is responsible not only for individual wrongdoings, but for the "fault[s] of their time."

Mozart states, "Life is always frightful. We cannot help it and we are responsible all the same. One's born and at once one is guilty." Such a statement overwhelms Steppenwolf as he laments:

I was now thoroughly miserable. I saw myself as a dead-weary pilgrim, dragging myself across the desert of the other world, laden with the many superfluous books I had written, and all the articles and essays; followed by the army of compositors who had had the type to set up, by the army of readers who had had it all to swallow. My God — and over and above it all there was Adam and the apple, and the whole of original sin. And only then could the question arise whether, behind all that, there was anything personal, anything of my own, left over; or whether all that I had done and all its consequences were merely the empty foam of the sea and a meaningless ripple in the flow of what was over and done.

It is only after Mozart dissolves Steppenwolf's theory that he is above and separate from bourgeois society, and then inundates him with his own culpability, that Mozart reveals the secret to life. He states, "Learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest." So, Steppenwolf discovers that he is part of society — proletariat, bourgeoisie, and aristocracy. Suicide is not the answer to his problem, because it will only deny existence to all the other selves that are a part of him. Instead, Steppenwolf must accept the fact that he is internally divided, and he must incorporate humor so that all the selves can coexist peaceably.