The Newness of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf

I just read one of those books everybody reads in high school. Since I can remember being a reader and making reading lists, Steppenwolf has been on my radar; many people in several different places and contexts had recommended the book to me, and I can’t really say why it took me so long to read it, except that I maybe guessed that it was one of those books that force you to question things.

And now that I’ve read it I can confirm that. Hermann Hesse’s 1927 novel is indeed an uncomfortable read, but also a very well written and enjoyable one. Its protagonist is named Harry Haller, a 48-year-old man that simply detests living. He lives in agony because, much like Salinger’s Holden and Camus’ Mersault, he knows life as a bourgeois is an empty farse. Haller’s time is not that different from ours: antisemitism and fascism are on the rise and everything people seem to care about are the latest fashions and the best bars to do the foxtrot. But Harry Haller has seen how vacuous these small joys are and his only refuges from the world’s cynicism are Goethe’s literary works and classical music. 

Harry Haller is in constant conflict between two parts of himself: the sensitive and artistic man who likes conversation and can enjoy certain, very specific and intellectual things in life, and the wolf of the steppes, the Steppenwolf that embodies all his low impulses and laughs at his efforts to become a member of society. But one day, leaving the pub, Harry is handed by a stranger a booklet that describes his inner life in utter detail and, to his astonishment, warns him about this imaginary duplicity of his self. From this moment, Harry Haller will have to learn to live again, incorporating and accepting not only Steppenwolf but every denied part of his person, he will have to learn to participate in life, to love and to laugh to save his soul from despair. In this quest he will have mentors: Hermione, Pablo and Maria, even Goethe and Mozart themselves, but it will not be an easy task.

Illustration by Kyle Stecker

Reading this novel I marvelled that someone could describe the inner turmoils of a person so vividly and so very accurately even almost 100 years later. The guilt that cripples Harry Haller is no different to the guilt that cripples anyone who knows how certain parts of our “modern” living works: capitalism, climate change, fascist and dictatorial governments, animal cruelty and so on. When one thinks too much about the state of the world, it is impossible not to feel bitter and helpless, for it is true that our everyday actions have almost always a negative impact (meat consumption, fuel use, fast fashion, etc.).

Hesse’s novel seemed to say: yes, everything sucks and you’re right wanting to be a hermit, but that is not helping anyone anyway. Although the reception of the novel has focused mainly on how Harry Haller is right in being an annoying and pedantic hermit, I believe the novel focuses more on his healing journey, a journey that has only to do with himself. The novel, or so I gathered, proposes learning to know and accept oneself as the beginning of every interesting life journey, a process that can be hard and painful, especially perhaps for someone as troubled as Harry Haller.

Steppenwolf is said to be a very autobiographic text that depicts Hermann Hesse’s inner crisis in the twenties, and the novel certainly deals with psychoanalysis and jungian archetypes, but for me it described a collective spiritual illness, a quest for meaning that has resonated with a young public throughout the decades and will probably continue to do so because the ailments of Harry Haller are still the ailments of many young people who dare question the social system.

I highly recommend this book, it is a read that poses hard questions for the reader and also is beautifully written. As a coming of age book is very enjoyable, for we get to see how Harry learns to dance and enjoy jazz music in very colourful settings that do great credit to Hesse’s literary genius. Overall a wonderful read and one of the most relevant books I’ve read lately.

Have you read Steppenwolf? Did you like it?

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