Man’s Struggle with His Identity in Steppenwolf
“The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.” These are the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, among the most influential philosophers of the modern era and one who has exerted an incontrovertible influence on many German authors, including Hermann Hesse. That Hesse should feel drawn to a figure so prominent in the German consciousness is not suprising, that he should do so in spite of the religious zeal of his family seems almost heretical.
No less an influence on Hesse, though, was the groundbreaking psychologist Sigmund Freud, himself also an admirer of Nietzsche, and who “several times said of Nietzsche that he had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was ever likely to live.” This theme, the “knowledge of self,” is a recurring one in Hesse’s works, and is central to the personal crises he faced in the years after the outbreak of World War I.
Hesse’s post-1914 novels reflect his progress through successive self-examinations. Demian, published in 1919, explored his break with conventional morality in a decaying world. Siddhartha, published in 1922, features Hesse’s lifelong fascination with Eastern spirituality. It was his 1927 novel, Steppenwolf, which first attained a complete break with the past while retaining an overtly autobiographical flavor amidst otherwise total abstraction.
It is Steppenwolf’s break from the past which distinguishes it from the styles of two of Hesse’s most prominent contemporaries: Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka. While Mann and Kafka are themselves dissimilar, their novels are characteristic of the novel as a form: as totality. Mann’s novels are intricately detailed and firmly situated within their historical contexts. Further, we are intimately familiar with the characters, with their backgrounds, their tastes, their values, and their fates. And while Kafka’s novels are heavily symbolic, we are nevertheless presented with a total worldview, a worldview we can consider in all its irony and terror. Moreover, we can identify completely with the characters, who are really only reflections of ourselves, struggling for definition amidst ambiguity.
Hesse’s Steppenwolf, conversely, is quintessentially fragmentary. We know little of Harry Haller beyond that which is immediately apparent from the text. We are as the nephew in whose aunt’s boarding house Haller resides. We are also unable to identify the historical setting for the novel without referring to Hesse’s own life.