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The following are major themes of Steppenwolf.
1. THE OUTSIDER
Harry Haller's name for himself, the steppenwolf, stamps him as an outsider. A wolf of the plains can never be part of human society. The nephew agrees that this is an apt designation of the shy, homeless, and homesick creature that lurks behind Harry's sensitive and civilized exterior. Harry himself analyzes his separateness. He is unable to share the aims or pleasures of people who crowd into the hotels and cafes with the oppressive jazz music and entertainments that many people enjoy.
Beyond these forms of mass pleasure, he also deplores the conventions, the commercialism, and the complacency of the middle-class world. He is forever an alien in this world. His moments of joy come spontaneously, from a line of poetry or a passage of remembered music, as moments of expanded spirit that he calls the "golden track." This concept of the artist and intellectual as an alien among ordinary people is an echo of the Romantic era in German literature when artists held themselves to be citizens of the world, free of the conventions of their individual societies. But at the beginning of the novel, Harry doesn't think of this as freedom, but as alienation and loneliness. Thus the stage is set for Harry's entrance into the world of pleasure. Does Harry benefit from this experience?
2. PREOCCUPATION WITH DEATH
Suicide, murder, and execution track their way through the novel, but it is all quite bloodless. The nephew in the Preface and the anonymous authors of the Treatise describe Harry's deprived and cheerless way of life as suicidal, and the Treatise gives him permission to take his life when he turns fifty in two years. Harry will not wait, however. He will put an end to his misery now though not exactly at this moment. He finds comfort in the idea that he can always end it if life becomes truly unbearable: the door of escape is open.
The preoccupation with death is presented in other forms: the wholesale murder of the automobile hunt, the murder of Hermine, and finally, as Harry is judged and prepares to be executed. But the automobile hunt is one of the Magic Theater fantasies, the murder of Hermine is the reflection of a girl stabbed with the reflection of a knife, and Harry is condemned to live, not to die. In actuality Harry would be incapable of any such acts of violence. Yet each of these scenes releases violent emotions, as though the events were real, but without the dire consequences of reality.
3. MULTIPLE SELVES
The Treatise portion of Steppenwolf tells Harry that he is mistaken in believing that the civilized man and the wolf are his only two selves. Each human being is composed of hundreds, perhaps thousands of selves. By limiting his personality to only two, Harry has cut himself off from a veritable Garden of Eden of selves. He will not find inner peace until he confronts and acknowledges all these other aspects of his personality, and realizes that they are not necessarily in conflict. In the search for his other selves, Harry plunges into the world of pleasure and then into his inner world as revealed to him in the Magic Theater.
What other selves does Harry discover in the course of his adventures? What other selves are you aware of in your own personality? Do you think of them as compatible or at war with each other?
4. JUNGIAN IDEAS
Hermann Hesse said after his psychoanalysis with a pupil of Carl Gustav Jung that it had confirmed his artist's intuition of what lies hidden in the unconscious. In Steppenwolf he used none of the terms of Jungian theory-since he was writing a novel and not a textbook-but he did make use of Jungian ideas.
Harry Haller's wolf self can be seen as the "shadow" in Jungian theory, the side of Harry's personality unacceptable to his conscious self.
Hermine represents the female element that exists in every male. The Jungian term for this is "anima," and it is suppressed as the unacceptable feminine weakness of the outwardly strong male. To protect his image, the man does not recognize his anima as part of himself but projects the anima on a woman in his life. He sees his wife or lover not as herself but as his own unconscious female counterpart. You can see this in the dialogue between Harry and Hermine, when they both acknowledge how much she resembles Harry in thoughts and feelings.
Notice how readily-and comfortably-he accepts her rebukes and follows her advice. Magic, as in Pablo's Magic Theater, is a Jungian synonym for the unconscious. And Harry does indeed act out his unconscious, suppressed violence in the automobile hunt, the taming of the wolf and then the man, and the murder of Hermine. Harry's longing for suicide, in Jung's and Harry's interpretations, is a way to avoid facing one's unconscious.
There are other bits of psychological wisdom in the novel: opposites are two sides of the same thing, self-hate is sheer egotism, and you cannot love your neighbor unless you love yourself. Do you agree with any of these? Disagree?
5. THE DECLINE OF CIVILIZATION
Harry Haller sees Western civilization in decline. He refers to the loss of cultural values and the preparations already being made (in the 1920s) for yet another war. He offers a theory that civilization is in transition between one era and the next, and he proposes that some individuals suffer extremely during these transitions.
The nephew in his Preface suggests that Haller is such a sufferer-that Haller's sickness of the soul is a sickness of the time. Whether this post-World War I period was only a time of great change but not of civilization's decline is debatable. Some would say that World War II proves Harry was right. Do you think Haller's despair for civilization is justified in light of later events?