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MURDER, EXECUTION, AND THE VERDICT
Harry comes to himself in the theater corridor, confronting a mirror in which he looks centuries old. He kicks the mirror into fragments and walks on to yet another door. Within he finds two naked, beautiful figures, Pablo and Hermine, asleep side by side on a rug. Seeing the bruise of a love bite under Hermine's breast, Harry plunges his knife into it. Hermine dies. Pablo wakes, covers her body with the rug, and leaves Harry alone with his deed.
Mozart comes in, now in modern dress, sets up a radio (wireless) and turns it on-it is a broadcast of a composition by George Frederick Handel, yet another German composer and a contemporary of Mozart.
Harry protests at being forced to listen to this mechanical distortion of great music. Mozart lectures him: Harry must learn to listen, to hear the divine music being broadcast everywhere. Life is like the radio. Its mechanical "slime" of necessities and vanities comes between the ideal and the real. Harry must learn what is to be taken seriously, and laugh at the rest. This comparison seems to be an effort to make peace with modern technology, conceding that it can enhance experience and does not necessarily destroy art. Do you agree with Mozart's analogy of the radio-its good and bad aspects-with life? Do you think that radio, television, and computers distort experience and art, or do they enhance them? Is it possible to enjoy the machinery of everyday life on its own merits without comparing it to some ideal?
But Harry must now pay the price of murder. He finds himself in a prison yard, facing a jury in formal morning dress. The prosecutor reads the charge and Harry kneels before the guillotine. Instead of the death penalty, he is condemned to eternal life and is laughed out of court. The jury bursts into otherworldly laughter and Harry comes to himself again, with Mozart beside him.
The charges against Harry are three: He stabbed a reflection of a girl with
a reflection of a knife. He used the Magic Theater as a way of achieving
suicide. Lastly, he is lacking in humor.
Mozart teases him for his "romantics." Harry is ready to suffer death as an atonement-he is willing to die but not to live. Mozart offers to restore Hermine to life and make her Harry's wife. Harry declines-he is not ready and it would result in unhappiness. He protests against Mozart's interference in his life. Mozart offers him one of his cigarettes and is suddenly transformed back into Pablo.
Pablo says he is disappointed in Harry for spattering the Magic Theater's picture world with reality. He picks up Hermine, now a miniature figurine, and puts her in his pocket. The show is over. Harry, weary and ready for sleep, is willing to begin the game of life anew. He will suffer its tortures and will journey through the hell of his inner self not once but as often as necessary.
The conversation with Mozart/Pablo contains the final message of Steppenwolf: one must learn not to die but to live, even though to live is harder.
In the end, Harry agrees to live. He will become better at the game. He will make the exploratory journey into his inner self again and again, painful though it is, as often as necessary. Pablo and Mozart are both waiting for him-meaning that he may no longer suffer from his terrible solitude, that from now on he may be able to enjoy Pablo's world of pleasure as well as Mozart's world of art.
And so the book ends, with no real conclusion but with a promise for Harry's happier future.
NOTE: HESSE'S "POSTSCRIPT" TO THE NOVEL
For Hesse, the future did indeed turn out happier than his and Harry's past. Hesse married for the third time in 1931, and this time it proved successful. In 1941 Hesse wrote a "Postscript to Steppenwolf" (reprinted as an "Author's Note-1961" in some editions).
In this postscript, Hesse points out that of all his books, Steppenwolf was the one most often and violently misunderstood. Usually, though, those who misinterpreted it were not those who rejected it but its most enthusiastic readers, and not only young readers but those of his own age, who identified themselves with Harry Haller and shared Haller's griefs and struggles. These readers, Hesse says, found Steppenwolf a novel of despair.
This is incorrect, he says. The novel is also about a higher, indestructible world beyond the Steppenwolf, a world of the spirit, the arts, and "the immortal men who oppose the Steppenwolf's world of suffering with a positive, serene, super-personal and timeless world of faith." The note ends with Hesse's acknowledgment that the novel pictures a disease and a crisis, but he claims that it leads to healing, not death.
This was the author's interpretation of his novel fifteen years after he wrote it, when his own life had changed from one of chaos and pain to harmony and happiness. Can you make a case either for or against his opinion of the novel's message?
Consider this further question: Does an author have a particular right to explain the meaning of his work? Some might say that the work should speak for itself, that if the author feels the need to explain it the novel has failed. A counterargument might be that the author has at least the same right as anyone else, critic or public, to argue the meaning of the novel, and that Steppenwolf is subtle enough, perhaps even ambiguous enough, to arouse disagreements as to its interpretation. Which side of this argument would you take?