Hesse published Steppenwolf in 1927, after a failed marriage and two subsequent years of debauchery. Harry Haller’s age, profession, intellectual interests, and unpopular pacifist journalism match Hesse’s own. Hesse suggests that Harry is actually a reflection of himself. Just as the concept of “the Steppenwolf” is useful to Harry for self-analytical purposes, Harry is useful to Hesse as an illuminating fictional construction.
Harry is more like a theoretical framework than a believable, realistic character. He appears out of nowhere, inhabits a nameless space, and disappears again into nowhere when his usefulness evaporates. Harry is also an engaging character. The more mundane aspects of his existence—his admiration of his favorite wine, his embarrassment about his aging, his physical sufferings—are refreshingly lifelike and endearing. These touches soften Harry’s seemingly boundless despair and self-absorption.
The lovely and generous Hermine takes Harry under her wing and teaches him to live, putting him in touch with his long-ignored sensuous side. As a hedonistic young courtesan, Hermine is Harry’s opposite in many ways, yet also his close double. She enters his life by a magical accident, as Harry goes to the Black Eagle tavern, where the signboard man of the Magic Theater directs him to go. As a result, from the start Hermine is clearly something more than a realistic character. Hesse reveals Hermine’s magical, surreal aspects when Harry finds that she resembles his boyhood friend Herman and impossibly guesses that her name is a feminine version of his friend’s.
The closing passages of the novel reveal that Hermine is actually a part of Harry. When Harry stabs her, her slain body neatly shrinks to the size of a figurine. Although it is never clear whether Harry murders Hermine or merely a hallucination of her, the novel’s closing words suggest that Hermine has always been only a reflection of Harry. Once Harry has integrated back into his personality the life of the body that he has hitherto repressed, Hermine is no longer needed and is therefore dispelled. She serves as Harry’s magic mirror, calling out of him and making visible those parts to which he had previously been blind. When Harry learns to see himself clearly, he effectively destroys Hermine.
Pablo plays perhaps the most instrumental role in the changes that occur in Steppenwolf. Clues to his importance are present from his first mention in the narrative. Hermine foreshadows Pablo’s importance in her extreme admiration for him and her claim that he can play all instruments and speak all the languages of the world. The fact that Pablo is the character most associated with music provides a persistent cue to his significance. Indeed, he is a genius bandleader and therefore in charge of defining the rhythms to which all others must tune their behavior. Yet, despite Harry’s efforts to discover Pablo’s value, we have little to go on until the very close of the novel, when Pablo introduces Harry to the Magic Theater.
In the Magic Theater, the seemingly simple-minded Pablo achieves his apotheosis, revealing himself to be the most enlightened figure in the story. In fact, an earlier criticism of Pablo—that he seemed unproblematic as a child—turns out to be a marker of his profound wisdom. Pablo’s wisdom does not require the stifling books and theories under which Harry has buried half his life. Rather, Pablo’s wisdom stems from lived experience, and from a deep consideration of the world that exists within one’s own soul. As Pablo explains to Harry, the important thing is to play music and play it well—not to waste time talking or theorizing about it. Pablo’s ability to shift effortlessly between his two saxophones as he plays symbolizes the ideal integration of the spiritual and the physical to which Harry aspires.