He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the Steppes. He had learned a good deal . . . and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however, was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life. The cause of this apparently was that at the bottom of his heart he knew all the time (or thought he knew) that he was in reality not a man, but a wolf of the Steppes.
These are the opening lines of the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” a work that describes minutely the psychological condition of a man, Harry Haller, who harbors two souls within him. One soul is that of an ordinary man interested in the ordinary aspects of human life. The other—his truer, deeper self—is a wild, cruel wolf of the steppes. By this point in Steppenwolf, the same tormented half-wolf, half-man characterization has already been put forward from two other points of view: from Harry’s own claims and from those of his landlady’s nephew in the preface. Now, these impossibly accurate opening lines of the Treatise provide a corroboration of Harry’s central conflict, while introducing the first hints that the novel is not realistic.
In addition, by providing another perspective from which we may view Harry, the Treatise reflects on a formal level the multiple selves that exist within the single individual the Treatise describes. For a work such as Steppenwolf, which has complex theoretical content, the technique of such a Treatise is a very effective invention. It enables Hesse to lay out his beliefs about the nature of the soul in a straightforward, didactic fashion.
“Oh! how stiff you are! Just go straight ahead as if you were walking . . . Dancing, don’t you see, is every bit as easy as thinking, when you can do it, and much easier to learn. Now you can understand why people won’t get the habit of thinking. . . .”
Hermine speaks these lines to Harry at their first dance lesson. Harry has never bothered to learn how to dance and is an utter beginner, while Hermine, a frequenter of restaurants and nightclubs, is well versed in all the newest steps. Below the surface, however, dance is a stand-in for the compatibility between the life of the body and the life of the spirit or intellect. By dancing, Harry is tuning his physical actions to the promptings of the divine, which are symbolized by music.
All his life Harry has focused on the life of the mind, to the egregious neglect of his body. Alluding to a conversation they have just had, in which Harry has complained about people who do not bother themselves to think, Hermine accuses Harry of being just as lazy and bullheaded as those people he disdains. Over the course of the novel, Hermine succeeds in motivating Harry to get in touch with and take pleasure in exerting his more sensuous side. In fact, Hermine can be seen as a reflection of this lost, repressed part within Harry—so much so that once he has fully integrated the sensuous and material within himself, he no longer needs her and puts an end to her.
An experience fell to my lot this night of the Ball that I had never known in all my fifty years, though it is known to every flapper and student—the intoxication of a general festivity, the mysterious merging of the personality in the mass, the mystic union of joy.
This passage appears during the climactic Fancy Dress Ball, where Harry and Hermine dance with innumerable partners and relish the wild revelry to the fullest. Harry’s experience of blending with the community and feeling his personality dissolve into the collective mass represents the culmination of everything that Hermine and others have been trying to teach him. Harry’s absorption of the key lesson about the multifaceted nature of the soul has taken place, through the path of the body and through the kind of modern frivolities that Harry has spent a lifetime disdaining. Furthermore, these truths and this path do not belong to Harry alone but are properties and potentialities of people in general. Indeed, by realizing that his triumph is a common one, “known to every flapper and student,” Harry breaks the egotistical notion that he is specially gifted or destined. This final break with his previous insistence on the self enables Harry’s merging into the mass of people.
Again I looked into the mirror. I had been mad. I must have been mad. There was no wolf in the mirror, lolling his tongue in his maw. It was I, Harry. . . . My face was gray, forsaken of all fancies, wearied by all vice, horribly pale. Still it was a human being, someone one could speak to.
“Harry,” I said, “what are you doing there?”
“Nothing,” said he in the mirror, “I am only waiting. I am waiting for death.”
“Where is death then?”
“Coming,” said the other.
This passage, part of the climactic episode at the novel’s close in Pablo’s Magic Theater, touches on many of the novel’s themes and motifs. It addresses the concept of mirrors with semi-independent reflections, Harry’s inclination toward death, Mozart and unearthly music, and the beyond-world of immortal genius. Finally, the passage alludes to the divide between wolf and man within Harry, and refers to the ideas of to vice and madness. On a formal level, this passage exemplifies the most memorable technique Hesse uses in Steppenwolf: an eerie, surreal, fantasy-world encounter that serves as a visible manifestation, a hallucinatory correlative, for Harry’s internal state. These flights of brilliant fantasy are what make Hesse’s didactic concerns and obsessions palatable, and this passage demonstrates Hesse at his most characteristically unique.
I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart, and somewhere behind me I heard his ghastly laughter. I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket . . . I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.
These are the final lines of the novel. Pablo has just packed up his hallucinatory Magic Theater, including the slain Hermine, who shrinks to the size of a figurine. Pablo has also informed Harry that although he has failed this time, he will no doubt perform better on a future visit. As we see here, Harry instantly comprehends the meaning of the Magic Theater—of Pablo, of laughter, of the pieces of his personality. Whether we as readers have “understood it all” is another matter. The novel’s sudden ending leaves us with a sense of frustration and suspense. Harry declares that he understands, but his understanding does not help us as readers. If anything is clear, it is that, in Harry’s view, Pablo has been elevated to the status of a wise sage. Part of Harry’s newfound respect for Pablo may be due to his acceptance of Pablo’s assertion that laughter is the key to life and insight.
Our last glimpse of Harry shows him as having failed in the very instant of his transcendent epiphany. He does not leave the novel a successful hero. In fact, Harry still looks forward expectantly to fresh periods of inner hell. Since these periods sound suspiciously like the periods of despair Harry experiences after first reading the Treatise, we might wonder what Harry has gained since the beginning of the novel. He has gained understanding, renewed spirit, and the possession of those tools such as laughter that make it possible to take up life’s challenge.