The narrator explains that the work to follow constitutes the records of a man who called himself the Steppenwolf, the “wolf of the Steppes.” The narrator identifies himself as the nephew of the landlady of the lodging house where the Steppenwolf spent nine or ten months before mysteriously disappearing. The narrator assures us that the portrait of the Steppenwolf that the records provide is fuller and more detailed than the one that emerged from the narrator’s slight encounters with the man. He says that the Steppenwolf was an extremely shy and antisocial being, a man so lonely and so strange that he seemed to come from another world altogether.
The narrator recounts his brief run-ins with the Steppenwolf. When the Steppenwolf first arrives at the narrator’s aunt’s lodging house, he sniffs the air and declares that it smells good. The narrator becomes suspicious and repulsed when the Steppenwolf asks that the police not be informed of his arrival. The narrator’s disgust heightens over time as he observes the Steppenwolf’s unusual books, odd hours, heavy drinking, and incessant smoking. These habits are all most disagreeable to the strictly bourgeois narrator. However, his aunt’s spirited defense of the Steppenwolf, along with the narrator’s own positive, interesting encounters with the man, leads him to view the Steppenwolf sympathetically, as a rare, sensitive individual. However, the narrator adds that the effect of his exposure to the Steppenwolf has been “disturbing and disquieting.”
The narrator tells us that the Steppenwolf’s real name is Harry Haller. He describes a look that the Steppenwolf gives him during a lecture given by a very famous speaker. This look, according to the narrator, pierces not only the speaker’s own arrogance but also the self-deluding, pompous, and flawed nature of the entire epoch. The narrator believes that Haller is deeply intelligent and insightful, but that his gifts lead to his overwhelming loneliness and propensity to suffer. The narrator goes on to call the Steppenwolf a “genius of suffering” in the manner of Nietzsche, the renowned nineteenth-century German philosopher. He then speculates that perhaps Haller experienced a traumatically repressive upbringing, which has made him hate himself.
The narrator offers an account of the Steppenwolf’s habits, describing one particular encounter that stands out. Returning home one day, the narrator finds Haller seated on the landing of the stairs between the first and second floors. Haller admits that he is fascinated by the sight and smell of the incredible middle-class cleanliness that is manifest in the perfectly maintained araucaria plant on the landing. The plant is situated next to a spotlessly clean vestibule at the entrance of a first-floor flat. Haller insists that he does not speak with irony and instead expresses nostalgia for his own long-lost bourgeois existence.
Haller invites the narrator to join him in his apartment, where he reads and comments on a quotation out of one of his books. The quotation describes how men will not “swim before they are able to.” Haller takes the idea of swimming to refer to a life of profound thought, telling the narrator that most men prefer solid earth and are “made for life, not for thought.” Those who do go far in thought barter away their hold on solid earth, and each will one day drown.
The narrator then describes a time when he saw Haller at the symphony and recalls that Haller reacted very curiously to the music. During the first and third pieces, the Steppenwolf seemed in a vacant, irritated frame of mind, taken up by other thoughts. During the second piece, however, Haller bloomed and seemed transported by the music into a state of clear rapture. The narrator also recounts seeing a pretty young woman twice visit Haller. Though Haller and the woman seem to go out together happily, both times Haller returns alone in a forlorn state. The third time the woman visits, she and Haller quarrel terribly.
The narrator claims that although Haller was obviously very depressed and in bad shape, he does not believe that Haller has killed himself. The narrator states that the manuscript that follows has been left to him, and that although he is powerless to verify its accuracy, he believes that it reflects the Steppenwolf’s spiritual journey. He adds that these records, despite their at times disgusting content, are valuable because they are representative of the times. The narrator alleges that they express not just the psychological distress of one man, but the social ailments of a whole age—or rather, the distress of that specific breed of man who is caught between two ages.
The preface has four primary functions: it endows the text with compelling realism, provides justification and support for its story, introduces the character of Harry Haller, and announces the book’s major themes and motifs. The preface creates a strong sense of realism, suggesting that we are reading an actual document left behind by a real person. The fact that the name Harry Haller resembles the name Herman Hesse implies that Haller’s records are autobiographical for Hesse. As Steppenwolf is often fantastical and macabre, the fact that the preface is told by an upstanding, solid, average citizen provides a seemingly factual context.
In addition to aiding in suspending the reader’s disbelief, the preface also makes a strong case that justifies and supports the novel. The narrator’s claim that the manuscript is valuable functions as a less-than-subtle claim that Hesse’s novel is likewise valuable. Moreover, in agreeing with Haller’s self-conception of being a wolf from the steppes, the narrator affirms the painful confessions and self-criticisms we encounter in Haller’s own words. The fair, steadfast, and practical-minded nephew slowly comes to empathize with Haller as “a genius of suffering.” Because we can identify with the nephew, who gradually gains an appreciation of the Steppenwolf, we as readers make the same shift, coming to empathize with Haller and his story.
The preface also lays down a brief sketch of the man whose complex inner life forms the action of the novel. We learn of Harry Haller’s extreme dislocation, sense of estrangement, extraordinary intelligence, and sensitivity. Perhaps more important, the preface sets out the terms of the conflict in which the Steppenwolf sees himself caught. On the one hand, Haller is a disruptive wolf of the steppes, staying up late drinking wine and reading his colossally impractical books—generally living in a haphazard fashion. On the other hand, however, Haller also feels bound by a deep affection for the orderly bourgeois world to which he feels he can never belong. The fact that the outcome of this conflict is inevitably suffering, and that there is some value to this suffering—the nephew valorizes the Steppenwolf’s suffering when he calls him a “genius” of it—are important assessments that we are obviously meant to adopt.
Finally, the preface introduces some of the major themes and motifs of Haller’s existence. First, it invokes great thinkers such as Nietzsche, as Haller repeatedly tries to understand his own life in terms of his relation to the gifted cultural geniuses of the past. Second, through the rapture Haller experiences at the symphony and during his visits with the young woman, we see the power music and women have in transforming him. Third, we get a first glimpse of the symbolic contrast between solidity and fluidity. The quotation that Haller enthusiastically reads the narrator sets out a contrast between standing on the solid earth and being immersed in water. Hesse will repeatedly employ these two images in providing an allegory for Haller’s actions. While standing on solid earth reflects bourgeois existence, an unproblematic attachment to worldly life, the immersion in water reflects those few hyperintelligent risk-takers who are unsatisfied by simple answers and devote themselves to the most profound thought.