“For Madmen Only” through the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf”
[H]e knew all the time . . . that he was in reality not a man, but a wolf of the Steppes.
Harry Haller’s autobiographical records begin with a typical day, which Harry says he passes reading books and experiencing physical pain. His days, Harry explains, are mediocre and indistinguishable from one another. He passes from mild scholarly endeavors to bodily discomforts to the minor delights of a walk or warm bath. Harry is so unhappy with all of these experiences that he considers the option of escaping by committing suicide.
Harry rages against contentment, healthiness, and comfort, all of which he perceives to be part of the optimism of the middle class. However, he admits that despite his scorn for the bourgeoisie, he feels compelled to live in their midst due to a feeling of nostalgia for his bourgeois childhood. Harry talks of his admiration for a spotlessly maintained araucaria plant that sits in the stairwell of his lodging house. He sees the plant as a window into this bourgeois world that he feels now excludes him. When Harry recalls his youth, he remembers not a life of bourgeois mediocrity, but frequent moments of transcendence and radiant, meaningful joy. However, these divine incidents have grown increasingly rare over the years, and share nothing at all with the entertainments and occupations absorbing the vast mass of modern people. Feeling hopelessly alienated, Harry says that he is a Steppenwolf: a beast lost in the multitude of human beings, with whom he cannot find happiness or understanding.
At night, in a mood of discontent, Harry goes out to have a drink. As he walks through the rain, he sees over a door in an old stone wall a sign that he has never noticed before. Stepping reluctantly into the muddy street and crossing it, he reads the words “MAGIC THEATER—ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY—FOR MADMEN ONLY!” in bright letters fleetingly dancing over the wet wall and pavement. The sign disappears without a trace, however, and Harry continues on to have a disgruntled dinner in his usual tavern, the Steel Helmet.
On the way home, however, Harry finds himself back at the wall. He can no longer find a door. A man carrying a tray and a signboard passes by. The signboard reads “ANARCHIST EVENING ENTERTAINMENT—MAGIC THEATER—ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY.” This man does not answer Harry’s inquiries about the Magic Theater, so Harry attempts to buy an item from his tray. The man hands him a little booklet but leaves before Harry can pay him for it. Having stepped into the mud, Harry heads home with his feet chilly and soaked. When he arrives home, he finds that the booklet, which appears to be the sort of shabby leaflet one might find at a fair, is entitled “Treatise on the Steppenwolf.” Fascinated, Harry spends the night reading the treatise, relaying it to us word for word.
The Treatise takes the form of a fable or fairy tale, beginning, “There was once a man, Harry, called the Steppenwolf.” It describes Harry’s feelings and emotions in extremely precise detail. It calls Harry a Steppenwolf, one whose human and wolfish natures coexist in constant tension. The man-half of the Steppenwolf acts in accordance with normality and respectability, while the wolf-half sees through the absurdity and vanity of such facades. There are moments when Harry’s consciousness flows untroubled between wolf and man, and these times provide such miraculous happiness that they illuminate all the other periods of darkness and despair. Yet in all these respects Harry is not alone: many other men have the same conditions of existence, particularly artists and heroes. Such creatures vacillate between the conviction that all of human life is a cruel, bad joke and the belief that man in some way approximates immortal divinity.
Constantly thinking of suicide, Harry finally designates his fiftieth birthday as the day on which he can take his own life. Perversely, the thought of a fixed date gives him a sense of freedom. He looks forward to that day with eagerness, as it signals the end of all his worldly sufferings. According to the Treatise, the Steppenwolf distances himself from the bourgeois class by rejecting its social conventions. Nevertheless, many aspects of his life are thoroughly ordinary. Against this framework, the Steppenwolf can follow either the path of the saint by developing his spirit or the path of a profligate by pursuing sensual pleasures. Unable to choose, the Steppenwolf walks a compromised path between the two. As a result of having cut himself free of all conventional attachment, the Steppenwolf is utterly liberated but also utterly lonely.
According to the Treatise, in order to rescue himself, the Steppenwolf must look into his own soul and know himself. The Treatise then muses cryptically on some future possibilities for the Steppenwolf: that he may come to experience the importance of humor, may “get hold of one of our little mirrors,” or may find his way to a “magic theater.” After this comprehensive, authoritative description of the Steppenwolf framework, however, the Treatise criticizes it. It calls the notion of a “Steppenwolf” too simplistic, for Harry consists of innumerable souls, not merely two.
With this criticism the Treatise ends. It reminds Harry of a poem he wrote in which he described himself as a wolf. He reflects that he has two representations of himself, one in verse, one in objective prose. Both versions, Harry believes, are correct, and both point to suicide if he cannot find a way to break through and achieve profound change by deep self-understanding.
Hesse tells Harry Haller’s story from many perspectives in order to heighten its realism. We first learn about Harry through his landlady’s nephew, whose observations about Haller seem to give us the objective truth. We then begin to learn about Harry from his own perspective, which gives us access to his inner life. Finally, we learn about Harry through the authoritative dicta of the mysterious, seemingly definitive Treatise. Because the Treatise employs such phrases as “I say,” “even the best of us,” and “this Steppenwolf of ours,” it has a personal feel, suggesting that the Treatise’s unknown author has a personal connection to Harry.
Much like a court case, these three sources of information about Harry Haller corroborate each other, lending credence to Harry and his claims. Such corroboration is important since, with the appearance of the Treatise, Steppenwolf introduces the first of its fantastic, supernatural events. Of course, even with the corroboration among different sources, we are not likely to believe everything Harry says about the disappearing entrance to the Magic Theater and the thoroughly biographical booklet. Yet the narrator’s preface prepares us for these fantastic elements by stating that, even if not all of its contents are factually true, Harry’s manuscript is nonetheless important as a record of a spiritual journey. In this way, the novel’s multiple sources neatly comment upon and enrich each other.
Though these different sources support each other, they also come into conflict in certain ways. For example, while the Treatise has a perfect understanding of Harry’s Steppenwolf dichotomy, it insists that the dichotomy is incorrect—Harry, like all people, is made up of innumerable selves rather than simply two polar opposites. Thus, after Harry has earnestly portrayed himself as a Steppenwolf torn between the divine and the bestial, the Treatise deconstructs Harry’s idea, critiquing it for being too simplistic. This lesson is furthered by the fact that the text itself reflects the principle of multiple selves. The very structure of the novel imitates this concept of the divided self by breaking itself up into the perspectives of several narrators. The split between Harry’s personal record and the objective Treatise mirrors the split that the Steppenwolf experiences in his own life.
The power of this section comes partly from the symbolic opposition set up in the preface, when Harry reads the passage about the divide between life on solid ground (symbolizing the life of the bourgeois) and the stormy, unsteady life of water (symbolizing Harry’s own life). The water symbolism suggests that Harry is moving away from the safety and security of the bourgeois. Harry sees the sign announcing the Magic Theater reflected on the wet streets. In addition, he is not able to read the sign until he crosses the street, which he has been reluctant to do because it is wet and muddy. Afterward, Harry describes himself as having stepped squarely into the mud, and he points out that his feet are thoroughly wet and cold.
These persistent references to water and wetness are consistent with the dichotomy of the quote in the preface. Stepping off the solid earth of the pavement—literally getting his feet wet—indicates Harry’s shift into deeper, more dangerous territory. Moreover, the image of water evokes ideas of uncertain suspension, imminent dissolution of the self, the danger of drowning, and even the potential for a total drenching of the senses—associative meanings that foreshadow the actions and patterns of the rest of the novel.