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Steppenwolf

Hermann Hesse

The Second Part of Harry Haller’s Records

The First Part of Harry Haller’s Records

The Third Part of Harry Haller’s Records

After the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” through the meeting with Hermine

Summary

After closing the Treatise and reading his own poem about the Steppenwolf, Harry reflects on what the Treatise predicts for his future. Harry’s idea that he will kill himself unless he goes through a profound change reminds him of other instances in his life when ego-shattering experiences led to better and stronger spiritual growth. He recalls two such instances and the terrible times that followed them: the loss of his career and being chased out by his wife. Despite the fact that these turbulent events ultimately had positive consequences, Harry begins to feel too weak to undergo another painful period. He feels he would rather commit suicide than face the prospect of such horrible agony. In fact, the idea of committing suicide on his fiftieth birthday—as chosen by the Steppenwolf of the Treatise—seems too far off, a full two years away.

The following day, Harry concludes that the Treatise is clever and well written but still too general to capture his own unique situation. He is again wracked by anguish and isolation, and he searches in vain for the entrance to the Magic Theater and the signboard man who gave him the Treatise. Harry searches for some time but finds nothing. One day, following a whim, he joins a funeral procession, and one of the men in the procession seems to be the man with the signboard. Harry asks this man where the show will be that night. The man does not recognize Harry but tells him to go to the Black Eagle if he’s looking for a show.

Harry runs into a professor, a former colleague of his, who invites him over for dinner. Harry is initially very grateful for this instance of human warmth, but later, as he gets ready to leave for the professor’s house, he resents the impending social niceties. At the professor’s, Harry’s frustration at the misery of having to pretend to share the solid, upstanding life of the professor and his wife gets the better of him. Harry ruins the evening by dramatically insulting a portrait of Goethe, the celebrated German poet, which hangs in the professor’s living room. Harry perceives that the portrait is pompous, which deeply offends the professor’s wife. Instead of apologizing, Harry makes a clean sweep and confesses to the professor his utter opposition to the man’s way of life.

Harry realizes the night has been a total victory for his wolf-half, as he feels he has irreparably severed the very last of his ties to humanity. Shamed and furious with himself, Harry concludes that there is no other option but to end his life. He starts to feel afraid of death, however, and flees from the idea. Paralyzed and dreading the prospect of returning to his rented room, where he believes he will commit suicide, Harry wanders through the city for hours until he finds himself at a public house called the Black Eagle. At its bar, he meets a “pale and pretty girl,” who asks him his name. Harry begins to confess much of his situation. The girl makes him clean his glasses, orders him something to eat and drink, and mocks his dirty shoes. She calls Harry a baby when she learns that although he claims that he has taken great trouble to live life, he has never bothered to learn to dance.

Harry realizes there is something strangely familiar about this girl. At first, he thinks she reminds him of a childhood love, Rosa Kreisler, but decides that this is not the connection. Harry tells the girl about the Goethe incident, and she tells him he should not have taken the portrait so seriously. She says that it is hypocritical for Harry to think that he alone is allowed to decide what Goethe should really look like, and that the appropriate behavior in the face of such a misguided portrait is to laugh. In fact, she adds, Harry makes her laugh.

Although she is straightforward, direct, and simple in her manner, the girl seems to understand precisely what Harry needs. He is won over by her maternal treatment and wants to obey all her orders. When the girl eventually gets up to dance, Harry panics but then oddly follows her suggestion of falling asleep right there at his table amid the loud noise and merry people. While Harry sleeps he conjures up Goethe in a dream, which he thinks may also be populated by the German authors Matthisson and Bürger, as well as Molly, a character in Bürger’s poems. Harry accuses Goethe of propagating a lie by teaching optimism in a life that Goethe knew was filled with despair. But Goethe avoids all of Harry’s questions and says Harry takes him too seriously. Goethe claims that the proper attitude is humor and that seriousness is an “accident of time” that stems from placing “too high a value on time.” Goethe then plays a trick on Harry by offering him a leg that turns out to be a scorpion.

When Harry wakes, he does not want the girl to leave him. They agree to meet the following Tuesday. Before she leaves, the girl says that she understands how Harry feels about Goethe, that the portrait is an image or icon that reflects not the true nature of the figure it represents but an excessively romanticized false persona. She has felt the same way in front of pictures of the saints. When Harry asks the girl if she is religious, she replies that she was at one time and, though she is not now, she expects to be so again in the future. The girl also says that to be religious, one must have “independence of time.” Finally, she solves Harry’s worry about returning to his room: she suggests he pass the night in a rented bedroom at the Black Eagle. Harry feels that the kindness and perfect sympathy of this strange girl have redeemed him and saved him from despondency and doom.

Analysis

Though Harry’s initial conclusion—that the Treatise is too general to apply to his particular situation—heightens the novel’s sense of realism, the girl challenges his rational approach to the world. Harry’s skepticism lends the sometimes-fantastic narrative a sense of rationality, making the story seem less like a fairy tale and more like a documentary. However, Harry’s skepticism also makes him somewhat blind to the signs and gifts that life providentially bestows upon him. The girl goes so far as to suggest that only by leaving reason behind can Harry combat his depressed, suicidal nature. She challenges his reliance on rationality by pointing out that in his despondence, he has not taken the time to learn to dance. The girl alerts Harry to the pleasures and wonders of the world that are constantly around him but that he never notices.

The wolf-half of Harry first manifests itself when he has difficulty communicating with the professor and the girl in these chapters. Harry is unable to tolerate human compassion, and as a result he denies others’ attempts to connect with him. The incident at the professor’s home suggests, however, that this process is not entirely Harry’s fault. After all, Harry is surrounded by people who outwardly seem to resemble him but are actually totally different. The girl, who is from a very different class and upbringing than Harry, illustrates the need to look beyond surface resemblances to find truly complementary people. The girl represents an encounter with the radically different, an encounter that is necessary to incite change in Harry. The Treatise points out this contrast, arguing that we are all made up of innumerable selves. On the surface, Harry and the girl seem to contrast, but because they are each complex people composed of numerous identities, their characters are actually complementary.

As the girl takes responsibility for Harry, her actions take on deep symbolic meaning that suggests her role as a force for change in Harry’s life. The girl also proposes that one way Harry will experience change is through the development of his sense of humor. The girl cleans Harry’s glasses, symbolizing the newfound clarity with which he begins to evaluate himself. She notices the mud on his shoes, which in its intangibility represents the opposite of the solidity of down-to-earth bourgeois existence. The girl also echoes Goethe’s statement about time, telling Harry that the best thing to do in the face of the silly mediocrities of the world is merely to laugh. The girl’s advice regarding laughter becomes a significant philosophical point of the novel. As both the Treatise and Harry’s dream of Goethe also address humor, Hesse suggests that humor is a characteristic of the enlightened.

This section highlights the disjunction between representation and reality. Harry denigrates the Treatise for not corresponding closely enough to the reality and complexity of his own situation. He also becomes violently perturbed that Goethe’s portrait could not possibly be an accurate portrayal of the dead poet. In both cases, the unreality of the representation upsets Harry deeply. We see that Harry and the girl have different points of view with regard to representation: Harry feels that images have the power to corrupt and distort our perceptions of reality, while the girl points out that representations should not be taken too seriously and that the power to represent belongs equally to everyone. This argument parallels the argument of the Steppenwolf treatise, which points out that the image of the Steppenwolf is too simplistic to adequately describe Harry. Ultimately, the girl’s argument implies that images of the human body are likewise incapable of adequately describing the various personalities that inhabit it.

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