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