Steppenwolf

by: Hermann Hesse

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Music

Harry’s profound attachment to music is obvious from the start, when the preface describes the curious changes that come over him at the symphony. Harry’s earliest and greatest idol is Mozart. Among Harry’s greatest frustrations with modern popular culture are the radio and gramophone, which he dislikes because he believes they defile sacred music. For Harry, music floats above the world of mundane realities, a perfect, transcendent sphere of the spiritual. This high estimation of music recalls German Romantic aesthetic theory, which prized music foremost among the arts because it does not attempt to represent something else, as visual or dramatic arts do. Strictly pure, divorced from having to picture or describe any physical thing, music seems to belong to the divine world beyond the visible one.

Dancing

The motif of dancing operates alongside the motif of music. If music provides a sense of the immortal, lofty spiritual world, dancing suggests a tuning of earthly actions to the rhythms of the divine. Hermine teaches Harry to dance and at the same time teaches him how to combine physical and spiritual life. The fact that Pablo is a genius bandleader, choosing and directing the songs to which a multitude dances, reflects his gift for bringing the two parts of the self—the sensuous and the spiritual—into harmony.

Representation

Steppenwolf is full of many kinds of representations. The novel contains a multitude of different narrative representations of Harry, from the preface of his landlady’s nephew, to Harry’s own records, to the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” to the poems Harry pens in the course of the novel. Each narrative representation of Harry possesses its own limited share of truth. None contains the whole truth of Harry, yet each elucidates some aspect of his character. Harry himself notes this when he looks at the Treatise and a bit of his own writing. Exploring representation in this way, Hesse emphasizes his assertion that an individual is not a simplistic unit but a rich complexity of thousands of souls.

Though some representations in the novel are truthful but incomplete, many are simply inadequate. The most striking of these is the portrait of Goethe, which incites Harry’s self-righteous fervor. As Hermine points out, in his outburst Harry has committed the same error of which he accused the professor’s wife. If no one knows what Goethe really looked like, Harry’s own cherished image of the poet is just as subjective and self-serving as the portrait. Hermine’s criticism demonstrates that all representations are interpretations, each from a different angle. Each representation, though sometimes successful in its own way, is also inevitably limited.