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.