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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
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.
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Steppenwolf!