Analysis

Steppenwolf recounts Harry’s spiritual education and development, and in this section we begin to see Harry’s gradual process of change. His encounter with his landlady demonstrates how much he has learned from his night at the Black Eagle. Not only has Harry has become open to human intercourse, but he has also begun to appreciate humor. Instead of going off on a rant about the poverty of modern culture, he manages to make a joke instead. In doing so, Harry is acting on the lessons that his various mentors in the novel—Hermine and, in his dream, Goethe—have tried to teach him about the efficacy of laughter. Harry has also begun to reflect on the unreality of time. In Harry’s dream, Goethe says that seriousness is a result of placing too high a value on time. Later, Hermine points to the possibility of a kind of time outside the constraints of the temporal, lived-in world. Harry’s character develops as he begins to assimilate the new arguments and ideas to which he is exposed.

Hermine is both Harry’s opposite and his double. Her name is a feminized version of Hermann Hesse’s and also sounds similar to Harry’s. Hermine’s remarks that she looks like a boy and that she is Harry’s mirror suggest that her character reflects Harry’s own. At the same time, Hermine’s interest in the sensual aspects of the world is quite different from Harry’s own obsession with morose, contemplative thought. Whereas he is a lonely intellectual and a reactionary against modern popular culture, she embraces everything about life, even its most mundane events. Hermine is well versed in the arts of living and the pleasures of the senses; over time, she teaches Harry the dance of life. Like a mirror image, Hermine seems intangible and almost nonexistent. The fact that she knows so much about Harry, devotes herself so completely to his improvement, and discusses so little of her personal history suggests that she might be an apparition conjured up by Harry’s mind to deal with his mental stress.

The fact that Hermine teaches Harry to dance is significant, as Hesse’s writings frequently treat music as the most elevated, most divine engagement of humanity. The description of Harry’s experience at the symphony in the preface demonstrates how music can serve as a means of transportation into transcendence. Likewise, the image of Pablo playing effortlessly on his two saxophones echoes Harry’s earlier mention of the ability to flow untroubled between his wolf-half and man-half. Hermine thus decides to teach Harry how to make his own actions fit in time and tune with music. Dancing requires human interaction, furthering the suggestion that Hermine is Harry’s partner or double. Hesse is deeply concerned with the problem of a divided or splintered self, so the image of two people moving as though they were one resonates strongly with the novel’s philosophical concerns.

Though Hesse was greatly influenced by the German Romantics, Steppenwolf does not follow the stylistic conventions of German Romanticism. Rather than setting his novel in a stylized world in which the supernatural and unnatural take place, Hesse draws the magical out of the everyday. He grounds his novel in the world of the mundane, the recognizable, and the common. As a result, Harry’s experience with Hermine is rife with worldly details: shopping for a gramophone, buying records, and learning the popular dance steps of the day. Hesse’s own writing echoes Harry’s experience: just as Harry allows popular music to infiltrate his jealously guarded intellectual lifestyle to come to a real engagement with life, Hesse writes on a mundane and contemporary plane to approach something more transcendent.