The Fancy Dress Ball


An experience fell to my lot . . . that I had never known . . . the mystic union of joy.

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Harry plans to meet Hermine at the Fancy Dress Ball, which is a masquerade. He is going without a costume, while she is going in a costume she has not revealed to him. That night, Harry goes to his old haunt, the Steel Helmet, for dinner. He is filled with a sense of nostalgia for his former life, and also a sense that he is bidding it farewell. He reflects on the lamentable nature of modernity. Harry considers himself to be neither old-fashioned nor of the present day, believing he has “escaped time altogether.” Since it is still too early for him to go to the ball, on a whim he stops off at a cinema and watches part of the Old Testament on-screen.

Once at the masked ball, Harry is immediately swept up in the swirl of festivities. Each part of the Globe Rooms is given over to the ball, with dancing in every room, even the basement. Everyone at the party is in a good mood except Harry, who is surly and aloof because he cannot find Hermine or Maria anywhere. He tries to leave, but once at the cloakroom he realizes he has lost the ticket for his coat. A stranger whisks by and gives Harry his own ticket, upon which are scrawled the words “TONIGHT AT THE MAGIC THEATER—FOR MADMEN ONLY—PRICE OF ADMITTANCE YOUR MIND.—NOT FOR EVERYBODY.—HERMINE IS IN HELL.

Harry hurries away to find Hermine, exhilarated once again. Maria, in disguise as a Spanish dancing girl, throws herself into Harry’s arms. As Pablo leads the band, Harry and Maria dance and kiss, but she bids him farewell when she learns that Hermine has summoned him. In the room at the party designated as “hell,” Harry sits down at the bar next to a young fellow who turns out to be Hermine disguised as Harry’s childhood friend Herman. Talking and drinking champagne, Harry easily falls in love with Hermine, as she had said at their first dinner that he would.

Harry and Hermine break apart to dance with other women, sometimes rivaling each other for the same woman. Harry loses himself in the fairy-tale magic of the ball. For the very first time in his life, he experiences the sense of absorption in a large crowd, the utter dissolution of the self in the collective community that is usually only experienced by students and revelers. Harry feels himself Pablo’s brother, innocent and released as a child. He notes that he has “lost the sense of time.”

Harry is drawn to a woman in a black Pierrette costume with a white face. He dances with her, and when they kiss, he recognizes that she is Hermine in a new disguise. They dance a climactic “nuptial dance.” As the dawn approaches, Harry twice hears an eerie distant laughter from above. Pablo, who has been in another room, appears and invites both Harry and Hermine to a little entertainment, “[f]or madmen only,” with only one price: Harry’s mind. In a little room bathed in blue light, the three of them smoke Pablo’s strange cigarettes and drink an unfamiliar liquid, which packs an immediate punch. Pablo, for the first time articulate and voluble, explains that Harry has always desired to penetrate to that realm beyond time, but that this world beyond time exists only in his own soul. Pablo says that he is now going to make this world of Harry’s soul visible.


In this section Hesse develops the idea of escaping time. First suggested by Goethe in Harry’s dream and echoed by Hermine just before the Fancy Dress Ball, the idea of being beyond time again comes to Harry through a feeling he has during his visit to the Steel Helmet. Harry reiterates this sentiment at the height of his revelry at the ball, where Pablo, as he prepares Harry for the Magic Theater, reinforces it yet again. Although clearly an important theme in Steppenwolf, the idea of escaping time remains vague and not entirely consistent. On the one hand, the theme is connected with the recurrent motif of the immortals, geniuses such as Goethe and Mozart who inhabit the space of eternity. In her talk with Harry before the ball, Hermine speaks of the world beyond time as the place for which she and Harry—those “with a dimension too many”—are destined, ostensibly after death. But when Pablo discusses the idea of a realm beyond time, he links it with the world of Harry’s soul. The novel suggests that the world of eternity exists as a possibility only when we die, yet also implies that it is a realm of transcendence we carry within us.

We see Harry’s dramatic change from an ascetic intellectual to a passionate hedonist in the changing way he relates to a crowd. Harry’s momentary disgust with the wild, crude merrymaking around him demonstrates the extent of his change. It is only Hermine’s intervention that enables Harry to merge with the crowd, becoming one with them in a communal frenzy and fervor.

Harry likens the release he feels when he merges with the crowd to the innocence of a child. Hesse draws this idea—the child as symbolic of sensual pleasures—from the theoretical systems of the nineteenth-century German thinkers Friedrich Nietzsche and Emile Durkheim. Nietzsche’s famous work Thus Spake Zarathustra sets up a three-part categorization of the spiritual evolution of individuals: the third and final stage is that of a child, whose role is to say the “sacred yes” in innocence and wisdom. Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life identifies a very important mode of social behavior, the carnival, in which all restrictions are overturned for a specified time; the carnival serves as a release valve for a society’s pent-up, repressed energy. Durkheim notes the feeling of “collective effervescence” that occurs when the individual at such a gathering feels submerged in a state of union with the larger social mass—exactly the feeling Harry has at the climax of the ball. Just as it conforms to elements of Durkheim’s analysis, Harry’s dissolution in the larger mass signals that he has learned the lessons of the Treatise and shattered his sense of himself as a singular unit into a thousand different souls.

As Harry becomes increasingly similar to Hermine, it becomes clear that she is nearing the end of her project of teaching him. Harry will soon have to kill Hermine according to their original agreement. This situation strongly suggests that that Hermine is not real but only a reflection of some part of Harry’s self. Hermine’s appearance at the ball—so well disguised as “Herman” that Harry does not even recognize her—foreshadows her eventual disappearance. Harry has described Herman as a boyhood friend, a poet of ecstasy and transcendence, without ever mentioning what happened to Herman or how such a close friend fell out of his life. By now, we sense that “Herman” actually represents the innocent, pure, life-loving part of Harry that has been buried and warped by so many damaging years. Arriving at the ball in the guise of “Herman,” Hermine unmasks herself as a fiction of Harry’s inner self. Hermine unmasks herself because she is no longer needed; once recognized as part of Harry, the only possible next step is for her to disappear.