Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Steppenwolf describes Harry Haller’s unusual, tragic condition. He is torn between two selves: a man-half who desires the respectability and comforts of bourgeois existence, and a wolf-half who scoffs at these vain, absurd desires. Although Hesse returns to this dichotomy throughout the novel, he also frequently dismisses it as overly simplistic and exaggerated. According to the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” the idea that Harry is composed of these two selves is useful in theory, but, like all such theoretical constructs, is ultimately unable to capture the complexity and richness of reality. According to the Treatise, “Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two.” Moreover, this is true not only in Harry’s case but is an inherent condition of mankind.
The idea of multiple identities is most fully explored in the Magic Theater at the novel’s close. Pablo speaks of the theater as a place in which to perform the dissolution of the personality. Behind one of the strange doors, a man closely resembling Pablo teaches Harry that the individual is comprised of innumerable selves that may be reconfigured in varying ways, like chess pieces. Drawing upon the Eastern ideas of reincarnation and transmigration of the soul into infinite bodies, and upon the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung, Hesse articulates a highly personal hypothesis of the multifaceted nature of the soul.
In her most intense and revealing discussion with Harry, on the day before the Fancy Dress Ball, Hermine emphasizes something she calls “eternity.” Eternity exists “at the back of time.” It is the realm of all the things that matter—works of genius by artists like Mozart, the strength and potency within all true feelings and acts, and the pure saints and suffering martyrs.
Hermine’s speech provides the clearest formulation of Hesse’s idea of such a world beyond time. Other figures in Steppenwolf refer to it in more or less straightforward terms; Goethe for instance, speaks of the mistake man commits in making too much of time. Indeed, the mere fact of Harry’s encounters with past geniuses points to their continuing existence in some realm freed from the mechanism of time. More subtly, the idea of existence beyond time crops up as a frequent sensation whenever Harry is operating correctly. Caught up in the collective dancing fervor at the ball, for instance, Harry says that he has “lost the sense of time.”
Since Steppenwolf is meant to be an educational text, Hesse develops the idea of a world beyond in tandem with his other major ideas in the novel. The laughter of the “immortals” is one way of entering into the world of eternity. Likewise, the failure to recognize the existence of multiple selves within the individual may be linked to an insufficient consciousness of timelessness. Indeed, when Harry looks into the gigantic mirror of the Magic Theater, he sees dozens of Harrys of all sizes, inclinations, and temperaments. One Harry even darts off impetuously before Harry’s astonished eyes. Being thus intertwined with the other major ideas of the novel, the existence of a space beyond time in a sense provides the soul of these ideas. Laughter may offer a way to confront life, but it is eternity that holds the key to the reason for doing so. Hesse suggests that our actions struggling on behalf of goodness and genius do matter in the large-scale view.
Steppenwolf recounts the drama of a conflicted, despairing individual’s quest to resolve his internal difficulties so that he may once again live life. The novel offers a straightforward solution to this problem: laughter. Each source of wisdom in the story—the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” Goethe, Hermine, Pablo, and Mozart—advises Harry that laughter is the correct approach to life. Laughter tinkles coldly and beautifully at all of the novel’s most intense, breakthrough moments, and the story finally closes on Harry’s determined resolution to learn how to laugh.