A review of the 1927 novel “Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse

German-Swiss Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 and “Steppenwolf” – one of his most famous works – was published in 1927. In an Author’s Note of 1961, Hesse wrote that “of all my books ‘Steppenwolf’ is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other”. He had only himself to blame because this novel is decidedly opaque.

The work consists of three ‘documents’: two short ones of about 20 pages each and then a main one called a treatise of some 200 pages with no chapter breaks at all. Hesse wrote the novel when he was 50 years old and suffering a spiritual crisis and its narrator Harry Haller is approaching 50 and immensely confused by his identity, so this is clearly a semi-autobiographical exposition. There is a lot of sex, a lot of drugs, savage criticism of the bourgeois lifestyle, and much talk of self-loathing and suicide.

Haller sees people with his personality as enduring a war between two souls: “There is God and the devil in them; the mother’s blood and the father’s; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering; and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement were the wolf and the man in Harry”. But he comes to realise that “Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands, between innumerable poles.”

I’ve long felt that, while each of us has a basic personality, there is no essential persona waiting to be discovered. Instead I believe that our personality is shaped by the time and place in which we find ourself and powerfully by the person with whom we are interacting at the time.


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