Steppenwolf: "The Genius of Suffering"

This research paper is now available in ebook format for Kindle. It has been re-formatted and has been edited with more information. Get it in Kindle store here.

Steppenwolf: “the Genius of Suffering” by Hassan M. Malik

If you need to reproduce the article, do it with my permission only.

Contact: hassan at hassanmalik dot org


Steppenwolf: “The Genius of Suffering”

Like Goethe, a Hesse novel is an integral part of a broader paradigm, which reflects the author's maturing thought, morals, and ideas at that particular point in his life. Hesse wrote Steppenwolf when he was about fifty years old. His health was on a decline, and he had divorced out of a failed second marriage in a relatively short period of time (Ziolkowski, 108). He was also undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis (Ziolkowski, 109). Hesse's opposition to the upcoming Second World War, his failed marriage, his search for self, his deteriorating social life, and a strong influence of Jungian ideas it appears, have contributed to the development of this novel. Hesse elaborates how the road to realization of the self can fill up with extreme pain, suffering, misery, affliction, and twinge, if the multiple aspects of self are ignored and the self is reduced to only two extremes of persona – Haller finds his nirvana through the realization that he must broaden the horizon of his thoughts to encompass the thousands of possibilities offered to him by Bourgeois, which he has always despised.

Hesse explains Harry Haller's character with a major emphasis on his psychology. He chooses rather an unusual, but very effective, style to develop a thorough comprehension of Haller for his readers. Hesse uses three different points of view: A bourgeois', Haller's own, and Psychoanalysis by a higher being (perhaps an immortal) in form of the “Treaties of Steppenwolf or the Tract”. Hesse has offered explanation to this unique style by comparing the novel to a Sonata (Ziolokwsky, 179). This emphasis on Haller's character suggests that the spirit and true insight of the novel can not be grasped without the epistemological understanding of Harry Haller's personality.

First depiction of Haller is an indirect character development from a bourgeois point of view in the form of an introduction. This point of view outlines Harry's personality from a bourgeois world, which he despises. The person who introduces Haller is the nephew of the land lady where Haller had stayed for a few months. Theodore Ziolkowski outlines a “twofold” function of this introduction: “to explain the circumstances regarding the publication of the book and to explain the central figure through the eyes of a typical Burger (Ziolkowski, 182)”. The apparent conflict and division in Harry's personality is sketched, when the narrator mentions his own first impression of Harry, which he recalls as an "odd and very conflicting impression [that Haller] made on [him] at first encounter (Hesse, 4). On another point the narrator also confesses that, "He gave at the very first glance the impression of a significant, an uncommon and unusually gifted man" (Hesse, 9). This apparent conflict in the two statements of the narrator signifies the notion that Steppenwolf is an alien creature for the bourgeois. It also points to an apparent paradox in Harry's own personality; he is strange, and unorthodox but an intellectual. The narrator calls Harry a "genius of suffering"; he believes that Harry has "created within himself with positive genius a boundless and frightful capacity of pain (Hesse, 11)." He comments on Harry's suffering being a result of "self-contempt", rather than "world-contempt" (Hesse, 11). The preface ends when the narrator summarizes Harry in the following lines:

I often had to think of these words while reading the records. Haller belongs to those who have been caught between two ages, who are outside of all security and simple acquiescence. He belongs to those whose fate is to live the whole riddle of human destiny heightened to the pitch of a personal torture, a personal hell. (Hesse, 25)

"For Madmen Only" is the title to Harry Haller's own record and it is a reflection of his own thoughts and a journal of the passing days, which he refers to as "kills" (Hesse, 29). Harry calls himself Steppenwolf or a "wolf of Stapes" (Hesse, 4). In the light of Harry being a "genius of suffering", Harry refers to Nietzsche's man who is hanging between an "animal" and an "Overman" over the "Abyss" in Thus Spake Zarathustra (Ch 4.). Harry's pain and hopelessness are depicted when he explores the possibility of having a shaving accident like Adalbert Stifter (Hesse, 30). Harry has arrived to a conclusion that only death can end such a suffering, and he seriously considers committing suicide. He describes one of his days:

He who has known the other days, the angry ones of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with lying, vulgar, brazen glamour of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of a emetic, and when all is concentrated and focused to the last pitch of the intolerable upon you own sick self.(Hesse, 30)

Haller, as an intellectual, has analyzed himself, his entity, his mind state, his character and his thoughts and concludes that this agony is rooted inside him; the cause is his split personality into two beings: a wolf, and a man. Wolf as a symbol indicates Harry's animal instincts. Wolf is a creature who doesn’t abide rules, norms, ethics, morals, and laws of the society. Harry's poem about the Steppenwolf brings the insight of a wolf that has lost the sense of direction and destiny:

The Wolf trots to and fro,

The world lies deep in snow,

The raven from the birch tree flies,

But nowhere a hare nowhere a row.

[…] Is everything to be denied

That could make life a little bright?

The hair on my brush is getting grey.

The sight is falling from my eyes.

Years ago my dear mate died.

And now I trot and dream of a row.

I trot and dream of a hare.

I hear the wind of midnight howl.

I cool with snow my burning jowl,

And on the devil my wretched soul I bear. (Hesse76)

Harry will recall this poem after he reads the Treaties of the Steppenwolf, later in the novel. The questions asked in the poem are answered in the form of “Treaties of Steppenwolf” (Tusken, 115).

Harry is yet to attain self-realization and therefore, his own analysis of himself cannot be complete and perfect. Hesse at this point uses an analysis by a Higher-being in form of "Treaties of the Steppenwolf" also translated as “Tractate of the Steppenwolf”. This analysis comments on Harry's wolfish nature, ways to possibly overcome the wolf, the Bourgeois, and a possibility of Harry’s being at fault when he calls himself a Steppenwolf.

The tract's observation about the dual nature of the Steppenwolf is a path towards agony, twinge, and finally self-destruction. The beast and the man are in continuous struggle and as the tract puts it, "One exist[s] simply and solely to harm the other, and when there are two in one blood and in one soul who are at deadly enmity, then life fares ill" (Hesse, 48). The tract exemplifies occasions when Harry's heart as a man had a "beautiful thought", "felt a fine and noble emotion", or Harry performed a "good act"; the wolf "bared his teeth", and 'laughed" at Harry and made fun of him (Hesse, 48).

P. Schiefer points out an analogy between the tractate and missionary societies (Boulby, 107). The Calw printing house where Hesse's father worked published such works. The style and purpose is a matter of "poignant familiarity" for Hesse - "to preach the truth and the gospel, to awaken and convert" (Boulby, 107). This may lead to an insight that tractate derives from the "Pietistic tradition" (Boubly, 107). If the tractate is derived from pietistic tradition, then one may believe that the relief for Harry may be available in abstinence from evil (as many religions suggest), but abstinence is painful as it is a character of the "man" in Haller and when exercised the wolf then, shows his teeth to him.

The two creatures: man and wolf are in fact metaphors for good and evil in a continuous struggle with each other. Hesse has used this idea of good and evil contained in one being in the past too – in Damien, Emil Sinclair talks about Greek god Abraxas, “whose symbolic task is the uniting of godly and devilish elements [in himself] (Hesse, 80)”. Tractate, while adhering to Haller's own analysis, puts forward a solution to end this affliction in Harry. Tract proposes, for the Steppenwolf, to look deeply within himself, which would resolve the matter of dual entities in one soul by recognition of each by the other, after which "[…] they would either explode and separate forever, and there would be no more Steppenwolf, or else they would come to terms in the dawning light of humor" (Hesse, 64).

At this point the tractate peeps into the true nature of Bourgeois. The tract defines the Bourgeois in search of “balance” by his elemental instinct (Hesse, 59). Bourgeois struggle is outlined to find a middle ground between two extremes. As the tract puts it, “If we take any one of these coupled opposites, such as piety and profligacy, the analogy is immediately comprehensible (Hesse, 59). The tract declares the Bourgeois to be weak and describes how he still continues to exist:

The Bourgeois is consequently by nature a creature of weak impulses, anxious, fearful of giving himself away and easy to rule. Therefore, he has substituted majority for power, law for force, and the polling booth for responsibility. It is clear that this weak and anxious being, in whatever numbers he exists, cannot maintain himself, and that qualities such as his can play no other role in the world than that of a herd of sheep among free roving wolves.[…] Nevertheless the bourgeois prospers. Why?

The answer runs: Because of the Steppenwolves. […] Despising the Bourgeois, and yet belonging to it, they add to its strength and glory; for in the last resort they have to share their beliefs in order to live. (Hesse, 60)

Tractate’s attribution of Bourgeois’s survival to the Steppenwolves, once again puts the nature of the Steppenwolf in question. If Steppenwolf is also a struggle between two extreme poles like Bourgeois is, then what is there that sets the Steppenwolf apart? Tusken answers, “Unlike Harry, the good burghers can easily compromise (114)”. The tract answers to this dilemma when it proposes a better analysis of a Steppenwolf.

"Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not two"; human nature is too complex to be viewed between only two extremes […] Harry's 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 thousand and thousands". (Hesse, 66)

The Steppenwolf, hence, is a "delusion" and rests on "false analogy"; "as a body every one is single, as a soul never" (Hesse, 67). The rest of the novel proceeds in the motif of the above mentioned analysis. Harry is destined to find out that Steppenwolf is not only a wolf and a man, but rather a magnitude of "thousands" of different persona. His abhorrence of Bourgeois will set a tone for his realization. Either he will be set free from a bourgeois world in the cosmos like immortals, or he will learn to live with thousand pieces of his self in harmony by learning the art of humor.

At first, it appears that Haller has ignored the message of the immortals delivered to him as “Treaties of the Steppenwolf”. The incident at the professor’s house signifies that. He doesn’t take Goethe’s picture humorously and disgusts the hostess about her favorite possession (Hesse, 93). He leaves the house with a determination to end his life and the suffering, as Haller writes:

The wolf in me howled in gleeful triumph, and a dramatic struggle between my two selves followed […] For me it was a final failure and flight. It was my leave taking from the respectable, moral, and learned world, and a complete triumph for the Steppenwolf […] This very night I would make an end of the comedy, go home and cut my throat. No more tarrying. (Hesse, 95)

His fear of the razor makes him wander in the city streets, and the idea of going home frightens him (Hesse, 97). His exploration connotes his search within himself to find a conciliatory path for the wolf and the man to avoid death. The “child” in Harry wants to live, whereas he reasons to convince himself that death is “[b]etter today” instead of postponing it to some other day (Hesse, 97).

During this moment of catharsis and reflection, Harry’s mention of the “long extinct sacred flame of his youth”, along with “mother” and “father” is of importance (Hesse, 96). “Mother” and “Father” may refer to Haller’s bipolar analysis of reality, whereas “sacred flame of youth” reveals an insight about Haller’s “sexual life”, which he describes as “extinct” (Tusken, 116). At this point Haller experiences a Jungian “flash of insight” (Tusken, 115). His fate is about to take a twist, and the “doors” for him are soon going to open – he is about to meet Hermine.

Hermine appears as an incarnation of the Jungian principles of anima – Harry’s realization of his multiple-self is connected with his discovery that Hermine is in fact, himself or his reflection; disguised but waiting to be revealed, in an effort to bridge the gap between the two extreme poles of Haller’s personality.

Harry finds attraction in Hermine, and at first he is unable to recognize the true cause of this attraction. Hermine reminds him of his youth, his first love with Rosa Kreisler, and his mother, but he is unable to pinpoint what exactly she resembles (Hesse, 100). Harry fails to understand the true nature of Hermine, but is attracted to her none the less and doesn’t want her to leave him. Tusken elaborates Hermine, and Haller’s behavior and feelings towards her under the Jungian psychological principle of anima. He quotes Carl Jung, “As long as man is unconscious of his anima, she is frequently projected upon a real woman, and the man’s fantasy equips her with all the fascinating qualities peculiar to the anima (Tusken, 116)”. Hermine is everything Haller is, and everything he is not but he wants to be.

When Haller sees Hermine for the first time he observes “the flower in her hair was camellia” (Hesse, 98). The flowers have been of symbolic importance throughout the novel; they symbolize bourgeois in case of “araucaria” in Haller’s neighborhood. Haller also relates Maria to a flower too. So, an important aspect of Hermine is revealed in the form of her symbolic role as a bridge to bourgeois. She almost immediately recognizes the problem with Haller’s personality and a reason to his suffering. She asks him, “How can you say that you’ve taken any trouble to live when you won’t even dance?” (Hesse,100). Harry has been ignoring the multiple possibilities of what he could have done in life. His suffering can only end if he can broaden the horizon of his thoughts to accommodate millions of actions without labeling them into categories of implied good and evil.

Hermine’s command to kill her after falling in love with her reinforces the idea of anima. The command comes as “[Hermine] pull[s] one of the brown and purple green veined orchids up a little in the glass and [bend] over [staring] a moment at the bloom” (Hesse, 126) (Notice the flower). To which Harry proclaims in his mind, “‘I guessed it already – God knows why’“. (Hesse, 125). Hermine’s role is to bridge the gap to his unconscious, “revealing truths that have been surfacing slowly in Harry’s own mind” (Tusken, 120). Killing Hermine after falling in love with her will be an indication that Haller has understood the role of Hermine and is ready to recognize her as a facet of him.

Maria can be perceived as a subset to Hermine’s personality; a sensuous expression of the many dimensions of life. Her role is to prepare Harry for the “beautiful picture” that Haller will witness at the climax of the novel (Hesse, 238). Maria signifies this relationship between Haller, Hermine, and herself by saying, “If Hermine takes you, you will come no more to me” (Hesse, 179). Maria’s role as it comes in Haller’s own words, “From her I had learned once more […] to confide myself in child-like fashion to the play on the surface of life, to seek the most fleeting pleasures, to be a child and a beast in the innocence of sex (Hesse, 179)”.

On the ball room while parting Maria, Haller tells her, “I’d loved to have danced with you [Maria]. Come with me a step or two, Maria. I am in love with your arm. Let me have it a moment longer! But, you see, Hermine has summoned me. She is in hell.” (Hesse, 188) .Maria has successfully taught Haller to enjoy sex in harmony with the wolf, but this is not the only aspect of life Haller has to learn; he has to find his anima (Hermine) to become one of the immortals.

Maria’s role, when contrasted with Pablo’s role, aids in the understanding that they both are, in fact, dimensions of Hermine; who is a reflection of Harry. Harry’s personality will unify once he accepts this reality. He does however, at times, have insights about Pablo. While walking into the Magic Theatre, where the ultimate truth will dawn to him, Harry wonders why Pablo is talking like he has never before: “Was it perhaps not I that made him speak, I who was speaking out of him? Wasn’t it my soul looking at me from his dark eyes […] just as out of Hermine’s grey eyes? (Hesse, )”. Tusken comments on the mounting climax, “Now the Jungian trio is drawing together [;] both Pablo and Hermine speak Harry’s thoughts as personified component parts of Harry’s psyche (Tusken, 121). Harry is on his way to epiphany. He will realize the multiple dimensions in himself, which are on their way to unification.

Harry looks into the magic mirror of Pablo and sees multiple components of his personality. He sees youth, adult, and an old man; and every possibility in between. He recognizes the thousands of possible Harries in the mirror are the diverse dimensions of himself. He is now ready to enter the Magic Theatre of Pablo.

The price to enter the Magic Theatre is one’s sense of reasoning. Magic Theatre is not for everyone – it is for madmen only. One can relate these “Madmen” to be people who can perceive reality on a higher level like immortals; this fact is established in the novel when tract says, “one of our magic theatres”, as the tract is written by a higher being itself (Hesse, 74). Madmen are people like Prince Myshkin of Dostoevsky in The Idiot, “who have perceived total reality of good and evil (Ziolkowski, 215)”. On The Idiot, Ziolkowski’s judgment seems rational when he declares Myshkin to be like Hesse’s madmen. Just to name an occasion, when Myshkin introduces himself in the house of Gavril Ardalionovich, he accepts that he has “grown strange to [their] ways” (Dostoevsky, 20). In the light of Steppenwolf these are people who perceive reality in the absence of time and poles. These people are Immortals who live in a place where life is a “moment” without time and the “moment” is just “big enough” to be happy (Hesse, 110).

Physically the theatre Haller visualizes is in the form of “penny arcade” (Ziolkowski, 217). There are thousands of doors which he has to enter in order to undergo that experience. Haller enters only four of them symbolic for the “whole world of experience” (Ziolkowski, 218).

Each scenario, individually, recapitulates the motif and developed theme of the novel. For example, Haller enters “All girls are yours”. He re-lives loves of his life like he missed in real life. This time his inhibitions are gone; he acknowledges the relationship between innocence, youth, and sex. This is a motif of the lessons learned from Maria.

The strongest and clearest reiteration of the motif is when Haller meets the chess player in “Guidance in the Building of Personality” (Hesse, 217). The Chess pieces signify multiple aspects and facets of Haller’s personality. The man explains the Human Psyche by a few chess pieces in the form of unity (Tusken, 123). At the end the Haller is given all the pieces (Hesse, 220).

In a different scenario a young man of sixteen or seventeen leaps out of the magic mirror and embraces Pablo before leaping into “all girls are yours”. This recapitulates Haller’s earlier refusal of having a threesome with Pablo and Maria. This time Haller sees himself exploring a homo-sexual aspect of his personality (Ziolkowski, 218).

As the climax approaches Haller’s drugs are wearing off and his nerves are “overwhelmed” by the meeting with Immortals (Ziolkowski, 219). He sees the “beautiful picture” of Pablo and Hermine lying naked on the rug “side by side in a sleep of deep exhaustion after love’s play (Hesse, 238)”. Haller notices that “beneath Hermine’s left breast [is] a fresh round mark, darkly bruised – a love bite of Pablo’s beautiful gleaming teeth (Hesse, 238)”. Haller stabs Hermine right on that “mark”. He does that with an imaginary knife without a sign of guilt (Hesse, 238).

Tusken believes that this murder is inevitable for Harry in order to become a complete person in the light of Jungian sense, “Harry [discovers] how to reach into his collective unconscious, aware when its demands are affecting him, and […] continually strive[s] to balance them against other drives, desires, and feelings (Tusken, 126)”. The “love making” of Pablo and Hermine also suggests that Harry witnesses and realizes that Hermine and Pablo are facets of a same persona. After this epiphany, he doesn’t need an anima so he kills her; Hermine’s wanted this from him too.

Another interpretation to Hermine’s murder comes from the idea that Haller is not ready to perceive the reality of Hermine as her anima and kills her out of jealousy. The idea is supported when Harry is accused of “willful misuse of Magic Theatre” (Hesse, 245). So, in the light of tractate Harry fails to achieve the first suggestion of breaking free from Bourgeois in the cosmos. Therefore, he is ordered to listen to the radio. Radio, in first half of the twentieth century, with all its distortion is recapitulating the motif of two extremes: music and noise. Listening to it means that Harry is condemned to bear life in a superficial manner with all its imperfections and different aspects; just like bourgeois. This must be accomplished in the light of humor as Mozart tells him, “You have got to learn to laugh [;] that will be required of you” (Hesse, 246).

No matter what the interpretation of Hermine’s murder, it becomes clear that Harry is ready to laugh, and learn humor. By going into different doors of the Magic Theatre he accepts the reality that his life is not a torment between only two extremes of a wolf and a man. He can now live with bourgeois world, where he can “fox-trot”, listen to jazz, admire the beauty of araucaria, and still able to bear a painter’s reflection of Goethe in the light of Humor. He has understood the message of the Immortals, “Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too”.

Works Cited

Boulby, Mark. “The Steppenwolf.”Hesse Companion. Ed. Anna Otten. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1977. 101 – 158.

Dostoevsky, Fayodor. The Idiot. New York: B & N, 2004.

Hesse, Hermann. Demian. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.

Steppenwolf. New York: Bantam, 1963.

Nietzsche, Fredric. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Trans. Thomas Common. The Project Gutenberg. Dec 1999. The Project Gutenberg website. 18 Nov. 2004 <>.

Tusken, Lewis W. Understanding Hesse: The Man, His Myth, His Metaphor. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1998.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A study in Theme and Structure. Princeton UP, 1974.