Book Review: Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse

We often lack depth when looking backward, particularly as it regards cultural history. For example, if I were to ask you “Name some book titles or authors whose style you would describe as hallucinogenic?”, you’d probably name the likes of William S. Burroughs and such books as Brave New World. And if I asked “What period would you pin the advent of this style to?”, you’d probably say, and without much pause, the 60’s. Because, you would reason, everything before then was formal and disciplined; rational if enlightened.

The problem is that this is entirely wrong. It is an assumption which benefits too much the artists of the mid-50’s to late-60’s 1 and by ignorance does disservice to those who came before and made such efforts feasible in the first place. Most people wouldn’t know that one of the most commonly-associated hallucinogenic novels, Brave New World, was not a product of the 50’s-60’s. It was written in 1932, nearly 50 years before Burroughs’ Junkie (1953).

Another of these books is Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse. Written in 1927, it is a cracker of a novel, injected with a dream-like existential narrative, intermingled with undercurrents of Eastern mysticism and Western philosophy.

The novel opens with a brief (although I would’ve preferred a briefer) forward by the son of a rooming house matron who describes his relationship with a mysterious boarder who had inexplicably left without notice one night. The tenant, a temperamental stranger in his early 50’s, named Harry Haller, left a manuscript behind which the son hopes will some day shine some light on the capricious personality of the tenant who disappeared. The manuscript which follows is a revelatory and harrowing first-person account of Haller’s self-discovery.

Harry Haller is a man out of place and out of step with his time and his country (in this context, post-WWI Germany). He has grown accustomed to referring to himself as the Steppenwolf: a wolf who has come down from the Steppes to live among men, and as such can neither fully be at ease with an increasingly bourgeois society nor, as a man, the divisively lonesome and eternally longing animal within.

Arriving at a nameless town, he finds himself trying to fit-in as best as possible, but always restless and battling with his duality and the thirst for an end to his seemingly infinite inner conflict. He can’t seem to relate to others and increasingly begins to loathe the life he has led. Just as he begins to obsess over the thought of suicide, he meets a mysterious and vibrant young woman, Hermine. Harry discovers that, unlike anyone around, she is able to understand him and, in a way that is once playful and scolding, is able to direct him away from self-destruction.

Hermine introduces Harry to a colourful and sensual existence with the help of her friends, yet this experience comes at a price. There is a tragedy beneath Hermine’s hedonistic demeanour, and Harry realises that the path she offers him is one not only of liberation, but necessary destruction. As the story proceeds, Harry is enveloped into a seductive world of physical pleasure which unleashes within him a mystical inspiration which serves to alleviate his natural displeasure with the world and his place in it.

However, Harry Haller is Harry Haller. He can’t help but feel as if he has stepped into a world that is not his, inspirational though it may be. As before, just as he feels freed from the shackles of his own prison, the Steppenwolf beckons; the conflict between righteousness and desire, formality and inspiration. He cannot help but grip his traditional way of thinking, torn as he is by the transcendent pleasure Hermine unfolds for him.

The story comes to an end, a hallucinatory multi-layered climax, as Hermine introduces Harry to the Magic Theatre, which becomes an existential funhouse mirror through which Harry comes face to face with his predicament. Face to face with death. Face to face with the nature of the Steppenwolf.

I’m not going to give anything away here – not that there are many “spoilers” to concoct out of this novel. Hesse injects a whirl of thoughts and feelings, sometimes painful and possibly autobiographic, from the necessary tragedy of Romanticism to the bewildering transcendence of Eastern mysticism. While the climax may be highly conceptual and perhaps too ambiguous for some, I must say that I ate this book as if it were my last dinner: reverently.

I will be writing separately about a couple of experiences which happened in relation to my reading Steppenwolf. It is a book that still haunts me and if you haven’t read it (and what I’ve written above doesn’t bewilder you too much) I strongly suggest you do.

Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse (ISBN-10: 0312278675) is available at a friendly independent bookstore near you. Or online at any number of vendors.


1. A problem compounded by the Baby Boomer generation’s evergreen self-obsession, combined with their control of the media.


5 Replies to “Book Review: Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse”

  1. The Steppenwolf haunts me too. It’s one of my favourites. And among the best of Hesse. I tend to think that one day I’ll grow up to be Haller.

  2. Oh, be careful what you wish for…Haller cuts a tragic figure and we shouldn’t want to indulge in that kind of future for ourselves (tempting though this may have been if I’d read this in my 20’s).

    Thanks for the comment!


  3. I didn’t read Steppenwolf for the first time until I was 50. I have read it twice since and now again at 66. I’m rather conventional (bourgeois as Harry would say), but have always had the tension in me that is so clearly depicted in this great novel. I’m rather happy I didn’t read it in my youth. I may not have recovered as did Harry, seemingly. Each time I read it, it was easy to devour, but the intense dreams come back.

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