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Maturity: Learning to Let Go
Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf is the story of a troubled man’s journey to find a balance between his urges to enjoy the spoils of life and his fear of being completely cutoff from his socially structured life. Herman Hesse was a German who immigrated to Switzerland during his childhood. The isolation he experienced caused him to develop depression at an early age, which he battled with for a long period of his life. In Steppenwolf, Harry Haller is a man in the same situation. This essay discusses how the neurosis of Harry Haller, the depressed protagonist, allows him to discover, and eventually resolve, the internal conflict he has between living as free as an animal and accepting the limited bourgeoisie lifestyle, and perhaps this novel is a self reflection of Hermann Hesse’s own thoughts due to the similarity between the character and him.
In this novel, Harry Haller is a middle-aged and well-educated man who recently moves into a new town.
His loneliness and despair causes him to think about suicide. He hates the bourgeoisie lifestyle, but is still attached to it because his upbringing was structured by it. He wishes to embrace his “wolf-half” by completely giving in to his urges, but is afraid to do so because he fears complete detachment from the life that he has come to know (and hate). One night, while on a walk, Harry comes across a building called the Magic Theater; Harry later meets a woman named Hermine, who befriends Harry, and finds him a lover named Maria and a musician named Pablo.
Harry begins to give in to his wolf-half, basking in the sensuality of everyday life, but he despises what he is becoming; Hermine seems aware of Harry’s internal conflict. Pablo invites Harry and Hermine to his Magic Theater, where Harry opens doors to find new worlds and travels from one world to the next, until he finds a post-coital Hermine and Pablo laying naked on the ground. Harry then murders Hermine with a knife that has appeared in his pocket, followed by a strange scene where Mozart appears to tell Harry that he has violated the Magic Theater with his gravely inappropriate behavior, but that Harry must laugh at his mistakes, which is the goal of the Magic Theater.
Harry embodies the Steppenwolf, this dual-natured existence that fuels his neurosis and is destroying his life because he fails to find self-actualization, and consequently, is never at peace with himself and contemplates suicide as a way of relieving his struggle. He is aware of the “clear division of his being between two spheres, hostile to one another” (25), but is unable to confront this problem until he starts reading the “Treatise of the Steppenwolf,” which offers an insight into his own life. This booklet allows him to view his life in an object way, which is usually very difficult for an individual to do. That’s why therapists exist. This booklet, along with Hermine’s guidance, allows Harry to explore the world of raw pleasure, which he does so lavishly, but hates it the more he indulges in it. In fact, the more he strays from his structured life, the more uneasy he becomes. For a time, he lets his inhibitions go, and is truly happy, but the feeling of dread follows soon after. This signifies that he will not, and maybe cannot, cut off his ties to his bourgeois background, and seeks safety in the structure of society. However, for Harry, this is merely the first part of his journey to resolve his inner conflict.
If Harry is the reflection of the once troubled Hermann Hesse, then perhaps Hermine is the older, more knowledgeable, and current voice of Hermann Hesse (note the similarities in the names). In this perspective, the novel sounds like an autobiography of Hesse’s inner struggles, and a self-awareness that he provides as Hermine, having found the solution to his conflict, and retelling the story as an omniscient character rather than the omniscient narrator because it allows the reader to get the experience out of the journey that Hesse himself stumbled through. This novel has multiple layers of actualization, with Harry representing not only the past Hesse, but perhaps the troubled reader as well, and Hermine being the ultimate form of actualization – instead of an omniscient narrator – so as to preserve the feeling of embarking on a journey instead of being dictated a story.
The line between reality and fantasy is blurred when Harry enters the Magic Theater, his brains, and runs from one door to the next, opening up new worlds. This is at the end of his inner journey, where he finally allows himself into the part of his mind at the core of the conflict. When Mozart appears to talk to Harry after he kills Hermine, he tells Harry that he needs to learn to laugh at his mistakes and Pablo tells him that he has failed this time, but there will be more chances. The novel ends with Harry saying that “One day I would be a better hand at the game [of life]. One day I would learn how to laugh” (110). By tackling his own neurosis, Harry has learned to understand that he does not have to choose between the life of the Steppenwolf and the life of the bourgeoisie. He realizes that he has made mistakes in life, but he has been punishing himself when he should learn from those mistakes and forgive himself.
Harry tried to fully commit to the life of pleasure and animalistic desire. However, he realizes that he can learn to exist in both worlds over time. He has been neurotic about leading an imperfect and unsatisfying life, but is reminded that making mistakes is a part of human life. Instead of letting his inadequacies control his life, he can eventually learn to deal with his depression by facing his problems, the ones that exist inside his head, and learn to laugh at the mistakes he makes along the way. Harry resolves this clash between the life of the Steppenwolf and the life of the bourgeoisie, and comes to the conclusion that moderation is the key to happiness. The novel has many themes, but this is the central message Hermann Hesse wanted to deliver to his reader, and perhaps this is an investigation of the difficult times he faced in his past and a closing of a chapter of his life as he makes peace with himself.
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