The second half of Steppenwolf takes quite a drastic turn. Leaving the funeral behind, our narrator Harry Haller—at the lowest of low spirits—wanders the streets and ends up at a bar, where he meets an attractive, spirited young woman. Through Hermine, he is reminded he is living in the roaring Weimar Republic, not the stuffy old German Empire of his books and classical music. Leaving philosophy behind, Harry gets pulled into the nightlife of the city—and much more—when Hermine challenges him to learn how to dance the fox trot.
I have several big issues with the way Hesse developed the novel and ending.
First, and this is entirely personal opinion, but… I really don’t care for a plot driven by sexual encounters and drugs. I find these kind of things distasteful to read about; I see enough of it in the daily news, and as “art,” it seems low bar on its own. It doesn’t help that these scenes are narrated by the woeful Harry, who doesn’t even have the joie de vivre of a Fitzgerald character to at least glamorize his vices. Instead he has to over-analyze everything in painful detail, which just adds to the cringe.
Second—what exactly did happen in the last part of the novel? Harry monologues some more about Life and Women, how bad he feels, and how he doesn’t like jazz and dancing (until he gives it a fair try). He gets laid and tries drugs… and suddenly life is ok again? There was a big mental disconnect for me between him trying to find the meaning of life and him actually finding it. The stuff in between seemed no more than a stereotypical mid-life crisis. Maybe that is harsh, but I was really scratching my head to figure out how he got from A to B.
My third gripe is how the female characters were portrayed. Harry likes Hermine because she’s outgoing, androgynous, and reminds him of his schoolboy friend (crush?) Herman. Harry likes Maria because of her physical attractions and “surrender,” and even chooses to mention she’s basically uneducated. There’s something extraordinarily self-centered and potentially misogynist in these characterizations. A more in-depth backstory to Hermine is implied but never fully explored. Even Capote gave us this in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
“But wait!” you protest. “This is all symbolic. These are characters of the Magic Theater, figments of Harry’s imagination!” That may be true, but that doesn’t make them less disappointing. And I was really hoping to get out of Harry’s brain for a bit. If these characters are just meant to illustrate his psyche… well, it doesn’t paint a very positive picture to me, let alone one of character development. I know some would get on my case for expecting soooo much from an older book (yes, I’m still scarred from a particular book club in which an older woman defended Saramago as “of his time” and suggested I was a Smol Child). But honestly, I’ve read Victorian literature that depicts women better. I don’t think it’s so much to ask of a 20th-century novel, and I barely see a hint of it here.
Whew… with that out of the way, let me end on a positive note.
Harry makes a clear stand against warmongering throughout this novel, which is interesting historically and refreshing to read. This part is likely autofiction, since Hesse held the same views. The best scene comes in the first half of the book, when Harry is invited to dinner at the home of his highly educated yet thoroughly conventional friend. Harry describes the academic thus:
He sees nothing of the preparations for the next war that are going on all round him. He hates Jews and Communists. He is a good, unthinking, happy child, who takes himself seriously; and, in fact, he is much to be envied.“For Madmen Only” – Steppenwolf, 37%
Ultimately, Harry is as incapable of succumbing to Germany’s extreme nationalism as he is disgusted by his friend’s sentimental portrait of Goethe. This political individualism, at least, is one point on which he seems to be unswayed from beginning to end, while on other social issues he seems quite open to suggestion.
While I did not enjoy this second half of Steppenwolf, it is extremely sobering to think this kind of “free” culture immediately preceded a horrific regime. Was Nazi Germany a pendulum swing, or a latent element developing under the gloss of freedom? I want to learn what happened. For this reason, I am glad I read Steppenwolf as a motivation to dig into the history a bit more.
I’m not giving up on Hesse yet… the first part wasn’t bad. This book may just suffer from too much self insertion. I might not even have downrated it for the content so much if it had just made any kind of sense or taken me to a higher point than the book started. Oddly enough, while the philosophical first half of the book feels very real and weighty to me, the second half of the book seems as transient as a drug trip. I understand it was meant to be an uplifting ending, but I was left unconvinced of a resolution to Harry Haller’s existential crisis. 2 out of 5 stars.