Steppenwolf, Concluding Rant

See Review Part 1, spoiler free


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.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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.

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Marian

Blogger, YouTuber, reader, and scribbler. I love classic literature, tea, and rain, preferably all at once.

15 thoughts on “Steppenwolf, Concluding Rant”

  1. it is rather dated; it’s incredible how much society has changed in the last fifty years. when S first came out it stunned the world, at least the youth, but now it seems like just not a very good effort. I thought Siddhartha was a lot better even tho the plot was pre-planned in a way… i’ve read some short stories by Hesse that i thought were pretty acceptable, so i think he had something to say but it took him a while to figure out how to do it…

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    1. Funny thing is, I did enjoy Beneath the Wheel which was his first novel, but that one was far more conventional than Steppenwolf. I think my next Hesse will either be some short stories (Pictor’s Metamorphoses) or The Glass Bead Game, his Nobel Prize winner.

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  2. You’ll find debaters for both sides of the pendulum versus inevitable emergence debate: the NSDAP began in the 1920s, but they didn’t find their strength until all of the economic upheaval — and at the same time, communists were forming similar paramilitary organizations and marching through the streets. In one of my German history classes, we examined the returns of the last free election in Germany, and my professor pointed out — though neither the socialist/communist blocs or the NSDAP had a commanding percentage in themselves, both parties had total contempt for the existing social order and wanted to wreck or reform it to their own image, and their numbers combined meant that over half the voting electorate viewed society with hate. It’s rather sobering.

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    1. The Nazi rise certainly wasn’t inevitable though it was helped greatly by the Great Depression. Of course if the Communists had won in the early 30’s and suppressed the Right-wing parties they might have called on the Soviet Union for help – which might have led to just a *different* WW2 rather than European peace!

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      1. More like the world of Command and Conquer? Bring on the combat bears and teleporting chrononauts!

        (More realistically, though, I can see that scenario — not in the late thirties/early forties, though. From what I’ve read Russia was far weaker than she let on until the Nazis forced them to up the ante.

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        1. It might have been a case of the Soviets taking Germany in the early 30’s (and of course Poland to get to it) and then stopping. Only to attack France later therefore precipitating WW2 as France calls on Britain for help….. Imagine Russian troop numbers with German organisation and technology! But I think we’re getting a *little* off topic here! [grin] Sorry, Marian!

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          1. No worries, this is great! 😆 I wish I could take 3 months off just to study this topic.

            “both parties had total contempt for the existing social order and wanted to wreck or reform it to their own image” Oof… if that isn’t too close to home. Not that our existing social order is without flaw, but I worry when people take social stability too lightly.

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  3. As you say this was definitely a book of two halves. I did struggle more than a bit with the more Surrealist elements but overall thought it was an interesting read. I was most intrigued by the references to the rise of the extremist parties and the fact that other people – especially the Intelligentsia – seemed to be unaware or unafraid of the situation. But the thing that blew me away was Harry’s questioning why he constantly failed to ‘fit in’ with his own culture. When Hermine explained that: “Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours…..” you could have literally knocked me down with a feather. That was SO on point that I was honestly floored at how the author had just described how I’ve felt my whole life…… Overall though I thought that it was a good critique of the absolute falseness of bourgeois society and the difficulty of living a truly authentic life, being forced to live a life hiding who you are at the core because the rest of the world just wouldn’t be able to cope with honesty or reality. In a weird way Harry was a precursor of Neo in the Matrix just without lots of guns…! [grin]

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    1. Oh yes, I could really relate to Harry in parts, too – for me, it was the “multiple selves” concept. I almost wonder if it’s a uniquely modern problem, since for the first time in history we have been presented with a multitude of choices in how to live our lives, and thus a multitude of people we could be. No wonder that the wolf, man, and other characters seem to sway us at different times. I’m not sure how literally he meant that, but as a metaphor, it rings true to me in my own life.

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  4. Marian, If you want a quick and very informative (and NOT heavy) read regarding the rise of the Nazi’s and the political chaos at the time I can highly recommend “The Death of Democracy – Hitler’s Rise to Power” by Benjamin Carter Hett (FP: 2018). It’s only 235pp so you should polish it off in a weekend or two…. It certainly helped me understand how Hitler became top dog.

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