On Understanding The Steppenwolf


Published in 1927, Hermann Hesse’s tenth novel, tells the story of Harry Halle (HH… ), an ageing former scholar, struggling to come to terms with both his internal demons and the changing world at large. It is a book of crisis, both personal and societal. Indeed, it may be seen as a re-writing of the collection of poetry – Krisis – Hesse published in 1926. Haller is a figure resigned to the nightmare he knows is coming across Europe. He made a stand for the old culture, he really did. He lost his job, his reputation… everything. Hesse, sat alone in his newly rented apartment, fulminated on this: this and many things, suicide chief amongst them.

Steppenwolf is unlike many books of the late 1920s. It is so alien as to be removed from its age. It’s a distant book, adrift in its own time. Whilst many of its tropes will be familiar to readers of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Huxley’s Chrome Yellow, Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin or the paintings of Otto Dix and George Grosz, the effect of decadence, alienation and of drifting-towards-destruction are uniquely cold: glum even. In a curious way, it shares some of the characteristics of later fiction, such as West’s The Day of The Locust. It’s false, it’s too old, it’s weary. It points towards the far side of the crisis, and bobs on the lurid surface of the 1920’s without diving deep.  The dancehalls, jazz, free love, drugs and horror-show politics appear in monochrome, set off, when required by red: red of wine, red of blood.


I first read Steppenwolf in the later 1980s, as a teenager, drawn to the bleak, whimpering, snarling Wolf-Harry, and to the seedy glamour into which he descends. I read it back then while listening to The Bad Seeds ‘Tender Prey’ and watching Greenaway’s ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’, my lens clouded. In short, I misunderstood it as a book in precisely the way Hesse complained it had been since publication. Hesse saw it as a book of crisis and (partial) redemption. Back then, having little understanding of the cyclical nature of life, I merely reveled, as many have done, in the bleakness and pawed over its possibilities, not being ready for the consequence and the lesson.

The titular premise of the book – that the character is part human, part wolf – could be viewed as something of a MacGuffin. The Steppenwolf himself promises more than he delivers. His wolf-self never really manifests: a tame beast indeed. Only in the psychotic/fantastic car killer spree, late in the novel, does Halle approximate the hunter archetype, and even then he plays a second string, observer role.

However, this dual nature points to something more disturbing for conventional life-roles, although this greater promise is hinted at, rather than being fully examined. Through long and protracted passages, we are told of Halle’s divided nature, and yet, throughout his voice remains resolutely ‘his own’. He clings on to his singular existence, in the same way the little monkey puzzle tree sticks to its pot on the stairway to his apartment. Stuff happens to him. He watches it. The world around him is complex and dissociated. He, however, clings on to the illusion of simplicity, whilst constructing a ‘safe’ caricature version of internal divisions. As Halle is presented as a cipher for – to borrow from a near contemporary book – a modern man without qualities, we do not see the complexity inferred by the book’s premise. In the end Hesse/Halle couldn’t shake the attachment to ego.

Nonetheless, this notion is alluring. What would remain of a character if the ego-singularity were shattered? What if the lid were removed and the thousand souls contained within were released across the pages of the novel? This would not have been unique at this time – Woolf’s Orlando (published the year after Steppenwolf) moves in similar territory; Ferdinand Pessoa was busy accumulating at least seventy five heteronymic authors to write his books; the implications of cubist and futurist art and of the general and special theories of relativity were sending ripples through cultural space. Hesse suggests there exists within us all, not merely infinite possibilities, but in a real sense, an infinity of souls – in which case, that lone Steppenwolf would be free to roam anywhere they/she/he would wish.


But then…

It has been ‘my’ own clinging to the singularity illusion which has prevented me from understanding the fragmented nature of Halle. I have been too wrapped up in myself to recognise the magic trick being played out in front of me. Every character in the book – including the writers of the frame narrative, and even of the publisher’s introduction – are manifestations of H.H. Hermann Hesse/Harry Halle’s multiple souls. The paradox: if everything is fragmented, then everything is whole. Author, characters, reader, non-readers are one and the same. In division there is unity.

It’s fine on paper to see a narrative arch progress from crisis to resolution. It’s neat, feel good, satisfying. But I’m Halle’s age now. I’m not the vaguely goth-like post-punk teenager reveling in words from a miserable time ago. I’ve had my crises, and plenty of resolutions. They come and go. Such is life. Understanding a book like Steppenwolf isn’t about what’s on the paper. Nor is it about contextualising, placing it in its age, or its intellectual milieu. It’s a ‘feel’ thing. It’s a been there, done that thing. When you’ve seen it enough times, you just know everything is split up and fragmented. You just know it is all one.

I’ll wait a few more years – maybe another thirty, if I have them – then I might have the wisdom required to approach this book differently.

Gavin Jones’ novel Unfinished Paintings is available HERE or through AMAZON

4 Replies to “On Understanding The Steppenwolf”

  1. Thinking back, as you yourself so often do… I was reminded of the tag-line of the Whole Earth Catalogue, the go-to how-to-do-it book of the 1960s: “You can’t put it together. It is together”. (Ironically, eventually, my husband and I threw the book away: the binding fell apart and all the pages fell out.) I want to ask you about your illustration, though.
    Do you know of Concetta Antico? The colours you used reminded me of her work. Ironically (again) I’d referred to her in my own most recent blogpost. She has tetrachromatic vision. Tetrachromacy interest me, which is why I gave Raith, the artist in my stories, something resembling it. (He’s male: he can’t have the proper thing.) I have always felt that, just as people can be overwhelmed by too much sound, they could be overwhelmed by too much colour, as Raith is. He’s only really calm at night.
    And Gavin, I love the contrast with the silhouettes, but then, I always use silhouettes on my covers. I have no idea what my characters look like. I am in awe of how your mind must work. My own imagination is thoroughly verbal. I hear words, but how I struggle to see pictures! As I say, in awe.

    1. Hi Jude – firstly, thank you!
      I will certainly check out Concetta Antico’s work. Sounds fascinating. As does your artist character. I wouldn’t say I have a visual mind. It’s hard to describe. I guess it’s a feel thing, more than anything. When I’m writing, drawing, making music etc and it’s flowing, I’m not really thinking. It’s kind of like a zone. I used to think on the how and whys, but now I’m just happy it happens.

      Do you know how your characters sound? Do hear their conversations?

      In this novel, the character changes throughout, I was interested in creating a post-ego character. They follow a life path, but are constantly changing. It’s hard to say who they are – or even if they are one person. In an infinite universe there are infinite possible me’s and you’s. The path of life is the only delineator, and it is illusion. It’s wonderful and terrifying. It’s life.

      I look forward to reading your book!

      1. A zone… ok, I can understand that, even though, visually, I can’t get anywhere near it. Yes, I definitely know how my characters sound. It’s one of the reasons I’ve uploaded YouTube videos of extracts of all the books. (I didn’t shoot the stunning scenery – that was a wonderful Weardale-based guy called Andy Ditchfield.) Although I read the extracts in more or less my normal voice (elderly northern-born cis-female), I knew how I wanted the dialogue to feel. There’s a lot of dialogue in the books and one of the challenges is making it clear which of the protagonists is speaking without constantly adding ‘said x,y,z’. I’m better at this than I was when I first began the Co. Durham Quad series. I really ought to do those first couple of books again as I don’t think I was able to give the men unique voices when I started. They’re almost like friends, now, and I sometimes find myself saying ‘Oh, that’s what Mike/Ross/ Raith/ Phil would say!

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