Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Herman Hesse is an author whose literature can be best-described, in my opinion, as profoundly introspective, affording each and every person it touches the tools to peer further within themselves. Steppenwolf is one of his most popular and influential novels, telling the story of Harry Haller, a profoundly sad and lonely individual struggling to reconcile the civil and primeval halves of his own identity.
Table of contents
Herman Hesse Dissects the Bourgeois Disease
Though humans have always disposed of the same amount of time day in and day out, the ways in which we use it have drastically changed over the course of our evolution. Whereas most of it used to be spent on securing our own survival in one way or another, as societies evolved in size and complexity, many saw themselves with more time on their hands than they knew what to do with. Some, like Harry Haller in Herman Hesse‘s Steppenwolf, used that time to think, and couldn’t have been unhappier for it.
The more free time we have to think about the world, the more we come to realize just how inherently meaningless the entirety of existence, when it stands naked before us, lacking any clear direction or purpose. In other words, free time has cursed us with the ability to conjure unhappiness for ourselves out of thin air, and this is where Harry Haller’s story really begins.
While the novel opens with a narration from a character of little importance, it soon transports us to Harry Haller’s journal, where he recorded the events which transpired over the course of the past year or so. From the outset, we learn him to be deeply troubled and exceptionally lonely figure, one who can’t seem to squeeze a drop of understanding out of anything or anyone, shambling through life, and working up his courage to end it.
His primary struggle comes from the primeval wolf he feels living within himself, from the fact he sees himself as a wolf of the steppes who has wandered into the city, and now suffers from the incongruence of the civilized world and the wild realms from which he hailed. Try as he might, he cannot seem to reconcile the two halves of himself.
One night, however, a chance encounter with a woman who is his polar opposite sets his life on a dramatically different course, one where he becomes privy to the main details, joys and truths which have eluded him over the years. He embarks on a strange course which teaches him that maybe, just maybe, even the madmen among us might have a reason to rejoice at the chance of living in a world so beautifully devoid of meaning.
Solitude is independence. It had been my wish and with the years I had attained it. It was cold. Oh, cold enough! But it was also still, wonderfully still and vast like the cold stillness of space in which the stars revolve.― Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
The Familiar Struggle Within in Steppenwolf
Like quite a few of his other novels, Steppenwolf may have been published almost a hundred years ago at the time I’m writing this review, but that hasn’t stopped it from earning its stripes as a modern classic, one often studied at the highest levels of literature. I’m not certain if I can find anything to say about the book which hasn’t been said over the course of these decades, but what I can do is share the impressions of a modern person about it.
Taking the sensical approach, Herman Hesse spends the first half of the novel or so explaining in-depth the war Harry Haller is waging within himself, taking us deep within his thoughts and showing how he perceives the world, the natural order of things, and his place in the grand scheme of it all. The first thing which struck me was just how familiar Harry’s struggle seems to be.
Personally, I believe that most people will find Harry’s troubles resonating with them, regardless of whether they come from his time, a hundred years in the future, or even a thousand. The general ennui and nausea he experiences upon seeing the frail truth of humanity’s world being largely imaginary and meaningless, is something I feel many of us are familiar with. At least, those of us with the time (and the predisposition) to think.
I think Herman Hesse did an absolutely incomparable feat of putting into concrete (and beautiful, I might add) words the malaise which has gripped and affected more people throughout history than any disease, ideology or condition. Going even further than that, he attempts to see what the core cause of it might be, and to propose a remedy through Haller’s little adventure.
In my opinion, the monumental inner struggle Harry is facing is precisely what has made this novel so popular over the years, especially with younger generations of readers. It has, funnily enough, become easier and easier to identify with the protagonist over the years, and I must say, Herman Hesse’s take on the subject is, in my opinion, nothing if not helpful to those who contend with it.
There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside of them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.― Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
The Art of Shining Bright
If you only take what I’ve said so far into account, then you’ll probably come to the conclusion that Steppenwolf is a rather depressing novel about the battles we’re bound to keep on losing for all eternity. This might also be the impression you’ve gotten from some reviewers who are a little too eager to paint the entire world in black.
The truth, the way I see it at least, is that few novels are actually as uplifting and inspiring as Steppenwolf. Yes, it is true that we take a rather deep, and at times depressing dive into Harry Haller’s psyche and the seemingly unwinnable war he’s fighting, but there is a whole other part to the book, the one where he walks a path to rehabilitation.
Hermine is no less of an important character in the story than Harry, being his guide back into the world of the living, a teacher showing him the ever-important lesson of not taking himself too seriously while enjoying the small and ordinary happiness which can be found at nearly every corner. She teaches him how to shine the light of joy in a world which seems primed to snuff it out at all costs.
While the specific ways in which Hermine gets Harry to break out of his miserable shell might be a little outdated in some respects (I don’t think nearly as many people are into the Foxtrot nowadays), the lesson in and of itself remains as relevant as ever. Her teachings can, and in my opinion should, be taken close to heart, and perhaps even given more attention than Harry’s dreadful and unfortunately relatable insistence to find misery.
Ultimately, and I’m speaking purely for myself here, Steppenwolf is a novel about learning to enjoy a life without meaning, about taking pleasure in the small and ordinary moments, to accept the multifaceted nature of our beings, with all the joy and sorrow it entails. It’s a novel which boldly states that life is indeed very much worth living and savouring for all it has to offer.
|224||Picador||Dec. 1 2002||978-0312278670|
The Final Verdict
Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse is considered one of the greatest modern classics in literature, concisely penetrating to the heart of problem of meaninglessness, and subsequently offering a remedy which can still work wonders to this very day.
Few have managed to move millions the way Herman Hesse has, and if you feel like you might, to any extent, identify with Harry Haller and the battle of Man versus Beast raging within him, then I very strongly recommend you give this novel a chance. There is simply none other like it.
(July 2, 1877 – August 9, 1962)