Steppenwolf: A Quest for Happiness

Within his fiction, German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse investigates a surprising, Eastern view on people’s perception of themselves. While traditionally Westerners describe each person with such definite characteristics as their names, appearances, and main traits, Hesse argues that this idea is both incorrect and even hurtful at times. The main character of his famous novel Steppenwolf, Harry Haller, discovers multiple contradictory personalities within himself. Only after understanding and accepting these numerous sides of himself does Harry become free and happy. In his novel, Hesse encourages his readers to abandon ages-old western idea of a strictly defined personality, learn to laugh, become loving to themselves and their fellow-humans, and search for liberation in the depths of their own unforeseen selfs.

One of the main points Hesse raises is the failure of the Western world to apprehend the complexity of human personality. Harry suffers because he cannot accept the fact that a part of himself defies the expectations of his immediate social surrounding. At times Harry sees himself as an animal, a beast of the steppes, “He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the Steppes. He had learned a good deal . . . and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however, was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life. The cause of this apparently was that at the bottom of his heart he knew all the time (or thought he knew) that he was in reality not a man, but a wolf of the Steppes”. Sadly, Harry fails not only to accept or understand, but even to see clearly multiple parts of himself. While his soul is a baroque mosaic, Harry perceives any unconventional parts of himself an anomaly.

In a chase after money, in an attempt to remain moral, in strife to become educated, people often forget about a sensual, “animal” part of themselves. Harry spends years over the refined reading and loses touch with the Harry-child, Harry-dancer, Harry-lover. “Oh! how stiff you are! Just go straight ahead as if you were walking . . . Dancing, don’t you see, is every bit as easy as thinking, when you can do it, and much easier to learn. Now you can understand why people won’t get the habit of thinking,” – claims Harry’s closest friend, Hermine. Through Hermine Hesse teaches the reader not to neglect what modern Western society deems “primitive” part of a person. Laughter, dancing, and warm feelings toward other humans are components of the potion Hesse prescribes Harry to combat the psychological illness the main character suffers from, “An experience fell to my lot this night of the Ball that I had never known in all my fifty years, though it is known to every flapper and student—the intoxication of a general festivity, the mysterious merging of the personality in the mass, the mystic union of joy”. An immersion into the larger human mass, the disintegration of personality bring Harry long-missing mirth and liberation. In other words, confined by narrow limits of a well-defined character, acquiring wealth and status, but losing touch with oneself, a person doesn’t find genuine happiness. Not only Hesse admits that there are various souls imprisoned inside a single mind, he also points out the need for “space” and attention of each of them. For example, for the most of the book Hesse glorifies inter-personal relationships of numerous kinds: comradeship, friendship, artistic bonds, and lovers’ intimacy. But solitude is inevitable, sometimes beautiful, and, in a way, healing, too.

In the beginning of the novel, Harry shares this revelation, “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.” Although the bonds between humans are the most wholesome ones, solitude inspires thought and creates a link between the thinker and the eternal. Western world tries to catch its dwellers into the webs of simplicity. It tempts men and women with the clear idea of a fast-paced, moral, learned world where people are not that complex and the bonds between them are severed. Hesse argues against that. The novelist shows main character’s quest for happiness and liberation through embracing idea of interconnection with other people and partial dissolution of personality.

“Steppenwolf” as Title and Topic

It is rightly said that what a man thinks, he becomes. In light of this, Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf deals with Harry Haller, the protagonist who thinks himself to be divided between his human nature and an animalistic one, considering himself a “wolf of the steppes.” In a time when an essentialized idea of the self began to rise, the character of Steppenwolf becomes a subject of interest. However, the readers might question the reason why the author chooses for his protagonist to find escape in the life of a wolf, instead of choosing other animals such as birds, lions, or some other mystical creatures. The relevance of the title is therefore a subject of debate.

It is not a new idea to find a character identifying himself or herself with an animal rather than living his life like any other human being. This issue has been dealt with care by numerous novelists such as Virginia Woolf and Janet Frame, who seem to pointing out that everyone possesses the freedom to dream what they want and be what they want. There are no restrictions on inner thoughts. There are some people who find their imagination as a way of escape from a life they feel disgusted with. Even if society binds people to behave in a certain way and people are divided according to class (that is, bourgeoisie and middle class) people’s imaginations help them to forget the frustration and boundaries that society sticks upon them. In fact, Jean Jacques Rousseau illustrates this issue clearly:

“Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.”

However, the right to choose where to belong remains solely to the person in question. As Rousseau states elsewhere: “Freedom is the power to choose our own chains.” Harry Haller chose his “own chains,” that of thinking of himself as a wolf. In the preface, Hesse illustrates the place that those people have in the society in which they live. They are usually ostracized and cannot be understood. The plethora of adjectives used in the preface enables the readers to see the Steppenwolf as weird, much as the narrator does. He was “repelled” by him. The Steppenwolf, who gave “the impression of having come out of an alien world,” was “strange,” “wild,” and “shy” and lived a “suicidal existence.” Yet the narrator mentions that the sickness that Harry Haller suffers attacks “those who are the strongest in spirit and richest in gifts.” Categorizing Harry’s divided nature as such makes the readers realise that the title is ideal and that no other animals were chosen for Harry to identify with. Wolves are indeed one of the “strongest” of animals.

In fact, the Steppenwolf himself has acknowledged his unique status as a Steppenwolf and has given himself this name. Harry shows his rejection of the “shams and pretences” of the Bourgeoisie life and of the restrictions that are placed upon people under the name of norms. He finds himself in need of freedom and yet cannot set himself free from the bourgeoisie. He finds solace in his cocoon of unreality, in being a Steppenwolf in his imagination. All the rebellious and “chaotic” nature that wants to erupt forms a crucial part of his wolf identity. However his human nature and wolfish nature are in a constant battle with each other. In his own words, “within me, the battle raged furiously.” Again, the words “raged furiously” are characteristic of wolves, which are barely calm and friendly. There is always something that boils inside them and “Steppenwolf” is the ideal animal to describe the situation of Harry.

Harry finds himself stuck in the web conditioned by modernity, where man is caught up in his own inventions. Materialism and the need for competition are what rules the world in which Harry feels suffocated. Just like the wolf, who now has limited space to roam freely, the Steppenwolf as well finds it difficult to find a place to live in. By referring to Buddha, he points out how important it is to be in harmony with the inner soul. In such a life, Harry wants to find meaning, and being a Steppenwolf in his thought represents the perpetual agony of the quest since he is unable to find the answer. The only time he finds some explanation is through the ‘Treaties of the Steppenwolf’ which justifies the title. Harry, who wanted to find answers for his existence as Harry Haller, instead finds answers to his identity as the Steppenwolf. In the novel, he was “a wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns and the life of the herd.”

The treaties offer both a psychological and a philosophical journey into the Steppenwolf’s life. Readers are able to learn that there are other ‘Steppenwolves’ apart from Harry. In such people, there is “God and devil in them; the mother’s blood and the father’s; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement were the wolf and man in Harry.” Here the author sheds light on the nature of Harry’s wolfish side. Both natures exist in conflict with each other. It is even mentioned in the novel: “Although he is a most cultivated person, he proceeds like a savage that cannot count further than two.” The Steppenwolf is aware of the “Faustian two-fold nature” within him. The readers have access to the psychology of the Steppenwolf through the treaties and these treatises enable them to learn more about the divided self, which gives the title its significance.

Throughout the novel, readers come across several philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato and Spinoza. Indian and Chinese philosophy are also mentioned. It seems that to understand the depth of the character and the nature of Steppenwolf, one has to go back through the words of these great people. Plato’s theory of recollection states that individuals possesses much substantial and profound knowledge, which might in fact mean that the answers that Harry might have been searching for are, in fact, found in his inner soul. Also, the presence and guidance of the immortals, namely Mozart and Goethe, give meaning to the multiplicity of the human self.

In further background to the novel, the psychoanalytic theory of Freud stipulated that the human nature has three sides, namely the ‘id,’ the ‘ego,’ and the ‘super-ego’. The id refers to the wants of the human beings; that is, humans must get what they desire to avoid frustration. The ego also enables the acceptance of reality and control over the id, while the super-ego is where whatever humans have learnt through the process of socialization is stored. It is therefore important to have a balance within these three components. This theory therefore underlines the complexity of human nature, and it is the same complexity that the author addresses in Steppenwolf. The Steppenwolf has many layers to his character.

The creation of such a character as the Steppenwolf might be the result of the world’s happenings at the time in which Hesse wrote his narrative. The novel was published some years after the World War I; the rebellious nature of Harry, perhaps, stems from the chaos of the war. The novel has attempted to show that the rebellious nature of human beings should be kept under control because of its destructive force, and Hesse underlines the effect that such rebellion has on people. In the case of the Steppenwolf, the anticipation of another war has had negative impact on him. He says, “It has paralysed me since I knew it and brought me despair.” Hesse also attempted to point out the place that which humanity holds in a chaotic world where human emotions are barely understood,where weapons are used to conquer territories which belong to nobody and yet to everybody, and where innocents are killed in wars.

Also, the reason why Hesse chose to give the title ‘Steppenwolf’ instead of ‘Harry Haller’ to his novel is that the wolfish nature that dominates the protagonist. It is the Steppenwolf that wins out over the human nature of Harry. Harry would not have disappeared, leaving behind him ‘Harry Haller’s records,’ if he did not let himself controlled by this imagination. ‘Treaties of the Steppenwolf’ carries more weight than ‘Harry Haller’s records.’ In fact, little importance is given to Harry as a human. Through Haller, Hesse underlines the fact about how human beings should shape themselves to fit into the decorum of society. To highlight the fact that the novel will place more emphasis on the character of the Steppenwolf, we are told:

“Now we bid Harry good-bye and leave him to go on his way alone.”

Adding to this, Hermine contributes to the little place that Harry occupies in the novel. She refers to his name as a “babyish sort of name” which seems to hold a much lower status than ‘Steppenwolf’ as a name. Steppenwolf carries weight and shows how deep of a character the readers are dealing with. Yet there is so much pain inside him. As the Steppenwolf, he fearlessly embraces the vices of the modern world. He consumes drugs, has a love affair with Maria, and ends up taking the life of Hermine in the Magic Theatre, even though the latter cared to re-educate him. The section ‘Marvellous Taming of the Steppenwolf” might for instance give a contradictory image of the Steppenwolf. It is an “obedient” wolf and is no longer rebellious. By the end of the novel, Harry comes face to face with the destructive nature of the Steppenwolf.

Finally, there seems to be no more suitable title for the novel than “Steppenwolf.” This choice enables the readers to understand that the novel will deal with the transformation of Harry into Steppenwolf and with the implications of being a Steppenwolf. Hesse’s emphasis is the journey of the Steppenwolf that the readers are exposed to through the subconscious mind of Harry.