You know that terrible feeling when no one understands you, and you just have to let it out and howl at the moon? Anyone? Or is it just us, the Steppenwolf, and Michael J. Fox?
We'll bet that even if you aren't going through any creepy wolf-y changes, you can relate to the main character in Hermann Hesse's 1927 novel Steppenwolf, who is torn between his wild animal nature and his civilized side.
This is the story of an outsider. Harry, who's in midlife crisis mode (hitting your 50s sounds tough), and feels like he's split between his human nature and wolfish wild side. He has isolated himself from society but meets a manic pixie dream girl Hermine, who wants to teach him how to laugh and live.
In the novel, Harry gets into some kinky situations and also tries more than a few drugs as he learns how to live, which caused some scandal when the book was first published. However, it's not all sex, drugs, and Mozart (yeah, Harry's really into classical music); the novel also reveals Harry's suicidal thoughts and the profound loneliness he feels because he pushes away all of his lovers and friends.
Steppenwolf is thought to be one of Hesse's most autobiographical novels—he left his wife, just like Harry, and was plagued by thoughts of suicide, just like Harry. Hesse wrote it, in part, because he himself was turning fifty and trying to deal with his changing life.
He was also a German citizen who was opposed to German nationalism (Hesse would become a Swiss citizen) and, in the novel, Harry catches some flak for the same opposition. The novel also reflects Hesse's interest in mystical Eastern religions, a theme that is important throughout Hesse's work, like in his novel Siddhartha.
Steppenwolf's internationalist, pacifist ideas got some patriots riled up when this novel was published. That, along with the steamy sex and recreational drug use combined to get the book banned by the Nazis. However, young people in the 1960s would take it up as a rallying point for their free love and chemical experimentation. In fact, the rock group Steppenwolf is named after this very novel.
Sometimes you feel like a wolf; sometimes you don't. Harry Haller's (totally relatable) problem is that he is pulled between conflicting desires.
Part of him wants to rip everyone around him to shreds—the way you feel when you're stuck behind a crowd of people walking super sloooowly—and part of him wants to live in an orderly little house with pretty flowers—like when you finally clean up your room and make your bed and feel so. much. better. about life. This leaves Harry feeling a little Jekyll and Hyde-y, and also pretty limited. He's either wolf (boo) or man (yay), with no other options to choose from.
The good news is that Harry learns he doesn't have only two options: he's not simply a wolf/human dichotomy. In fact, he's thousands, even millions of people all rolled into one. Sound far out? Well, it is—he actually has to smoke some "funny cigarettes" (which sounds like a euphemism our grandparents would use) to make this realization. Lucky you—you only have to read the book to get the same triptastic effects.
Harry learns to get away from the boring old black/ white thinking and opens his mind to a whole new spectrum of personal possibilities: magenta! Tangerine! Teal! Polka dot! Psychedelic paisley!
The idea that we're not just one thing—the goody two-shoes, the class clown, the most likely to succeed—but rather that we're everything all rolled into one can be pretty comforting. To quote The Breakfast Club, each one of us is a brain, an athlete, and a basket-case, a princess, and a criminal, all rolled into one. We have so many more options than we're led to believe—we just need to keep ourselves from getting trapped into the neat little categories we (and others) slot ourselves in to.
All Things Hermann
A website devoted to the author, his art, and his life.
Giddy for Goethe
Harry isn't the only one obsessed with Goethe; check out these guys.
Harry makes it to the movies.
Check out this 1974 production of Steppenwolf.
Two for One
The Chilean diplomat Miguel Serrano visits with the author and with the psychologist Carl Jung. Extra cerebral!
Rock and Roll
Hermann Hesse was a very important influence for youth culture in the US in the 1960s and 70s.
For Madmen Only
Check out this guy telling us all about Hesse in a series of interviews.
Born to Be Wild
The rock group Steppenwolf took their name, and some ideas for songs, from Hesse.
Magic Movie Theater
The trailer to the 1974 film version.
Steppenwolf in 60 seconds
Get the robot-lady's quick and dirty version of the novel.
Hermann in a Hat
A photo of the author in one of his favorite accessories.
This book cover focuses on the wolfish nature of the Steppenwolf.
A Wolf in Harry's Clothing
Ever wonder what it feels like to have a wolf inside? Not pretty.
Two Little Lovers
Harry and Hermine in the film version of Steppenwolf.
Harry and Hermine… that sounds familiar…
Ever wonder where the wizards got their names?