Cheer up, Harry! The narrator of the book is pretty much always down in the dumps, going on and on about how he wants to kill himself and then giving us millions of reasons that he should be unhappy and gloomy:
He who has known the [...] angry [days] of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye and ear with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and so-called culture grins back at us with the lying, vulgar, brazen glamor of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of an emetic […] (2)
Uh, yeah, it goes on. So, like we were saying, pretty uplifting, right? Er, wait…Harry is a Gloomy Gus.
Good thing the other characters have decided to give him a lesson in laughter, 'cause this guy's a downer. Hesse probably chose to use this gloomy tone because it is an extreme example of a disillusioned, middle-aged guy who just saw his nation destroyed by war. It also gives a great contrast to the tone that people in the novel like Pablo, Goethe, and Mozart take, which seems that much more playful next to Harry's doom n' gloom.
Boys turning into girls turning into boys, a magic theater where any fantasy comes to life… yeah, Hermann Hesse is asking us to believe in some pretty fantastical stuff.
Steppenwolf comes from the period of Modernism in Europe, and plays with the idea of the novel by breaking it into the preface and then "Harry Haller's Records." After World War I many artists had a hard time imagining creating nice, neat, hopeful art. Instead, they made fragmented, futuristic creations that reflected the chaos they saw in the world.
This novel's preoccupation with Eastern philosophy—like Buddhism and Hinduism—and its understanding that the idea of "the individual" is just that (a cultural idea), plops Steppenwolf down into the philosophical literature genre.
Hmm… a book about a Steppenwolf. What should we call it? Aha! Steppenwolf! Eureka!
Well, Hesse's thought process may have been a little bit more profound than that, but really the title is pretty self-explanatory: the main character and subject of the novel is the Steppenwolf, Harry's alter ego that torments him because he can't accept the wild parts of his nature.
We might ask ourselves why the book is called Steppenwolf and not Harry Haller. Maybe this is a hint about who wins in the fight between wolf and man. In some ways this is because Harry himself thinks of himself primarily as a Steppenwolf. By emphasizing that animal side of his nature we see exactly what it is that sets the character apart from all the other humans in the world.
There's also an ironic tinge to this novel's title. Harry Haller is a dude who had a really fixed idea about his identity: he's got a good, studious side and Big Bad Wolf side. Full stop. But throughout the trippy events of the novel he realizes that actually he contains multitudes—and that it's a dumb, sad, and limiting idea to decide that you're only one (or two) things.
So the novel's title underscores the state of the protagonist before he learns his big, cosmic lesson. It would be like if Pride and Prejudice was called Rich Dudes Are Always Jerky Snobs, or if Breaking Bad was called Cooking Meth Is A Great Get-Rich-Quick Scheme.
After lots of madness and mayhem, Steppenwolf ends up with Harry claiming that he would try out the Magic Theater again someday and do a better job. He declares that someday he "would learn how to laugh", because Pablo and Mozart, figures that led him through the Magic Theater, were showed him the correlation between laughing and being a freakin' genius.
The text wraps up pretty nicely this way, because we have the idea that Harry has finally learned the lesson about his endless options rather than being stuck in wolf-man mode. It also tells us that Hermine is still alive, and so is Harry, because he has another chance—it was all an illusion. Phew. We like Hermine.
And that really is the lesson of the whole novel—there is always another chance because our existence is actually infinite. We have to see things from the perspective of the immortals so that we can keep trying out new things all the time then going back and trying out a different road. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure novel in real life!
We know that Harry is living in a place where German is spoken, and it's got to be either Austria or Germany because everyone's always griping about the Kaiser (which is the name of the ruler of those empires in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries).
The mention of the Kaiser is one time period clue. Another is the war that everyone keeps talking about. Harry is called a traitor because he was against the "great war," which refers to World War I… so we can guess that this is happening sometime after 1918 but before 1927, when the book was published. Plus, there's tons o' jazz being played, which just screams "1920s partaaay!"
The room Harry rents is in a super clean house run by a super nice little old lady. It reminds him of his childhood and his mother, who kept a neat home. That's important for the Steppenwolf, who—even though he's a Wolfman—likes to have something orderly to anchor him.
However, the dance halls and, finally, the magic theater, are the extreme opposite of the boarding house. There is dancing, drinking, orgying, and all sorts of mayhem, which appeals to the wolfish side of Harry.
The Magic Theater is the setting for the end of the novel. It shows up earlier, though, advertised above a disappearing, locked door in a courtyard. So we already know that it's a mysterious place, and who can resist a locked door?
At the costume ball, Harry is invited into the Magic Theater, but he's told that the price is his mind. It's not that he's getting lobotomized (or anything scary like that) but rather that the Magic Theater gets built up in his mind.
He has to take some special drugs in order to go in, and the Theater turns out to be an endless hallway full of doors. Each door leads to a different scene. Some of them are memories that turn into sort of what-might-have-been scenarios. Others lead to pure fantasy that lets Harry live out wild imaginary scenes.
The Magic Theater is a place where anything can happen, and where Harry can return in order to learn to see the infinite possibilities of his identity… and also where he can learn to finally laugh and put things in perspective.
The epigraph is a line from the book itself, and it comes from the sign over the disappearing door advertising the magic theater. It also shows up when Harry finally gets invited into the Magic Theater, which must mean that he has finally become mad enough to get into the crazy club. So part of letting go of the Steppenwolf has to do with accepting his own madness and letting his freak flag fly.
We could also read the epigraph as a warning to readers of Steppenwolf, because the book itself might be only for madmen. In that case we, just like Harry, are about to discover a whole new way of thinking as we join him in the Magic Theater. Are you ready to open your mind?
It ain't easy being a wolf, and it ain't easy reading about one, either. Hesse's novel has enough philosophical meandering to lose you if you're not paying attention.
However, the big ideas about life, the universe, and everything, can really get you thinking (in a good way!), and the sheer trippiness of the plot is good motivation for getting your through the difficult bits.
Plus, it has a built in soundtrack—you can check out all the classical music mentioned by stuffy old Harry, give a listen to Pablo's favorite roaring 20's tunes, or just listen to the band Steppenwolf (yup—named after this novel).
The novel plays with what we think a novel should be. It's not exactly a self-contained book that begins and ends when you open and close it. Instead, it's made up of all these weird documents, like the preface that says that the novel is supposedly made up of Harry's papers:
And now that we come to these records of Haller's, these partly diseased, partly beautiful, and thoughtful fantasies, I must confess that if they had fallen into my hands by chance and if I had not known their author, I should most certainly have thrown them away in disgust. (45)
So why are we reading them? Oh, yeah, because Harry's a remarkable guy. But see how the novel is playing with us by referring to, and second-guessing, itself?
Also, Harry likes to write poems within the novel, and even remembers them and quotes them, as though they had come from somewhere outside of the novel. It's all wrapped up onto itself, which makes it hard to figure out where the fiction ends and the reality begins.
This makes Steppenwolf seem like it might apply to anyone's life, like it really is a philosophy for living and not just a novel. In fact, our reading the novel is kind of like Harry reading the treatise on the Steppenwolf—everybody has something to learn.
Gardeners of the world, take note: the araucaria plant shows up several times in Steppenwolf. It's just an ordinary houseplant that one of his neighbors has growing on the landing outside of her door, but for Harry it seems to have a special meaning.
One day the landlady's nephew finds him sitting there, meditating, and Harry tells him:
"Look at this little vestibule," Haller went on, "with the araucaria and its wonderful smell. Many a time I can't go by without pausing a moment. At your aunt's too, there reigns a wonderful smell of order and extreme cleanliness, but this little place of the araucaria, why, it's so shiningly clean, so dusted and polished and scoured, so inviolably clean that it positively glitters." (Preface, 29)
The plant's smell seems to mean a lot to Harry, because he associates it with cleanliness and home. Later on, though, he explains that that sort of orderly world is out of his reach:
"[…] I could not endure to live a single day in a house with araucarius. But though I am a shabby old Steppenwolf, still I'm the son of a mother, and my mother too was a middle-class man's wife and raised plants and took care to have her house and home as clean and neat and tidy as ever she could make it. All that is brought back to me by this breath of turpentine and by the araucaria, and so I sit down here every now and again […]" (Preface, 30)
Here we get the key to the meaning of the araucaria for Harry. It's a way for him to get back to his home and childhood, even though he is living in a way that his mother probably wouldn't be able to even recognize… or approve of. Even though he's kind of an old grouch, he still has ties to that safe feeling of home by sitting near the plant.
This shows us that Harry, even though he tries to boil himself down into either wolf or man, actually has many more aspects. He's been a child, he's lived in different kinds of homes, and those memories will be important for him both in the Magic Theater, and as he tries to embrace the philosophy of laughter.
Follow the, follow the, follow the, follow the, follow the yellow-brick road. Oh, wait, that's a different book. But Harry does use the idea of a golden road to explain certain moments in his life when he feels at peace. And believe us, for a guy like Harry those moments are rare.
The first time he mentions the golden track he is explaining that every now and then he gets this special feeling:
I dropped all my defences and was afraid of nothing in the world. I accepted all things and to all things I gave up my heart. […] Sometimes for a minute or two I saw it clearly, threading my life like a divine and golden track. But nearly always it was blurred in dirt and dust. Then again it gleamed out in golden sparks as though never to be lost again and yet was soon quite lost once more. (7)
The golden track seems to be a path to enlightenment that beckons Harry to follow it, but he can't hold onto it. It's like the path has been grown over because it hasn't been used.
This image of the golden track will zing right back into Harry's mind the day he finds the door to the Magic Theater. The colored lights reflecting on the wet ground, calling to him, remind him of the golden track:
But while I waited, thinking how prettily the letters had danced in their ghostly fashion over the damp wall and the black sheen of the asphalt, a fragment of my former thoughts came suddenly to my mind; the similarity to the track of shining gold which suddenly vanishes and cannot be found. (11)
Since Harry has already had those fleeting experiences of being at one with the world, he recognizes that the Magic Theater, with its glittering lights, might be one way to get back to that feeling.
He says that he "was freezing and walked on following that track in my dreams, longing too for that doorway to an enchanted theater, which was for madmen only" (12). Now we know that the path, which he had only caught glimpses of before, is a special track for Harry to find the magic.
Even though he hasn't yet found the way into the theater, just having a glimpse of the entrance is enough to really get Harry into a good mood. He is back into his happy place, and thinks,
The golden trail was blazed and I was reminded of the eternal, and of Mozart, and the stars. For an hour I could breathe once more and live and face existence, without the need to suffer torment, fear, or shame. (17)
Obviously, the trail is a sign that Harry is about to go somewhere, and as we read we'll figure out that his path is one to enlightenment, where he can feel free of suffering—not for fifteen minutes or an hour—but always.
The first time mirrors really come up is in the treatise on the Steppenwolf (the strange book that Harry is given that is all about himself). It says that:
It is possible that Harry will one day be led to [humor]. It is possible that he will learn one day to know himself. He may get hold of one of our little mirrors. (52)
It seems like the book is saying that Harry has something he needs to learn, and that it's going to have something to do with self-knowledge. In fact, the little mirror comes in pretty handy when Harry finally makes it to the Magic Theater. Pablo pulls a mirror out of his pocket, and tells Harry to use it to see himself:
He held the little glass before my eyes […] and I saw, though indistinctly and cloudily, the reflection of an uneasy, self-tormented, inwardly laboring and seething being—myself, Harry Haller. And within him again I saw the Steppenwolf, a shy beautiful dazed wolf with frightened eyes that smoldered now and again with anger, now with sadness. (495)
Pablo's mirror helps Harry to see how he has been considering himself all of these years, as a two-souled being in constant battle with himself. The mirror will also come in handy for helping Harry to banish that boring, binary image of himself and see more options:
The mournful image in the glass gave a final convulsion and vanished. The glass itself turned gray and charred and opaque, as though it had been burned. With a laugh Pablo threw the thing away and it went rolling down the endless corridor and disappeared.
"Well laughed, Harry," cried Pablo. "[…] You have done with the Steppenwolf at last. It's no good with a razor. Take care that he stays dead." (506-507)
By getting rid of the figures in the mirror, Harry is kind of like a clean slate, all new for whatever the magic theater has to teach him, and for whatever new selves he wants to try on.
Later, a much bigger mirror will come into play, and offers Harry many selves to choose from:
But I scarcely had time to recognize myself before the reflection fell to pieces. A second, a third, a tenth, a twentieth figure sprang from it till the whole gigantic mirror was full of nothing but Harrys or bits of him, each of which I saw only for the instant of recognition. (509)
Now the mirror is gigantic, not a little one, which gives Harry room to imagine. He can be any of his selves that he chooses, young or old. This means that his life is not locked down into either man or wolf; rather, he has tons of adventures to live through. Woo-hoo!
A mirror will be used once again to break Harry's personality into pieces when he learns how to play chess with himself:
He held a glass up to me and again I saw the unity of my personality broken up into many selves whose number seemed even to have increased. (592)
Are you starting to see a pattern? Every time Harry looks into a mirror, his personalities multiply, breaking up so that he is more and more free from being the boring ol' Steppenwolf.
Harry starts to ruin the theater, though, when he runs away from the wolf-man scene. He finds the mirror again, but instead of seeing thousands of himself, he only sees one:
There was no wolf in the mirror, lolling his tongue in his maw. It was I, Harry. My face was gray, forsaken of all fancies, wearied by all vice, horribly pale. […]
"Harry," I said, "what are you doing there?"
"Nothing," said he in the mirror, "I am only waiting. I am waiting for death." (619-621)
This isn't what Harry wants to hear, and he'll take it out on the boring, old, gray Harry in the mirror later on. He is so frustrated by the problems in life that he forgets all about his mission to learn to laugh and turns suicidal again:
Bah, the devil—how bitter the taste of life! I spat at Harry in the looking glass. I gave him a kick and kicked him to splinters. (650)
In one action Harry tries to destroy himself, but he only destroys his reflection. Just like all the times that he thinks about or tries suicide, he can't actually do away with himself… because he isn't just one soul or two. As Pablo tries to teach him, he contains an endless number of individuals.
The narrator of the body of Steppenwolf is none other than the Steppenwolf himself: bet you didn't know wolves could talk, much less write. He's the big, bad wolf in the novel, and pretty much all the action revolves around him. He starts off letting us know just what a grump he is:
The day had gone by just as days go by. I had killed it in accordance with my primitive and retiring way of life. I had worked for an hour or two and perused the pages of old books. I had had pains for two hours, as elderly people do. I had taken a powder and been very glad when the pains consented to disappear. I had lain in a hot bath and absorbed its kindly warmth. (1)
And on, and on, and on. That reminds us… we need to call our grandma. Ol' Steppy makes the elderly sound melancholy. But see how all that "I" talk lets us know that the focus is going to be on the narrator and his life?
And screech: put the brakes on. We can't forget to bring the other narrator along for the ride. Check out the First Person (Peripheral Narrator) in the preface. He's a kid who doesn't even make an appearance in the body of the novel (except when his aunt mentions him) but he's the one who is responsible for bringing the book to us.
The narrator of the preface is letting us know what's going on long after the events in Harry's records take place. He also tells us that he's not sure that the record is, well, true. Is he the voice of reason or a naysayer? You be the judge.
In some ways the framing device of the preface gives us a little something to hold on to—it makes Harry Haller's records seem somehow more "authentic" and believable.
Also, it gives us information about Harry that we wouldn't be able to get from him directly. We learn what Harry seems like to a "normal" person, and we also get confirmation for his story— he really was a drunk who had a hard time keeping his girlfriend… but a nice, studious guy at the same time.
Harry is in a bad way, looking for something to excite him in the boring, bourgeois world. He is usually drunk and lonely. Suddenly, one night, he finds an invisible door to a Magic Theater, and a man gives him a book that turns out to be about him. Things are about to get really wild.
After meeting Hermine, Harry learns to dance and is introduced to a new world of sensual pleasure. He feels out of place because he's an old fogey, but he still digs it. He embraces his new, jazz-loving and hedonistic lifestyle… and starts to feel pretty awesome about it.
In the Magic Theater Harry has a good time, but starts to experience more and more disturbing scenes, like a wolf taming a man and ripping the rabbit to bits.
Harry finally ends up in a room in the Magic Theater where he kills Hermine.
After murdering Hermine, Harry wakes up with Pablo in the Magic Theatre and realizes that it wasn't reality that he was experiencing. He learns that he shouldn't take things so seriously, and that he needs to learn to laugh. No wonder the flower children of the 1960s thought this book was so groovy.
The narrator's preface sets up the story with all of Harry's weirdness and isolation. We know that something strange is going to happen with this guy who thinks he's a wolf and doesn't seem to have any social skills.
Harry gets a book from a mysterious man in the middle of the night, and it turns out to be about him and his personal philosophy! This creepy development lets Harry, and the readers, know that someone is watching him and has plans to change his mind about being the Steppenwolf.
He also meets a mysterious woman (yeah, lots of mysterious people in this book) who teaches him how to dance and helps him to get ready for a big party, a costume ball. Harry is super excited about the bash.
At the costume ball, Harry shows off his new dancing and fun-having skills, and finally figures out what the deal is with the disappearing magic theater. When he kills Hermine there is no turning back (he thinks) and he has fulfilled her last command.
Harry hallucinates about Mozart, who turns out to be his friend Pablo. Mozart shows Harry what a mess he's made of the Magic Theater. Instead of having fun and trying out all the infinite possibilities available to him, he went and got all suicidal. Harry didn't get the idea at all, and really should have had fun instead of constantly trying to kill himself.
The point of the Magic Theater was for Harry to learn to see things from the perspective of the immortals, who can laugh at life's little problems. Unfortunately, Harry still has a ways to go.
Harry realizes that he will have more chances in the Magic Theater and thinks that he'll learn how to laugh (which is the point of all his trials, and of life, man) one of these days.
In Steppenwolf, Act I lasts from Harry's arrival in the town to when he meets Hermine and she tells him that he must a) love her and b) kill her. Yowch.
The preparation for the costume ball (with Harry learning to loosen up get a little rhythm in his step) and, finally, his killing Hermine in the Magic Theater all make up crazy Act II.
Act III is short and sweet. Harry realizes that he's missed the point of life and resolves to try to learn to laugh. It's not as cheezeball as it sounds.