Study Guide

Steppenwolf Themes

  • Isolation

    Lonesome, solitary, a loner, a lone… well, wolf. All words that aptly describe Steppenwolf protagonist Harry.

    He scares away girlfriends and wives, insults his friends, and has a penchant for roaming the streets late at night. Isolation has to do with a philosophical problem in the novel: Harry should let go of himself and his personality and embrace the infinite possibilities of life, but he is so closed off from everyone that it's super hard for him.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Why is Harry so lonely? Is it his own fault somehow?
    2. How does Harry's isolation benefit him? And how does it make his life harder?
    3. Do any other characters in the novel show signs of isolation?
    4. Do you think that Harry has conquered his loneliness by the end of the novel? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Harry's isolation is a self-imposed limitation that keeps him from experiencing life.

    Harry is a genius madman, which separates him from the rest of humanity and leaves him very lonely.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Steppenwolf has people smoking "funny cigarettes" (wacky tobaccy, perhaps?) and taking potions and pills. The drugs turn out to be a gateway into the endless possibilities of the mind, and lets the main character loosen up and find new dimensions and experiences.

    He also uses alcohol regularly as an escape from his lonely life. When he feels like killing himself he avoids going home to his razor by hanging out in bars and getting drunk on wine. Ugh. His teeth must be pretty purple. Alcohol is a lonely, self-destructive tool in the novel, while drugs are more of an eye-opener.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Why do you think that drugs are so strongly associated with Pablo, a foreigner?
    2. What is the effect of alcohol on Harry and his relationships?
    3. How does Harry's use of drugs evolve over the course of the novel?
    4. How would the novel be different if it didn't have any drug use in it?

    Chew on This

    Harry goes from seeing drugs as a means of ending his life to using them to extend his life into immortality.

    Nothing in the novel is real; it is all a drug-induced hallucination.

  • Identity

    Steppenwolf is all about one man trying to sort through his identity. He feels like he's divided into two selves: his animal, wolf side, and his human side. The two selves are at war, see-sawing up and down in his soul and making him act like a total madman. He learns a lesson, though, that his identity is made up of many more than just two souls: the possibilities are endless.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does the novel challenge the idea of a singular identity?
    2. What is the relationship between the mirrors in the magic theater and identity?
    3. Do you think that Harry's identity somehow changes in the novel?

    Chew on This

    When Harry breaks the mirror he loses his identity completely.

    When Harry breaks the mirror he gains thousands of new identities.

  • Mortality

    Razors, pills, pipes… Harry Haller, the protagonist of Steppenwolf, has thought of all sorts of ways to bring about his own end. He's obsessed with suicide, even though he is afraid of doing it. In fact, he's even made a pact with himself that when he turns fifty he'll let himself go ahead and do the deed. Mortality is a negative, self-inflicted idea in Steppenwolf.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why is death so attractive to Harry?
    2. How does Harry's desire for death evolve throughout the novel?
    3. Is there any way that Harry gets strength from his suicidal nature?
    4. How do the other characters conceive of mortality?

    Chew on This

    Harry is a weak figure because he cannot figure out how to live in the world and wants to die.

    Harry is strong because he knows that he can always kill himself later, which gives him strength to hang on just a little longer.

  • Art and Culture

    Much like a third-grader memorizes all the Pokémon characters and their special powers, the protagonist of Steppenwolf, the Steppenwolf himself, is a self-made expert on all the great musicians and authors in German history.

    He hates jazz because it's not as good as classical music, until he learns some lessons about the difference between talking about music and making music… and how to dance, of course. It's kind of hard to boogie to Beethoven.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What is Harry's attitude toward music and art? How about Pablo?
    2. What are the big differences between classical music and jazz for Harry?
    3. Is it necessary to know about music to be a good musician, and vice versa, according to the novel?

    Chew on This

    Harry uses his knowledge of art and culture as a crutch, defending him from the rest of society.

    Learning how to dance was the last step in Harry's cultural education.

  • Madness

    We're all mad here… but maybe Harry is a tad bit madder. Harry Haller, Steppenwolf's main character, is a self-proclaimed schizomaniac, which is a sort of combination bipolar and schizophrenic.

    This qualifies him to enter a mysterious Magic Theater, which is billed as for madmen only… and we're not talking about Don Draper and Joanie.  Madness, in the novel, is actually a way of seeing the world that opens up the madmen to many more possibilities than an ordinary person has.

    Questions About Madness

    1. What are the effects, positive and negative, of madness for Harry?
    2. Do you think that Harry is crazy? Why or why not?
    3. Why do you think that the magic theater only lets madmen in?

    Chew on This

    Harry is not really mad; he is just above society and therefore labeled as crazy.

    Harry is a lunatic; the whole novel is the ravings of someone who is super mentally ill.

  • Versions of Reality

    Steppenwolf is a two-parter. You get a preface that tells you that what you're about to read is probably fiction, but then you get the body of the work and it sounds like the narrator is pretty convinced of what he's talking about. Who's right? Is it possible for both of them to be right?

    Besides that, there's also a whole deal about all the different lives that people can lead by releasing their mind (and the rest will follow). The protagonist gets to relive many different lost chances in his life, creating several versions of the same reality.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Do you think that Harry really kills Hermine at the end of the book? Why or why not?
    2. Is the narrator of the preface right that most of Harry's records are a fiction?
    3. Which of the magic theater rooms is your favorite? Why?

    Chew on This

    When Harry kills Hermine he is actually trying to kill himself, since everything that happens in the Magic Theater is in his head anyway.

    Harry kills Hermine because he wants to fulfill his promise to her.

  • Transformation

    Men turn into women who turn into men. The protagonist's friend turns into Mozart and back into his plain ol' friend. Doors appear and disappear into the night. Steppenwolf is full of magical transformations, which show the protagonist and the reader that things aren't always as they seem… and show us the power of our own mind to transform situations.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Why do people look familiar, then look different, to Harry all the time? Is it part of his madness or are they somehow messing with his mind?
    2. Why do you think Pablo is the one who can change into so many characters in the magic theater?
    3. Which is the most interesting transformation in the novel? Why?

    Chew on This

    Hermine is actually part of Harry's imagination; that's why she looks like Herman and takes whatever name Harry gives her.

    Harry transforms from an isolated Steppenwolf into an infinite number of identities.