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Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: The Steppenwolf: A Modern Ethical Tale

Foreword

Despite the significant developments in science during the 19th century, the two devastating wars of the following century dismantled human faith in scientific and rational thinking. This negative outlook on society was first observed in Philosophy by authors, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. Twentieth-century literature is deeply influenced by existentialism that focuses on the character’s consciousness rather than following the traditional unfolding of the plot. In this way, contemporary literature makes the psychology of the individual its nucleus, yielding to the exploration of topics, such as absurdity, mortality or freedom. Therefore, this 101 series will analyze some of the most important existentialist works of literature from the 20th century to explore how the authors have intertwined their motivations with the widespread pessimism of the time.


This 101 series is divided into the following sections:


1. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Existentialism in Twentieth-Century Literature

2. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Thomas Mann and the Journey of Knowledge

3. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: The Steppenwolf: A Modern Ethical Tale

4. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Albert Camus and the Alienation of The Stranger

5. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Carmen Laforet’s Nada and the Emptiness of Experience

6. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Paul Bowles’s Eastern Existentialism in The Sheltering Sky



Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: The Steppenwolf: A Modern Ethical Tale

Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf is an example of ethical fiction in literature. Not only are such narratives examples of ethical thinking, but they also provide the reader with a story of self-creation. Harry Haller, the main character, is a man who experiences an existential crisis that enables the audience to ponder on matters of philosophy and literature. The purpose of this article is to examine to what extent Hesse defines the figure of the outsider as a result of industrial and materialistic society.


When discussing Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts, it is worth mentioning the fictional aspect of morality. The philosopher regarded morality as one of the fictions that construct society and that individuals seek in their quest for a fulfilling life (O'Neill, 2016). Nietzsche’s vision proposes an interplay between reality, fiction, and subjectivity which are really important problems in modern philosophy (Koza, 2015). In this case, the literary work becomes a source not only for philological studies but also for social phenomena, ideological movements, intellectual tendencies, social dynamics, and every kind of event related to human life.


Figure 1. Photo of Hermann Hesse


Hesse focused his work on coming-of-age novels, also known as bildungsroman. He, as an author, was not really innovative in aesthetic terms, but rather he was an inheritor of the German tradition of Romanticism. In all his works there is a sharp existential sensibility, but the romantic element is also essential, especially in the Steppenwolf. He was often compared to German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, due to their romantic influences (O'Neill, 2016). Nevertheless, Rilke was, undoubtedly, a poet and poetry typically provides more fertile ground to express feelings and emotions. Hesse, on the other hand, was an extraordinary writer that rejected the realist novel. He did not like to show the outer world, but rather the inner world of his characters (Koza, 2015). He was inspired by social psychology to better understand the fictional world of his novels.


The Steppenwolf can be considered Hesse’s magnum opus since it was written in his intellectual summit. He was in his fifties when writing the novel and, therefore, he describes the crisis he suffered at that age. The novel is presented as a document from that time which the editor offers to the reader. Harry Haller is the protagonist and leaves his ordinary life to become an outsider. The editor justifies Haller’s actions by affirming that his crisis affects everyone in society and damages the most sensitive people (O'Neill, 2016). In summary, Harry Haller is presented as a madman and his testimony of a personal crisis is contrasted with the general well-being of his time. Hesse offers much more than a story: he criticizes society as Thomas Mann does in The Magic Mountain with Hans Castorp. In the end, Hesse presents a philosophical explanation for Haller's condition and tries to establish a cure (Koza, 2015). The book is very complex, and it was not well-received at its time.

Figure 2. First German edition


Hesse's novel exuded a spirit of rebellion that was in stark contrast with the public feeling. However, this sentiment was not unique to Hesse but was shared by other intellectuals. Those who were imbued with pessimism and were more critical of technical-scientific progress saw the threat of an increasingly secularized society. Hesse's hero is purely romantic in terms of resistance and rebellion. He is a character who is in full confrontation with society and refuses to adapt. He is continually at war with his surroundings and considers his personal fulfillment to be related to his inner world, not the outside. In this sense, Hesse fuses two strands of extraordinary importance in German thought: Romanticism and Existentialism. The Romanticism of Goethe, the creator of the bildungsroman, and the existentialism of Heidegger. Hesse thought that in order to find the meaning of life it was necessary to remain on the margins since industrialized and bourgeois society was not governed by any integral ideal (Koza, 2015). For this reason, the protagonists of his novels live apart from the mundane noise.


If the bourgeois is measured by his competitive achievements and social status, Hesse's hero stands out for the absence of material ambition and for his desire to achieve full spirituality. Everything lies in the idea of searching for oneself, that is, overcoming tests of self-improvement, not of a social nature. Hesse's narrative is therefore intimate and full of reflections that allude to romantic sensibility (Koza, 2015). Hesse's protagonists are always solitary heroes who establish a great distance between themselves and others since they are incapable of establishing affinity with others. However, this inability is not the result of antipathy or indifference, but of the hypocrisy and superficiality of others.

Figure 3. Edward Hopper. Room in New York. 1932


The novel is clearly a celebration of the outsider’s figure that is thoroughly analyzed. Therefore, Harry Haller is a romantic hero despite his crisis. The way of life that Haller practices to escape from his madness is characterized by its innovation (Martínez Sahuquillo, 2011). He becomes a bohemian and lives with marginal people to experiment with new forms of conscience and existence which, in the end, will make the main character free from his bourgeois life. This was understood by many as a glorification of a way of life that was countercultural i.e., the hippie movement.


Nevertheless, not only did Hesse want a return to Nature, but also to discover his persona. He lived in the countryside as a hermit and adored wildlife. In his novel, Harry Haller lives his crisis in the city and his master, Pablo, is a jazz musician, which is clearly an urban composition. All the experiences that Haller has in the novel have a remarkably urban character. In this novel, the author harshly criticizes the industrial civilization, represented by machines. In one of Haller’s dreams, he shoots against the cars that drive through the sideway. Nevertheless, this does not prevent him from enjoying the city’s advantages. For example, he gets to know the bohemian people to escape bourgeois society (Martínez Sahuquillo, 2011). Haller’s goal consists of uniting the two natures that tear him in halves and which, in turn, produce schizophrenia. The author is able to diagnose this condition and defends it since it is a stimulus to transform the inner self.

Figure 4. Sunshine Ammerman. Mother Nature VS Man. n.d.


Clearly, these two natures or principles are analyzed and defined in the book. The bourgeois part is identified with his spirit whereas the repressed one is related to nature, sensuality, and the working classes. Haller’s goal is to go beyond feeling torn as most of the book’s characters do. His coming-of-age story will finish with his sexual development, in which Hermine, in the first place, played a significant role as his first sexual encounter and María, afterwards (Martínez Sahuquillo, 2011). He will also be involved in drugs and jazz music led by Pablo, the saxophonist.


In this way, Haller develops his outsider personality which follows philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s ideology. According to Rousseau, society was damaging to the human being because it was perverse for the individual. Therefore, people must begin a journey of self-discovery to find their true persona. They must deconstruct their entire personality to keep in touch with their inner forces. For Hesse, the coming-of-age process was characterized by desocialization since he regarded society as a mundane and distressing space (Martínez Sahuquillo, 2011). Hesse combines elements of both Christianism and Buddhism in a mystical union. He tries to link human beings and Nature to escape repressive feelings.

Figure 5. Johan Van Mullem. P15046. 2015.

This development of the individual’s personality can only lead to a complete detachment from society. The outsider, in this case, is the exact result of this philosophy. In addition, the author glorifies this figure that is utterly unconventional. In the novel, Harry Haller has a singular nature which makes him superior to his counterparts apart from being strong and wild like a wolf. He also has an artist’s soul and is extremely sensitive. Thus, Harry Halle cannot feel at ease in any kind of society since his wild nature pushes him to the outside. In this way, modern society stimulates even more of Harry’s features due to its secularization. Hesse criticizes industrialism and rejects the demystification of contemporary life, especially for those individuals who are more sensitive (Martínez Sahuquillo, 2011). The reader cannot forget that Harry Haller is looking for his life’s sense because he cannot stand the urban and bourgeois environment.


However, Harry Haller is not completely rebellious, that is, he is not an antihero nor a rebel with no cause. He is a hero that has become an outsider since he cannot find a sense of life. His quest for sense and identity is shown as a monumental and epic task since he is required to fight against society and accept the suffering caused by loneliness and isolation. In this way, the outsider that struggles with the word and that proudly recognizes his persona has a tragic character which, in turn, becomes one of his signature traits (Martínez Sahuquillo, 2011). Harry is not bound to find bourgeois happiness since he rejects it. His destiny is to suffer because the only thing that he longs for can only be achieved through torment. He longs to become one with nature in oriental terms or his true self from an occidental point of view. This goal can only be fulfilled through subjectivism and the refusal of any material goods.


Figure 6. Edward Hopper. Morning Sun. 1952.

It is natural that Hesse developed his characters as outsiders since that was how he defined himself. For the author, every kind of artist is an outsider, that is, their inner truth is far beyond the limits of the material world. Therefore, it requires another kind of experience to find their real persona. Nevertheless, the alienation that he reflected in his novels and the characters’ experiences were not isolated phenomena. His work connected with millions of readers that felt concerned and, maybe, reflected. Some thought that Hesse had moral authority since they affirmed that the writer offered ways to live a happier life (Martínez Sahuquillo, 2011). Others were convinced that Hesse could show them how to find an identity and, therefore, find their true place in the world.


Hesse became a must-read author among teenagers and young adults because all his characters are that age and want to discover their self. They want to construct a real identity apart from the adult society as the young readers longed for. In addition, Hesse could anticipate other movements, such as counterculture values. Thus, he advanced the New Age culture and other ideologies that rejected authority.

Figure 7. Nykkhu . My Father's Son . n.d.


In conclusion, it is natural that Hesse developed his characters as outsiders since that was how he defined himself. For the author, every kind of artist is an outsider, that is, their inner truth is far beyond the limits of the material world. Therefore, it requires another kind of experience to find their real persona. Nevertheless, the alienation that he reflected in his novels was not an isolated phenomenon. His work connected with millions of readers that felt concerned and, maybe identified with these feelings. Some thought that Hesse had the moral authority since they affirmed that the writer offered ways to live a happier life. Others were convinced that Hesse could show them how to find an identity and, therefore, find their true place in the world.

Bibliographical References

Hollis, A. (1978). Political Ambivalence in Hesse’s “Steppenwolf.” The Modern Language Review, 73(1), 110–118. https://doi.org/10.2307/3728144


Koza, M. (2015). Hesse’s Steppenwolf as Modern Ethical Fiction. CLCWeb : Comparative Literature and Culture, 17(5), 8–. https://doi.org/10.7771/1481-4374.2866


Martínez Sahuquillo, I. (2011). La novela de formación de Hermann Hesse como testimonio de una identidad y una filosofía de la vida : la construcción del outsider en El lobo estepario. Espacio Tiempo Y Forma. Serie V, Historia Contemporánea, (23). https://doi.org/10.5944/etfv.23.2011.1575


O’Neill, P. (2016). Harry Haller’s Records: The Ludic Imagination in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. In Acts of Narrative (pp. 57–75). University of Toronto Press. https://doi.org/10.3138/9781442670600-005


Visual Sources

Figure 1. Photo of Hermann Hesse. Retrieved from https://ca.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Hesse#/media/Fitxer:Hermann_Hesse_2.jpg


Figure 2. First German edition. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steppenwolf_(novel)#/media/File:Hermann_Hesse_Der_Steppenwolf_1927.jpg


Figure 3. Hopper, E. (1932). Room in New York. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2f/Room-in-new-york-edward-hopper-1932.jpg


Figure 4. Ammerman, S. (n.d.). Mother Nature VS Man. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-nature-vs-man-sunshine-ammerman.html


Figure 5. Van Mullem, J. (n.d.). . P15046. 2015. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://news.artnet.com/art-world/johan-van-mullem-interview-766271


Figure 6. Hopper, E. (1952). Morning Sun. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2012/08/20/157104327/hoppers-pensive-lady-in-pink-travels-the-world


Figure 7. Nykkhu. (n.d.). My Father's Son. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2017/04/21/chronicling-coming-of-age-through-art.html





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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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