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“Narcissus and Goldmund”- Two Elements within an Individual

Klee, P. (1923). Landscape with yellow birds.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was a prominent German-Swiss author and poet active in the '900. His artistic talent exudes mysticism and existentialism, and his introspective writing was influenced by Eastern philosophy. Hermann Hesse's father was a pietist missionary in India, and Hermann absorbed that culture which became an inspiration for his works.

Eastern culture focuses on spirituality and religiosity while the Western one is all about reason and practicality. The relationship between Western and Eastern philosophy can be found in all of Hermann Hesse's novels, where the story is populated by outlandish protagonists who break free from the walls of western society to seek their self-realization. Eastern collectivism is diametrically opposed to Western individualism, and the duality aspect is particularly emphasized in his 1930 novel Narcissus and Goldmund. Hermann Hesse writes the story of an important friendship between these two opposing characters. They share a special bond, although they are antithetical. Narcissus is the thinker, Goldmund the artist. One is an ascetic, the other a wanderer.

“We are sun and moon, dear friend; we are sea and land. It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is: each the other's opposite and complement.”

(Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund)

Set in medieval times, Goldmund is a young motherless boy sent to a monastery where he meets his friend and mentor Narcissus, a teacher at the cloister. When one night Goldmund wanders outside the monastery, he has an epiphany after being sexually involved with a gypsy woman: he understands monastic life it's not his calling. Narcissus advises him to go beyond those walls -"you forgot your childhood, it seeks for you from the depths of your soul"- so Goldmund diverges onto a completely different direction: a wanderer's existence full of lust, love, misadventures, art, and death. Ultimately, Goldmund encounters once again his long-lost friend Narcissus, now an Abbott, who pays a ransom to save Goldmund from execution. They meet, they separate, they come together again, and learn from each other. Narcissus and Goldmund is a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel that focuses on the character's arc and its transformation, and how the main protagonist finds himself in all his complexity.

In every novel written by Hesse, the underlying force is the polarity of nature and spirit, eros and logos. From this perspective, Narcissus and Goldmund caught the attention of psychoanalytical interest. The term "individuation" in psychology was coined by C.G. Jung, and it represents the path an individual traces to integrate harmoniously all the elements from unconscious to conscious, becoming whole.

Individuation means becoming a single, homogeneous being, and, in so far as “individuality” embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one's own self. We could therefore translate individuation as “coming to selfhood” or “self-actualization” 

(Collected Works, 7, paragraph 266).

Following the principles of Buddhism, the novel is about the search of self. Goldmund embarks on the individuation path once he leaves the monastery, and his traveling is a metaphorical inner journey of self-realization, that he later completes through art. Carl G. Jung defines that the human psyche has four cognitive functions: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. In the novel, the two characters represent these functions distinctively. Narcissus is the one who focuses on meditation and religion (thinking and intuitive) while Goldmund always craves throughout the novel the figure of the lost mother (sensation and intuition) then giving form to his memories with art and sculpture.

For Jung, all these functions exist and cohabit in each one of us, even if there is a prominence of one function over the others. In the end, Narcissus teaches Goldmund how "nature" is not sufficient without "spirit" and vice versa; Goldmund indirectly taught Narcissus the necessity of creativity and adventure for a rich existence, and how incomplete life is if it's only about discipline and knowledge. The two sides of their personality come together. From a psychoanalytical perspective, Narcissus and Goldmund are the same person, although the book portrays them as two different individuals. They become whole. In Chinese philosophy, tao means "way, path", and it's the primary concept of the universe. The notion of tao focuses on the harmony of opposites as complements. We all have both elements of Narcissus and Goldmund within us, and just like the characters, these constituents are indissoluble and they complement each other: between rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious. Where senses meet the spirit, and they act in concert.


  • Hesse, H. (1989) Narciso e Boccadoro, Mondadori

  • Huskinson, L. (2004). Nietzsche and Jung: the whole self in the union of opposites. Brunner-Routledge.

  • Jung, C. G. (1964). Psychological types; or, The psychology of individuation. Pantheon Books.

  • Cua, A. S. (1998). Opposites as Complements: Reflections on the Significance of Tao. In Moral vision and tradition: essays in Chinese ethics. essay, Catholic University of America Press.

  • Dimkov, P. R. (n.d.). The Concept of Self in Eastern and Western Philosophy.


  • Klee, P. (1923). Landscape with yellow birds.


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