From Academic Kids

This article is about the novel. For the 1960s rock band known primarily for "Born to Be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride", see Steppenwolf (band). Steppenwolf is a German language word which means a desert dog, or "wolf of the steppes."

Steppenwolf is a novel by Hermann Hesse, combining autobiographical and fantastic elements. The book in large part reflects a profound crisis in Hesse's spiritual world in the 1920s.



At the beginning of 1924 Hesse married his second wife, singer Ruth Wenger. However, after several weeks he left Basel, only returning closer to the end of the year, and then renting a separate apartment. After a short trip to Germany together Hesse stopped seeing Wenger almost completely. The resulting feeling of isolation and inability to make lasting contact with the outside world led to increasing despair and thoughts of suicide.

Hesse started working on the book in Basel and continued it in Zurich, publishing in 1926 a precursor to it - a book of poems titled The Crisis. From Hermann Hesse's Diary. The novel itself was published in 1928.


The book is presented as a manuscript by its protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller (who has the same initials as Hesse himself, a recurring device in his books), which he left to his chance acquaintance (the nephew of his landlady), who decided to print it, adding a short preface of his own. The title of this "real" book-in-the-book is Harry Haller's Records (For Madmen Only).

As it begins, the hero is beset with reflections on his being ill-suited for the world of "everybody", the regular people. In his aimless wanderings about the city he encounters a person carrying an advertisement for a "magic theater", who gives him a small book, Treatise on the Steppenwolf. This treatise is cited in full in the novel's text (another level of self-reference) as Harry reads it. The pamphlet addresses Harry by name and seems to describe him perfectly, as a man of two natures, one "high", spiritual, a "human", and the other - "low", animal, a "steppenwolf", entangled in an unresolvable struggle, never content to be either.

The next day, trying to postpone the inevitable, he chances upon a young woman in a dance hall, who talks to him at length, mocking and understanding him in turn, and gives him, in promising a subsequent meeting, a reason to start "learning to live". Over several weeks Hermine (the woman) finds Harry a lover, teaches him to dance and introduces him to a saxophonist named Pablo. After a lavish masked ball Pablo leads Harry to his "magic theater", where the rigid notions about his soul are shattered and where he, once inside, participates in several fantastic episodes, culminating with him killing Hermine with a knife, thus fulfilling, as it seems, her own earlier request. This results in Harry being judged by Mozart, who, as a punishment, condemns Harry to "listen to the radio music of life", challenging him at the same time to "reverence the spirit behind it".


  • In the early 1926 Hesse had several sessions of psychoanalysis with Dr. I. Lang, a student of Carl Jung; Jungian notions of "self", or "the I", as a complex superimposition and not a monolithic whole form the philosophical basis of the book.
  • In the winter of the same year Hesse was taking dance lessons with Julia Laubi-Honegger (Hermine's prototype), and attended with her a masked ball at the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich.
  • Hesse's landlady and the apartment he rented from her in the winter of 1924 in Basel are described in the novel as those of Haller.
  • The symbol of the Steppenwolf itself can be traced to Nietzsche's "differentiated loner", whom he also termed a "beast" and a "genius".
  • It is likely that the figure of Pablo and the depiction of jazz music in the book is influenced by Hesse attending several performances by Sidney Bechet.
  • A consistent motif in the book is the excellent simplicity of Mozart, particularly in comparison with more weighty, "complex, dense" German composers such as Johannes Brahms.

Musical reference

The 1976 Hawkwind album Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music features a 9¾ minute song loosely based on the novel, featuring vocals by Robert Calvert, violin by Simon House and saxophone by Nik Steppenwolf


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