Last week, I said, “Although it masquerades as one, this (Steppenwolf) is not a realist novel that attempts to show “life as it really is.” Steppenwolf is a story of supernatural events.” There was a lot of uproar about this, many audience members wanted to know more about my thinking in making such a dramatic statement.
A realist novel is “A type of novel that places a strong emphasis on the truthful representation of the actual in fiction. Generally, the realist is a believer in pragmatism, and the truth he seeks to find and express is a relativistic truth, associated with discernible consequences and verifiable by experience.”
It’s a stretch and a disservice to try to jam Steppenwolf into this category.
Last week we talked about coincidence, albeit plotted by the implied author, and found a lot of it in Steppenwolf. Harry sees a sign about the Magic Theater, is given a little book that seems to be about him. He goes to a bar and the only empty seat is next to a woman named Hermine who quickly (ahem) warms up to him and says she’s his sister and/or double. After a later night of brooding, he goes into his bedroom and finds another beautiful woman in his bed.
Okay, maybe some of these things have happened to me (I had to write the book myself) but in general these are not realistic occurrences, “associated with discernible consequences.”
Anybody want to disagree? Huh? Huh? Let’s step outside then.
(sorry, please disregard. Wrong blog).
So, if Steppenwolf isn’t a realist novel, what is it?
With brilliance, Hermann Hesse “played” with several other forms and genres in writing this book. It may be seen as allegory (more on this later), as a mystical/magical tale of an inner journey, and as a bildungsroman, a novel about a character’s development. And indeed, the structure of presenting the content of the book as a journal which is discovered after the departure of its author refers to Werther by Goethe, who as we know, figures prominently in Steppenwolf. This reference gives a legitimacy and a realist cast to an un-realistic tale which would come across quite differently if Harry’s story were written as a first-person novel.
Steppenwolf can be seen as allegory. “An allegory…is not just another word for a metaphor. In essence, it’s a form of fiction that represents immaterial things as images.”
Harry interacts with three characters, Hermine, Maria, and Pablo, and each one of this triumvirate can be taken as a symbol. Hermine is the younger self, a sister, a twin, Maria, adult female sexuality, and Pablo, the Dionysian artist. The three of them elicit and reflect different aspects of Harry as he undergoes a process of education. Harry himself can be seen as being symbolic of one who is seeking enlightenment, a student. Perhaps it can also be said, best beloved, that Harry symbolizes the generation of men and women who survived WW1 and were profoundly affected by its trauma. He is a broken man who requires healing.
And that brings me to the Bildungsroman—a class of novel that depicts and explores the manner in which the protagonist develops morally and psychologically. The German word Bildungsroman means “novel of education” or “novel of formation.”
(whiny voice. Why not just call it that then, Mr. Pretentious Bully. Leave out the German).
I think this last type makes the most sense to describe Steppenwolf. The novel has quite a bit to do with Harry Haller’s transformation due to the education he receives from Hermine, Maria, and Pablo. There is a long tradition of the bildungsroman in literature which connects the form and story of Steppenwolf to such works as Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
But Hermann Hesse gives the genre a twist. Steppenwolf is not the story of a young person maturing and changing but rather about an older person who is unhappy and who undergoes considerable personality change as a result of particular and unusual experiences.
In his 1961 Author’s Notes in the Bantam edition, Hesse says, “Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale.” Then he goes on to say how he would like them to understand Steppenwolf—as a story of healing.
I think Hesse is being disingenuous when he disavows any intention that his readers understand the book in a certain way. I think it’s clear he intentionally structured the story to “preach” and “teach” a message.
Steppenwolf is told by two reliable first-person character narrators, the unnamed landlady’s son, and Harry Haller, whose notebooks form the meat of the tale. The landlady’s son, in the preface, tells the reader how to read the notebooks, that they were written by a strange but good man who disappeared, leaving no opportunity to question him.
Harry is shown meeting Hermine, Maria, and Pablo, who all teach him certain “truths” which are not questioned. Pablo, in particular, is a kind of magus-type entity, a magician if you will, who spends his time in the book arranging for Harry’s enlightenment. He and the two women are shown as one-dimensional characters who do not question themselves or their motivations. The whole story is structured as a lesson for Harry. (Yes, they are all allegorical figures). He (and the reader) is not asked to decide whether he wishes to continue, not given a choice. On the contrary, Harry is drugged and seduced into “school.”
And the lesson that is taught?
That bourgeois life is stifling, that technology is dehumanizing, that every person contains a multitude of possibilities that should be embraced. That a meaning of life is available to those who are open to it.