top of page

Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Magic Theater

Last week, we talked about how the first section of Steppenwolf—after the preface—describes Harry Haller’s painful existence. He is glum, dysphoric; he believes his personality is divided into two parts, permanently at war with each other. This is classic storytelling in the western canon; a story begins with a showing of the protagonist’s conflicted condition just prior to an inciting incident that sets off a process of change. Aristotle would be proud.

In Steppenwolf, this incident is Harry’s discovery of the Magic Theater.

“With these familiar thoughts I went along the wet street through one of the quietest and oldest quarters of the town. On the opposite side there stood in the darkness an old stone wall which I always noticed with pleasure…the wall was peaceful and serene and yet something was altered in it. I was amazed to see a small and pretty doorway with a Gothic arch in the middle of the wall, for I could not make up my mind whether this doorway had always been there or whether it had just been made…now that I looked more closely I saw over the portal a bright shield, on which, it seemed to me, there was something written.”

Magic Theater

Entrance Not For Everybody

Then on the path he’s walking on, he sees:

For Madmen Only!

Harry doesn’t seem to think these messages are unusual. After lingering a few moments to see if there will be more, he continues on his walk. He goes to a local tavern and drinks wine, then goes out again, stops to hear a jazz band playing, and, to his surprise, likes what he hears (he usually doesn’t like jazz). Then:

“From the black mouth of an alley a man appeared with startling suddenness at my elbow…He wore a cap and a blue blouse, and above his shoulders he carried a signboard fixed on a pole, and in front of him an open tray suspended by straps such as pedlars carry at fairs…I called out and asked him to let me read his placard. He stopped and held the pole a little steadier. Then I could read the dancing, reeling letters:

Anarchist Evening Entertainment

Magic Theater

Entrance Not For Everyone

Harry pursues the man and says he wants to buy something from him. “Without stopping, the man felt mechanically in his box, pulled out a little book and held it out to me.” The man “disappeared.”

What is the significance of the word “Anarchist?” During the first decades of the 20th century, the anarchist movement flourished in most parts of the world and had a significant role in workers' struggles for emancipation. For the bourgeoisie, it meant something dangerous. An anarchist entertainment would be a show that challenged the basic order of things in the guise of fun.

‘Kay. This makes me think of the film Field of Dreams where the Voice makes dramatic pronouncements to Ray that change his life. “Go the distance!” “Ease his pain!” The difference is in the protagonists’ reactions. Neither Ray nor Harry react in a realist way; Ray gets mad, but Harry doesn’t seem particularly surprised by these events. However, when he gets home, he looks at the pamphlet. “It was with great astonishment and a sudden sense of impending fate that I read the title…Treatise on the Steppenwolf. Not for Everybody.

As we know, Harry thinks of himself as a Steppenwolf. So what’s happened is that he’s out walking at night and sees a sign he’s never seen before, an enigmatic and intriguing sign concerning a Magic Theater. Then he encounters a strange, cartoonish sort of fellow who sells him a book—about himself!


Another facet of this is the repeated condition: Not for Everybody. The implication is that if you’re allowed entrance, or access to the pamphlet, you are somehow chosen, you are special. A time-honored way to create desire, as in, “I’ve got to have the thing I’m not allowed to have!”

So, there are several “hooks” cleverly designed to grab Harry’s attention. (The fisherman is the implied author, heh, heh, heh).

He reads on till the end. His first reaction is to remember a poem he’d written about the wolf.

“So now I had two portraits of myself before me, one a self-portrait in doggerel verse, as sad and sorry as myself; the other painted with the air of a lofty impartiality by one who stood outside and who knew more and yet less of me than I did myself…Both were right. Both gave the unvarnished truth about my shiftless existence.

“Death was decreed for this Steppenwolf. He must with his own hand make an end of his detested existence—unless, molten in the fire of a renewed self-knowledge, he underwent a change and passed over to a self, new and undisguised. Alas! This transition was not unknown to me. I had already experienced it several times…”

So, Harry seems to conclude that the Treatise is telling him he must go through a painful transition to a new self. He describes other transitions wherein he lost his profession, his wife and family, becoming alone. “And every occasion when a mask was torn off, an ideal broken, was preceded by this hateful vacancy and stillness, this deathly constriction and loneliness and unrelatedness, this waste and empty hell of loneliness and despair, such as I now had to pass through once more.”

Interesting—he says the Treatise was “painted with the air of lofty impartiality by one who stood outside and who knew more and yet less of me than I did myself.” So, it’s only a partially accurate portrait. He disagrees with the Treatise on suicide, thinking that it is an acceptable out, not a weakness as the Treatise advises. “On the other hand, all suicides have the responsibility of fighting against the temptation of suicide” In fact, the Treatise says that the Steppenwolf plans to kill himself on his fiftieth birthday, a plan Harry has not divulged to the reader. After reading the Treatise, he gloomily concludes it’s a long time to wait to his fiftieth birthday!

There is no specific mention of Harry in the Treatise, so he decides, although it has merit, it’s too general to take at its word. However, although he denies it, Harry seems to be trying to follow the Treatise’s instructions. He doesn’t kill himself; he becomes more intrigued by the Magic Theater and tries to find it and the odd fellow who sold him the Treatise. He finally does find him in a funeral procession. He accosts the man who tells him gruffly to go to the Black Eagle bar. (More on this next time).

Is the Treatise another example of the implied author telling, in this case, how the protagonist should act? Could be, could be. Hesse himself wrote of Steppenwolf that he wished to show a sufferer’s state of mind measured against a positive and cheerful world of beliefs above person and time. Well, that’s essentially what the Treatise is, a device that shows a positive world of beliefs that oppose Harry’s dysphoria. As we will see later, the Magic Theater shows the enactment of those beliefs.

On a level of writing, Steppenwolf has layers: the Preface, Harry’s journals, the Treatise. As Ralph Freedman noted in his book The Lyrical Novel, this technique allowed Hesse to present a very inner view of a character in the context of a realist novel. In other words, Hesse could have written Steppenwolf a la James Joyce or Virginia Wolf, using the journals without the device of them being “found” by someone else. The book could just have been a portrait of Harry’s consciousness, but Hesse wrote in a different style.

Till next time, all you Steppenwolves. Ow-ooh!


bottom of page