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Questions to Hesse's Steppenwolf

Note: These questions and topics for discussion were originally developed for Jürgen Froehlich's Freshman Seminar, Germany: Past, Present, Future during the Fall, 1996 semester.


In Steppenwolf, Hesse handles many of the same topics as are found in other literary works. In this list we can include alienation, individual destiny, the decay of society, the mechanization of society, and the role of art, just to name a few. However, this novel has a structure unlike that of its predecessors. It neither has a linear plot, nor is it a frame tale, but has instead three narrative voices, one layered within the other. Additionally, the main character and the novel itself are seen from several different perspectives, such as a psycho-analytic point of view and a sociological point of view. It seems, therefore, that Steppenwolf doesn't cover new thematic material, but instead looks at old material in a new way, thus leading to perhaps new and even controversial perspectives.

Narrative Structure

How is having three narratives in the first 60 pages (the nephew's, Harry's, and the Treatise) tied to Harry's own split personality? What different worlds do these three points of view represent?


In what way can we 'use' psycho-analysis to understand Harry? Can the narrative structure of the novel be tied in with this interpretation? Is this psycho-analytic method of interpretation intentional (on the part of Hesse)? If so, why? What advances in psychology preceded or ran parallel to Hesse's life, or to the writing of this novel?

The Reception

Shortly after its publication, Steppenwolf was decried as decadent, anti-social, and base. What would lead a reader of the novel to these conclusions? How does it compare, then, with modern novels (think of both 'pulp' writers and more 'literary' works)? Do any of the topics covered in the book seem 'ahead of their time'? If so, why?

Social Critic

Steppenwolf is recognized as a criticism of German society. What aspects of society was Hesse criticizing? Is this criticism directed specifically at German society? Why is the setting (temporal) of the novel important in this regard? Which, if any, social classes has Hesse picked out for criticism, and why? How does Hesse's attack on German society compare that of Mann's in Death in Venice? To that in "The God of the City"? To that in "Metropolis"? What positions are given on technology, ideology, nationalism, and war? How does the individual fit in to his/her time period?

Music and Art

An undeniably important 'motif' in Steppenwolf is music. What role does music play in Harry Haller's life? According to Haller, how is art perceived by the middle class? Does Harry distinguish between types of art/music? Is so, for what purpose? Does 'true' art/music represent an 'ideal'? How does this compare with Death in Venice? Does Hesse use the idea of the Apollonian and the Dionysian? What form does it take in Steppenwolf, and how does it relate to art/music?


Why is Harry attracted to Pablo? What is Pablo's type of music? In contrast, what does Mozart represent? To what degree is Harry's (Hesses?) view of Mozart in line with the historical figure? Why Mozart? Why not Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, or Wagner? Are Pablo and Mozart the same figure?


Hermine is an interesting character for several reasons. Consider her name. How is it tied to that of the author? How is she (and her name) tied to Harry Haller and his sexuality? What are we to make of the 'gender-bending' in the novel? Compare this with Mann's Death in Venice.

The Magic Theater

The Magic Theater has been interpreted in many different ways. The late Timothy Leary described it as an 'acid trip'. Is the actual Magic Theater drug induced? Is it real? Another literary device is the use of the 'fantastic' (in more modern literature, we have 'magical realism', which is related, but not the same). Is the Magic Theater Hesse's use of the fantastic? This brings up the question of illusion versus reality. A prime example of this conflict is Shakespeare's The Tempest. In what ways does Hesse play with our notions of the real, surreal, and illusionary? Do these ideas tie in with the historical background of the novel?


Steppenwolf is not a 'happy' story, but can you categorize it as a tragedy? If so, what characteristics of a tragedy does it have? Let us consider the concept of a comedy. In Shakespeare, comedies were simply plays that had a happy ending. Is Steppenwolf a comedy? A major topic towards the end of the novel is that of humor and laughter. Why is laughter psychologically important? Is Harry a character who can laugh? What evidence do you have to support your position? Does the Steppenwolf laugh? Is so, how? How is laughter related to music? To the Magic Theater? To illusion versus reality? What do you know about tragedy and catharsis, and how it relates to illusion and reality? Compare this idea with that of humor and laughter. Near the ends of both Steppenwolf and Death and Venice, we have orgiastic scenes, yet each novel has a very different outcome. What do you see as the main reasons for this?


After reading Steppenwolf, we are compelled to ask a number of questions. First and foremost, was it a 'good read'? If not, why didn't you like the novel? If it was, what made it fun to read? Have you read other novels like it? Have you read other works by Hesse, and if so, how does Steppenwolf compare? Does the novel aid us in our quest to better understand Germany and the Germans? Or does it instead lead us to the individual, and his or her fate in modern society? Do you see connections between this novel and other works we have read or seen in this class?