Demian Summary

Hermann Hesse


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Demian Summary

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Demian, by Hermann Hesse, is a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman—or coming-of-age novel—that follows the life of Emil Sinclair (Hesse) from childhood to his time as a soldier in World War I. The story starts when Emil is in grammar school. He’s ten years old, and lives in a small German town with his parents and two sisters. Emil tells another student, Franz Kromer, that he pilfered apples from a farmer. Despite Emil’s innocence, Kromer blackmails him, threatening to report him to the farmer or the police. This goes on for weeks, with Kromer extorting money from Emil and other valuables from his family. Emil believes that he’s committed a sin and that he belongs to the evil realm of the world.

Emil meets a new student named Max Demian at school. Max is a few years older than him, and becomes interested in him, exposing him to interpretations of religion that are very different from what they’re taught in school. After a little while, Emil tells Max that Kromer has been giving him trouble. Max scares Kromer into leaving Emil alone. While relieved to be rid of Kromer’s torments, Emil is also ashamed because he didn’t deal with Kromer himself. As a result, he doesn’t pursue friendship with Max.

However, Emil gets over that and several years later, he and Max are friends. Rumors abound that Max is either an atheist or a Jew, but he ends up deciding to attend the same religious confirmation class as Emil. Max’s unconventional ideas about religion both disturb and enthrall Emil, who starts to question his own faith. Despite this, both boys are confirmed at the end of chapter three.

Chapter four begins the next stage of Emil’s life—boarding school. His parents send him away to school and he is parted from Max for awhile. The other boys at school don’t like Emil, so he falls into depression and experiences self-hatred. One night, he goes out for a walk and meets Alfons Beck. Alfons is the oldest boy at school, and he invites Emil for a drink. They go to a bar where Emil gets drunk for the first time; the next morning he wakes even more depressed and disgusted with himself. Emil drinks more and becomes known for being drunk. His behavior at school is unruly. He becomes certain that he belongs entirely to the world of darkness and sin, and feels even worse. His grades slip and soon he is on the brink of being expelled. Despite leading a group of other unruly boys, he feels lonely. His loneliness is compounded by the fact that, although he has written to Max twice, he’s received no letters in reply.

When Emil meets a young woman in a park his life changes. He doesn’t approach her, but develops an infatuation with her. Though he doesn’t know her real name, he thinks of her as Beatrice. He begins to worship her, which leads him to stop drinking. He focuses on his studies again, and feels like Beatrice has pulled him into the world of light. He starts painting what he sees in his dreams, including a face that resembles both Max and Beatrice. When he paints an image of a bird emerging from a shell, he sends it to Max.

Emil continues to paint his symbolic dreams. He also starts to sit outside a nearby church to listen to the organist play. One day, he meets the organist, who is named Pistorius. Pistorius welcomes Emil into the church to listen to the music. They talk about philosophy and religion, and Emil learns that Pistorius believes in a deity named Abraxas. Abraxas represents both the light and dark. They spend many evenings together, and Emil learns about different religions and philosophies from all over the world. They talk about Emil’s dreams and Pistorius helps Emil find his true self.

Meanwhile, Knauer, a younger boy at Emil’s boarding school asks Emil to help him in his own search for identity. He helps Knauer by telling him that he has to accept himself to discover his own heart. After painting another face he saw in a dream, Emil realizes that the face is his own daemon, an ideal and intense version of his inner self. Right before he graduates, Emil criticizes Pistorius and the two end their friendship;  Emil realizes that this is a necessary and positive step on his own path.

Chapter six finds Emil at university. He’s still painting, and he discovers that his inner self is reminiscent of Max Demian’s mother. Though he doesn’t know where to find her, he’s determined to do so. Meanwhile, he becomes disappointed in his coursework. It’s at this point that he runs into Max. The two discuss philosophy, religion, politics, and European society. Max invites Emil to his home, where he can meet Max’s mother, Frau Eva. When he meets her, he realizes that it’s her face he’s seen in his dreams. He also sees that Frau Eva and Max hung the painting of the bird that he’d sent. He develops close friendships with Max, Frau Eva, and their circle of friends, with whom he discusses philosophy, society, and religion.

In the last chapter of the book, Emil has found peace and self-identity. When World War I begins, both he and Max go to fight in the war. They’re both injured. Emil wakes in a hospital bed and discovers that Max is in the next bed. But when Max dies, Emil realizes that Max Demian was always the key to his daemon, or his true self.