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Steppenwolf

Hermann Hesse
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Plot Summary

Steppenwolf

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1927

Plot Summary

Steppenwolf (German: Der Steppenwolf) is a 1927 novel by the German writer Hermann Hesse, first translated into English in 1929. It presents itself as a manuscript written by Harry Haller, a lonely and suicidal middle-aged man who stumbles upon a “magic theater,” in which he has a series of surreal but revitalizing experiences. Hesse’s contemporaries were outraged by the novel’s depiction of sex and drug use, but it has since come to be recognized as a major work of twentieth-century German fiction.

Harry moves into a lodging house in an unnamed town. He is lonely, anxious, and unable to feel at home in the world. He thinks of himself as a “Steppenwolf,” a wolf of the Steppes, wandering alone through a hostile landscape. He is disgusted by the sensuality, mindless optimism, and productivity of the bourgeoisie, but he is envious too. Unable either to renounce conventional, bourgeois life or to embrace it, Harry has been driven to the brink of suicide.

Walking through the old quarter of the city, Harry spots a sign he has never noticed before: “Magic Theater—Entrance not for everybody.” The door under this sign will not open, but a man bearing another sign advertising the Magic Theater approaches Harry and gives him a pamphlet entitled “Treatise on the Steppenwolf.”



The pamphlet addresses Harry by name and describes his psychological state with uncanny accuracy. It tells him that he is caught between his “wolf” nature and his humanity. He is one of “the suicides,” destined to take his own life, but he also has the potential to join “the immortals” through some great achievement.

Later, by chance, Harry sees the man who gave him this pamphlet. He asks him about the Magic Theater. The man tells him that it’s “Not for everybody,” and recommends a local dance hall instead.

Harry visits a former colleague at his home. The colleague—a university professor—has nationalistic opinions that disgust Harry. Harry tells the professor that a bust of Goethe on display in his home is sentimental, inadvertently insulting the man’s wife. Harry leaves feeling that he is unfit for human society and planning to commit suicide.



Before he goes home, Harry visits the dance hall recommended by the man who gave him the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf.” There he meets a young woman who gives him some kindly advice and makes him feel better. He meets her again a week later. When he asks for her name, she tells him to guess. He suggests “Hermine,” because she resembles his old friend Herman, and she tells him that he is correct. Hermine says she will continue to help Harry, on the condition that he does everything she says. He agrees, and she reveals that, eventually, after he has fallen in love with her, she will ask him to kill her.

Hermine insists on introducing Harry to the bourgeois pleasures he has always despised: teaching him to dance, finding him a lover called Maria, and introducing him to the jazz musician Pablo. Pablo is the kind of man Harry has always thought of as frivolous, but he finds the musician charming and seductive. With Hermine, Maria, and Pablo, Harry comes to appreciate sensual pleasure and materialism. Although he grows happier, part of him remains in revolt against bourgeois pleasures, yearning for spiritual fulfillment. Finally, he confesses to Hermine that he is not completely free of his discontent. She shows him that she understands completely. He begins to fall deeply in love with her.

Hermine takes Harry to a Fancy Dress Ball, where hours of intense revelry culminate in a sensual dance between the two of them. When the ball is over, Pablo invites Harry and Hermine to the Magic Theater.



The Theater is a curving corridor: one wall is a mirror, and the other contains a series of doors. Each door leads to a different world, each representing a part of Harry’s personality: in one, a horrific war rumbles on eternally; in another, every woman he has ever desired offers herself to him. Harry’s experiences become increasingly surreal until finally, he enters a room in which Hermine and Pablo lie together, naked and exhausted from making love.

Harry recalls his promise to murder Hermine, and he stabs her with a knife that has appeared in his pocket. The composer Mozart appears and explains to Harry that he has behaved too seriously: life will never be perfect, and he must react to its imperfections with laughter. Harry is escorted from the theater, knowing that he has failed, but believing that he can redeem himself in the future.

Steeped in Eastern philosophy, Steppenwolf explores the nature of the self. The novel’s depictions of free love, drug use, and self-liberation through psychological self-examination made it extremely influential in the counterculture of the 1960s, particularly in the United States.
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