Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Joe Ricker
Narcissus and Goldmund is a coming of age story about a young man with little knowledge of his mother who embarks on a series of travels to discover the meaning of life.

Coming of Age

Narcissus and Goldmund is a novel set during medievil Germany by Herman Hesse. Goldmund, the central character of the book, decides that he must leave the monastery where he lives and studies to engage the outside world and discover life's true meaning. Goldmund embarks on a series of travels. During his journey, he engages in several relationships with women, a good portion of them sexual. Also during his travels, he ponders human existence and the cruel and corrupt nature of mankind.

Complimenting Characters

Narcissus is Goldmund's teacher at the monastery. Goldmund and Narcissus are foil characters, meaning that they are opposing in a way that emphasizes the positive qualities of the other. Narcissus is a thinker and Goldmund is an artist. Both characters are described as beautiful, and both love each other deeply.

Leaving the Monastery

Goldmund is sent to live in a monastery by his father because of his mother's sinful lifestyle. She is described as a gypsy, and the lack of knowledge of his mother is what motivates Goldmund to leave the monastery in search for a greater meaning for his existence.

This becomes evident one day while Goldmund is in the fields collecting herbs and encounters a woman named Lise who has sex with him. Goldmund wants to stay with her, but she is married and returns to her husband. With encouragement from Narcissus, Goldmund leaves the monastery for his journey.


Goldmund's travels eventually bring him into the employ of a count who hires Goldmund to translate his autobiographical tales of the Crusades into Latin. The count also has two daughters, and Goldmund makes every attempt to seduce them. The count eventually learns of this, and Goldmund is sent away. Goldmund continues his travels until he is so overcome with grief that he finds a cloister and confesses his sins.

Upon confessing, Goldmund eyes a carved wooden statue. Deeply moved by its artistic beauty, Goldmund seeks out the man who carved it, Master Niklaus. After creating a small carving of his own, an image of Narcissus, Goldmund is accepted as an apprentice. While working for Niklaus, Goldmund comes closer to understanding the meaning of his life, and how his lack of knowledge of his mother has impacted him. Hesse writes about Goldmund's observations of Niklaus' talent:

''The way some of Master Niklaus's madonnas powerfully expressed the suffering mother of God with a perfection that seemed unsurpassable to Goldmund, he hoped that one day, when he was more mature and surer of his craft, he would be able to create the image of the worldly mother, the Eve-mother, as she lived in his heart, his oldest, most cherished image; an inner image that had once been the memory of his own mother, of his love of her, but was now in constant transformation and growth.''

A wooden carving of the Madonna inspires Goldmund.

After three years, Goldmund's carving of the apostle John impresses Master Niklaus enough for him to ask that Goldmund serve as his successor. In addition, Niklaus offers his daughter to Goldmund as a wife. Goldmund refuses, criticizes Niklaus for his use of art for financial gain and status, and leaves.

The Tragedy of Human Nature

After his time with Master Niklaus, Goldmund becomes more observant of human nature. He doesn't understand how human beings can be so cruel and unappreciative of life. He eventually meets a companion named Robert who he travels with to a village where they learn that the village has been infected with the plague. In describing Goldmund's feelings, Hesse writes:

''He thought the fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life's instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, as transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.''

Robert and Goldmund meet up with a woman named Helene, and they live together in the forest. Helene is raped by a man who also bites her. Goldmund encounters this and kills the man, but the damage is already done. The man who bit Helene infected her with the plague. Helene dies, and Goldmund returns to Master Niklaus only to learn that he has died as well.

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