Steppenwolf: Summary & Author

Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

Read on for a short summary of the novel, Steppenwolf, and for some information about its author, the famous Herman Hesse. Following this, you can test all your newfound knowledge with a quiz.

Summary of Steppenwolf

First edition of Steppenwolf in German, 1927
steppenwolf first ed

It's not just a famous theater in Chicago. Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf is, along with Siddhartha, one of Hesse's most celebrated works. It explores how we build our identities, how we relate to our culture and society, and how we find our place in the world.

But what exactly happens in Steppenwolf that leads to these interpretations?

The narrative is presented as part of a writing by Harry Haller. Harry, a disenchanted man, goes through life feeling out of place in current society. One day, however, he comes upon a brightly-lit, strange theater, and meets a man who gives him a writing called Treatise of the Steppenwolf.

When Harry reads the book, he finds it addressed to him! The book talks to Harry directly and describes him as someone torn between serious philosophical urges (the man) and playful and fantastic spiritual and physical urges (the wolf on the steppes). Later on, Harry meets the man again to ask for passage to the theatre, but the man gives him an address to a dance hall instead.

After reading the treatise, Harry feels as though he can't reconcile these two different sides of himself. He plans to commit suicide, which the book indicated that he would. He further cements those plans after he has a bad experience with a friend and his wife, which confirms to him that he is alone in the world and cut off from society. However, rather than going home and killing himself, he goes to the dance hall that he learned of and meets a woman named Hermine who connects with Harry. Harry is happy to have a connection with someone, and Hermine gets Harry to follow her commands, helping him to indulge in the more pleasurable life of the wolf. She even requests that Harry kill her at a point in time that will become clear later.

Harry continues to become more and more involved in having a fun and pleasurable life, though he's still got some reservations about losing his serious and high-thinking side. One night, however, Hermine takes him to a party where, after hours of revelry, the host of the party (named Marco) invites him to a special theatre.

At the theatre, Harry is able to enter doors that show fantasies of pleasure and of seriousness. He is able to re-imagine his life, act out upon his violent fantasies, and have sexual encounters with past loves. However, Harry enters a door and tries to kill Hermine as she requested he do earlier, but this shows a seriousness that is against the playful and ethereal nature of the palace. The composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart then shows up and chastises Harry for being so serious, telling him that he must face life with levity and laughter rather than being so depressed and grim, and confirming to Harry that indulging the wolf is the best way to approach life.


Bust of Herman Hesse located in Calw, Germany
hesse bust

Herman Hesse was born in 1877 in Germany and spent his youth in Germany and Switzerland. His writing focuses on spiritual, metaphysical, and ethereal themes. Metaphysical themes deal with the nature of the mind itself and what the mind is; ethereal themes explore elements of the world that are so beautiful as to seem elevated beyond our physical existence.

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