Hermann Hesse (1877-1962)

Recipient of the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature, Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) won critical esteem and popular success primarily for his novels, which he termed “biographies of he soul.” A recurring theme in Hesse’s work is the individual’s search for truth and identity through what he called the “inward journey,” and the intensely autobiographical nature of his writing reflects his introspection.

("Hermann Hesse." LitFinder Contemporary Collection, Gale, 2009).


When the German writer Hermann Hesse was twelve years old, he read Hoelderlin's poem "Die Nacht" and decided that he must become a poet. Eva J. Engel wrote: "Quite clearly such an experience is something like a miracle which can be encountered only once in a lifetime. The individual thus summoned, alone and wondering, doubting his own fitness, is suddenly aware that he is completely set apart from all those around him by a heightened capacity, the capacity of `individuation.' As part of this painful and yet wonderful process of `coming into being' he will experience shocks which reveal things that were hidden to him and stood in the way of his inner progress."

As a young poet, Hesse attempted to escape from modern civilization. He felt himself incapable of either choosing or rejecting the role of the artist as social outcast, lonely and isolated; instead, Hesse sought the serenity of nature, and his earliest work fell within the tradition of German Romanticism. He began by observing, feeling, and recording. The observation of nature brought insight into the beauty and mystery of nature and Hesse progressed to a recognition of self as external to the natural world of his observations. His early poetry, documenting his first interpretations of this duality of self and world, became the Goethean poetry of confession. He had begun to impose the discipline of ratiocination upon the spontaneity of observation, and search for ways to describe and express his true self.

The first phase of Hesse's work ended with the publication of Rosshalde in 1914; the second phase coincided with the beginning of World War I and the author's introduction to Jungian psychoanalysis. Hesse's search for self-definition eventually led to a more cogent definition of his opponent--the external world. Ralph Freedman stated: "This alien reality or `world' is variously identified with anything seemingly external to the self, including objects of perception, non-intuitive reasoning, social pressures, or mercantilism; in short, it is a very wide concept and includes the very world of perception as well as contemporary reality." Once conscious of his adversary, Hesse began his lifelong pursuit of the ultimate acceptance or resolution of conflict. His quest, however, was not wholly selfish. Engel commented that Hesse wrote: "I am a poet, I seek and profess. It is my task to serve sincerity and truth.... I have a mission: those who also search must help to understand and to endure life." But he was yet unable to comprehend the nature of his goal. He became critical of his Romantic sentiments, of Christianity, and of Western thought, and he began the study of Nietzsche, Spengler, as well as of Eastern religions and philosophies in an effort to learn the technique of impersonal analysis through which the wisdom and depth of Chinese poetry is manifested. Works reflecting this new outlook include 1919's Demain, the epic Siddhartha, which he published in 1922, and 1927's Steppenwolf, which would become Hesse's most widely read work. In his Faith from the Abyss,, critic Ernst Rose noted of these later works: "The Romantic quatrains were replaced by free verse and a more involved syntax. But Hesse still could not overcome his self.... There emerged a new clarity and simplicity, no longer naive, and almost brittle in its observation of distance. These mature poems still let the poetic self shine through, but the objective image now claimed the center of attention. Their quality is that of a wise serenity.... In such poems the real world has become ephemeral, a shell and a dress for the infinite. Hesse now seeks to be nothing more than a mirror, in which passing visions and images momentarily appear." Rose commented that Hesse himself said: "I had advanced far enough on the Eastern path of Lao-tse and of the I Ching, so I knew exactly how accidental and changeable was this so-called reality."

The influence of Hesse's study of Oriental philosophy was reflected in Siddhartha, a novella that later critics would hail as the author's finest work of short fiction. The story was inspired by Hesse's visit to southeastern Asia in 1911, where he had gone to find religious enlightenment but instead encountered poverty and a Buddhism distorted by its impoverished surroundings. In the novella, the high-caste Brahmin Siddhartha renounces his life of wealth and ease and goes on a quest for true wisdom and to discover the existence of God. With his loyal servant accompanying him, he seeks the Buddha Gotama, who it is rumored has attained perfect understanding--Nirvana. However, Siddhartha rejects the holy Gotama's road to salvation through suffering; instead, he begins a life of pleasure and amasses a great fortune. Still unhappy, he flees his situation--which includes his wife Kamala and a son yet unborn--to join the simple ferryman Vasudeva. Vasudeva reveals to Siddhartha the secret of the river: that "All was One, and One was All. Spirit and flesh, mountain and man, blood and stone were all a part of the one continuous flow of existence. True peace was obtained in the only way possible, through a unity of the self with the universal, eternal essence." The experiences of raising his son and receiving a rejection from him serve as Siddhartha's final release from earthbound concerns, and he enters Nirvana.

"Siddhartha contains all the fundamentals of Hesse's philosophy," maintained Bernard Landis in Accent: "the division of the universe into masculine and feminine worlds, the cult of suffering, anathema of dogma, antipathy to group action, the concept of the garden-forest as a source of security, and the everlasting conflict of new against old, birth against death, in the recurring life cycle." "For Western readers," added Rose, "Siddhartha climaxed centuries of effort to penetrate Eastern thought and religion and to understand that God had revealed himself to mankind in different ways." But as Hesse had become discontented with the formal religions of the West, so he concluded that Oriental dogma did not define the ultimate relationship between self and world in a fully acceptable manner. The "East" which he sought became a metaphor for the transcendental self. He was, nevertheless, assured of the existence of an omnipresent divinity (not a deity in the sense of a certain being) which, according to Rose, "could never be expressed in concrete anthropomorphic images, but was always accessible to mystic intuition." Hesse's study of the various formalized systems thus became part of a process of individuation; he realized that the goal of his personal quest could only be derived from his own interpretations of self and externality. And it was the necessity for selectivity in this interpretation that forced Hesse to assume various stances in his confrontation with the world. His technique, then, must be the postulation, by an act of will, of creative illusion in which self and world are imposed upon one another. If Hesse's goal was to be the projection of the conflict between self and world into an ego able to unify them, he must employ either "mystical revelation" or "the illusion induced by art." As Freedman remarked: "For Hesse, these two realms are interdependent--the mystic's vision encompassing more fully any unity achieved by art, the poet's apprehension sustaining in time the harmonies briefly envisioned in the mystic's trance.... The moment of reconciliation must be frozen in time. To elicit `magic' from the materials of crude experience, Hesse must represent unity within the flow of time. The artist must capture the mystic's vision through his medium of words." "Throughout Hesse's novels, stories, and fairy tales," Freedman continued, "idyllic moments and scenes occur as essential structural elements through which the hero's quest is accentuated and ultimately defined.... Hesse's protagonists, and occasionally the author himself, depict their experiences so as to unify past, present, and future in a single moment of apprehension."

It was through the medium of his fiction, then, that Hesse presented himself in opposition to the world. But his work is not autobiographical in the usual sense. Rather, he used "aesthetic self-portraits achieved through representative heroes," in the words of Freedman. The critic explained Hesse's employment of this device thus: "The perennial split between the individual and the world beyond him is portrayed, not in dramatic action, but in symbolic or allegorical self-representation. Echoing Novalis' idea of the artist as a supreme mimic dissolving alien existence in himself, Hesse renders his conflicts as symbolic `self-portraits'.... These psychological self-portraits include particularly Hesse's versions of the `eternal self regulating the `I' of poet and hero. Besides functioning as a Freudian superego, or, more pertinently, as a Jungian collective unconscious, this higher aspect of self acts as a daemon who guards its activities and comments upon them ironically.... Hesse's lyrical novels reconcile an inner vision with a universe of consecutive events. His success in creating an adequate form in the spirit of Novalis is his most important distinction as a modern writer and transcends many of his difficulties and imperfections. Combining allegorical narrative with psychological and philosophical self-portraits, he achieved a vision of man and ideas with an immediacy usually unobtainable in conventional narrative."

Thus Hesse's fiction uses the terms and processes of the real world to approach an ego operative in the realm of illusion. Steppenwolf was an important product of Hesse's thinking at this time. Through his middle-aged, bourgeois protagonist Harry Haller, Hesse illustrates the conflict between the intellect and man's baser, animalistic nature. A social misfit due to his pursuit of intellectual knowledge and his introspective nature, Haller feels isolated and lonely; as such, he identifies himself with the wolf of the steppes--steppenwolf. "Naturally, this wolf of the steppes cannot behave respectably among the sheep," explained critic Seymour L. Flaxman in Modern Language Quarterly; "he is too often tempted to bite them. Haller is disgusted and repelled by the hypocrisy of the middle class.... but he has no intention of isolating himself from the middle-class comforts he has been brought up on. The wolf may enjoy roaming wildly about the steppes, but he likes to have a nice warm hearth to come home to." Although the seemingly unresolvable duality of his own nature threatens to destroy him, Haller is ultimately saved by the sensitive Hermine, a courtesan who is able to understand Haller's desires and idealistic visions and help translate them into possibilities, teaching her lover to accept the restraints imposed by his--and others'--human duality.

As critic Henry Hatfield noted in Crisis and Continuity in Modern German Fiction, "the Steppenwolf comes to realize that he must love himself as well as his neighbor;... he comes to cherish the surface as well as the depths. Yet we sense that it will be a very long time before he learns to laugh. Steppenwolf is a Nietzschean type, striving toward a health he will hardly attain, a martyr of heroic pessimism rather than a superman. Much of the appeal of the book lies in this paradoxical tension." Continued Hatfield, "The novel is a deliberate dissonant hymn to joy." And Rose added of Steppenwolf: "It was the first German novel to include a descent into the cellars of the subconscious in its search for spiritual integration. With Freud it recognized the libido, and with Jung it discovered in the subconscious a reservoir of spiritual archetypes and formative ideas."

But Hesse realized that his achievement in Steppenwolf was merely another step toward his goal. Twenty years later he would write in Das Glasperlenspiel: "To transcend, rather like to awake, too, was a truly magic term for me. It was demanding, encouraging; it consoled and promised. My life, so I decided, was to consist of transcendence. It was to move with measured tread from step to step. It was to pass through and leave behind one zone after another in the way in which a piece of music deals with theme after theme and different tempi by playing them, completing them, dismissing them, never wearying or falling asleep, on the contrary, fully awake and alert." Rose concluded: "With Steppenwolf, Hesse reached the end of his `confessional' period. The poet realized that an exclusive concern with his own soul would never lead to the desired integration of man and society. Unity could be reached only by his immersion in the full stream of life, and in his last novels he chose to depict life as a whole." From the publication of Narziss und Golmund in 1930, Hesse's third and final phase would begin.

At one point in his career, Hesse had considered, although not seriously, becoming a musician and abandoning his writing. Music, for Hesse, functioned as the integration of the conflicting elements in self and world, producing either dissonance, which the artist must hopelessly attempt to resolve, or harmony in the achievement of art. Hesse expressed his feeling regarding the creation of music in Der Kurgast: "If I were a musician I could write without difficulty a melody in two voices, a melody which consists of two notes and sequences which correspond to each other, which in any event stand to one another in the closest and liveliest reciprocity and mutual relationship. And anyone who could read music, could read my double melody, could see and hear in each tone its counterpoint, the brother, the enemy, the antipode. Well, and just this double-voiced melody and externally moving antithesis, this double line want to express with my own material, with words, and work myself sore at it, and it doesn't work." Freedman maintained that, "as a writer, Hesse longs to be a musician, not because he might feel more at home in a non-literary metier, but because music embodies the very concept of harmony within dissonance which is his prevailing theme. The clash of opposites and their reconciliation is not only heard and made visually apparent to the reader of musical notations; it is also dramatized.... In its function of presenting simultaneously the harmony and dissonance of opposing motifs, music seems to solve the conflicts in self and world."

In 1931 Hesse began Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game), a novel on which he worked for eleven years. A utopian novel set in Castalia, a future land resembling Europe, the plot centers around the life of Joseph Knecht as he rises to become Castalia's leader, or Magister Ludi (Master of the Glass Bead Game). Using his intellectual gifts, Knecht must guide the artists and intellectuals of his cloistered nation as they attempt to resolve dissonance and attain harmony and balance--what Hesse calls "perfection, pure being, the fullness of reality"--within their community through involvement in an abstract game that distracts them from the evils of the society that surrounds them. "As early as 1935," related Rose, "Hesse called [this work] the final goal of his life and poetic activity." However, the novel would take more than a decade to finish, and during that time, "Hesse's thinking changed considerably," according to Gary R. Olsen. Writing in Arizona Quarterly, Olsen noted that the author's rejection of previous concepts of time, as well as his disavowal of the philosophy of Nietzsche upon reading the historian Jacob Burckhardt, wrought changes in the work. "Such things as the League and the Bead Game and the clear superiority which they had seemed to possess [at the start of the work] took on problematic dimensions," maintained Olsen. "Thus the career and the disillusionment of the Magister Ludi with the ideal of `timeless' culture gradually became the focal point of the author's concern. The novel represents, paradoxically, Hesse's greatest attempt to define a way out of time and, concomitantly, his ultimate recognition of the futility of this effort."

The four-part Das Glasperlenspiel postulates the questionable achievement of a transcendental harmony of self and divinity wherein human existence finds its ultimate meaning. "By the Utopian nature of this ideal alliance Hesse refers us to accomplishment, to endeavor in a foreseeable future," according to Engel. "He would not have turned to the future if he had considered the present congenial to such ideas. He could not reject the present without looking at it closely. Hence, his search is no longer concerned with the `self in the past' but with the self in the present-day world. We are first of all concerned with the ego and the intellectual stimulus it received." Rose surmised the function of the bead game within the complex plot: "Since man is forever removed from [divinity], he can attain the ultimate only in symbolic form. This form is embodied in the bead game, a game played with glass beads strung on wires, with each bead representing a special theme or idea.... Things are set in proper perspective and are recognized in their transcendental relationship. They become translucent glass beads which anticipate the cosmic unity meant by the deity. The dreams of the subconscious are correlated to the abstractions of the intellect; the revelations of art to the systems of philosophy; romantic and Platonic visions to Chinese and Indian speculations; Nicholas of Cusa to Leibnitz and Hegel. The idea is to pursue the disparate elements of modern culture, and of every culture, to a common divine fountainhead. The bead game is no mere sport for jaded intellectuals.... For in Hesse's view, the elements of culture are by no means unimportant. They are not the inconsequential veil of Maya, but retain their weight and individuality.... This time Hesse wants to live life in earnest and find an applicable and practical solution for the problem of human existence." Engel summarized: "It is Hesse's extraordinary achievement, and good fortune, to have been able to jettison belief in dualism and to attempt to see life in terms of integration of phenomenon and idea. From a belief in opposites ..., he advanced to the acceptance of polarity."

In addition to integration of intellectual opposites, music also functions as a symbol integral to the progress of Das Glasperlenspiel. "It resolves dissonance by organizing experience and directing it toward a total vision rather than toward its consecutive or analytic explication," according to Freedman. "In this way, music can be seen ... as the quintessence of imagination. It is `the infinite within the finite, the element of genius present in all forms of art.' Its language, composed of magic formulae, is apt to frighten away philistines as new, indefinable worlds are opened up. An example of this view of music is Hesse's famous distinction in Steppenwolf between rauschende and heitere Musik. The former is chaotic music, likened to that of Wagner. A deceptive vision of unity is achieved by massive sound that blurs boundaries between contradictory elements and themes. Its chaos, apparently triumphant, merely reflects diversity in an indistinguishable mass. The latter is clear, detached music likened to that of Mozart. Its ordered harmonies show the interplay of contrasting motifs with precision; its detachment prevents the blurring of boundaries between self and world and so reflects an independent unity. Music deepens the melody of life and catches it in art."

In whatever manner Hesse presented his philosophical convictions, he shunned the abstract terms of philosophy for the nuances of art. His was "a predilection for specific, generally onomatopoeic words," noted Engel, "and, above all, for the rhythmic pattern of his prose. The prose is as flexible as the theme, and yet has a recognizable musicality of its own.... The sentence structure is beautifully clear, characterized by a throng of adjectives and a complex differentiation of content and emphasis by paraphrase. Antithetical structure has as much symbolic significance as the tripartite, graduated statement." The result of such writing, observed Rose, is the "achievement of transparency. The clarity of the vision gains depth and becomes mysterious." Rose believed, however, that Hesse's simplicity is often misunderstood. "The clarity of Hesse's language," he asserted, "was meant as a defense against chaos.... A transparent world is no accidental array of realistic details to which one has to adapt by compromise. It demands commitment."

Although Hesse would receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946--mainly on the strength of Das Glasperlenspiel.--his work, with the exception of Steppenwolf and Siddarthahas remained relatively unknown to U.S. readers. "The reasons are not too far to seek," Freedman noted, seeking to explain this lack of interest among non-German- speaking readers; "they lie in his choice of the lyrical genre. In the English-speaking world, for example, this form appears alien to the novel, vaguely experimental, without the substance of character and plot required even of poetic novelists like Hardy or D. H. Lawrence. Nor does Hesse seem to be a `symbolic' writer like Faulkner or Joyce."

Hesse ended his career as a novelist after 1943 but continued to publish essays, letters, reviews and short fiction. New collections of his shorter, more accessible works were published with relatively regularity; as late as the mid-1990s The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse was released to English-speaking readers. Dubbed "quirky and evocative" by a Publishers Weekly reviewer, the stories collected in the volume reflect their author's early investigation of Eastern mysticism and counterculture leanings. While much of his other writing would fall into obscurity for the reasons noted by Freedman, his novels gained in popularity among younger readers during the 1950s and again during the 1970s. In that latter decade alone, Hesse's work sold well over six million copies in English translation. The London Times Literary Supplement explained his rise from unknown lyrical experimentalist to literary cult hero: "The Hesse we read today is in fact no longer the bittersweet elegist of Wilhelmine Germany, the anguished intellectual entre deux guerres, the serene hermit of Montagnola apres Nobel. The cult has adjusted the kaleidoscope of Hesse's works in such a way as to bring into focus a Hesse for the 1970s: environmentalist, war opponent, enemy of a computerized technocracy, who seeks heightened awareness and who is prepared to sacrifice anything but his integrity for the sake of his freedom." Hesse would not live to see this renewed interest in his work. Although it is doubtful that he was aware of his illness, the author had leukemia. In 1962, at the age of eighty-five, he died in his sleep from a brain hemorrhage.


From: "Hermann Hesse." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2003.


  • Further Reading


    • Baumer, F., Hermann Hesse, Ungar, 1969.
    • Boulby, Mark, Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art, Cornell University Press, 1967.
    • Brink, Andrew, Obsession and Culture: A Study of Sexual Obsession in Modern Fiction, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Madison, NJ), 1995.
    • Casebeer, Edwin F., Hermann Hesse, Warner Paperback Library, 1972.
    • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 17, 1981, Volume 25, 1983, Volume 69, 1992.
    • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 66: German Fiction Writers, 1885-1913, Gale, 1988.
    • Farquharson, R. H., An Outline of the Works of Hermann Hesse, Forum House, 1973.
    • Field, G. W., Hermann Hesse, Twayne, 1970.
    • Freedman, Ralph, The Lyrical Novel: Studies in Hermann Hesse, Andre Gide, and Virginia Woolf, Princeton University Press, 1963.
    • Freedman, Ralph, Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis, Pantheon, 1978.
    • Hatfield, Henry, Crisis and Continuity in Modern German Fiction: Ten Essays, Cornell University Press, 1969.
    • Helt, Richard C., A Poet or Nothing at All: The Teubingen and Basel Years of Hermann Hesse, Berghahn Books (Providence, RI), 1996.
    • Hokenson, Jan, and Howard Pearce, editors, Forms of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Third International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, Greenwood Press, 1986.
    • Hughes, Henry Stuart, Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930, Knopf, 1958.
    • Lieberman, Judith, editor, Hermann Hesse: A Collection of Criticism, McGraw-Hill, 1977.
    • Marrer-Tising, Carlee, The Reception of Hermann Hesse by the Youth in the United States, Lang, 1982.
    • Michels, Volker, compiler, Materialien zu Hermann Hesses "Der Steppenwolf," Suhrkamp, 1972.
    • Michels, Volker, compiler, Materialien zu Hermann Hesses "Das Glasperlenspiel," Suhrkamp, 1973.
    • Michels, Volker, Hermann Hesse: Leben und Werk im Bild, Insel-Verlag, 1973.
    • Mileck, Joseph, Hermann Hesse and His Critics, University of North Carolina Press, 1958.
    • Mileck, Joseph, Hermann Hesse: Biography and Bibliography, two volumes, University of California Press, 1977.
    • Mileck, Joseph, Hermann Hesse: Life and Art, University of California Press, 1978.
    • Mueller, Gustav Emil, Philosophy of Literature, Philosophical Library, 1948.
    • Natan, Alex, editor, German Men of Letters, Volume II, Oswald Wolff, 1963.
    • Pfeifer, Martin, Hermann Hesse-Bibliographie: Primarschrifttum und Sekundaerschrifttum in Auswahl, Erich Schmidt, 1973.
    • Reilley, John M., Tony Hillerman: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1996.
    • Remys, Edmund, Hermann Hesse's "Das Glasperlenspiel": A Concealed Defence of the Mother World, Lang, 1983.
    • Richards, David G., The Hero's Quest for the Self: An Archetypal Approach to Hesse's "Demian" and Other Novels, University Press of America, 1987.
    • Richards, David G., Exploring the Divided Self: Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf and Its Critics, Camden House (Columbia, SC), 1996.
    • Rose, Ernst, Faith from the Abyss, New York University Press, 1965.
    • Seidlin, Oskar, Essays in German and Comparative Literature, University of North Carolina Press, 1961.
    • Serrano, M., C. G. Jung and Hermann Hesse, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.
    • Short Story Criticism, Gale, Volume 9, 1992.
    • Unseld, Siegfried, Hermann Hesse: Eine Werkgeschichte, Suhrkamp, 1973.
    • Waibler, Helmut, Hermann Hesse: Eine Biblographie, Francke-Verlag, 1962.
    • Zeller, Bernard, Eine Chronik in Bildern, Suhrkamp, 1960.
    • Zeller, Bernard, Portrait of Hesse: An Illustrated Biography, translated by Mark Hollebone, McGraw, 1971.
    • Ziolkowski, Theodore, The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure, Princeton University Press, 1967.
    • Ziolkowski, Theodore, editor, Hesse, Prentice-Hall, 1973.



    • Accent, winter, 1953, pp. 59-63.
    • Arizona Quarterly, winter, 1974, pp. 343-54.
    • Comparative Literature, fall, 1970.
    • Germanic Review, winter, 1982, pp. 9-15.
    • German Life and Letters, July, 1981, pp. 398-408.
    • German Quarterly, March, 1981, pp. 188-201.
    • Humanities Association Review, summer, 1979, pp. 186-96.
    • Journal of European Studies, March, 1975, pp. 41-54.
    • Library Journal, September 15, 1995, p. 95.
    • Literature and Psychology, November 2, 1974, pp. 66-79.
    • Modern Fiction Studies, summer, 1983, pp. 245-51.
    • Modern Language Quarterly, December, 1954, pp. 349-58; September, 1972, pp. 299-311.
    • Modern Language Review, January, 1978, pp. 110-18.
    • Publishers Weekly, October 2, 1995, p. 66.
    • Symposium, spring, 1984, pp. 28-42.
    • Times Literary Supplement, September 10, 1982.
    • Tribune Books, January 17, 1982.