Steppenwolf Summary

The story of Steppenwolf himself is framed by the preface narrated by the nephew. The nephew starts from the moment when a man named Harry Haller came to his aunt’s boarding house. He approached the house and started sniffing around, like an animal. Then Harry decided that the house smelled good and rented a room there. At first the nephew disliked Harry for being shy, odd, snobbish and melancholic, but gradually he warmed up to their guest and started to talk to him more.

Harry told him that he is despised and tired of the cheerful optimism and physical pleasures of the middle-class life, but still he desires them badly. He feels that this dilemma tears his personality apart, to his melancholic and intellectual human part wishing to grow beyond the body needs and the “Steppenwolf”, the wolf of the steppes (grasslands), an animalistic part made from immediate desires. Harry is crippled by this dichotomy and feels that both his own existence and the existence of the whole humankind is meaningless and futile. He regularly thinks about suicide as a way to get rid of both parts, but his wolf part seems to be against this decision.

The nephew now considers Harry Haller “a genius of the suffering” and admires his worldview. Before leaving the boarding house, the Steppenwolf left his manuscript to the nephew and now the nephew publishes it as “Harry Haller Records” without any changes or commentaries (though he does inject some “psychological observations” about the Steppenwolf’s state of mind). Here the main story starts.

Harry introduces himself from describing the reasons of his attitude to the world. He considers himself an old man in his fifties and says that everything is now the same for him and nothing brings joy. Every day Harry wakes up, reads books and newspapers and lives an ordinary life, but it also looks meaningless for him. Though he can’t go into exile or start something new, because Harry is too attached to the bourgeois way of life. Once, when Harry was wandering the streets at night, having an especially melancholic mood, he noticed an arched doorway that he has never seen before. Moreover, Harry was sure that it never was there to begin with. The big sign on the door stated: “Magic Theater Not For Everybody” with a fine print below “For Madmen Only”. Curious, Harry tried to open the door but it remained closed. Instead the man who stayed near the sign and sold cigars gave him a booklet called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf”.

Harry opened the booklet and shockingly understood that it was about him. The text in the book precisely described how Harry felt sometimes and called this state “the Steppenwolf”. The Steppenwolf was half-man half-wolf who, despite hating the bourgeois lifestyle couldn’t help but surrender to its pleasure from time to time. The human part wanted order, respect and intellectual delights while the wolf was concentrated on satisfying the immediate desires. Rarely the both parts were in peace, most of the time they fought, causing extreme stress and anxiety to their common mind. According to the booklet, all the society was still functional only due to the Steppenwolves. Still, the concept of the multiple personalities was unacceptable for the society, so every Steppenwolf was doomed to be forever lonely. The booklet emphasised that even the suicide wasn’t an option, but that didn’t persuade Harry.

Harry remembered the poem he wrote in a desperate attempt to describe himself and compared it with the description in the booklet. Understanding that they were describing the same phenomenon he decided to finally commit suicide. But when he resumed his wandering, Harry met an old acquaintance, the professor, and got an invitation for dinner. Harry decided to come, but in the professor’s home he started a fierce argument about the portrait of Goethe hanging on the wall. Before the professor told Harry about the funny coincidence: that very morning he read a newspaper article about a traitor also named Harry Haller. In the argument Harry shouted that he lied to the professor and the article was indeed about him. Harry stormed off and went home, eager to commit suicide as soon as he got there. He discovered that he was very afraid of death and of killing himself, but wanted to do it anyway.

On his way home Harry entered the Black Eagle tavern and suddenly saw a charming young woman there. She took care about him, ordering food, drinks and a room for Harry. Harry didn’t commit suicide that night, falling asleep instead and having bizarre dreams about Goethe, Mozart, a black scorpion and a severed human leg in the box. Goethe criticized Harry for taking life too seriously. When Harry woke up, the mysterious girl came to him again saying that she was going to leave with someone else. Harry asked her to go for a dinner with him later and the woman agreed. They briefly talked about his previous day and Harry suddenly understood that the woman completely understood his attitude to Goethe’s portrait.

They met later. The woman was very maternal and cared for him in every possible way. Harry thought that she resembled him his childhood friend Herman and guessed her name is Hermine. He was right. Harry was so grateful to Hermine that he promised to obey every her command. The girl told him a strange thing: she would make him fall in love with her and then Harry would have to kill her. The Steppenwolf gave her the promise to do so. Harry felt so free in her company that he told her everything he have never told to anyone: his sufferings, the “Treatise”, the newspaper article about him being a traitor… Hermine understood everything and decided to amuse Harry a bit. She taught him to dance fox-trot and while they danced Harry noticed another young woman, Marie. Hermine wasn’t jealous at all: moreover, she told Harry that he needed to have sex to feel better. Harry protested, ashamed, that he was too old for such kind of pastime, but Hermine didn’t want to listen. When Harry returned home he saw Marie already waiting for him in bed. They had sex. Harry was disappointed that he wasn’t the only lover of Marie and he suspected that both women were prostitutes. Still he was very grateful to Marie for her attention and to Hermine for organizing the whole affair.

Harry began to immerse into the world of hedonism. He was introduced to the mysterious jazz musician, a friend of Marie and Hermine. Harry danced, enjoyed life and had sex for the three weeks until everything reached its peak on a Fancy Dress Ball. Pablo invited Harry and both women to participate in the orgy and Harry was the only one to refuse. He wanted to have more serious relationship, but Pablo reminded him that he had sex with both of the women and later Harry accidentally heard that Marie and Hermine discussed their sexual experience with one another.

Hermine explained him that she was a prostitute and she became one because her life was shattered as was Harry’s. She dreamt about something great and spiritual but ended up selling her body. That’s why she understood him so perfectly, possibly she was another Steppenwolf. Harry admitted that he was very happy with Marie, enjoying life with both of the women and dancing, but he knew that it was only temporary and death still awaited for him. Hermine replied that she was also waiting for death as a relief, that’s why she asked to kill her before.

Harry went to the ball. On his way he stopped to see the play of the street theater named “The Ten Commandments”. When he was about to leave, he got the ticket. The ticket said: “Tonight At The Magic Theater. For Madmen Only. Price Of Admittance Your Mind. Hermine Is In Hell.” When Harry came to the ball he saw Hermine dressed like his childhood friend Herman, dancing with other women. Harry invited her to a sensual dance that was the confession of his love to Hermine.

When the ball was coming to the end, Pablo invited Harry to visit his Magic Theater. He says that the goal of the theater is the full dissolution of the personality achieved through laughter. Harry went to the arched door he saw in the very beginning of the story and now it opened. Inside there was a maze of doors. At first Harry laughed at his own reflection in the distorted mirror, then he wandered through different doors, going from one surreal world to another, diving deeper and deeper into his mind. Every world represented some events or fears of his past and Harry had a chance to relive, edit or just observe them. For example, his fear of war was represented by the world when humanity was engaged into endless bloody war with some kind of machines. Another world was full of women who Harry wished to have sex with throughout his life, and there they all were ready to sleep with him.

Every world had something in common with others. Engaging into action there Harry always observed the dichotomy of his human and wolf nature, instinctive desires versus strategic planning. Facing the contradictions of his nature Harry understood that he had not only the two sides of persona, but infinite sides and personalities. Every new door and world behind it disrupted the reality a bit more, going from realistic to outright metaphorical portrayal of these different sides and aspects of the Steppenwolf.

The surreal gallery ended with the room where was nothing except naked Pablo and Hermine, lying on the floor, exhausted from lovemaking. Harry looked at his hand and saw that he was holding a knife. Deciding that it was time to fulfill his promise to Hermine, Harry stabbed her with the knife and killed her. Immediately, Mozart from his dream appeared before Harry and scolded him for taking life too seriously - much as Goethe did before in his dream. Mozart said that such a seriousness in a “school of humor” is an outright abuse and Harry would be expelled immediately. Mozart added that Harry’s elitist attitude was meaningless, because he was no different from the rest of the people and couldn’t blame the Steppenwolf for his attitude and actions. Life was always harsh and unpredictable and the lesson Harry had to learn was to face the challenges of life with laughter.

Mozart disappeared and Pablo entered the room. Harry learned that he didn’t really kill Hermine. Pablo confirmed the words of the composer about Harry’s failure. The Steppenwolf left the Magic Theater, but that time with hope that he would return, try again and make things right.