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Steppenwolf is not divided into chapters. Rather, there are headings only for a preface and three major narrative segments. The "Preface" is the introduction by the landlady's nephew. "Harry Haller's Records," with the subheading "'For Madmen Only,'" begins the first-person narrative by the novel's central figure. "Treatise on the Steppenwolf" breaks in on this narrative within a few pages. The story then continues in Harry's first person without further divisions. To help your understanding of Harry's story, chapter subdivisions have been added.
Steppenwolf uses three different first-person narrators; this is the first. Its supposed author offers it rather apologetically to introduce the "records" left behind by Harry Haller some years before, which this narrator plans to publish. The Preface was therefore written several years after the events recounted, and covers the whole period of the novel itself.
As the nephew of the lodging house landlady, this narrator occupied the rooms next door to Haller's and thus had numerous encounters with the man. In describing Haller, he reveals himself as a well-meaning but stodgy young businessman of conventional habits and tastes. He disapproves of Haller's irregular hours and obvious lack of employment, but in the end he responds sympathetically to the eccentric stranger. Some years have passed since Haller left, but the narrator confesses that he is still haunted by the disturbing, yet somehow appealing impression Haller made on him.
The Preface is used to give a realistic introduction to memoirs that may or may not be real. Hesse also used this "framework" device for two other novels. Can you offer one strength and one weakness of this technique?
Steppenwolf has been called the most autobiographical of Hesse's
novels, and the narrator's first paragraphs bear this out. His description
of Haller is identical with that of Hesse at the time he was writing the
novel. To paint his self-portrait through the eyes of a member of the
middle-class that he so despised may strike you as Hesse's private joke.
At the same time, it has a serious literary purpose. It sets before you
in ordinary terms the character in whose company you are to make a fantastic
journey. The more believable the Preface makes Harry Haller, the more
convincing will be his adventures.
The nephew says he was at first uneasy with this lodger's foreign air, his eccentric ways, and his request that the landlady spare him the formality of notifying the police of his residence, as required in European countries. To this day the nephew knows nothing of where the man came from or what his business or profession may have been. Haller explained only that he came to make use of the city's libraries and to enjoy its antiquities.
Haller's intellectual face, his polite and friendly manner, and a sadness about him slowly changed the unfavorable impression he made at first. Yet the man's description of himself as a wolf of the steppes seemed appropriate. He was just the kind of creature that a wolf might be if he had strayed into town.
Haller arrived with a big case of books and two trunks, one plastered with travel labels from abroad, the other of very fine leather which impressed this bourgeois young man. Obviously the new lodger was not poor.
The nephew goes on compulsively with his description-Haller's look of an uncommonly gifted man, the mobile play of expression, the thoughtful conversation. He calls Haller a genius of suffering. In a burst of insight he surmises that Haller was brought up by strict, pious parents who failed to break the boy's independent spirit and only taught him to hate himself. Yet Haller strove earnestly to love others. Here the narrator, with surprising perceptiveness, observes that to love one's neighbor one must love oneself, and that self-hate is really the same thing as self-centeredness.
These nuggets of psychological wisdom seem out of character in a young man so materialistic. Is Hesse giving this character insights that such a man could not have? The young man does aspire to artistic and intellectual interests, it seems. He sees Haller at a concert. He invites Haller to an art lecture. How would you explain the apparent contradictions in this character?
A significant encounter occurs when the nephew finds Haller sitting on the stairs, admiring the aunt's immaculate little vestibule (foyer) with its potted plants. Haller confesses that he regards the place as a kind of temple.
One of the plants is an araucaria, which is a familiar middle-class houseplant. Hesse uses the phrase "shining, well-tended, exotic araucaria" throughout as a kind of shorthand reference to the safe middle-class life that he both loves and abhors.
Haller's avowed admiration for the spotless plants, the shining cleanliness, and the smells of floor wax and furniture polish is the first reference to a paradox. He detests everything middle-class, yet likes to live in its tidy, orderly surroundings. How would you explain this inconsistency in Haller's personality? Think of other situations that evoke contradictory emotions, for example, the fascination and revulsion of a street accident.
The narrator now decides that he has told enough about Haller's "suicidal" existence, as he calls it. (The reference to Haller's suicidal way of life comes up again later, in the Treatise by another, more mysterious author.) The nephew is certain, however, that after Haller paid his bill and left-without a word of farewell-he didn't kill himself but is going up and down the stairs in other lodging houses, pursuing his comfortless existence.
Turning to the "records" Haller left behind, the nephew finds them partly diseased, partly beautiful and thoughtful. He would have thrown them away, but his acquaintance with Haller has helped him to understand them. He has a theory that the records are more than the fancies of a disturbed mind. He believes that Haller's sickness of soul is a sickness of the times. Haller once talked of people of each era being able to live with the sufferings of their own time-the horrors of the Middle Ages, he had said, were not horrible to medieval people. But a generation can be caught in the transition between one era and the next, unable to accept the conditions of life because the conditions are changing. The nephew believes that Harry Haller is caught between two eras, and is therefore fated to live out the riddle of human destiny at a level of personal torture.
Again this young man shows himself to be more thoughtful and less rigid than you might have expected. He gives credit for the theory of transition to Haller, but he is imaginative enough to accept and enlarge on it. He now leaves you with Haller's manuscript, making no judgment on whether it is truth or fiction, suggesting instead that the reader decide for himself. The nephew's persistent uneasiness with the manuscript's contents and with his recollections of its author warns you of something unusual to come.
Observe Hesse's skill in writing in the person of the character he has created-a flat-footed, painstaking style, just what you would expect of an educated person who was not accustomed to expressing himself in writing. Watch for the contrast with the Treatise, and with the style when Haller takes over the narrative.