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The protagonist of Steppenwolf is Harry Haller. It should be noted that his initials are the same as Herman Hesse; therefore, it seems apparent that the tale is largely autobiographical, Hesse's own search for self-realization.
The book begins with a preface, which gives appropriate Background Information on Harry Haller and his baser self, Steppenwolf. The Editor tells how he met Haller at his aunt's boarding house. The Editor judges Haller as an odd character whose life lacks direction and purpose. He sleeps late, skips meals and seldom comes out of his untidy room. It is also obvious that his health is precarious and that his personality is neurotic. The Editor also thinks it is strange that Haller calls himself Steppenwolf, or a wolf from the Steppes.
Although the Editor finds him strange, he befriends Haller, sensing him to be a gifted intellectual who has suffered deeply. He believes that Haller's self-hatred is probably a result of a strict, religious upbringing. The only time that he observes him to be happy is when he sees him at a classical concert. As soon as the music is over, however, Haller reverts to his same gloomy, suicidal self. Even the lovely young lady who comes to call on him does not seem to positively affect Haller.
The Preface serves to contrast the Editor and Haller. Underlying their civility, there is a contempt for one another. The Editor, a self-confident bachelor who seems to know his purpose in life, disdains the disorganized, purposeless life that Haller leads. In a similar manner, Haller, the creative artist, expresses a contempt for the Editor's limited world. Ironically, the Editor envies Haller's creative vision and sees Haller's fantasies as a mirror of the real world, while Haller has a longing for the Editor's solid values. The two men are opposite, yet deeply related, personalities.
The Preface also provides the reader with the needed perspective for the understanding of Haller's Records, which are to be given next in the book. Fortunately, the Editor has the necessary competence and intellect to respond to Haller's manuscript in a positive and meaningful manner. He recognizes that the manuscript is a faithful reflection of the changing times and captures the spiritual sickness of humanity that is caught up in technological advancement and accumulation of wealth.