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Criticism of the bourgeois culture
One of the main Themes of the novel is a criticism of bourgeois, middle-class, culture, represented by the lifestyles of bankers, academics, industrialists, and other upwardly mobile types. Hesse also criticizes the lower middle-class people who try to imitate the bourgeoisie. He believes that all of them are hypocrites, driven by materialism and willing to compromise principles to get ahead in life.
Haller, the main character, is torn by the bourgeois culture. Born into it, he also rebels from it; however, he cannot entire escape his upbringing. He still longs for the order and cleanliness that is typical of the middle-class. Although he criticizes the bourgeois lifestyle of the landlady's nephew, he is attracted to him. But since Haller feels isolated from the middle class by his thought and his actions, he is torn with despair and judges himself to be an outsider.
Using Haller as his mouthpiece, Hesse clearly criticizes many of the ways of the contemporary German middle class. He deplores their emotion-laden music. He criticizes their unthinking patriotism and their belief that German culture is superior to other cultures. He is horrified by their lack of understanding of intellectual pursuits or classical beauty. He derides their growing dependence on technology in place of the human mind. At times, Hesse seems to think that the contemporary bourgeois culture should perish and be replaced by a new age.
The problem of being an outsider is another major theme in Steppenwolf. This theme is developed through the main character, Harry Haller. In his basic beliefs, Haller is very different than most of his contemporaries. He appreciates the art and culture of the classical age, which is mostly ignored by the bourgeois middle class. He sees himself as an intellectual and looks down upon the lifestyle and tastes of those around him. He is made to feel more of an outsider by his own internal conflict. Cultured and proper on the outside, he is torn by an internal conflict. He feels split between his artistic self and his wolfish self. He calls himself Steppenwolf, a wolf from the steppes. The steppes, therefore, symbolize the alien world, the instinctive enemy of reason and culture. Hesse's wolf image is probably derived from the panther, which Nietzche referred to in a group of poems. The panther symbolizes the intellect and raw nature, uncorrupted by civilization. The wolf image represents all that is instinctual, untamed, and hostile in society.
The Steppenwolf Treatise applies the wolf image not only to Haller but to all "outsiders," who suffer from emotions that are savage, cruel, and raw. The internal chaos caused by the wolfish side in mankind is part of the cause of the general sickness that pervades Hesse's time. As he describes the Professor in the novel, he likens him to a wolf. Laughing at Haller's failure to properly socialize, the Professor "bared his teeth in a grin" and "howled with glee."
During the course of the novel, Haller tames the Steppenwolf inside himself because of his experiences in the Magic Theater. Pablo, turned Mozart, teaches him that he most approach life with emotional detachment and learn to laugh. He also makes him realizes that he can rearrange the many personalities inside him so that he feels and functions less like an outsider.