The following is a paper I wrote this past semester for Sociology. This instructor was a much easier instructor than some of my others, so this was just thrown together in a couple of hours, after reading the book of course.
Herman Hesse's novel Steppenwolf was a fanstastic read, just the sort of symbolic, metaphorical and metaphysical fiction that I love to read. However, reading it with my newly acquired sociological imagination allowed me to gain even more insights than I would have otherwise. It allowed me to both participate in the reading and the enjoyment of the novel, but also to be able to analyze the broader meanings of what is going on in the book as it relates to sociology. C. Wright Mills thought that people often see their lives as having explanation solely in terms of personal success and failures, failing to see the many ways in which their own personal biographies link with the course of human history. This could be said to be the root of all of Harry Haller's problems.
Steppenwolf is the story of Harry Haller, a middle aged intellectual who is unable to find any joy in life. If Harry had taken a course in Sociology, he would have learned that an individual's choices are never free but are always determined to some extent by a person's environment. This is a core idea in Sociology and may have saved Harry a lot of heartache. He moves into a boarding house, where despairing, lonely, and suicidal, he laments his life and his lack of any feeling of identity with the society around him. Durkheim called the way Harry was feeling, anomie, and felt that it was caused by a lack of integration of the individual into social groups and communities. This feeling of anomie causes people to feel lost or adrift and it is this feeling that causes Harry to feel suicidal.
Harry comes to view himself as a Steppenwolf, or a wolf of the steppes, in that he views himself as a man of a dual nature. He yearns to transcend the Normative order of the bourgeoise and into the world of the spiritual, but he also feels drawn to this world of sensual pleasures. Not being able to comprehend how society is able to find happiness in their lives of drab conformity, where people seem to coast along with productive diligence towards meaninglessness, yet unable to resist the charms of their easy sense of happiness, Harry begins to loathe the Steppenwolf he sees himself as. He is unable to come to terms with the concept of Socialization, the ways in which people learn to conform to their society's norms, values, and roles. Fom an interactionist perspective, it can be seen that Harry is having a difficult time with the devolopement of his social self through the interaction with others. Unable to take the role of the generalized other, unable to shape his participation in a social life according to the roles of others, identification becomes a problem for Harry in that he does not wholly identify with any social groups. Half man, half wolf, half desiring the easy and sensual pleasures of the common man, he also desires to transcend this life that, for him, has no value. In a Social Darwinistic manner of speaking, it could be said that Harry has been unable to adapt to the social environment in which he finds himself.
One night, while walking through the city, Harry sees a sign over a door that reads reads "MAGIC THEATER—ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY." Looking closer he notices the words, "FOR MADMEN ONLY". Enthralled but unable to open the door, he is given a book by the sign holder entitled, "Treatise on the Steppenwolf." Upon reading it, Harry discovers that the book is describing himself, the half man, half wolf that he sees himself as, feeling drawn to more spiritual matters, but unable to altogether resist the sensual pleasures of this mundane world. At this point, Harry becomes even more convinced of his desire for suicide.
Before he is able to do so though, and after a disastrous meeting with one of his former colleagues, in which Harry insults him about a picture of Goethe, the German poet, in his house, he ultimately meets the woman that will lead him towards salvation, a young sensual woman named Hermine. She teaches Harry to dance and how to enjoy life's simple pleasures without having to analyze his every feeling. Becoming totally enthralled with her and agreeing to obey her every command, Hermine informs him of his ultimate duty, which will be, after falling in love with her, to kill her.
At this point, Harry jumps head first into a life of sensual hedonistic pleasures and he comes to appreciate such a life, based upon the pleasure principle, even though he still feels a sense of yearning for transcendence above such a life. After attending a masquerade dance and dancing with Hermine, Harry is invited by a man named Pablo into his Magic Theater and this is where the book gets even more symbolic and metaphorical. Harry is told that the goal of the theater is to lose his personality and that the only avenue for doing such is laughter. Harry laughs at himself in a mirror and travels down a corridor of doors, some of which he enters, into a sort of theater of the absurd, a kind of waking dream. Entering one room where he finds Hermine and Pablo naked and lying on the floor, he believes that this is the moment that Hermine had meant when she told him that he must ultimately kill her, so, finding a knive magically appear in this pocket he proceeds to stab and kill her. He is now greeted by the ghost of Mozart, the classical composer, who tells Harry that he is much too serious and that he has committed a grave error by misunderstanding the magic theater and that his goal was to learn laughter.
Erik Erikson said that throughout the life course, an individual must resolve a series of conflicts that shape that person's sense of self and ability to perform social roles successfully. It is this conflict that we see Harry having a difficult time with. Hermine and Pablo make an attempt at resocialization for Harry, but he ultimately takes everything too seriously and misses the point that laughter is the key to happiness. It can be seen that as society becomes more complex, it tends to become characterized more and more by secondary groups and organizations, making society more efficient but also causing confusion and unhappiness. This is the story of Harry Haller.
Using my newly acquired skill of social imagination, I was able to analyze Harry Haller's feeling and actions from a sociological perspective. I was able to see how Harry was having a hard time coping with society, and how that it was this inner turmoil that he labeled the Steppenwolf. I can very much relate to Harry Haller, as I myself have found myself feeling exactly as he has over the years. I, too, have felt a sense of the Steppenwolf within me, a sense of not being able to recognize myself in others and the easy way some people seem able to proceed through life. It has always seemed to me that the vast majority of mankind seems easily able to just live life without having to think about much of anything. For people like myself and Harry Haller, there is a spiritual yearning for more, even as we reject much of what religion has to offer. The story of the Steppenwolf is to realize that there is a dual nature within all of us, even more than just two natures actually, according to Herman Hesse, and that the best remedy is to learn to be able to laugh at life and at ourselves.