Published in 1927, this psychoanalytical novel was a precursor to the likes of the Catcher in the Rye. We often see women claim the latter as their favourite novel, which is interesting; there are themes of alienation from society, youthful hedonism, angst, and a meandering sense of disassociation. Steppenwolf also channels these popular “I’m so messed up” themes, but it’s a lot darker and, dare we say, not as good as it’s been made out in literary circles.
Hesse (1877-1962) was a, German-born, Swiss painter and novelist – he wrote plenty of novels in his life, with Steppenwolf being his 10th outing. It’s a loosely autobiographical account of a spiritual crisis in Hesse’s life, which is represented in the novel by a character called Harry Haller, whose resentful nature is increasingly bringing about wolf-like aggression and alienation from society.
The plot concerns the aforementioned Mr. Haller, with the novel in the style of a tome written by the lead character. The middle-aged Haller is having something of a personal crisis and feels he doesn’t fit into society, which is leading to brooding resentment and violent thoughts. Whilst out and about one day he’s handed the Treatise on the Steppenwolf which concerns the nature of the human condition (the spiritual nature of a man, but also the animalistic side – i.e. a wolf), which leads Haller to realise he is, and always will be, alienated from his kind.
As you can see and hear in the clip above, there was a 1974 film adaptation which featured (for the time) cutting edge special effects. It starred Max von Sydow (still very much with us at 88 – he’s been in the recent Star Wars film and Game of Thrones) and really ramps up the resentment, doom, and gloom. It’s the type of film we’d probably have loved when we were 18 and in our angst faze, but we haven’t gotten round to watching it yet.
Anyway, despite considerable critical analysis of the novel, the author claimed it was “misunderstood” – he found most readers tended to focus in on the doom and gloom of the novel, which includes a murder in the closing act (or not – this could simply be one of Haller’s hallucinations). However, Hesse indicated the novel offers the possibility for transcendence and healing when not focusing in on the gritty unpleasant stuff. It’s really up to you what you get from it, though.
As with another famed novel we recently reviewed, the Great Gatsby, we don’t make much of Steppenwolf. The reason we’ve covered it this week is due to its critical acclaim and ongoing cult status. Now it’s subjective, of course, and plenty of readers would admonish us for this decision and consider some of our favourite novels as rubbish. This is the way of the world, but the fact is, for us, other than the regular mentions of Mozart’s genius, we found Steppenwolf to be rather dull.
For the time we’re sure it was quite revolutionary and bold – a daring, anti-social novel with a bleak (if this is the way you’re looking) message. Hesse clearly considered it his most misunderstood work, so perhaps he wouldn’t be overly pleased to find it now neatly snuggled up in the angst genre for people to read and believe they’re suffering an existential crisis. Or maybe we’re just being stupid. Read the site’s title – you know where you are.