Steppenwolf – Plot Overview

Harry Haller, a middle-aged intellectual, moves
into a lodging house in a medium-sized, generic town, which is never
named. Despairing and melancholy, Harry feels himself to be “a wolf
of the Steppes,” or “Steppenwolf,” adrift and alone in a world that
is incomprehensible to him and offers him no joy. Steppenwolf recounts
Harry’s pain and anxiety as he tries to overcome his crippling sense
of dislocation and despair at the futility of humanity.
Harry is repulsed by the productive, organized, and diligent
optimism of the bourgeoisie, or middle class. Even so, he is bewitched
by its charms. Caught between the urges of his wolf-half and his
man-half, Harry can neither completely disavow nor embrace a conventional
way of life. He regularly contemplates committing suicide.
One night, while Harry walks unhappily through an old
quarter of the city, he sees a sign over a door he has never noticed
before. The sign reads “MAGIC THEATER—ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY.”
More letters reflected on the street spell out “FOR MADMEN
ONLY!” Harry cannot open the door, but a sign-bearer advertising
the Magic Theater gives Harry a booklet entitled “Treatise on the
Steppenwolf.” This booklet contains a precise description of the
way Harry feels as a Steppenwolf. It speaks of a person who is half
man and half wolf who hates the bourgeois lifestyle but who is also
at the same time incapable of surrendering himself to the pleasure
of the senses.
Harry soon becomes even more certain that he must kill
himself immediately. At a professor’s house, Harry gravely insults
his former colleague about the way Goethe, the famous German poet, is
represented in a portrait that hangs in his home. Feeling that he has
at last severed all ties to humanity, Harry plans to commit suicide
that evening. However, Harry meets an enchanting young girl in a
tavern that night, and she gives him sensible and maternal advice.
The two meet again the following week. Because the girl resembles
a boyhood friend of Harry’s named Herman, Harry guesses that she
is called Hermine. He is correct. Hermine begins to help Harry.
Grateful that she has broken through his isolation, he agrees to
obey all her commands. Hermine informs Harry that eventually she
will make him fall in love with her, then she will ask him to kill
her.
Hermine teaches Harry to dance, finds him a lover named
Maria, and introduces him to an enigmatic and beautiful jazz musician named
Pablo. Through Hermine and her friends, Harry begins to immerse
himself in a hedonistic, or pleasure-filled, way of life. He comes
to appreciate all the sensual aspects of life he had previously disregarded
because of his strict bourgeois upbringing. With Hermine and Maria,
everything from buying little love gifts to picking duck meat from
its bones becomes a delightful affair. Harry blooms and becomes
happy during these weeks of change. Despite the enjoyment he feels,
however, part of him remains repulsed by his transformation. Part
of Harry continues to aspire toward the spiritual and the divine,
away from the sordid pleasures of the flesh. When Harry confesses
his feelings, he finds that Hermine understands him perfectly. In
fact, she understands him better than he understands himself.
Harry’s concerns peak at the Fancy Dress Ball, a gala
masquerade dance Harry attends. After several hours of liberating,
riotous revelry, Harry consummates his love with Hermine through
a nuptial dance. As the ball comes to a close, Pablo invites Harry
and Hermine to enjoy his Magic Theater. Pablo explains to Harry
that the goal of the theater is the dissolution of the personality,
a goal that can be accomplished only through laughter.
Once inside this “school of humor,” Harry laughs at a
mirror image of himself and goes down a corridor lined with dozens
of strange doors, some of which he enters. Each door opens on a
new, surreal world. Harry runs from one world, in which men and machines
are engrossed in a bloody war, to another, where all the women he
has ever wanted are available for him to enjoy.
Reality quickly falls away as the novel brings us deeper
and deeper into the psyche of the Steppenwolf. Harry ends up in
a room where he finds Hermine and Pablo’s love-spent, naked bodies
lying on the floor. Believing that the moment has come to fulfill
his promise to kill Hermine, Harry stabs her with a knife that has
magically appeared in his pocket. The celebrated classical composer
Mozart appears and tells Harry that he has abused the Magic Theater
with such excessively serious behavior. Mozart explains that life
is always compromised and full of less-than-ideal circumstances,
and that the task Harry must face now is to greet these aspects
with laughter. Although Harry has failed this time, according to
Pablo, he leaves the theater with the deep belief that one day he
will get things right.