Steppenwolf – Preface

Summary
The narrator explains that the work to follow constitutes
the records of a man who called himself the Steppenwolf, the “wolf
of the Steppes.” The narrator identifies himself as the nephew of
the landlady of the lodging house where the Steppenwolf spent nine
or ten months before mysteriously disappearing. The narrator assures us
that the portrait of the Steppenwolf that the records provide is fuller
and more detailed than the one that emerged from the narrator’s
slight encounters with the man. He says that the Steppenwolf was
an extremely shy and antisocial being, a man so lonely and so strange
that he seemed to come from another world altogether.
The narrator recounts his brief run-ins with the Steppenwolf. When
the Steppenwolf first arrives at the narrator’s aunt’s lodging house,
he sniffs the air and declares that it smells good. The narrator becomes
suspicious and repulsed when the Steppenwolf asks that the police
not be informed of his arrival. The narrator’s disgust heightens
over time as he observes the Steppenwolf’s unusual books, odd hours,
heavy drinking, and incessant smoking. These habits are all most
disagreeable to the strictly bourgeois narrator. However, his aunt’s
spirited defense of the Steppenwolf, along with the narrator’s own
positive, interesting encounters with the man, leads him to view
the Steppenwolf sympathetically, as a rare, sensitive individual.
However, the narrator adds that the effect of his exposure to the
Steppenwolf has been “disturbing and disquieting.”
The narrator tells us that the Steppenwolf’s real name
is Harry Haller. He describes a look that the Steppenwolf gives
him during a lecture given by a very famous speaker. This look,
according to the narrator, pierces not only the speaker’s own arrogance
but also the self-deluding, pompous, and flawed nature of the entire
epoch. The narrator believes that Haller is deeply intelligent and
insightful, but that his gifts lead to his overwhelming loneliness
and propensity to suffer. The narrator goes on to call the Steppenwolf
a “genius of suffering” in the manner of Nietzsche, the renowned
nineteenth-century German philosopher. He then speculates that perhaps
Haller experienced a traumatically repressive upbringing, which
has made him hate himself.
The narrator offers an account of the Steppenwolf’s habits, describing
one particular encounter that stands out. Returning home one day,
the narrator finds Haller seated on the landing of the stairs between
the first and second floors. Haller admits that he is fascinated
by the sight and smell of the incredible middle-class cleanliness
that is manifest in the perfectly maintained araucaria plant on
the landing. The plant is situated next to a spotlessly clean vestibule
at the entrance of a first-floor flat. Haller insists that he does
not speak with irony and instead expresses nostalgia for his own
long-lost bourgeois existence.
Haller invites the narrator to join him in his apartment,
where he reads and comments on a quotation out of one of his books.
The quotation describes how men will not “swim before they are able to.”
Haller takes the idea of swimming to refer to a life of profound thought,
telling the narrator that most men prefer solid earth and are “made
for life, not for thought.” Those who do go far in thought barter
away their hold on solid earth, and each will one day drown.
The narrator then describes a time when he saw Haller
at the symphony and recalls that Haller reacted very curiously to
the music. During the first and third pieces, the Steppenwolf seemed
in a vacant, irritated frame of mind, taken up by other thoughts.
During the second piece, however, Haller bloomed and seemed transported
by the music into a state of clear rapture. The narrator also recounts
seeing a pretty young woman twice visit Haller. Though Haller and
the woman seem to go out together happily, both times Haller returns
alone in a forlorn state. The third time the woman visits, she and
Haller quarrel terribly.
The narrator claims that although Haller was obviously
very depressed and in bad shape, he does not believe that Haller
has killed himself. The narrator states that the manuscript that
follows has been left to him, and that although he is powerless
to verify its accuracy, he believes that it reflects the Steppenwolf’s
spiritual journey. He adds that these records, despite their at
times disgusting content, are valuable because they are representative
of the times. The narrator alleges that they express not just the
psychological distress of one man, but the social ailments of a
whole age—or rather, the distress of that specific breed of man
who is caught between two ages.
Analysis
The preface has four primary functions: it endows the
text with compelling realism, provides justification and support
for its story, introduces the character of Harry Haller, and announces
the book’s major themes and motifs. The preface creates a strong
sense of realism, suggesting that we are reading an actual document
left behind by a real person. The fact that the name Harry Haller
resembles the name Herman Hesse implies that Haller’s records are
autobiographical for Hesse. As Steppenwolf is often
fantastical and macabre, the fact that the preface is told by an
upstanding, solid, average citizen provides a seemingly factual
context.
In addition to aiding in suspending the reader’s disbelief,
the preface also makes a strong case that justifies and supports
the novel. The narrator’s claim that the manuscript is valuable
functions as a less-than-subtle claim that Hesse’s novel is likewise
valuable. Moreover, in agreeing with Haller’s self-conception of
being a wolf from the steppes, the narrator affirms the painful
confessions and self-criticisms we encounter in Haller’s own words.
The fair, steadfast, and practical-minded nephew slowly comes to
empathize with Haller as “a genius of suffering.” Because we can
identify with the nephew, who gradually gains an appreciation of
the Steppenwolf, we as readers make the same shift, coming to empathize
with Haller and his story.
The preface also lays down a brief sketch of the man whose
complex inner life forms the action of the novel. We learn of Harry Haller’s
extreme dislocation, sense of estrangement, extraordinary intelligence,
and sensitivity. Perhaps more important, the preface sets out the
terms of the conflict in which the Steppenwolf sees himself caught.
On the one hand, Haller is a disruptive wolf of the steppes, staying
up late drinking wine and reading his colossally impractical books—generally
living in a haphazard fashion. On the other hand, however, Haller
also feels bound by a deep affection for the orderly bourgeois world
to which he feels he can never belong. The fact that the outcome
of this conflict is inevitably suffering, and that there is some
value to this suffering—the nephew valorizes the Steppenwolf’s suffering
when he calls him a “genius” of it—are important assessments that
we are obviously meant to adopt.
Finally, the preface introduces some of the major themes
and motifs of Haller’s existence. First, it invokes great thinkers
such as Nietzsche, as Haller repeatedly tries to understand his
own life in terms of his relation to the gifted cultural geniuses
of the past. Second, through the rapture Haller experiences at the
symphony and during his visits with the young woman, we see the
power music and women have in transforming him. Third, we get a
first glimpse of the symbolic contrast between solidity and fluidity.
The quotation that Haller enthusiastically reads the narrator sets
out a contrast between standing on the solid earth and being immersed
in water. Hesse will repeatedly employ these two images in providing
an allegory for Haller’s actions. While standing on solid earth
reflects bourgeois existence, an unproblematic attachment to worldly
life, the immersion in water reflects those few hyperintelligent
risk-takers who are unsatisfied by simple answers and devote themselves
to the most profound thought.