Steppenwolf – The Fifth Part of Harry Haller’s Records

The Fancy Dress Ball

An experience fell to my lot . . . that
I had never known . . . the mystic union of joy.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

Harry plans to meet Hermine at the Fancy Dress Ball, which
is a masquerade. He is going without a costume, while she is going
in a costume she has not revealed to him. That night, Harry goes
to his old haunt, the Steel Helmet, for dinner. He is filled with
a sense of nostalgia for his former life, and also a sense that
he is bidding it farewell. He reflects on the lamentable nature
of modernity. Harry considers himself to be neither old-fashioned
nor of the present day, believing he has “escaped time altogether.”
Since it is still too early for him to go to the ball, on a whim
he stops off at a cinema and watches part of the Old Testament on-screen.
Once at the masked ball, Harry is immediately swept up
in the swirl of festivities. Each part of the Globe Rooms is given
over to the ball, with dancing in every room, even the basement.
Everyone at the party is in a good mood except Harry, who is surly
and aloof because he cannot find Hermine or Maria anywhere. He tries
to leave, but once at the cloakroom he realizes he has lost the
ticket for his coat. A stranger whisks by and gives Harry his own
ticket, upon which are scrawled the words “TONIGHT AT
Harry hurries away to find Hermine, exhilarated once again. Maria,
in disguise as a Spanish dancing girl, throws herself into Harry’s
arms. As Pablo leads the band, Harry and Maria dance and kiss, but
she bids him farewell when she learns that Hermine has summoned
him. In the room at the party designated as “hell,” Harry sits down
at the bar next to a young fellow who turns out to be Hermine disguised
as Harry’s childhood friend Herman. Talking and drinking champagne,
Harry easily falls in love with Hermine, as she had said at their
first dinner that he would.
Harry and Hermine break apart to dance with other women, sometimes
rivaling each other for the same woman. Harry loses himself in the
fairy-tale magic of the ball. For the very first time in his life,
he experiences the sense of absorption in a large crowd, the utter
dissolution of the self in the collective community that is usually
only experienced by students and revelers. Harry feels himself Pablo’s
brother, innocent and released as a child. He notes that he has
“lost the sense of time.”
Harry is drawn to a woman in a black Pierrette costume
with a white face. He dances with her, and when they kiss, he recognizes that
she is Hermine in a new disguise. They dance a climactic “nuptial
dance.” As the dawn approaches, Harry twice hears an eerie distant
laughter from above. Pablo, who has been in another room, appears
and invites both Harry and Hermine to a little entertainment, “[f]or
madmen only,” with only one price: Harry’s mind. In a little room
bathed in blue light, the three of them smoke Pablo’s strange cigarettes
and drink an unfamiliar liquid, which packs an immediate punch.
Pablo, for the first time articulate and voluble, explains that
Harry has always desired to penetrate to that realm beyond time,
but that this world beyond time exists only in his own soul. Pablo
says that he is now going to make this world of Harry’s soul visible.
In this section Hesse develops the idea of escaping time.
First suggested by Goethe in Harry’s dream and echoed by Hermine
just before the Fancy Dress Ball, the idea of being beyond time
again comes to Harry through a feeling he has during his visit to
the Steel Helmet. Harry reiterates this sentiment at the height
of his revelry at the ball, where Pablo, as he prepares Harry for
the Magic Theater, reinforces it yet again. Although clearly an
important theme in Steppenwolf, the idea of escaping
time remains vague and not entirely consistent. On the one hand,
the theme is connected with the recurrent motif of the immortals,
geniuses such as Goethe and Mozart who inhabit the space of eternity.
In her talk with Harry before the ball, Hermine speaks of the world
beyond time as the place for which she and Harry—those “with a dimension
too many”—are destined, ostensibly after death. But when Pablo discusses
the idea of a realm beyond time, he links it with the world of Harry’s
soul. The novel suggests that the world of eternity exists as a
possibility only when we die, yet also implies that it is a realm
of transcendence we carry within us.
We see Harry’s dramatic change from an ascetic intellectual
to a passionate hedonist in the changing way he relates to a crowd. Harry’s
momentary disgust with the wild, crude merrymaking around him demonstrates
the extent of his change. It is only Hermine’s intervention that
enables Harry to merge with the crowd, becoming one with them in
a communal frenzy and fervor.
Harry likens the release he feels when he merges with
the crowd to the innocence of a child. Hesse draws this idea—the
child as symbolic of sensual pleasures—from the theoretical systems
of the nineteenth-century German thinkers Friedrich Nietzsche and
Emile Durkheim. Nietzsche’s famous work Thus Spake Zarathustra sets up
a three-part categorization of the spiritual evolution of individuals:
the third and final stage is that of a child, whose role is to say
the “sacred yes” in innocence and wisdom. Durkheim’s The
Elementary Forms of the Religious Life identifies a very
important mode of social behavior, the carnival, in which all restrictions
are overturned for a specified time; the carnival serves as a release
valve for a society’s pent-up, repressed energy. Durkheim notes
the feeling of “collective effervescence” that occurs when the individual
at such a gathering feels submerged in a state of union with the
larger social mass—exactly the feeling Harry has at the climax of
the ball. Just as it conforms to elements of Durkheim’s analysis,
Harry’s dissolution in the larger mass signals that he has learned
the lessons of the Treatise and shattered his sense of himself as
a singular unit into a thousand different souls.
As Harry becomes increasingly similar to Hermine, it
becomes clear that she is nearing the end of her project of teaching
him. Harry will soon have to kill Hermine according to their original
agreement. This situation strongly suggests that that Hermine is
not real but only a reflection of some part of Harry’s self. Hermine’s
appearance at the ball—so well disguised as “Herman” that Harry
does not even recognize her—foreshadows her eventual disappearance. Harry
has described Herman as a boyhood friend, a poet of ecstasy and
transcendence, without ever mentioning what happened to Herman or
how such a close friend fell out of his life. By now, we sense that
“Herman” actually represents the innocent, pure, life-loving part
of Harry that has been buried and warped by so many damaging years.
Arriving at the ball in the guise of “Herman,” Hermine unmasks herself
as a fiction of Harry’s inner self. Hermine unmasks herself because
she is no longer needed; once recognized as part of Harry, the only
possible next step is for her to disappear.