At a first look, Steppenwolf is a book dedicated to depressed, suicidal people. Its notes of deep, ever-expanding despair strike the reader – unaccustomed to such descending walks – inside the mind. The scene unfolds to Harry Haller, a pseudo-alive 48-year old single man, living in a rent amid the bourgeoisie whom he despises. His diary opens as another scene at the moment when, exasperated by his own inadequacy to the world and society around him, he decides to kill himself. But before attempting the final departure, he meets Hermione, a girl in a bar, who bounds him to take foxtrot lessons and learn to enjoy life, before he reaches his 50th year. She tells him she wants to make him fall in love with her in the final stage and then he must kill her. As she teaches him to dance, she lures him into a lower society of prostitutes, musicians and bohemian folk who whirl Haller into the madness of ballrooms, theaters and artistic but no less psychological craze.
The interbellic glamorous atmosphere contrasts violently with the leitmotif of the novel: the wolf, a symbol of loneliness, rigidity and inadaptation. Haller feels utterly miscast in a universe he considers frivolous, warmongering and too shiny to bear true values, the latter attributed exclusively to well-established masters like Goethe, Mozart and Wagner, with whom he converses during his losing himself in dreaming or fantasy. But the artists laugh at him, at his ridiculous holding of the pole amid the storm and mock him for not learning to let go in the highs and lows of the waves. When at last he does, he kills Hermione and realizes he didn’t do it out of sheer jealousy but unfortunately still out of pure misjudgment. So his climax was wrong as well, just like his all-encompassing inadaptation.
This is a novel about loss and art, among others. Highly auto-biographical, the novel is built on a scene-within-scene-within-scene structure, warning us from the beginning that we are just spectators to a tragical-comical overture (in the novel Mozart’s Don Giovanni is what Haller holds dearest in life, probably because of the ending line: “Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life”). Haller enters a masquerade ball, dances until exhaustion like a sort of Dionysus, then he enters a theater, in whose lounges he re-lives his romantic encounters along his life, he discovers the dissolution of his unified wolfish self into multiple personality facets and re-thinks his approach about war.
The shocking extent of madness in a single mind is absorbed through a careful, elegantly construed language which facilitates the outsider into the character’s unrelenting monologue. Drawing strongly on the same psychological unsuitableness as in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Steppenwolf also exhales a hunger for self, for a deeply personal ideal of beauty and for an ever-escapable intensity of life, which “is possible only at the expense of self”.