Hermann Hesse - World Literature

World Literature

Hermann Hesse


BORN: 1877, Calw, Germany

DIED: 1962, Montagnola, Switzerland

NATIONALITY: German, Swiss

GENRE: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction


Demian (1914)

Siddhartha (1922)

Steppenwolf (1927)

Narcissus and Goldmund (1930)

The Glass Bead Game (1943)



Hermann Hesse. Hesse, Hermann, photograph. The Library of Congress.



The most-translated German twentieth-century author, Hermann Hesse’s primarily autobiographical work focused on matters of the soul. Through novels and poems that draw on Eastern philosophy and ideas of enlightenment, Nobel laureate Hesse enjoyed success both during his lifetime and during the countercultural movement of the 1960s, when a generation of authors found inspiration in his characters’ search for enlightenment outside the bounds of normal society. Contemplative, artistic, and confessional, Hesse’s work has survived as a testament to humankind’s search for spiritual meaning.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Birth and Early Rebellion. Born on June 2, 1877, in a small German village, Hermann Hesse inherited his literary and spiritual interests. His father worked for a publishing house owned by Hesse’s family, and both of his parents served as missionaries in the East Indies. Hesse’s grandfather, Hermann Gundert, lived and worked in India, and was fascinated by the language and culture of the Far East. Gundert passed this passion on to his grandson.

In 1891, Hesse won a scholarship to a Protestant church school, but struggled with the discipline he found there. Dissatisfied, he dropped out. His concerned parents forced him into two other schools, but finally relented and allowed their son to come home in 1893 after at least one suicide attempt and time spent in a mental institution.

Though Hesse convinced his parents to let him come home, he had a harder time persuading them to let him follow his dream of becoming a writer. Instead, they forced him to become an apprentice machinist at a local clock factory. Depressed and dissatisfied with the monotonous work, Hesse dreamed of becoming a writer. In 1895, he began a new apprenticeship, this time with a bookseller in Tubingen, a town that had produced one of Hesse’s poetic idols, the German lyricist Friedrich Holderlin.

First Poems. Supported by an indulgent boss and buried in a world of books, Hesse thrived at his job at the Heckenhauer bookshop. Inspired by the German Romantics like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Novalis, Hesse began to write poetry, publishing his first poem in 1896. Much of Hesse’s early workwas rooted in Romantic ideals of melodramatic fantasy. (Romanticism was a literary, as well as an artistic and philosophical movement that was a reaction against the Enlightenment and Neoclassicism. Romanticism also emphasized the individual, the personal, and the subjective, as well as the imaginative, the spontaneous, the emotional, and transcendental.) Disillusioned by modern society and moved by Romantic poetry, Hesse saw himself as a social outcast and sought out the mysteries of nature and poetry. His first two major works, however, were commercial failures, with only fifty-four copies of his Romantic Songs (1899) selling in two years.

Financially independent and ready to see something new, Hesse moved to Basel, Switzerland, in 1899. There, he continued to work with book dealers and made many friends among the city’s intellectual and literary elite. However, Hesse was not content to stay in Basel, and in 1901 he traveled to Italy for the first time. He met Maria Bernoulli, member of a famed family of mathematicians, on a second trip to Italy in 1903. Bernoulli, who was nine years Hesse’s senior, would later become his wife.

Literary Fame. Around this time, Hesse embarked on his first important literary work, Peter Camenzind (1904). This highly autobiographical novel drew from Hesse’s own feelings of demoralization, isolation, and bitterness. The main character, Peter Camenzind, is a frustrated writer who moves from his isolated mountain home to the city and discovers himself along the way. The novel won Hesse critical acclaim and his first taste of fame, bringing him the coveted Bauernfeld Prize and giving him the financial means to marry Bernoulli in 1904. The pair moved to their own mountain retreat in Gaienhofen, where they hoped to pursue artistic goals while living a simple, country life. However, the arrival of their first son, Bruno, in 1905 shattered these dreams, and the marriage began to suffer.

Hesse’s next novel, Beneath the Wheel (1906), used a fictional setting to criticize Germany’s harsh educational system. The novel, which follows two boys through their careers at a school much like the seminary Hesse attended, uses both characters as a means of exploring Hesse’s own personality and represents his own struggle to understand the person he was and the person he wished to become.

While in Gaienhofen, Hesse had become increasingly interested in Eastern culture and Buddhism. Eager to escape his unhappy marriage, he traveled to Asia with a friend in 1911. Hesse was shocked by the poverty and overcrowding he saw there. His plans to travel in India were interrupted by an illness, and he returned to Germany to an increasingly unpleasant married life. The couple moved to Bern, where Hesse worked on his next novel, Rosshalde (1913). The novel, which follows a painter and his older wife, clearly reflected Hesse’s dissatisfaction with his marriage.

Disillusionment. Family troubles were not Hesse’s only stressors at the time, as World War I soon began. In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Serbia by a Bosnian terrorist. Ongoing conflicts in the region as well as entangling alliances soon brought many major European countries into war. Germany, led by Emperor Wilhelm II, was allied with Austria-Hungary and Turkey against France, Great Britain, Russia, and, later, the United States. Germany hoped to gain influence, if not territory, in eastern Europe and the Balkans through these actions.

Unable to engage in armed conflict, Hesse spoke out against World War I and performed relief work for German prisoners of war. The German press condemned him as a pacifist and traitor, allegations that would color his literary reputation. By war’s end in 1918, however, Germany and its allies were defeated, and some 1.6 million Germans had lost their lives. World War I also marked Hesse’s first encounter with Jungian analysis in his attempt to discover the path inwards. Influenced by philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Hesse was dismayed to find the world’s thirst for war reflected in himself. He tried to engage with that self and learn more about it through psychotherapy and an increased interest in religion and spirituality.

Postwar Works. In 1919, Hesse published his fifth novel, Demian. He used a pen name, Emil Sinclair, and won the Theodore Fontane Prize for best debut novel, an honor he was forced to return when he admitted that he had actually written the work. The novel, which follows a young boy’s destructive friendship with an older teen, used a psychological approach that differentiated it from other novels. Around this time, Hesse’s marriage ended and he settled permanently in Montagnola, Switzerland.

There, he delved into his novel Siddhartha (1922). A reaction to both world events and the criticism he had received for his antiwar stance, Siddhartha was what Hesse called ‘‘the biography of a soul.’’ The book follows a man’s attempt to find inner peace as he transforms from wandering monk to enlightened, self-realized man. Though Siddhartha appeared to critical favor, it did not gain true popularity until its English translation in the 1950s and 1960s, when it influenced an entire generation of American Beat poets and hippies on a search for spiritual fulfillment.

Became Swiss Citizen. In the meantime, Hesse, still hurt by his treatment during World War I, abandoned his German citizenship and became a Swiss citizen in 1922. He entered into a short-lived marriage with Ruth Wenger in 1924, but the marriage soon ended, and he sought comfort in Zurich’s jazz clubs and bars during the winter months from 1925 to 1931. However, Hesse found no relief from sex, alcohol, and jazz. Isolated and alone, he expressed his disillusionment and loner status in his 1927 novel Steppenwolf, a title which roughly translates as the ‘‘lone wolf.’’ An experimental, highly pessimistic work, Steppenwolf deals with questions of suicide, existence, and higher realities and is thought to reflect Hesse’s disappointment in his failed marriages and his unsatisfactory attempt at hedonism.

Later Works Influenced by Events in Germany. After meeting an art historian twenty years his junior, Hesse finally found personal fulfillment in a romantic relationship. He married Ninon Dolbin in 1931. This return to happiness was reflected in his next novel, Death and the Lover (1930). Though rejected by many critics as inferior to Hesse’s other work, this more optimistic novel proved to be one of Hesse’s most popular.

When Hesse began writing his next novel, The Glass Bead Game (1949), he had no idea it would take eleven years to complete. Hesse wrote the novel amidst growing political crises in Germany. After World War I, Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which forced it to cede territory and to pay billions in reparations, despite a destroyed economy. Humiliated and impoverished, Germans saw their country’s standing restored when Adolf Hitler came to power in the early 1930s. The leader of the Nazi Party, Hitler infused Germany with military, territorial, and economic ambitions. These objectives were a primary cause of World War II, which officially began in Europe when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.

Hesse was condemned by the Nazi Party for betraying his German roots and applying for Swiss citizenship. Though upset by political events, Hesse was finally fulfilled in his personal relationships and had many visitors as his intellectual and literary friends fled Germany to neutral Switzerland. The Glass Bead Game, which deals with a futuristic utopia, earned Hesse the Nobel Prize in 1946. It would be his last major work.

The last years of Hesse’s life were relatively peaceful. He spent his time writing letters to the many young people now interested in his philosophies and novels, writing poetry, and enjoying a quiet life in Switzerland. He died in 1962 after a battle with leukemia.



Hesse's famous contemporaries include:

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945): German fascist leader and head of the ruling Nazi Party before and during World War II.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956): German playwright known for his innovative modern theatrical techniques and epic theatrical productions. His plays include The Threepenny Opera (1928).

Carl Jung (1875-1961): Swiss psychiatrist who founded the field of analytical psychology; he is best known for introducing the idea of a collective unconscious shared by all human beings.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948): Indian spiritual and political leader who fought for India's independence from Britain and promoted nonviolent protest.


Works in Literary Context

As a young writer, Hesse greatly admired German Romantic poets such as Friedrich Holderlin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Novalis, and his early poetry reflects those influences. Over time, he also drew on the religious background given to him by his parents and grandparents, which included the Bible, the tenants of Pietism, and Eastern philosophy. In addition, Hesse maintained a lifelong fascination with fantasy and folklore, and was inspired by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Rejection of Society. Hesse’s work was always influenced by ideas of solitude, isolation, and a desire to escape from modern society. In addition, Hesse was profoundly impacted by his experiences in a Protestant seminary and the writings and work of his grandfather, a renowned Orientalist. He would draw on these themes of Eastern and Western religion in works like Siddhartha, which follows a man as he searches for spiritual fulfillment. In his quest, Siddhartha leaves behind the society he knows. This paradoxically allows him to attain an understanding of human nature that he could not reach while living a ‘‘normal’’ life. In his earlier novel Steppenwolf, the main character, Harry Haller, views himself as a ‘‘lone wolf” who stands apart from—and even above—the rest of society.

Search for Fulfillment and Meaning. In Hesse’s work, a rejection of society goes hand-in-hand with a greater search for enlightenment and meaning. This is the main focus of Siddhartha, which is regarded at least as much for its philosophical ideas about enlightenment as it is for its narrative elements. Steppenwolf, too, is about one man’s search for meaning in his life, which he finds in this case through a ‘‘magic theater’’ where reality becomes difficult to distinguish from the creations of the mind. The Glass Bead Game pushes this theme to an extreme, postulating a branch of society that does nothing but pursue knowledge and enlightenment through books and through the mysterious game mentioned in the title.

Influence. As the most-translated German-language author, it is difficult to estimate just how influential Hermann Hesse’s work was to his generation and the ones that followed. Hesse passed on his work to a generation ofpoets, politicians, hippies, and countercultural icons, who used it as a means of self-exploration during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. He was especially embraced by Beat poets and countercultural figures such as Andy Warhol, who produced a painting of Hesse, and Timothy Leary, who felt that Hesse’s works encouraged a psychedelic consciousness.



Hesse's Siddhartha explores questions of spirituality and the inner self. Here are a few other examples of works whose heroes embark on a mission of self-discovery:

Into the Wild (1996), a nonfiction work by John Krakauer. This bestselling books deals with a young man's ill-fated journey into the Alaskan wilderness.

Walden (1854), a nonfiction work by Henry David Thor- eau. Perhaps the most famous American nonfiction book of all time, Walden contains its author's observations and philosophical musings during a solitary time in a simple cabin in rural Massachusetts.

On The Road (1957), a novel by Jack Kerouac. This classic novel of the Beat Generation in America is loosely based on the real adventures experienced by the author on his road trips across America.

The Razor's Edge (1944), a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. This novel tells the story of a World War I fighter pilot who returns home after the war, but quickly decides to reject society's conventions and strike out on a round-the-world search for knowledge and meaning.


Works in Critical Context

Response to Hermann Hesse’s body of work varied during his lifetime. Currently, however, he is widely regarded as one of the masters of German literature. Hesse got off to a poor start with his first literary works, which barely sold any copies and are considered of little literary merit. Critic Joseph Mileck has described Hesse’s earliest works as melodramatic and unnoticed, stating that ‘‘neither book attracted more than a modicum of attention.’’

Popularity of Novels. Hesse’s first novel, however, did attract attention. The autobiographical novel Peter Camenzind appeared to critical acclaim, winning prizes and putting Hesse’s name on the map. Hesse continued to win prizes with works like Demian, though he had to turn down one prize because he had written the work under a pen name. Siddhartha is widely known as Hesse’s masterpiece, but the work did not gain general critical acclaim until its publication in English in the 1950s. At that time, the work’s emphasis on Eastern religion and spiritual self-discovery struck a chord with scholars and students, and it attracted much critical and popular attention.

Hesse’s last major work, The Glass Bead Game, appeared to wide critical acclaim and garnered Hesse the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. The award marked a period of revived interest in Hesse’s work, with more and more critics turning to his early output, and around this time Hesse began to be recognized as one of the great lights of German literature.

Though criticism and public opinion of Hesse varied during his lifetime, his writing was embraced by the English-speaking world during the 1950s and 1960s, when his works appeared in translation in England and the United States.

Steppenwolf. Though Hesse was considered to be a major German author by the beginning of World War I, his antiwar position and renunciation of his German citizenship earned him negative critiques from patriots who felt he had betrayed Germany. His 1927 book Steppenwolf is widely seen as a reaction to this criticism. The book, which includes a scene in which the main character hallucinates a conversation with Mozart, also received wide critical attention and acclaim during the 1950s and 1960s, when critics turned to it as a countercultural rejection of society complete with psychedelic elements. By the late 1990s, critics like Ritchie Robertson, writing in the Journal of European Studies rated the novel higher than other works by Hesse. Robertson noted that ‘‘the ambiguities of Steppenwolf, along with its use of multiple perspectives and mirroring techniques, make it far more interesting than the bland dualism and vaticinations of Siddhartha.’’


Responses to Literature

1. Hesse’s work was deeply influenced by his studies of Eastern philosophy and spirituality. What other authors can you think of whose work was influenced by their religious worldview? Using the Internet and the library, write a paper about one of these authors and the influence of religion on his or her literary output.

2. Hesse is known for his focus on the individual trying to escape from society. What parts of Hesse's own experience influenced this interest in countercultural ideas? Create a presentation of your findings.

3. Siddhartha enjoys enduring popularity in high school and college classrooms. Compare its relevance with that of other commonly assigned books like The Catcher in the Rye (1951), by J.D. Salinger, and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee. Why do you think the ideas in Siddhartha would be particularly appealing to young people? Write a paper voicing your conclusions.

4. Hesse was mocked and put down in the German press for his antiwar stance during World War I. Using the Internet and library, research with a partner other writers whose political views threatened their literary careers. Make a presentation of your findings, comparing and contrasting Hesse's experiences with at least two other writers.

5. Discouraged by his unpopularity in Germany, Hesse published his novel Demian under an assumed name. Using the Internet and your library, research other writers who published their work under pseudonyms. What reasons can you find for authors to use pseudonyms? Write a paper that outlines your findings.




Boulby, Mark, Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Mileck, Joseph. Hermann Hesse and His Critics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958.

Rose, Ernst. Faith from the Abyss. New York: New York University Press, 1965.

Zeller, Bernard. Portrait of Hesse: An Illustrated Biography. New York: McGraw Hill, 1971.

Ziolkowski, Theodore J. The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.


Robertson, Ritchie. ‘‘Exploring the Divided Self: Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Its Critics.’’ Journal of European Studies 27, no. 1, 125.

Web Sites

‘‘Nobel Prize in Literature 1946.’’ Retrieved March 9, 2008, from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1946/hesse-autobio.html.