Harry Haller’s Torn and Painful Existence

by Marianne Lukes for Professor Stoehr's Humanities class

Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, published in 1927, touches upon the existential theme of dual personalities and the notion that life is filled with spiritual searching and suffering. It follows the intriguing tale of a middle-aged man, Harry Haller, also known as the Steppenwolf, and analyzes his physical, mental, and spiritual crises. Many readers, although not the author, consider the book to be a fundamentally existentialist novel. Existentialism is based on the writings of intellectuals and philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche. It is a loosely defined intellectual movement of thinkers who asked questions about the essence of being, the meaning of life, freedom, and personal choice and responsibility. The existential story of the Steppenwolf is an example of how life may seem to be filled with suffering. Its cause, in the case of the Steppenwolf, is the clash of dueling personalities within him.

The story of Harry Haller is an example of the existentialist idea that humans do not have just one personality, but rather many different personalities that work alongside one another to make us who we are. Harry Haller is an example of an individual who made the mistake of seeing himself as having just two conflicting sides when in reality he had many more. Therefore, Haller lived a life of suffering because of his failure to integrate all of his sides. Later in the book, Hesse explained the harm this caused: “What does not stand classified as either man or wolf [Haller] does not see at all” (65). This refers to matters that Haller might fail to see or even dismiss because he has defined his personality too narrowly. One aspect that Haller saw in himself was a savage, lone wolf that rejected all forms of bourgeois culture. The other half was subdued and humanlike; it found comfort in traditional, average life. This possibly was a result of his middle-class upbringing. Hesse explains, “The man and the wolf did not go the same way together, but were in continual and deadly enmity” (41-42). The dueling sides were constantly working to combat the other, thus making Harry Haller’s life turbulent and agonizing.

The narrator observed the wolf-like, at times nihilistic side of the Steppenwolf after the narrator had persuaded Haller to join him in attending a lecture given by a known intellectual. Immediately after the speaker began, Haller had a look of disgust on his face. It was clear that Haller saw through the intellectual’s superficial demeanor and did not appreciate the speaker’s egoistic nature and the way he held himself above the audience. The speaker saw himself as a master among slaves but Haller saw through him. At this moment, Haller was the master who looked down on the lecturer and audience for being conformists. Also at this moment, Haller was a nihilist because he recognized the event was merely a show and he was troubled by the pitifulness of the audience for looking up to the speaker, although he did not deserve it. As Friedrich Nietzsche explained, a cultural disturbance occurred in the 1800s that made some people unhappy with society and question everything about their lives. This resulted in many people becoming nihilists because they decided that life was pointless and nothing had any meaning. Shortly before the incident at the lecture, the narrator had observed Haller in a very different mood.

It was at the beginning of Haller’s stay at the boarding house when the narrator found the protagonist in the stairwell of his aunt’s house absorbed in a moment where his human side was dominant. At points in the novel it is clear that Haller has a few specific affinities for some bourgeois, and even Dionysian, elements of life such as wine and clean households. Haller was transfixed by the sight and smell of a potted azalea and araucaria plant. The Steppenwolf explains to the narrator how he appreciates the tidiness and “devotion to life’s little habits” that he experiences while living in the boarding house (15). Haller then goes on to tell the narrator about how breathing in the smell of the plant brings him joy and reminds him of an orderly life. The wolf side of Steppenwolf would despise anything that represented such a mediocre lifestyle and would look down upon anyone who valued a routine, conventional everyday life. The narrator recalled that while talking to the Steppenwolf, he “came to see more and more that from the empty spaces of lone wolfishness he actually really admired and loved our little bourgeois world . . .” (16). At the same time, because of his wolf side, Haller has nihilistic tendencies that ridicule an individual who would value such things as a houseplant.

At one point in the novel, the narrator was able to physically observe Harry Haller struggling between his two sides. One evening, the narrator noticed the Steppenwolf seated nearby him at a symphony. At first, the Steppenwolf was attempting to absorb himself in the music and appreciate its beauty; something his human-side was clearly responsible for. Suddenly, the narrator saw that Haller appeared detached and angry. It was evident that this was because he was unable to maintain himself and was forced to give in to his wolfish side. At this concert, the Steppenwolf was torn between his two personalities. One side appreciated the beautiful music and the idea of attending concerts, while the other half saw the activity as conformist, bourgeois, and vain. It seems as though he had set out that night to attempt to be a normal, middle class citizen by attending the concert but was ultimately unable to enjoy himself. It is also likely that the orchestra music caused a conflict of emotions because it had brought Haller back to his childhood and a time when he belonged to a middle class family that likely listened to music and attended concerts.

Harry Haller lived in a constant state of “suicide” as a result of his ongoing internal struggle. Haller “found consolation and support . . . in the idea that the way to death was open to him at any moment” (48). It can be said that the majority of the suffering felt by Haller was a result of his incorrect assessment of himself: he mistakenly identified himself as merely part man and part wolf. This appraisal did not allow for the many other personalities that he embodied to blossom. In Hesse’s view, this was a result of living a life of constant pain and torture. Curiously, this was supposed to be a proud achievement because, as Steppenwolf puts it, “A man should be proud of suffering. All suffering is a reminder of our high estate” (15-16). At times, Haller did seem to be proud of the pain in his life. For example, Haller was known to drink bottle after bottle of wine alone or stay in bed until the late afternoon. These were signs that Haller had accepted that his life was filled with misery because he did not try to fix it. Although Haller’s biggest vice was his torn personality, he also agonized by means of another obstacle in his life.

Haller’s suffering is also caused by his uncertain relationship with the bourgeois elements of life. At times, Haller finds them pathetic and meaningless, a truly nihilistic view. At other times, he finds himself enjoying bourgeois things. Haller is unable to fully break ties with bourgeois culture because he grew up in a middle class household, one likely similar to the aunt’s boarding house. This is a part of him from which he could not disconnect. Because Haller sees himself as part wolf, he tries to restrain himself from appreciating anything bourgeois because it goes against his own vision of himself. This is where he makes a mistake. If Haller were able to see himself as having more than just two personalities and acknowledge that it would acceptable if part of him liked attending the symphony or having a career, then he would be a much happier man.

Overall, Haller’s misconception about himself contributes largely to the pain he deals with everyday. If he were to look within himself, a piece of advice that Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche would both give him, he would be able to better attune himself with his true and multiple personas instead of alternating between suppressing two quarreling sides of himself. It can be concluded that Haller often dealt with deep feelings of angst, a term coined by Kierkegaard that refers to a feeling of dread when faced with choices and the responsibilities they imply. Haller was unable to be a complete individual who was happy with his existence because he could not decide whether he was a member of bourgeois society and because he was forced to choose between the opposing sides within himself.


Hesse, Hermann. Steppenwolf. New York: Picador, 1963. Print.

Rosenstand, Nina. “The Quest for Authenticity: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Levinas.” The Moral of the Story: An Introduction to Questions of Ethics and Human Nature. 7th ed. McGraw Hill, 2012. 490. Print.

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