Hesse’s solitude themes

Perhaps reflective of the cultural mentality and spiritual crisis of the turn of the 20th-century and earliest decades thereafter, all of Hermann Hesse’s fiction reflects an autobiographical exploration of self and destiny. The protagonist of each story and novel seeks, first, the limits of self, aesthetically, morally, and physically, in order to discover exactly what they are and what they should think.

This questing, with its mythical connotations, is what attracts readers to given works of Hesse, while his succession of works present protagonists in new and different settings using the same theme. Ultimately, each protagonist’s quest for self is not “out there” in the different physical settings of each story and novel but spiritually within the self. The self was always accessible had the character looked inwardly. But Hesse dramatizes the quest in the real world, in the circumstantial world that we all face by necessity, before resolving his hero’s dilemma. Each quest, like the mythic quest described by Joseph Campbell and others, must end in self, as it began, but in Hesse, the rediscovery of self is not the discovery of a new strength or a new awareness so much as what Hesse translator and editor Jack Zipes refers to as a return to “home.”

This aspect is particularly vivid in Hesse’s fairy tales, written in the first two decades of the 20th century. In “The Forest-Dweller,” a young man defies the prevarications of elders to venture outside of the tribal boundaries, and, discovering that he can survive after all, he never returns. In “The Painter” a man takes up painting as an avocation but while away from his apartment returns to discover crowds eagerly milling about his apartment to see the paintings of the now-famous artist. The crowd interprets the paintings wrongly, misunderstands their themes, even misidentifies the objects portrayed, but they bid and buy and trade them. The painter, in disgust, quits the place and does not return. And in “Faldum,” a stranger appears at the village fair performing magic that grants anyone whatever they wish, first arousing vanity but progressively stirring malice, greed, and violence among the townspeople who demand their wish. A young observer, deeply affected, wishes to be far away and lofty like a mountain, and he becomes exactly that, arising just outside the old town, dispassionately watching it grow and decline over the years, watching the forests and its denizens, and the river and clouds from his welcomed solitude and disengagement, finally sensing his numbing consciousness wane in the course of the sun, moon, and stars overhead.

These stories ranged from the early 20th-century to the end of World War I (which experience turned Hesse into a pacifist, another form of disengagement from the world, but that is another theme). In another story of that era (1907), titled “The Wolf,” Hesse presents the plight of the small group of misfits, a hated pack of wolves, eking out existence in a harsh mountain in winter with the whole of (human) society set against them, eager to exterminate them. Here, too, with the protagonist, is Hesse the writer, the solitary, the seeker after self, the seeker after a home. All of these stories have a contextual merit as literature but also a subtle appeal to the solitary, to anyone who seeks home in this world.