“How I used to love the dark sad evenings of late autumn and winter. How eagerly I imbibed their moods of loneliness and melancholy when wrapped in my cloak I strode for half the night through rain and storm….”
Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf has haunted readers since it was first published in 1927. It haunted me from the time I read it in 1972. But, like so many others, I used to be dissatisfied with the story’s ending.
No, I didn’t like the vague, enigmatic conclusion in the Magic Theater. It’s not that Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, didn’t need the life of the jazz clubs or the mysterious bar girl Hermine. Harry needed that interlude to restore his spirit. The darkness of the human world had been too much for him and he was on the verge of defeat. Before he met Hermine he was at a dead end, with no way out except the suicide that he contemplated every night.
But the hypocrisy, superficiality, and moral darkness of the world he had fought so hard against was still there. All through the gay tumutous night of the fancy dress ball, the implacable modern world remained outside waiting for him. It was returning with the dawn – the party was over – it was Harry’s destiny to face again what was out there and I’m sure he knew it. For if the steppenwolves among us won’t do that, who will?
Learning to accept civilization would have been a cop out for the Steppenwolf. It’s one thing for a solitary man like Harry to learn about social life, to appreciate it and sympathize with those who live it, even sometimes to take part in it and find love there, but that doesn’t mean that a solitary person’s destiny is in the social world. When Harry says at the end, “I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart….”, he doesn’t mean that he is about to change paths.
Yes, the lone Steppenwolf belongs in those streets at night. That’s who he is. That’s why we love him. And, in fact, he is still there. For the ending of Hesse’s book is not where it appears to be. It’s not on the last page where Harry’s self appears to be merging with Pablo’s and Hermine’s. The ending is actually in the beginning, in the prologue.
The narrator of the prologue, who has read the diary, confesses his affection for this “wolf of the steppes” that had “lost its way and strayed into towns and the life of the herd”, then concludes:
“No, I am sure he has not taken his own life. He is still alive and somewhere wearily goes up and down the stairs of strange houses…..sits for days in libraries and nights in taverns…. he has not killed himself, for a glimmer of of a belief still tells us that he is to drink this frightful suffering in his heart to the dregs.”
That is the real ending of the book. And it’s what we want isn’t it? To know the Steppenwolf is still out there, that someone is still brave enough to reject the falseness of this world and remain apart from it. We want the Steppenwolf, his spirit renewed from his encounter with Hermine and Pablo, to be out there in the streets at night, whatever the weather, his soul as romantic and resistant as ever.
For a long time I thought about that story. Finally, at fifty-one, the same age as the Steppenwolf, I began my own version, one that would bring his story up to date. But I had a problem. I didn’t know who the Steppenwolf was. That is, I didn’t know why he was so different from other people. Why do solitary people exist in a world where they don’t seem to belong? I didn’t realize until then that Hesse hadn’t addressed that problem at all.
I spent seven years writing the new story, then published it as The Birdcatcher in 2006. If you read the book, I think you’ll agree that the story of the Steppenwolf isn’t over yet.
Here are some Amazon links to that book:
copyright -Alan Conrad – 2009