Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was a novelist, painter, and poet from the 19th and 20th centuries. He is particularly known for his impactful fiction novels. He is most famous for his novels Siddhartha (1922), Demian (1919), and Der Steppenwolf (1927). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 for his novel, The Glass Bead Game (1943). 

Hermann Hesse Hermann Hesse

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Table of contents

    Hermann Hesse, Writing Desk, StudySmarterFig. 1 - This is Hermann Hesse's writing desk at his home in Montagnola, Switzerland.

    Biography of Hermann Hesse

    Herman Hesse was born in Calw, located in the Kingdom of Württemberg, on the 2nd of July 1877.

    In the 1870s, the Kaiserreich, also known as the German Empire, was a period of the unification of the separate kingdoms of Germany. In 1871, the Southern German states joined the North German Confederation. In all, there were 25 states, including Württemberg, where Hesse was born.

    Hesse's father, Johannes Hesse, worked at a publishing house and was a Pietist. Pietism is something Hesse would distance himself from as he grew older.

    Pietism is a branch of Lutheranism that emphasizes Biblical text, individual piety, and living a Christian, holy life.

    Hesse was an incredibly depressed child and spent time exploring the nature around Calw. Between 1881 and 1887, Hesse lived in Basel, Switzerland with his family. Hesse, under the encouragement of his grandfather, began to read widely as a child. He also had a love of music, poetry, and art.

    Hermann Hesse, Calw German Empire, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Hesse was born in Calw.

    In 1891, Hesse joined the Evangelical Theological Seminary at Maulbronn Abbey and spent a great deal of his time translating Greek poetry and writing essays. However, by the spring of 1892, Hesse's personality began to shift. He became increasingly rebellious. He moved around to different schools and even attempted suicide. He was moved to a mental institution located in Stetten im Remstal before re-entering school at the end of the year. Finally, in 1893, he passed his exams and finished school.

    Hesse began work as a bookshop apprentice before moving on to a mechanic apprenticeship at a clock factory. By 1895, Hesse found another apprenticeship with a bookseller and began to focus greatly on his spirituality.

    Hesse was not very social and preferred to read. He focused on Greek myths, theology, Goethe, Schiller, and Nietzsche. He would then move on to studying the German Romantics. In 1896, Hesse published a poem called "Madonna" in a periodical before releasing an entire poetry volume titled Romantic Songs (1896). This got the attention of Eugen Diedrichs, a publisher interested in publishing Hesse's prose collection One Hour After Midnight (1898). Both publications were unsuccessful.

    Hesse moved to Basel, Switzerland in 1899. There he worked in a bookshop and found himself in an active intellectual and literary circle of friends. After a trip to Italy, Hesse decided to work at an antique bookstore and began to publish more works, such as Posthumous Writings and Poems of Hermann Lauscher (1901). This got the attention of Samuel Fischer, who published Hesse's next novel, Peter Camenzind (1904).

    With enough recognition to become a full-time writer, Hesse got married, had children, and began writing full-time. He produced novels, short stories, and poems. A few of these publications include Beneath the Wheel (1906), "The Wolf" (1906-07), and Gertrude (1910).

    In the early 1900s, Hesse took an interest in Buddhism once more. In 1904, Hesse was introduced to theosophy.

    Theosophy is an esoteric religion that is influenced by European philosophy, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Theosophists believe in an ancient brotherhood of Masters who have wisdom and supernatural powers that must be spread. They also believe in an Absolute divine and that the universe is a reflection of the Absolute Divine.

    Drawn by his interests in Buddhism, Hesse embarked on a trip to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Sumatra, Borneo, and Burma in 1911. He was not satisfied with his spiritual journey and returned home to his family. They moved to Bern, Switzerland in 1912, but Hesse's marriage was already falling apart. This inspired his novel Rosshalde (1914).

    In 1914, when World War I broke out, Hesse wished to volunteer for combat but was rendered unfit. Hesse instead volunteered to care for prisoners of war. During this time, Hesse published an essay titled "Oh Friends, Not These Tones" (1914), calling for an end to nationalistic conflict among European countries. Hesse was heavily criticized during the war for his anti-nationalistic views.

    Hermann Hesse, Basel Switzerland, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Hermann Hesse lived part of his life in Basel, Switzerland.

    This was followed by the death of his father and the illness of his son and wife. This caused Hesse to seek help from a psychotherapist. This sparked an interest in psychoanalysis and a friendship with the psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

    In 1919, after divorcing his wife, Hesse moved to Montagnola where he focused on writing and painting. He was very productive and happy. During this period, Hesse wrote the novella Klingsor's Last Summer (1920) and his most famous novella, Siddhartha (1922). During this period, he also published Der Steppenwolf (1927).

    He moved in with the art historian Ninon Dolbin in 1931 and began work on The Glass Bead Game (1943). This would become his last major literary piece. In 1933, with the rise of Nazism in Germany and Hesse's strong stance against antisemitism, Hesse began to undermine the Nazi regime quietly by making the banned literary works of Jewish authors popular. Hesse was eventually banned from publication under the Nazis.

    In 1943, during the Second World War, Hesse finally published The Glass Bead Game, which would award him a Nobel Prize for literature in 1946. After such an accomplishment, Hesse spent the rest of his life writing short stories, autobiographical essays, and creating paintings. Hermann Hesse died on August 9, 1962.

    The Literary Works of Hermann Hesse

    In his own life, Hermann spent a lot of time exploring his spirituality, knowledge of the self, and what authenticity means. Over his lifetime, he wrote many novels, poems, and personal essays. Below is an overview of his most famous works.

    Demian (1919)

    Demian is the story of Emil Sinclair. It follows his life before the First World War and how he navigates the world. In Demian, the world is a corrupt place where evil resides, and Emil must find self-knowledge to find the good. It is a story of inner conflict. The novel by Hesse includes a lot of biblical symbolism and allegories, such as the apples from the Garden of Eden. By the end of the novel, Emil faces a grand transformation on the battlefield. The novel contains themes of faith, transformation, self-knowledge, and good versus evil.

    There was a world of my parents' house, or rather it was even more circumscribed and embraced only my parents themselves. This world was familiar to me in almost every aspect-- it meant mother and father, love and severity, model behaviour and school. It was a world of quiet brilliance, clarity and cleanliness" (Chapter 1).

    In the novel, Emil's home is an old monastery. It is where Emil feels the safest, and it is a place where no evil resides. The home is symbolic of a sort of biblical heaven where everything and everyone is pure and innocent. When Emil grapples with the evils of the world, he finds comfort in his home.

    Siddhartha (1922)

    Siddhartha was written by Hesse during a period when he began to look inward and become incredibly spiritual. It follows the journey of Siddhartha, who lives in Ancient India during the time of Gautama Buddha. Siddhartha is on the search for enlightenment. Siddhartha journeys to meet the Buddha and along the way struggles with disillusionment, a love affair, and an unexpected son. He reaches enlightenment only after he sees he must not try to control the lives of other people and simply let them live.

    Siddhartha contains themes such as alienation and the search for self-knowledge. These themes often appear in Hesse's work, but what makes them unique in Siddhartha is revealing them from a Buddhist point of view. This shows Hesse's genuine interest in understanding Eastern religions and stems from his many trips to Asia.

    Differently than before, he now looked upon people, less smart, less proud, but instead warmer, more curious, more involved. When he ferried travelers of the ordinary kind, childlike people, businessmen, warriors, women, these people did not seem alien to him as they used to: he understood them..." (Part 2, Chapter 7).

    In one of the final chapters of Siddhartha, the reader can see a transformation in Siddhartha. He begins to see the world in a different light and begins to understand the people around him. This is the beginning of him leaving the alienation he often felt in the world and reaching enlightenment.

    Der Steppenwolf (1927)

    Der Steppenwolf tells the story of Harry Haller, an unhappy intellectual man who has two sides: a human side and a wolf side. The novel is a critic of society and the role humans play in society. It was written during a time of deep depression. Hesse was inspired by his interests in psychoanalysis, philosophy, and politics. It is a novel that looks into the alienation one can feel in their intellectual and artistic abilities.

    Due to the novel's extensive descriptions of drug use and obscenities, the novel was banned in the USA. By the 60s and 70s, however, the novel became incredibly popular.

    A Look into the Poetry of Hermann Hesse

    In addition to his influential novels, Hesse also wrote poetry. Although his first poetry collection, Romantic Songs, was not a success, Hesse continued to write poetry. His poetry focuses mainly on a relationship to the divine, the want of a meaningful life, and an individual through time. Hesse used literary devices such as anaphora and personification. There is a sense of loneliness and alienation in the voice of the speaker of the poem.

    How heavy the days are.

    There's not a fire that can warm me,

    Not a sun to laugh with me,

    Everything bare,

    Everything cold and merciless,

    And even the beloved, clear

    Stars look desolately down,

    Since I learned in my heart that

    Love can die," ("How Heavy the Days", 1970).

    Here is an example of a poem by Herman Hesse. It is sad in tone and speaks of the sensation of coldness a heart missing love has. Whether it is Platonic, romantic, or divine love that Hesse is speaking of, the effect is still the same: a heart without love is a world that is desolate and gray.

    The Beliefs and Ideas of Hermann Hesse

    Hermann Hesse, Marble Separate, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Hesse wrote about non-conformist individuals.

    Hermann Hesse's beliefs and ideas were influential in the fields of literature and philosophy. A lot of Hesse's beliefs are surrounded by the individual and the development of the individual through self-knowledge and spiritual awareness. An individual is always under the threat and pressure of society, according to Hesse, and it is up to the individual to withstand this pressure. The individual is above society and within the individual lies the voice of God. It is this voice that will call people down the right path of destiny.

    To portray his beliefs and ideas in his writings, particularly the non-conformity of the individual, Hesse wrote characters that were not relatable to the common person. Instead, they have extraordinary circumstances that are affected by the environment and their journey to self-fulfillment. All of his characters go through some sort of awakening from their childhood into adulthood that helps them find meaning or enlightenment.

    Influence of Hermann Hesse

    Herman Hesse was a recognized author during his lifetime, but it was during the 1960s and 1970s that his novels reached peak popularity. Young readers began to explore Hesse's writing, and they felt a connection to the characters of Hesse's novels. Hesse's characters often felt alienated due to their intellectual or artistic ability, or perhaps they simply did not conform to the norms of their society. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were many counterculture movements such as the women's rights movements, civil rights movements, and anti-war movements. Young people in the counterculture were drawn to the individualistic and nonconformist characters of Hesse's novels.

    Hermann Hesse: Awards

    In 1946, Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his 1943 novel, The Glass Bead Game. It is a novel set in the future and follows the story of Joseph Knecht. The novel is set in Castalia, a utopian place where intellectual males reside. Music, language, and art history are valued more than scientific research and creativity. It was written during World War II and was meant to be a direct contrast to the Nazi Regime.

    In addition to the Nobel Prize for Literature, Hesse won many awards such as the Gottfried-Keller-Pries (1936), a Swiss literary award, the Goethe Prize (1946), an award based on achievement, and the Peace Prize for the German Book Trade (1955).

    Hermann Hesse - Key takeaways

    • Hermann Hesse was born in Calw in 1877 and is a recognized novelist, poet, and painter.
    • Hesse is most well known for his fiction novels Siddhartha, Demian, and Der Steppenwolf, which contain themes such as alienation and the search for self-knowledge.
    • Hesse was influenced by Greek mythology, Goethe, Schiller, and Nietzsche, as well as events in his own life.
    • Hesse often wrote about characters that were non-conformist and alienated from society who embarked on journeys of self-knowledge and enlightenment, which would inspire many young people in the 1960s and 1970s.
    • Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 for his 1943 novel The Glass Bead Game.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Hermann Hesse

    Who is Hermann Hesse? 

    Hermann Hesse is a novelist, painter, and poet from the 19th and 20th centuries known particularly for his impactful fiction novels. 

    Was Hermann Hesse a Nazi? 

    Hermann Hesse opposed the actions and beliefs of Nazism and even worked to popularize the works of Jewish writers. 

    What is Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse about? 

     Siddhartha is about a man named Siddhartha who embarks on a journey of Enlightenment and must grapple with disillusionment, a love affair, and an unexpected son. 

    When did Hermann Hesse die? 

    Hermann Hesse died in 1962.

    What is Demian by Hermann Hesse about? 

    Demian is the story of Emil Sinclair. It follows his life before the First World War and how he navigates the world. In Demian, the world is a corrupt place where evil resides, and Emil must find self-knowledge to find the good.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What two religions did Hesse become introduced to in the early 1900s?

    What themes does Hesse employ in Siddhartha to show how one can find enlightenment?

    True or False: Siddhartha knows Vasudeva is enlightened before he asks to be his apprentice.


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