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Commentary on a Passage from Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse

This paper is a commentary on a passage of Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. I will examine three main ideas here that I found particularly interesting. First I will focus on the idea of contentment and the way it is presented by Hesse in this passage. Second is the idea of anger and rage in general and then particularly how it is connected to Hesse’s idea of contentment. Finally, I shall examine the form, or in particular, the way Hesse presents this passage in style and form and its effectiveness in relating to the readers the feelings and emotions which he seems to wish to draw out from the readers.

In the end I shall give my opinion of the passage in light of the ideas discussed. Let us first take a look at the central idea in this passage. As far as I can tell, this passage is about contentment and the anger that for some reason arises from it. The idea in itself seems to be an irony. Contentment and painlessness are ordinarily the goals of most people. It is the very reason why many strive and work hard, that is, so that they may someday reach that point when they have contentment and be happy. But here we see the opposite.

Contentment here is a source of contempt and rage. This is the irony here. Instead of becoming happy with contentment and painlessness, Hesse makes anger and rage come from it. In fact he mentions that he should be thankful for the contentment that is experienced, but the opposite is what is shown. He smashes the very object of thanksgiving to emphasize his hatred of it all. This is easy enough to be seen from the passage, but the beauty of this passage is the seemingly subtle nature of the rage that comes from contentment.

The rage does not come as a reaction as when one is punched in the face suddenly and for no apparent reason. Here, the rage creeps up and slowly fills the person until he is full of it and cannot but help but feel frustrated and filled with the desire to commit outrage and destroy anything and everything. It is a rage that cannot be calmed by anything now present in his life. It is a rage that cannot and will not be contained. Lets us now turn to this rage and examine it in more detail. The rage we see here in this passage is a deep rage.

As mentioned, it not simply a rage that is a reaction to a wrong, and then dissipates as time passes by. It is a rage that has crept up subtly. Simply put, it is not a rage that is the result of a physical reaction brought by a rush of adrenaline. It is a deeply rooted rage that results from a long period during which little things pile up into a massive source of fear, resentment, hatred, frustration and ultimately, anger and rage. It is a rage that screams from the very soul and eats away at his very being.

More than that, it is a desperate rage, that is, one from which there is no escape and no hope. The only way seen out of it is destruction of all, including one’s self. Now, it seems important to me that the reason for such a rage, which seems to be the main theme of this passage. How is it the result of contentment when the natural result should be happiness or at least peace of mind and soul. It seems that Hesse here uses the word contentment in a different way. He seems to use the word as the equivalent of mediocrity.

For some, to be mediocre or ordinary is an evil to be avoided. This all the more true for Hesse. In fact it seems from this passage that to be mediocre is such a great evil that it rightly produces such a terrible rage, so terrible that he even wants to destroy a cathedral or himself. Having seen the ideas or rage and contentment and the way Hesse put them together, let us now look into the way he presents them to us. Hesse uses at first benign words such as contentment, painlessness, inaudible pleasure and pain.

This strengthens the idea discussed earlier that the cause of the rage is a subtle one. He even says that contentment whispers and tiptoes, as if to say that these are things that we do not notice until it is right beside us or even inside of us. Hesse’s diction or choice of words here is an excellent example of how to make a reader really feel and be captivated by the central emotion of a passage. By qualifying perfectly ordinary words like hatred or air with adjectives such as irrepressible, lukewarm, insipid and the like, the reader can truly feel the emotions expressed.

One interesting way Hesse presents his rage is by using the dichotomy of good and evil, in particular, God and the Devil, and turning them around as if God were evil and the devil was good. He calls God a slumbering god, as if he were a lazy, good for nothing bum that should be rejected. Then he says that he prefers the devil to burn inside of him. This is of course, is also a good use of personification. Contentment, understood as mediocrity, is personified as a god who sleeps, whereas the rage to break out of contentment is personified as the devil burning inside of a person.

The way Hesse has written this passage in its diction and style, with its increasing intensity of rage, gives us a sense of emptiness that slowly fills with anger that becomes all out rage. Also, by describing some of the things he wishes that he could do give us a good idea of the level of his anger. This is a good use of metaphor, as if to say, putting it in simple words, that he is so angry that he would like to destroy a cathedral, destroy himself, commit mischievous deeds, and the like.

But he does it so well that readers can relate to it by comparing his anger with the type of evil deeds that he wants to do. Finally, his contempt for mediocrity was solidified with his metaphor of calling mediocrity a prosperous brood. This is an excellent way to cap-off things, especially since he had accumulated so much emotion throughout the passage that it simply must be ended with contempt, because there is no going higher than the rage already expressed.

In conclusion, I would like say that Hesse’s style seems very effective and appeals personally to me. The way he presents the ideas of contentment, mediocrity, rage, contempt and the way they are put together here made my own blood boil for a while. By starting off with emptiness and despair, then slowly filling that emptiness with hatred, nausea, burning desire for escape, and finally expressing almost uncontrollable rage, then to simple contempt for it all, it was rather easy for me to identify and appreciate what he was talking about.

The way he built it all up, accumulating and then transitioning emotions and weaving together seemingly opposing ideas and using metaphors and personifications along the way is astounding and very effective, at least it seemed that way to me. He did it so well that I now think that I should avoid mediocrity at any and all costs, as if it were one of the greatest, if not the greatest, evil that could befall any person.

This is despite the fact that contentment has always been something good to me, but then again, I also recognize, that Hesse does not use contentment in its denotative meaning but he gives it his own connotation. In the end I think that it is important to note the chosen passage may be received by other readers in a different way. Some might like it. Some might not understand it. But I think that is the beauty of it all, that is, that the expressed ideas and emotions can be taken in a different light by others, and that I think is a mark of good writing just as style and use of literary devices are.

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