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Herman Hesse is one of the world’s most necessary writers. Until winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, however, he was virtually unknown outside of German speaking countries. Since then he has been an icon for the young every where because of his ability to communicate the same struggles that many aspiring students face. Many of his characters (often sharing his initials, i.e. Harry Haller of Steppenwolf) struggle within a world that seeks to extinguish individual creativity.
Born in 1877 to a Protestant family in southern Germany, Hesse from the beginning was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. Perhaps it should be noted that his goal was to be a well-rounded person, finding it difficult to fit into the square confines of his culture. According to biographies, Hesse admits that he was adamant about becoming a poet from an early age- twelve to be exact. While at school, he discovered that curriculums at home and abroad are not designed to nurture poets the same way they are for more practical professions such as doctors and scientists. In fact, one of the earliest of his works, Beneath the Wheel , depicts his own rebellion against such a system, which he sees as lethal to the soul that does not yield.
At the age of seventeen, frustrated with life, he ran away and after brief encounters with local police, landed a job as a bookkeeper’s apprentice. Hesse spent four years struggling to remain focused, and eventually began to be published. After brief success with short stories and poetry, he married a woman and fathered three children, but became even more discontent with his place in life. In 1911, this sparked his journey to a place that always held great mystery and intrigue to him- India. Forever a believer in the ancient wisdom of the East, Hesse sought answers to his own life, which are often reflected in his works. The Orient had always represented an ideal in his mind, and his time spent there gave birth to one of his most noteworthy achievements, the short novel, Sidhartha.
Among Herman Hesse’s other famous novels are Demian, Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund. Like the title character in Sidhartha, the characters of his works center around people who do not readily fit into society and their struggle to define themselves and the world around them.
As noted previously, Sidhartha is the result of an extended visit to India where Hesse sought piece of mind he believed could only be found in Eastern traditions. Many of his characters also seek spiritual resolution to the problems that they face. These problems usually are the result of being free thinkers or more importantly having the ability to think outside the confines that their society imposes especially conformity. Conformity in learning was Hesse’s main qualm, upset with the way “learning” was actually the memorization of facts or gaining the ability to think as the “teacher” thought.
While the traditional story of the Buddha is about the nobleman, Sidhartha, who rejects material possessions after being denied the experience of suffering from his family, Hesse’s take on the story has been noted as being a more western-accessible version. Hesse’s Sidhartha seeks the original Bodhisatva (Buddha) and other spiritual teachers of India. The original story finds Sidhartha actually becoming the first to be enlightened and named Buddha. This is interesting because of the ability of Hinduism (the birth place of Buddhism) to remain idle, and not center around any historical events; allowing the altering the format of it’s written teachings without losing the impact of their meaning or depth.
Besides the author’s internal struggles, another factor to consider in the writing of Sidhartha was turmoil in the rest of the world. Sidhartha was conceived in the chaotic years preceding World War I, and this period of tension due to history making decisions is exemplified by the story’s theme of choosing the correct ethics in which to live by. Eternally opposed to war, Hesse reflects the proverbial seeker as one who is overwhelmed by the turbulence of the world and turns inwardly for the solution.
As mentioned previously, the themes from one of Hesse’s novels is sure to be found in another. Sidhartha is similar to Demian in this respect concerning the
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Hermann Hesse, Mystics, Narcissus and Goldmund, Hesse, Demian, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Gautama Buddha
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