© HHP February 20, 1997

Der Tod als dichterisches Grundmotiv und Existenzproblem bei Hermann Hesse

(Literary analysis and interpretation of death in the works of Hermann Hesse)


Christian Immo Schneider

Doctor of Philosophy
University of California, Santa Barbara

June 1968

555 pages (in German)

Professors Richard Exner, Stuart Atkins, and Harry Steinhauer et al.


This dissertation is a literary analysis and interpretation of death in the works of Hermann Hesse, with an introduction on death in German literature generally.

In the first part, Hesse's 'realm of death' is studied as a poetic motif which appears in several lyrical moods especially in his earlier poetry and prose. Metaphorical and musical elements are examined with emphasis on Hesse's lyrical style. The poet proves to be an eclectic influenced by both mythology and psychoanalysis, as demonstrated in his archetypical symbols of death and in his Gedenkblätter, written on the occasion of the death of a person close to him.

The second part concentrates on death as an existential problem. Hesse concerns himself with the death of children which has an episodic function in Peter Camenzind and is the very theme in Roßhalde. Interested throughout his life in suicide, Hesse distinguishes between 'actual' and 'potential' suicide. His active heroes commit suicide because of school and love conflicts, taedium vitae, professional failure or a paranoic psyche. Steppenwolf [Harry Haller,Ed.], a potential suicide, recognizes that his suicidal disposition stems from a guilt feeling connected with a new stage of his own individuation, which he then overcomes by a new life as all of Hesse's later heroes. The poet himself remains a stoic leaving suicide as a possible emergency escape.

Fear, love and death -- which can be inegrated through art -- are major cyclic phenomena in Hesse's writings: existential stages of human individuation. However, the eternal voluptuous, creative and merciful Magna mater mortis et vitae is Hesse's highest symbol of transcendence. Without being an articulate pacifist, Hesse advocates , as mankind's noblest aim, the abolition of war for political reasons. He therefore regards the killing of a soldier as an error and violation of a universal law of ethics, which should be part of the constitution of every country.

The question arises, whether a sacrificial death as Josef Knecht's has real value. It was concluded that he did not die accidentally or without motive but in true fulfillment of his 'call'. The whole last chapter of the Glasperlenspiel is a erflection on Knecht's readiness for death. It cannot ultimately be determined to what end his death is a sacrifice, but Tito's guilt feeling and presentiment of a change of his life prove that Knecht's death was not in vain.

Hess's preoccupation with death culminates in his concerns with contemporary civilization which he sees in a state of retrogression. Modern cultural life as a whole has become hollow since traditional values have lost their meaning as symbolized by the 'music of decline'. He tries to overcome this situation by reminding his readers of timeless ethical and artistic values, and hailing the decline of Europe as its return to Asia, the one-time source of its strength. Europe, however, is only a special case of a universal cultural decline as inevitable as death. This includes Hesse's own utopian Castalia.

The third part investigates Hesse's 'practical' wisdom arrived at through the contemplation of death. His heroes cling to life. Even his 'saints' speak in favor of this world in their final hours. Reconciliation with God, fearlessness, resignation without hopelessness, and above all, serenity, mark the ars morendi of Knulp, Demian, Kamala, and Goldmund. Hesse regards the face of a dead person as a mirror reflecting man's mortal and immortal features. Death always came in the right moment, be it early or late in life, for it seems to be individual, fateful, meaningful.

Hesse's ideasabout immortality are contradictory as most of his statements about death. It is, however, precisely the mysteriousness and complexity of the problem of death, being in the last analysis a problem of life, which prevents this investigation from presenting more definite conclusions.


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I. Teil: Der Tod als poetisches Grundmotiv

II. Teil: Der Tod als Existenzproblem

1.Kapitel: Kindertod
2.Kapitel: Mord und Selbstmord
3.Kapitel: Angst, Liebe, Tod
4. Kapitel: Tod und Krieg
5.Kapitel: Der Tod Josef Knechts
6.Kapitel: Der Untergang der Kultur
1) Ein Spaziergang durch die moderne Kultur
2) Verfall der Sprache und Literatur
3) Bildende Kunst und Primitivismus
4) Musik des Untergangs
5) Der Untergang Europas
6) Hesses universale Kulturuntergangstheorie
a. Der letzte Glasperlenspieler
b. Sieg der Natur über die Kultur

III. Teil: Der Tod als Lebensweisheit

1.Kapitel: Gespräche über den Tod
1) Bruders Antonios Predigt vom Leben angesichts des Todes
2) Die geistige Auseinandersetzung mit dem Tod im Gespräch mit Knulp
3) Ars moriendi bei Boppi, Demian, Goldmund, Kamala und Dion Pugil
2.Kapitel: Das Totenantlitz
3.Kapitel: Tod und Unsterblichkeit

C: Schlussfolgerungen

1. Hesses Lebenstufen als Motivkreise des Todesproblems
2. Zusammenfassung und Ergebnisse der Einzeluntersuchungen
3. Hesses literaturhistorische Einordnung auf Grund des Todesproblems

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