Demian – Hermann Hesse

Demian is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Hermann Hesse. Combining Hesse’s own experiences with theories of hypnoanalysis of Carl Jung, Nietzschean philosophy, and Eastern Mysticism, Hesse writes a story of Emil Sinclair’s journey from “the world of illusion” to the “world of reality”.

Emil Sinclair lives through a naive childhood, in a “world of illusion”, completely believing in the conventional morality he was brought up in. A childish lie of his subjects him to the clutches of a bully who compels him to commit acts that are nothing but “crimes” according to Christian morality. Sinclair leads a miserable existence repenting over his sins. However, his meeting with Max Demian, an older student at his school, changes all. For the rest of Sinclair’s life, Max Demian becomes a powerful influence and guide for Sinclair. He not only frees Sinclair from the clutches of the bully but also frees him from conventional morality, teaching Sinclair to accept unconventional thoughts (“the world of darkness”) as part of human nature. Demian teaches Sinclair that God and Demon both exist within a man and it’s for the man to deal with the inner Demon and raise the self towards God. This teaching denies that a man can be governed by external forces like good and evil as set by conventional morality but by the deeper inner spirit. It is then for the man to purify his inner spirit so as to become closer to God.

Sinclair’s path to finding “the real world” is not easy. It is shrouded by the illusory world which is dictated by conventional morality. These social rules, strongly influenced by Christianity, bind humans so strongly that one cannot break free at once. Demian’s teachings question his once secure world of illusion and slowly shatter it. Unable to comprehend these new doctrines, Sinclair rebels against everything he believed in. He walks through a path of self-destruction and is saved by two intermediate mentors. Demian’s return to Sinclair’s life marks his ultimate salvation, and together with his mother, Frau Eva, Demian awakens Sinclair’s mind towards self-realization.

The story has many symbolic representations. Hesse’s description of psychoanalytic theories comes to life in the form of a symbolic narrative drawn from Christian theology. Even the characters of Max Demian and Frau Eva can be explained as symbols. In more than one instance, Demian is portrayed as Sinclair’s deep inner self. And Frau Eva represents Sinclair’s feelings of love and longing for physical intimacy. In other words, Frau Eva is symbolic of Sinclair’s sensuality. Another symbolic interpretation I drew on the characters of Demian and Eva is that they represent Sinclair’s masculine and feminine elements respectively. In ancient times, it was believed that harmony of both masculine and feminine elements of oneself is essential for one’s supreme spiritual attainment, and I felt both Demian’s death and his kiss to Sinclair on behalf of his mother at the point of his death symbolizes the complete masculine and feminine harmony one attains within oneself. When one is in harmony with oneself, the port for self-realization opens to him.

The novel is filled with thought-provoking philosophical content. The themes expounded are impressive. The experimental style of writing with symbolic narrative, which while beautiful, is not the easiest to read. Nor can I claim that the story was particularly interesting. Nevertheless, it has the power to elevate the readers’ minds toward new dimensions.

Rating: 4/5

About the author

Piyangie Jay Ediriwickrema is an Attorney-at-Law by profession. Her devotion to literature has taken shape in reading and reviewing books of various genres set in different periods of time. She dabs at a little poetry and fiction of her own and hopes to share her work with the readers in the future.