In Demian, Hermann Hesse draws on a wide range of cultural allusions. One of the most recognizable is the figure of Beatrice, the heavenly beloved familiar from the works of Dante Alighieri. Less recognisable, because carefully hidden, is what Hesse, through his protagonist, makes of the beloved. Strange as it may seem, Emil Sinclair’s quest for himself, which is the theme and purpose of the novel, requires her murder.
Germany in the first half of 1919. Disgruntled soldiers trudge home from a war they cannot believe they have lost. The Kaiser is in exile. The reigning noble houses have vanished, swept into history by the so-called November Revolution. Coups d’etat are in open preparation. Violence is everywhere. In this volatile climate, Hermann Hesse’s ‘Demian’ found enthusiastic readers.
I wanted only to live the life that was struggling by itself to come out of me. Why was that so very hard? These fervent words are prepended as a motto to Hermann Hesse’s coming-of-age novel, Demian, which was first published in 1919. More a cry than a question, it must have established for Hesse the central issue of the story. In fact, it wasn’t hard, at all.