Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Price of Freedom: Identifying the Narrator of Hermann Hesse's das Glasperlenspiel 1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Price of Freedom: Identifying the Narrator of Hermann Hesse's das Glasperlenspiel 1

Article excerpt

Das Glasperlenspiel, hermann hesse's final novel and "die summe seines lebens und Denkens" (schneider 96), consists of the fictional biography of Josef knecht and his collected posthumous writings. the novel's beauty and intellectual depth are perhaps rivaled only by its shocking conclusion. after having defected from Castalia in order to tutor tito, the son of his friend Plinio Designori, knecht drowns in a cold mountain lake while attempting to follow tito in a youthful swim. the question of how to interpret this unexpected turn has long perplexed scholars of hesse's work. at first glance, knecht's death seems to represent the ultimate refutation of his decision to abdicate. in leaving Castalia, he has given up a near paradisiacal situation in order to pursue a task for which he was utterly unprepared. he completely misevaluated his own strengths and abilities, and thus paid the price. if so, then Master alexander's advice early in knecht's career as Magister ludi was prophetic-no matter what knecht were to do to challenge the role or structure of Castalia, "so würde dies alles unser liebes kastalien nicht mehr stören und tiefer anrühren können als ein steinchen, das man in einen see wirft. ein Paar Wellchen und kreise, und es ist vorüber" (434).

Such an interpretation of the novel's ending, however, is a disheartening proposal at best. how could it be that the life of a man who so quickly rose up the ranks of Castalian society ends in such catastrophe? how can a man who excelled at everything from music to Chinese to the highest of intellectual achievements, the Glass Bead Game, die in such a seemingly pointless manner, unable even to begin the quest on which he claimed to have been embarking? spurred by these pressing questions, critics have made a variety of attempts at explaining hesse's decision to end his protagonist 's life so abruptly and unexpectedly. some see knecht's death as a sacrifice that worked as a catalyst in the young tito.2 others identify Castalia as the benefactor of this offering, including the novel's unwitting narrator.3 alternatively, knecht's death can be viewed as a way of transcending the dichotomies that pervade the novel.4 the list goes on, but while these proposals may do something to mitigate the harshness of the story's abrupt conclusion, they are largely unsatisfying, leaving a nagging doubt that knecht's icy demise really was no more than a sinking pebble.5

There is, however, one remaining possibility. What if knecht did not actually die on that third day of his long-sought freedom? What if the novel is not the faithful biography that it purports to be, but rather an act of literary deceit? on this reading, the true author of the biography is knecht himself, who has used the writing of his life as a means to break irrevocably with his past Castalian life and to garner the freedom he so deeply desires. By disseminating the narrative of his death, he is able to do away the old knecht in order to create himself anew. to consider this startling idea, it is necessary to examine the narrative structure of the novel and interrogate the authenticity of the narrator's claims.

As Bishop notes, "[t]he book has a peculiar tone, due not least to [its] narrative style, which is characterized by a mixture of narrative voices, all of which display a remarkable, even uncanny similarity" (215). the most prominent of these voices is the narrator of knecht's biography, who is ostensibly a Castalian historian living at some point after knecht's death and who has decided to write this biography even though this "Versuch einigermaßen im Widerspruch zu den herrschenden Gesetzen und Bräuchen des geistigen lebens steht oder doch zu stehen scheint" (8). in Castalia, individuals are of little value, and they are revered only to the degree to which they faithfully serve the hierarchic order. But even in such exemplary cases of service, the individuals in question are almost never singled out as autonomous. …

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