I love this book, and I'm forever grateful to its author.
Hesse has said about Nietzsche that he was a man caught between two ages, suffering in deep aloneness a hundred years ago what thousands go through today. Hesse was such a man, of course. As the book's fictional bourgeois narrator says about Harry Haller:
...He called himself the Steppenwolf, and this too estranged and disturbed me a little. What an expression! However, custom did not only reconcile me to it, but soon I never thought of him by any other name; nor could I today hit on a better description of him. A wolf of the steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns and the life of the herd, a more striking image could not be found for his shy loneliness, his savagery, his restlessness, his homesickness, his homelessness....
He also has this to say, and for me this beautifully sums up the novel's impact:
And now we come to these records of Haller's, these partly diseased, partly beautiful, and thoughtful fantasies...I see them as a document of the times, for Haller's sickness of the soul, as I now know, is not the eccentricity of a single individual, but the sickness of the times themselves, the neurosis of that generation to which Haller belongs, a sickness, it seems, that by no means attacks the weak and worthless only but, rather, precisely those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts. These records...are an attempt to present the sickness itself in its actual manifestation. They mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other, to give battle to chaos, and to suffer torture to the full.
--And yet, and yet...Hesse later wrote a beautiful Author's Note in which he emphasized that to descend is not enough; to live in shadows and be eccentric and feel despair...no, that's not the novel's destiny and shouldn't be the reader's either. Here is the last piece of that Note which expresses Hesse's view of regarding the work as only doomful:
These readers, it seems to me, have recognized themselves in the Steppenwolf, identified themselves with him, suffered his griefs, and dreamed his dreams; but they have overlooked the fact that this book knows of and speaks about other things besides Harry Haller and his difficulties, about a second, higher, indestructible world beyond the Steppenwolf and his problematic life. The "Treatise" and all those spots in the book dealing with matters of the spirit, of the arts and the "immortal" men oppose the Steppenwolf's world of suffering with a positive, serene, superpersonal and timeless world of faith. This book, no doubt, tells of griefs and needs; still, it is not a book of a man despairing, but of a man believing.
Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and crisis--but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.