Literary Analysis – Hermann Hesse – Demian


Hermann Hesse in 1925 Photo by Gret Widmann

Demian was written by German author Hermann Hesse in 1917 and published in 1919. The novel was first published under the name of the main character Emil Sinclair as a kind of autobiography in which Emil Sinclair describes his youth and search for authenticity and spirituality in the years leading up to the first World War.

The story begins with Sinclair’s description of the duality of his world as one of light and one of darkness. He first grows up in The World of Light, his home where he lives with his kind parents and sisters. He first comes into contact with The World of Darkness when he is blackmailed and psychologically tortured by a bully in his neighbourhood. Unable to inform his parents of his situation he feels his access to the World of Light slipping and starts to consider it illusionary.

He is saved from this situation by Demian, for whom the novel is named. He ends the situation with the bully but provides Sinclair with ideas concerning the misconceptions regarding evil. Demian is the first of several mentors that guide Emil through his quest of self-discovery.

The second mentor is met when Sinclair is at boarding school. He is an outsider there and has trouble connecting with his classmates. This changes when an older boy named Alfons Beck takes him out for a drink. Through him Sinclair learns some of his vices and he enters a dark period during which he becomes more dependent on drinking. During a visit to his hometown Sinclair sees a woman in the park that he is enchanted by. He gives her the name Beatrice after the lost lover of Dante Alighieri who he pursues through hell, purgatory and heaven in his Divine Comedy. Sinclair creates a painting of Beatrice which he later realizes is also a painting of Demian.

Sinclair further changes when he hears organ music coming from the village’s church after dark. He is captivated by the music and regularly returns to experience it. Later he follows the organist to a bar and introduces himself. The organist is named Pistorius and he and Sinclair become kindred minds that are both disillusioned with the dark and light worlds. Instead Pistorius teaches him about Abraxes a dualistic God that combines the Light of Jahweh with the Dark of the Devil. He also teaches Sinclair to look within himself and silence to find further understanding and enlightenment.

During his period with Pistorius, Sinclair also for the first time becomes a mentor to someone else. A boy named Knauer wants to rid his mind of sin but has trouble with lust. He believes in sexual continence and thinks Sinclair practices it, which is true as he swore of self-stimulation when he met Beatrice. However, Knauer is disappointed when Sinclair explains he isn’t practicing it for religious reasons. Later Sinclair goes for a walk at night and without intending to arrives at a place where he finds Knauer. Knauer explains that he was about to commit suicide for his inability to repress his lust. Yet, when Sinclair finds him he feels rescued and no longer wishes to commit suicide.

After boarding school Sinclair searches for Demian and finds and moves to the village where Demian lives. There he befriends Demian’s mother Lady Eve, who hosts people from all over the world who are searching for themselves. The story of Demian and Sinclair is cut short when they are called to go fight in the First World War.



Beata Beatrix (1877) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

The name of the Dualistic God in the novel. Demian argues that since God must encompass all of existence it must consist of both good and evil; both the World of Light and the World of Darkness. Therefore a new God is proposed, a combination of Jehovah, the Jewish and biblical God, and Satan. This God is named Abraxas by Demian. The name Abraxas was derived from a Gnostic figure of disputed origins. It was in various writings either considered a god, a demon, or an emanation of God. The name was engraved on a vast number of stones alone or in combination with various imageries.

Beatrice (& Dante Alighieri)

Sinclair sees a girl in the park who he becomes enamoured with. He never knew her name, but gave her the name Beatrice after the beloved of Dante Alighieri. He does this both as a reference to Dante’s love and how the woman reminds him of a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) Beata Beatrix (1877), which was also inspired Beatrice. Sinclair sees in both the painting and the woman in the park a duality of male and female that he learns to associate with Abraxas.


The name Demian is a reference to the Greek δαίμων (Daemon in Latin), which in mythology was a lesser deity or spirit which provided to tutelage to humans. This also refers to the role Demian plays in the novel as a spiritual mentor to Sinclair. Socrates also refers to Daimonion, the true nature of the human soul, or self-consciousness. This idea also fits with the story of Sinclair as one who attempts to gain self-knowledge with Demian as his mentor.


“If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

“Those who are too lazy and comfortable to think for themselves and be their own judges obey the laws. Others sense their own laws within them.”

“You’ve never lived what you are thinking, and that isn’t good. Only the ideas we actually live are of any value.”

“I wanted to only live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so difficult.”

“An enlightened man had but one duty – to seek the way to himself, to reach inner certainty, to grope his way forward, no matter where it led.”

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