© HHP 7/19/97

Elke Minkus

(Elke Minkus, Kaiserslautern, Germany)


Traces of motherhood in Hesse's works


Summary of the lecture held in German by Elke Minkus at the Hermann Hesse Colloquium in Calw, May 9,1997

As Hugo Ball wrote in his Hesse-biography, Hermann Hesse's mother was a woman of religion. Religion was the at center of everything for her, which made her insensitive or even resentful toward the expression of emotions and free will by her child. Her devotion and religious fervor became a problem for her son Hermann because he was emotional, sensitive, and sometimes difficult to control. Both parents found no better solution than to send him to a reformatory away from home. By the time Hermann reached 16, he had spent almost three years in such and similar institutions.

The love and affection which he desperately sought from his mother, he also failed to obtain from his remote and pre-occupied father Johannes. Like Marie, Johannes Hesse devoted his life to the Pietist Christian mission. Although we find scenes from Hesse's "Hermann Lauscher" to "Demian", which seem to reflect a cordial relationship with his mother, they were the exception in Hesse's own childhood.

Marie Gundert was born in 1842 in Talajeri (India), as a daughter of Pietist missionaries. She was brought to Germany at the age of three, and a year later her parents went back to India, leaving Marie at the family of Dr. Ostertag, who took care of the children of Pietist missionaries living abroad. After some initial problems, Marie began accepting Mr. and Mrs. Ostertag in her parents' place. During this period, she was described as a lively child who loved poetry.

At the age of 12, Marie was sent to a boarding-school for girls, where she encountered difficulties. Her only friend, Olga, fell into disgrace and had to leave the institution. Marie's loyalty to her friend resulted in punishment and her being relocated at another school. At this point, Marie experienced severe depression.

When she was 15, she traveled to join her parents in India. During the trip, she fell in love with the Englishman John Barns. Mr. Barns wanted to marry the young girl and sent a letter to Mr. Gundert ahead of their arrival asking for her hand in marriage. But Mr. Gundert refused. Marie did not know about these events when she met her less than joyful father upon her arrival in India.

Marie was quite unhappy after her arrival in India, until she met the missionary Hebich two months later. On February 24, 1858 she experienced her great day of conversion with Hebich's help: she decided to devote her future life to the service of God.


Psychological studies like those of Nancy Chodorow have shown that a mother's warm affection is even more important for the child than nourishment. A mother's love and attention helps the child to find its own way in life, to grow and develop normally as an individual. And in turn the mother will gradually learn to support her child as an individual with unique needs and a life of its own.

Hermann's parents, however, decided on a different course, quite literally to break Hermann's free will - in accordance with the Pietist tradition to which they were accustomed, and their beliefs. They decided to prepare Hermann for a theological career, to prepare him for the "Landexamen" in order to qualify him eventually for the Maulbronn Seminary. This was a difficult examination and it provided the successful candidate access to a free education, room and board, and a guaranteed life position, for example as a priest. Hermann was admitted, but he ran away from school after six months. His shocked parents' first concern was not that Hermann might be hurt or even dead, but that he might have been sinful. Johannes Hesse later wrote to his son that he could only accept him back after this inexcusable episode if he committed himself wholly to please God and serve His Realm. Young Hesse, however, had made up his mind to become a poet.

With a tenacity which had become typical for him, he did not comply and was sent to a religious center for spiritual healing. Two weeks before his 15th birthday he tried to commit suicide, the immediate cause being the delicate state of his affairs, compounded by his unrequieted love for an older girl. He was sent to a mental institution, but again to no avail. Hermann wrote desperate letters home that he felt like an orphan whose parents were still alive. Later, having spent some time at his parents' home in Calw, he moved to the university town of Tübingen to start a bookseller's apprenticeship. Here he improved his education by building contacts and reading prodigiously. His letters to his parents now became polite, but non-commital.

Up to this point, there were some obvious similarities between Marie's and Hermann's lifes: both had been difficult to control as children, both loved nature, both were separated from their parents at times, both fell desperately in love at a very young age, both came close to suicide, and both ended up early in life devoting themselves to an overriding idea: Marie to the work of the Pietist mission and its heroes, Hermann to literature and poetry.

In November 1898 Hermann began to publish and somewhat naively sent his parents a copy of his poetry as a token of his success. Marie appreciated the external structure of Hermann's poetry but predictably asked: ... and where is God? In a second letter she became bitter: "Turn yourself to God and don't be so indecent!" Hesse was filled with anger, burned all his mother's letters, and, a few years later, failed to show up for her funeral. In his mind, much of their misery had come from Pietist zeal and intolerance.


Generally speaking, genuine mother-figures or real-to-life women appear relatively seldom in Hesse's works. Instead one finds more women at opposite ends of the scale, either saints or courtesans/prostitutes. Initially, we neither find a fulfilling mother-son bond, nor long-term and rewarding man-woman relationships. This odd ambiguity of women figures and their distortion results from Hesse's own childhood.

Chodorow found that psychoanalysis can be of significant help when the mother-child relationship has failed. In 1916, Hesse consulted the psychiatrist Joseph Lang, a colleague of C. G. Jung. Soon afterwards "Demian" was written. In this book, the figure of Frau Eva represents the motherly origin and destination of all life, the totality of nature, creation and death. In Jung's vision, the process of individuation takes the individual to the sources of his own life and thereby to his common bond with all other creation. This notion became an important aspect in Hesse's work, not necessarily new to his writing. But Hesse through his analysis had acquired a degree of confirmation and concretization of what he had sensed and described before intuitively as an artist.

Thus the events in 1916 brought about a new development in Hesse's writing. He began to overcome his feelings of guilt which had their origin in his relationship with his parents and which were possibly aggravated by the failure of his first marriage and the breakup of his family. One way in which this change was reflected in his writing was that he began to describe women no longer as idolized mother figures and saints, but as complete humans beings including the full spectrum of mental and physical existence as well as sexuality.

Even though "Frau Eva" is still mostly a symbolic figure, she now also embodies all aspects of life. The impact of psychoanalysis on Hermann Hesse had become apparent. As a boy, the protagonist in the book is exposed to the "dark" world outside his parents' house. Eventually he learns about the gnostic deity Abraxas' representing both Good and Evil and realises that every extreme is complemented by the opposing other, that mind needs nature and nature needs mind. "Dark" and "Light" belong together and are needed to define each other. Still, these insights appears in the book at first in a more external historical, hypothetical setting. Their articulation in Jung's psychology and roots in Eastern thought is still quite noticeable and give the book its remarkable, esoteric structure.

In "Klein and Wagner", written one year after "Demian", Hesse was further along on the road toward acknowledging women. He even ventured, in a tentative and delicate manner, writing about sexuality. "Siddhartha", "Steppenwolf" and "Narcissus and Goldmund" continue along this track. However, many of the women (Hermine and Maria in "Steppenwolf", Kamala in "Siddhartha", and some of the women in "Narcissus and Goldmund") are still alluded to, at one stage or another, as prostitutes or courtesans, or by contrast as madonnas. But they are beginning to exhibit the full spectrum of their nature which gives them greater human depth and a more life-like quality which Hesse had struggled to decipher and describe before. His difficulties which were triggered by imbalances in his troubled relationship with his mother increasingly lost their unhappy significance for him. He wrote about his mother in a later letter to his sister: "Her lovely image is still the best thing I ever had in life."

( Summary by Hajo Smit, Breda, The Netherlands, with the assistance of Gunther Gottschalk)
Mail regarding the summary: Hajo Smit

This page was created on July 19, 1997 using Netscpape Navigator Gold
Send questions, comments, bug reports to The Hermann Hesse Page

Return to Main Menu