A World of Light or Illusion

Growing up, we experience different stages of life and learning. We start out by using the simplest questioning device, “what”. “What is that thing flying all over me?” “What is this color?” “What do you call that thing?”. As we grow older, our curiosity gets broader and eventually, the “whats” to transitions to “whys”. At this point in our lives, we become cognizant that the answers to our whats were superficial and were never enough to satisfy our insatiable curiosity.

It is this stage that we are most vulnerable as a mounting inquisitiveness overtakes us. It is this stage of the whys that plays a critical role in our growth and the realization of our true “self”. It is undoubtedly, the most, if not one of the, pivotal and crucial stage of our lives.

Through his work Demian, Nobel Peace Prize in Literature winner Herman Hesse explores this theme. In this coming-of-age novel, an adult Emil Sinclair reflects on his childhood. Through his reflections, Sinclair reevaluates his previous actions and even coming up with an explanation or an analysis on why acted the way he acted.


Sinclair transports the readers to his humble middle-class home during the time when he was inching his way towards adulthood. But the road is fraught with adversities and lingering questions that requires answers. On this journey, he meets the Max Demian, an enigmatic personality who introduces Sinclair to a world that is distinctly different from the way he envisioned it to be.

After Demian bailed Sinclair out of an ordeal he had difficulty extricating himself from, Sinclair becomes devoted to Demian. It was nothing close to hero worship but more of a comfortable silence shared between two brothers. Beyond saving him from his personal adversities, Demian provided Sinclair with profound philosophies who redefined everything that Sinclair once knew. It is these philosophies which pushed Sinclair into a world of deep introspection.

There are undertones of Buddhist philosophies interspersed within the narrative. Demian contains uncanny parallelisms with Siddhartha although it can stand on its own. At times, it does feel like a reading companion to Siddhartha. As works of literature, both are impressive and astounding. They both possess an introspective, thought-provoking ring whilst keeping the readers riveted with their narratives. Hesse’s storytelling is crafty and masterful.

The narrative is riddled with subtle representations. The highest form of these representations is the Gnostic deity Abraxas who was extensively discussed in the story. He embodies the interdependence of good and evil in the world. Hesse succinctly described it in this line: “The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy the world.”


Much of the narrative revolves around understanding Emil’s discourses and his observations of the personalities in his life. His obsession with Max Demian is the narrative’s centrifugal point. Demian aroused Sinclair’s creative and critical thinking through questioning the common teachings of religion, such as the story of Cain and Abel. Countless a time, the narrative regresses towards the path of religion. Slowly but assuredly, the novel subsumes hubbub of philosophies to the pretext of youth and growth.

Demian, like Hesse’s Siddhartha, is an introspective work. It explores our innermost conflicts and delves into the depths of our understanding, not of the world, but of ourselves in relation to our environment. Rather than taking on being either black or white, the novel resolves into appreciating the beauty of both sides of our characters, that in order for us to fully understand our good side, we must also plod down our dark sides. Both are beautiful, chaotically beautiful.

All throughout the pandemonium of youth, Hesse was able to unravel the intricacy of this phase in our lives. He conjured and framed every possible scenario – the confusion, the loneliness, rebelliousness, the internal struggles, the endless experiments, the remorse and entire spectrum of emotions – in the most relatable and the most beautiful way. His deep insights, channeled through Demian, are thought provoking and makes one reflect into the depths of his own character.

In spite of its deceptively succinct narrative, Demian is a surprisingly heavy read. It might seem like a simple story of friendship, but the intricately woven philosophical discourses gave it a different panache. The journey towards self-discovery, inevitably, converges with the teachings of philosophy. Hesse was simply remarkable in this masterpiece coming-of-age tale. The readers can easily get lost in some of the passages as they were beautifully constructed.


There is an Emil Sinclair in all of us. We trudge down our path knowing, or believing, that things were either black or white. The further we go and as the dust settles, we begin to regress into a world where black mixes in with the white. Two worlds converge, that of the light and that of illusion. The book describes these two worlds as a “Scheinwelt”, a play on words that can mean either of the two. We rationalize the wrong things we did whilst demeaning the good things we accomplished. It can all be confusing.

Demian is a wonderful story of a young boy who attempts to reconcile the dark with the bright side. As he pushes through with his own journey, the two worlds synthesize. Sinclair learns that in order to understand oneself fully, one must embrace both sides of the spectrum and reject society’s tendencies to see things in black or white. The world is broader than everyone think it is. Hesse’s profound understanding is once again, on point.



Whilst Demian has the tendency to be a very heavy read, it is nevertheless a tranformational literary exercise. Hesse’s broad view and understanding of the world is astounding. Demian is a wonderful marriage of Coehlo’s profound words and J.D. Salinger’s youthful A Catcher in the Rye. It may not be as “great” as Siddhartha but it is nevertheless a masterpiece. Those who are on a journey of self-discovery will find it very easy to relate to this coming-of-age classic.

Book Specs

Author: Hermann Hesse
Translator: Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck
Harper and Row, Publishers
Publishing Date: 1989
Number of Pages: 171 pages
Genre: Philosophical, Bildungsroman


In Demian, one of the great writers of the twentieth century tells in the dramatic story of a young man’s awakening to selfhood. Writing in the existential tradition of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, and employing the discoveries of Freud, Herman Hesse portrays the turmoil of Emil Sinclair, a docile young man who is drawn by his schoolmates – and especially by the precocious Max Demian – into a secret and dangerous world of petty crime and revolt against convention.

About the Author

800px-Hermann_Hesse_2(Picture by Wikipedia) Hermann Karl Hesse was born on July 2, 1877 in the Black Forest town of Calw, Wurttemberg, German Empire.

Hesse grew up loving music, an interest he shared with his mother; music and poetry were important in his family. Hesse attended the Latin School in Goppingen before entering the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Maulbronn Abbey in 1891. Amongst his favorite part of school life is writing essays and translating classic Greek poetry into German. But his time in Maulbronn Abbey also marked the beginning of serious personal crisis. He became rebellious and at one time, committed suicide.

Recovering from this early depressive state, Hesse begun working on October 1895 in a bookshop in Tubingen. It was during this time that he started reading a bevy of topics; he’d rather spend his time with books than with his friends. A year later, his poem Madonna was published in a Viennese periodical. Hesse also released his first small volume of poetry, Romantic Songs. In 1904, his first novel, Peter Camenzind was published. It became a favorite German reading.

His other renowned works include Gertrud (1910), Demian (1919), Steppenwolf (1927) and Siddhartha (1922). He has also written and published several collections of essays, short stories and poetry. In 1946, Hermann Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Hermann Hesse passed away on August 9, 1962.