Review: Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse

This is my first contribution to German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.  Please visit their blogs for more great German Literature in translation and to see the full list of blogs that are participating.

My Review:
Narcissus and GoldmundThis is one of those classic books that is very difficult to review and do it justice because there are so many ideas contained within the book.  It is a coming-of-age story, a commentary on existential philosophy and a beautiful description of a life long friendship.  Narcissus is a teacher’s assistant in the cloister of Mariabronn and fully intends to take his vows as a monk.  Narcissus is a very talented scholar and it is evident that he will one day serve the church and even become the Abbot of the cloister.  He is a cerebral man who values the intellect but his emphasis on the rational also prevents him from having any real friendships or meaningful love in his life.  But this all changes when a young boy by the name of Goldmund is dropped off at the cloister by his father.

Goldmund has been raised solely by his father and his father has done everything in his power to erase Goldmund’s memories of his gypsy mother.  Goldmund’s father drops him off at the cloister with the intention of Goldmund being a pupil and eventually taking a vow to become a monk.  Goldmund’s father tells him that he must dedicate his life to God in order to make up for his mother’s sins.  But Goldmund does not possess the intellectual detachment of Narcissus and love and art and seduction are things which he cannot deny himself in order to become a monk.  Narcissus helps Goldmund realize that cloister life is not for him and when Goldmund learns the pleasures of sex from a gypsy woman he knows that Narcissus is right and he immediately flees the cloister.

Most of the book is a description of Goldmund’s restless journey as a wanderer.  Wherever he stays, whether it be in a modest farmhouse, the castle of a knight or a large city, he manages to satisfy his sexual desires by seducing countless women.  Goldmund is kind and loving and handsome so oftentimes a single look or a caress is enough for a woman to fall in bed with him.  But he never stays in one place long enough to have a lasting and deep friendship like the one he had with Narcissus.  The longest he stays at any place is the Bishop’s city where he becomes an apprentice to a master artist named Niklaus.  Niklaus teaches Goldmund the finer points of sculpting and Goldmund’s greatest masterpiece is a sculpture of St. John that is done in the likeness of his greatest friend Narcissus.  Even though Narcissus and Goldmund are very far apart for many years, their friendship still has a great influence on Goldmund’s life.

Narcissus does come back into Goldmund’s life at a critical point in the book when Goldmund is most in need of help.  Goldmund eventually goes back to live in the cloister as the artist in residence and he works on many sculptures with which to grace the beloved halls of his boyhood home.  Goldmund has had many hardships while on his travels and he puts all of his experiences into his artwork.  There is a heavy emphasis in the book on the close relationship between ecstasy and suffering.  When we give our heart to someone, whether it be a friend, a lover or a relative, we always run the risk of being harmed.  Goldmund had a deep fondness with his mother whom he barely remembers and throughout the book he is looking for that mother-relationship again that made him feel so safe during his very early years.    His culminating sculpture at the monastery, one that he wants to keep to himself and not share, is a mother figure done in the likeness of one of his most influential lovers named Lydia.

Narcissus and Goldmund is a classic novel that I will reach for again and again on my bookshelf.  It is a novel with so many layers that I a sure that each time I reread it I will have new insights and thoughts about this plot.  I look forward to reading another Hesse novel for German Literature month.  What German Literature have you read that you would highly recommend?

German Lit Month


About The Author:
HesseHermann Hesse was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His best known works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi) which explore an individual’s search for spirituality outside society.

In his time, Hesse was a popular and influential author in the German-speaking world; worldwide fame only came later. Hesse’s first great novel, “Peter Camenzind”, was received enthusiastically by young Germans desiring a different and more “natural” way of life at the time of great economic and technological progress in the country.

Throughout Germany, many schools are named after him. In 1964, the Calwer Hermann-Hesse-Preis was founded, which is awarded every two years, alternately to a German-language literary journal or to the translator of Hesse’s work to a foreign language. There is also a Hermann Hesse prize associated with the city of Karlsruhe,Germany.


Filed under Classics, German Literature

28 responses to “Review: Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse

  1. What German Literature have you read that you would highly recommend? Ha ha ha ha – all of it! You may need a narrower question.

    I had no idea what was in this book. Hesse seems to be revisiting the setting and themes of his early novel The Prodigy but moving the characters out into the adult world. Very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Behind the Story

    I haven’t read Narcissus and Goldmund but your excellent review makes me want to. It sounds like a book one should read with a friend or a bookclub so we could discuss it afterwards.


  3. Jonathan

    I have a Penguin copy of Narziss and Goldmund here and keep meaning to read it. I’m glad it’s as good as you say as I’ll look forward to reading it.

    What other Hesse book are you planning to read? I had half-planned to read Demian for GLM but I don’t think that’s going to happen now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Melissa – it’s decades since I read this but I remember loving it. Glad you’re going to read The Glass Bead Game – I recall it as being even better than N&G.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have several titles by Herman Hesse on a shelf and he never even occurred to me for German lit month. I never realized how much German lit I had until I started to shelve some of it together. Not sure how much I will get to by month end though.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is one that I was thinking of reading for German Lit month but then a copy of Hesse’s fairy tales jumped off a bookstore shelf into my hands. I’m sure I will read it before long. It took me a while to try Hesse because I thought he was too cerebral — as you say, there are so many ideas in his books — but when I actually tried them I loved his writing. The Glass Bead Game is excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree with tom I thought the prodigy when I read your synopsis which I reread for this month my review later in the month, I had hope to have hesse letters with thomas mann but appear the library copy is missing shame would been interesting to read .

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve read The Glass Bead Game (also called Magister Ludi!) and Siddhartha. It sounds like Narcissus and Goldmund had elements of both these kinds of stories. At least for me, The Glass Bead Game, as I remember it, had a pervasive suffocating quality, just seeing life as an endless competitive puzzle. Siddhartha, by contrast, is a book of spaciousness, light, and liberation. I read Siddhartha when I was a teenager (mentally picturing “Kung Fu” star, David Carradine, as Siddhartha!), and like a lot of students in the 1970s, I took courses in Buddhism, probably set off by the spark of that book.

    Two other German works I would recommend are Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther or his less well-known novel, Elective Affinities, also a tragic love story.


  9. I loved Hesse when I was younger and read pretty much whatever I could get hold of (much more than seems to be in print now). As well as this I remember enjoying The Glass Bead Game and Steppenwolf. His short stories are also worth exploring.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. That’s a Hesse book that I haven’t read, so thank you for your excellent review – it makes me want to reinvestigate him as an author.


  11. lizzysiddal

    Mellissa, who translated this one?


  12. Pingback: German Literature Month V: Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life

  13. Very interesting review of this classic that I read when I was very young. In my late teens I read almost anything by him I could find and this novel is still one of my favourites by Hesse.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve read several of Hesse’s novels including Demian, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, the Glass Bead Game and Narcissus and Goldmund. Of those books, Narcissus and Goldmund struck me the most and stayed with me for over 40 years since the first reading.

    Take aways from Narcissus and Goldmund: 1) The level of satisfaction achieved during the pursuit of a meaningful and rewarding life is directly tied to the effort exerted in understanding one’s nature. 2) The separation of rational versus emotional/sensual living.

    The pointed description found in the cold loneliness of rational thought as depicted through Narcissus is spot on. The contrast between dissecting every moment’s perception vs the warm embrace of a life filled through the senses is well described through these characters. Goldmund swimming through the river of life versus Narcissus analyzing the movement of water at a distance.

    This novel was a pleasurable way of identifying, through characterization, the dichotomy within myself during my late teens. The struggle has never lessened through the decades but knowing the source of my angst and putting the names of Narcissus and Goldmund to the conflicting drives helped. This book, with its easy story line and believable characters, is one that changed the way I saw myself and identified the conflicting elements of my character.

    The prose could perhaps be better but I’ve found them enjoyable and better than my own. I recommend this book and have done so on many occasions.


    • I really ought to read more of Hesse since I loved this book so much. I have a copy of The Glass Bead Game that I keep meaning to get around to. Thanks so much for your detailed comment!


      • I read the Glass Bead Game while in Germany as a young man. I found it more cerebral and less memorable. Perhaps I lacked the context at that age but I was never drawn to read it again or recommend it to others.

        Perhaps you will find it rewarding; I hope you do as I know others who have found it so.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. I just finished reading this book and being familiar with The Glass Bead Game and Steppenwolf I knew what to expect. But this book was disappointing. Goldmund as a character would probably appeal to maximalist teenager who complains all the time on how unfair word is. And all Hesse’s search for enlightenment and meaning of life never apply to women. They always only a background or tools in his books, but in this one he outdid himself.

    This is just my opinion and I of course Hesse was a poet so his writing is beautiful and book is full of good ideas. I loved his other books though.

    Did anybody have this sense of immaturity of the main character and think that women were not represented in this story?


    • I don’t think that I’ve seen him described as immature. But it’s an interesting thought.


    • Gil Costello

      Motherhood is the centripetal force in the novel, it’s ontological essence, what looms large in a metaphysical background, yet solidly centered in the physical world with Goldman’s dad denigrating Motherhood throughout the child’s early develpoment, something the youth will have to struggle through with an interior obsession seeking a radical reuniting with his mom, Narcissus simply his inital guide into encouraging Goldman to always go deep in that search, not to stop at the surface. For me, it’s an adventure into finding what has been most detrimental to the West, the loss of the Holy Grail of the West: the loss of Motherhood, the centripetal force in living a good life, whcih means a life of diminsed fear received from the loving arms of mom. For it is from mom that the child received the strength to crush the head of evil when evcil harms his heel.

      Liked by 1 person

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