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Book Review: Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse

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To this day I have yet to read a bad novel by Hermann Hesse. His works range from if not great, then to merely excellent, very good to good-solid. Beneath the Wheel falls into the good-solid category, for while the book is blessed with Hesse’s impeccable prose style, Beneath the Wheel is comparatively a minor work. Part of the reason for this is due to one of his later and greater works: Demian, which carries some similar plot elements to Beneath the Wheel, but Demian is ultimately a far more philosophical and complex work. In fact, Hesse has told this story a number of times in his books (think The Prodigy and Peter Camenzind): involving the frustrated and gifted student fed up with formulaic institution and thought, though Demian is where this idea is best expressed. It seems Hesse kept writing until he finally mastered it.

Beneath the Wheel tells the story of the little arrogant and gifted Hans Giebenrath who is sent away to a monastery. He learns quickly that his professors adhere to function and formality, unable to really recognize or appreciate “genius” when presented with it. Some have compared this work to Catcher in the Rye, that is, pre-Catcher in the Rye, and Holden and Hans are similar both in their sense of entitlement and anger towards authority, which unfortunately paints them both out to be petulant brats.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I have a problem with hating authority, for I too have been known to roll my eyes at my moronic teachers, all of whom (the moronic ones) seemed to lack any sort of vision or creative talent. But it is difficult for me to empathize with a rich, upper class whiner like Holden Caulfield or even with Hans Giebenrath. Rather, it is far easier for me to empathize with the working class Francie Nolan, the beloved character from Betty Smith’s great novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, who also shares a bit of disdain for her one teacher who not only cannot recognize creative talent, but also castigates the young Francie for writing about the poverty in her life (she refers to Francie’s creative writing tales as “sordid.”)

While young Hans is forced to study his lessons, his biggest loss is being unable to fish — an activity that the boy loves. It allows him to drift into daydream and be a kid. But academic pursuits put a strain on his free time (as they should), and Hans is left feeling despondent and alone. Once he discovers the mechanical mindset of most his teachers, this only adds to his feelings of disillusionment and despond.

Beneath the Wheel illuminates the idea of what I believe to be wrong with America — (as well as many other privileged countries). While there is much emphasis placed on education, there is little emphasis left for actual learning. That is, people hide behind their institutional brand names, rather than trying to distill their ideas independently, and actually, well…think. Is some idea or concept really worth dissecting simply because someone from an institution thinks so?

Beneath the Wheel is really about being beneath the oppression of drones — those who lack vision, yet they instill their silly authoritative rules, all the while keeping the truly talented from accomplishing their best work. Or as the narrator notes: “A schoolmaster will prefer to have a couple of dumbheads in his class than a single genius, and if you regard it objectively, he is of course right. His task is not to produce extravagant intellects but good Latinists, arithmeticians and sober decent folk.”

Amid his study, Hans becomes acquainted with a young poet named Heinrich Heilner, who offers a liberating contrast to that of the hollow drones of academia. Ultimately Heilner is forced to leave, and Hans suffers a mental breakdown. What exactly causes it could be a myriad of things. In addition to the institutional oppression Hans feels, there also could be homosexual feelings at work between Hans and his poet friend:

“Hermann Heilner slowly extended his arm, took Hans by the shoulder and drew him to him until their faces almost touched. Then Hans was startled to feel the other’s lips touch his.”

Tragically, Hans is ultimately found floating in a river, and many might assume this to be a suicide, although accidental death cannot be dismissed. The saddest is, perhaps, that Hans’ giftedness will never be put to use, and ultimately it appears the drones have gotten to him.

Beneath the Wheel is not a book for those who have not experienced Hesse before. For those first time readers, I strongly recommend Demian, Siddhartha and Steppenwolf. Once reading those works, one has no choice but to feel underwhelmed by Beneath the Wheel, even if it is unfair to feel so. Because, let's face it, great writers are held to the highest standard once they achieve greatness, and those other works of theirs that are merely just good get labeled if not “failures,” then are merely overlooked. This is still a good book, and an early one in Hesse’s career. Would that most writers “failed” as much as Hesse.

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