Book Review: Beneath the Wheel by Herman Hesse
“For he was aware that in the academy he would have to be even more ambitious if he wanted to outstrip his new fellow students. Why did he want to surpass them actually? He didn’t really know himself.” – Narrator
I was raised believing that education and blind respect for authority are two of the most important things that I child should value. I studied for the sake of moving on to the next level of education with a good school. At that time, academic growth was more valued over personal and emotional growth. However, at some point in my high school life, I rebelled. I started reading non-required literature and started paying more attention to the humanities rather than the sciences (I was in a science high school). After that, I started to value my personal and emotional growth over blind and directionless academic growth.
Hermann Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel deals with the same problem in the children of his time who were taught to value an education that only focuses on academic performance and not on the student’s capability to philosophize and think by himself. It tells the story of Hans Geibenrath, a boy of genius intellect that was sent to a seminary in order to study. All of Han’s life was spent studying and his reward for doing so was further study. All of his life, he has never participated much in childhood activities when his town has decided the path that he should take. When other boys in his town were fishing or swimming, he was studying hard. The result was he lost his childhood at such an early age and that he finds that he cannot properly adapt to his situation. However, he does find joy in feeling that he is superior over his other classmates because he knows that his future is secure while theirs isn’t.
During his stay in the seminary, he was a model student in the running for the top spot in the class. Hans is friendless in his new school until he meets Heilner, a rebellious romantic, and their friendship takes a toll in Hans’ studies. Heilner, because of his rebellious nature, is expelled and Hans is sent back home because his studies has taken a turn for the worse as he was diagnosed with mental sickness. Hans then becomes an apprentice blacksmith and takes pride in his difficult work and he also experienced the joy and pains of love. However, the story ends in tragedy, as Hans gets drunk, falls into a river, and dies.
The novel has a pastoral air as it Hesse describes the countryside with beautiful precision. The German countryside feels so alive under Hesse’s writing and you can really see the juxtaposition between the busy life of Hans and the peaceful countryside surrounding him as if saying that the beauty of nature is something that Hans will never enjoy to the fullest because of the regiment that he is in. Any of the short time that he spends with nature quickly dissipates when Hans’ elders forces him to continue with his studies. Only the rebellious Heilner has provided him with the reprieve that Hans deserves but even that has ended tragically.
The novel may be a comment on how society values an education that concentrates solely on academic achievement. Memorizing equations, dates, and facts without really pursuing the greater meaning of everything that they study in order for the students to better themselves emotionally. A life of study in order to have access to further study seems pointless. Life, as the countryside seems to imply in the book, is meant to be enjoyed yet the authorities in the novel are forcing young people like Hans to forget about life and instead sacrifice themselves to the blind pursuit of the academe. In the end life is wasted just because children with so much potential like Hans are pressured in doing something that they don’t like.
Death is also a central theme of the novel. Death is uncertain and does not play favorites. Genius or not, death will take you when the time comes and it will be too late for you to realize whether you’ve lived life to the fullest or not. One of the most moving parts of the book was when a classmate of Hans died without making any friends because of his studies and when the father of the departed asked the class about who is closest to his son and nobody came forward, the father broke down. Maybe because the father realized that he led his son to a life of pure intellect without any semblance of friendship and, at the death of his son, it is already too late to start. Death also took Hans in the end and his potential was never realized and he lived a very unhappy life with only a few happy moments in between.
However, I can only rate this novel three stars because the narrative was tedious. The narrator was always going into monologues that should be more appropriate in philosophical treatises and not novels. And the way that the narrator describes the German countryside, although beautiful in its prose, is overwrought and unnecessary. This may be one of the few novels that I read where my main complaint was because of the third-person omniscient narrator.
All in all, the novel was a solid piece considering the fact that it is the first novel that I read from Herman Hesse. It may be tedious to read a novel that is filled with spiritual and philosophical monologues of the narrator while not moving the plot forward but it was also filled with such poignancy and tragedy that can totally move you.