“The Glass Bead Game” is a novel by the German writer Hermann Hesse. Hesse began writing the novel in 1931 but did not publish it until almost fifteen years later in 1943. The novel was originally rejected for publication in Germany in that time because of Hesse’s anti-fascist political views. It was then published in Switzerland. Hesse went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature only three years later in part for his work on “The Glass Bead Game”.
The novel centers around a protagonist named Joseph Knecht who starts out as a young boy living in the distant future in a utopian city called Castalia, where only artists and intellectuals are allowed to live.
Knecht is enrolled in a school called Waldzell which specializes in a complicated, hazily-defined game called “The Glass Bead Game”. The game is most often used as a metaphor for Knecht’s journey in becoming the head of the school and eventually resigning and leaving Castalia to greet the wider world. In the end, Knecht takes a job tutoring a friend’s son but drowns the next day. The novel then focuses on short stories that Knecht wrote which revolve around other lives that he has lived.
The novel is an example of the bildungsroman style of story-telling, wherein the plot focuses on a protagonist from childhood to adulthood and particularly on the characters personal growth. The novel was adapted into a BBC radio production in 2010.
The plot of the novel takes place at an unspecified date in the distant future. The book is set in the imagined town of Castalia which is supposed to be somewhere in central Europe. In this future, the government has decided to divide up different types of people, separating the people capable of intellectual pursuits, such as the educators, artists, historians writers and scientists from everyone else and walling them up in Castalia. The idea of the government is that this will further enhance the minds of the future people.
The mission of the community at Castalia is twofold: to run a boarding school for boys and to prepare, care for and run the Glass Bead Game. Not many people know what the rules or even the nature of the Glass Bead Game really is. The game is conducted secretly and the players all live in a special school in Castalia called Waldzell.
The rules of the game are never told to outsiders but they are occasionally alluded to. The rules seem to be so over-complicated and sophisticated that they are almost impossible to imagine. In order to play the game, you have to spend years studying music, mathematics and history. The game requires players to make deep, intelligent connections between these topics even when they seem to be completely unrelated.
The novels follows the story of one member of the game’s special order, a man named Joseph Knecht. When Knecht is a young boy, he is recruited into the order by the Music Master. Soon, the Music Master passes away at his home. Knecht talks about the man as if he were a saint.
Knecht develops a friendship with another student named Plinio Designori who comes from a wealthy and influential family. Designori is in Castalia as a guest although he is studying in the school while he is there. Knecht and Designori develop a friendly rivalry. They often hold debates about Castalia and what good is can achieve. Designori confesses that he sees Castalia as an “ivory tower” with no real impact on the outside world.
After graduation, Knecht decides that his goal is to replace the leader of Castalia, a man who is referred to as Magister Ludi. Knecht begins researching the Glass Bead Game. “I imagine,” he writes. “The one can be an excellent Glass Bead Game player, even a virtuoso, and perhaps even a thoroughly competent Magister Ludi, without having any inkling of the real mystery of the Game and its ultimate meaning. It might even be that one who does guess or know the truth might prove a greater danger to the Game, were he to become a specialist in the Game or a Game leader.”
He begins spending a lot of his time outside of Castalia which surprises those who know that he intends to replace the Magister. On his first venture outside of the community, he ends up in a bamboo grove where he meets a man named Elder Brother whom he becomes the disciple to. Elder Brother has given up living within the society and now lives on his own as a recluse.
Knecht wishes to encourage good will between the Order and the Catholic Church. He is sent on several missions to a Benedictine monastery, Mariafels. There he makes friends with a historian named Father Jacobus. Eventually, Knecht achieves the role of Magister Ludi and Master of the Glass Bead Game after the old Magister passes away.
“The election of the new Master was, however, all the more animatedly discussed and criticized among those who had hitherto been Knecht’s fellow aspirants. He had no downright adversaries, but he had had rivals, among them some who were riper for years than he. The members of this circle were not at all minded to approve the choice without a trial of strength, or at least without subjecting the new Master to extremely exacting and critical scrutiny.”
Knecht spends many years happily serving as Magister and running the Glass Bead Game, the details of which, even as Magister, he is never fully acquainted with. As he grows older, Knecht begins to question his loyalty to the Order and to Castalia. He wonders if the people of Castalia have a right to withdraw from society. If the intellectually gifted have the right to run away from societies problems just because they can.
Just as his friend, Designori did before him, Knecht, too begins to see Castalia as something of an ivory tower. A protected place where the gifted can retreat and devote themselves purely to their art while ignoring the problems of the outside world. Because of this doubt, Knecht begins to have a crisis of conscience. He has somewhat of a spiritual awakening after which he resigns as the Magister Ludi of Castalia. He asks to leave the Order but is denied the request by the heads of the Order. Ignoring them, Knecht leaves Castalia on his own.
He goes to live with Designori who now has a son named Tito. Knecht works as a tutor for the boy for only a few days before he drowns while trying to follow the boy across a river.
At this point, the narrator of the book leaves off the final sections of the biography. “We have now reached the end of our journey, and hope that we have reported all the essentials of Joseph Knecht’s life. A later biographer will no doubt be in a position to ascertain and impart a good many additional details about that life. We forbear to present our own account of the Magister’s last days, for we know no more about them than every Waldzell student and could not tell the story any better…”
The next chapter of the book is purported to be from a different biography of Knecht. This chapter spans the middle of the novel and is titled “The Legend”. The biographer appears to be from the school and relates that the story of Knecht’s disappearance is told to the students but the teachers are careful not to speculate as to the man’s reasons for leaving.
After Knecht hears that the board has refused to let him resign, he goes to the garden to meditate for one hour. In his mind, a line from one of his poems came to him. “In all beginnings dwells a magic force for guarding us and helping us live.” He remembers this poem ends with a line about bidding farewell. That evening, he informed his second in command that he would have to leave for an indefinite period of time. He put the second in command in charge and bid him farewell in a friendly, relaxed way as he would usually do before leaving on a brief official journey.
While meditating, Knecht had what the biography refers to as “an awakening”. He realized that he needed to leave the school for his own spiritual good. That night, Knecht walks through the grounds of the school, saddening as he realizes that it will be the last time that he ever sees it.
The next day, he leaves early. Knecht goes to the house of the president of the Order. He discusses his rejection with the president who seems ashamed as he admits that he gave the order to reject Knecht’s resignation. Knecht tells him that he assumed that he would be rejected. He did not expect a favorable reply to his letter and he prepared himself to disregard the answer that he was given. Upon hearing this, the president is confused and wary. The president assumes that Knecht has been tired of his office as Magister for a while and that he submitted the resignation only for form, intending to leave despite the response.
Knecht tells the president that he has come to discuss his entire thought process with him and he does not intend to leave without feeling assured that the president understands his motives and has gained a deeper insight into his world. Knecht hands the man a casket which contain his keys and his seal. Weary with responsibility, the president tells him that he cannot approve of Knecht leaving without the other board members having a say. Knecht realizes this of course and agrees to stay on for a day so that the president can collect his thoughts.
“He dismissed the Magister with a courteous gesture, and that gesture, full of resignation, full of deliberate politeness of the kind no longer meant for a colleague, but for a total stranger, pained the Glass Bead Game Master more than anything he had said”. Knecht spends the night in the president’s house. Overnight, the president, meditates on what to do about the situation. He contemplates putting Knecht under house arrest and calling for the rest of the board members, but realizes that would only serve to help himself as it would take the responsibility of dealing with this situation out of his hands.
The following day at breakfast, the president tells Knecht that though he was taken by surprise by Knecht’s announcement yesterday, he managed to collect himself overnight. His viewpoint remains unchanged but he accepts that Knecht has a right to resign his post. He proposes that Knecht consider merely taking a leave of absence for a while. But Knecht says that the Game and Waldzell would not be served well by a master that leaves for an indeterminate time.
Knecht reminds the president that when he started as Magister, the man told him that even if he were to be the worst Magister that the school had ever seen, even if he was a complete degenerate, it still would not affect the ancient school anymore than a pebble being thrown in a lake. In trying to bring the president around to his leaving, Knecht tells him of his awakening and tries to explain. He describes it as being like an earthquake or a gust of wind that proceeds a storm. “My ‘awakening’ has a similar kind of intensified reality for me. That is why I have given it this name; at such times I really feel as if I had lain asleep or half asleep for a long time, but am now awake and clear headed and receptive in a way I never am ordinarily.”
The president suggests that Knecht may be acting out of self absorption in leaving but Knecht argues that it’s quite the opposite. Because of his studies he has learned more of the outside world and wishes to explore it himself. He finally leaves, bidding the president goodbye and telling him that he is sorry they did not end on better terms. Knecht walks away from the president’s house and then continues to walk for two days until he reaches Designori’s house in the capital.
Designori is delighted to see him and congratulates him on taking this great step by leaving the Order. Knecht requests to meet Designori’s son, Tito as he is going to be teaching him. Designori sends a servant to fetch the boy but soon his wife comes into the room to tell him that no one can find Tito. Knecht guesses that he ran off to avoid dealing with a new tutor and learning any new rules.
Both Tito and Knecht are being sent to live in Designori’s house in the mountains so that Tito can be taught there. That evening, Tito sends them a note saying that he is heading for the house on his own. Knecht assures Designori that he will leave in the morning and probably encounter the boy on the way there. The next day, Knecht is driven out to the house and Tito is waiting for him. Tito appreciates that Knecht vetoed Designori coming along and the two greet each other as friends.
At dawn, Tito and Knecht rise for a swim in the lake beside the house. Tito challenges Knecht to a swimming race to the other side of the lake. But as Tito turns to watch Knecht’s progress, he realizes that the man is gone. He swims around looking for him but cannot find him. Tito returns to the shore, grief stricken, assuming that Knecht has drowned.
After this chapter, a new section begins where several of Knecht’s posthumous works are presented. The first part contains some of Knecht’s poetry followed by three short stories that are referred to as “Three Lives”. The stories are written by Knecht and used as an exercise wherein he envisions his life if he had been born in a different time and place.
The first story is called “The Rainmaker”. In this tale, Knecht is a pagan rainmaker who lives many thousands of years ago “when women ruled”. The rainmaker has the power to summon rain storms, as his name would suggest. But one day, his power fails him and he offers himself up as a sacrifice.
The second story, “The Father Confessor” tells the story of the life of Saint Hilarion and Josephus. Josephus was an early Christian, but rather than being a missionary he was a hermit. Josephus is very virtuous, he is capable of great patience and discretion. He develops a reputation for these things, but remains very self loathing. He tries to find a confessor but when he does he finds that the confessor has been looking for him to confess to.
“And now he could confess. Now all that he had lived through for years, all that for a long time seemed to have totally lost meaning, poured from his lips in the form of narrative, lament, query, self-accusation—the whole story of his life as a Christian and ascetic, which he had intended for purification and sanctification and which in the end had become such utter confusion, obscuration and despair.” The confessor is an old man, and Josephus lives with him for several years, taking care of him as he grows older and sicker. One day, the confessor dies and Josephus buries him and plants a tree on his grave. The following year, Josephus is present to witness the tree bearing fruit for the first time.
The final story, “The Indian Life” centers around Dasa, a prince who lost his kingdom to his usurping half brother. Dasa only escapes with his life because he disguises himself as a cowherd. Dasa continues to work as a cowherd and everyday, in the forest he encounters a yogi who is deep in meditation. He desires to experience that level of tranquility but does not know how.
Later, he leaves the farm and marries a beautiful young woman who is then stolen away by his half brother (who is now the Rajah). Dasa goes blind with rage and kills his brother. Once again, he seeks out the yogi again and ends up in the forest. The yogi tells him how to seek the spiritual path and find his alternate life.
The book ends with the words, “There is no more to be told about Dasa’s life, for all the rest took place in a realm beyond pictures and stories. He never again left the forest.”
Joseph Knecht – the protagonist of the story. “The Glass Bead Game” is a bildungsroman style novel that charts the entirety of Joseph’s life from childhood to death. Thus, the reader has the chance to watch as Joseph grows into a man and feels more of a connection with the character. In the beginning of the story, Joseph is a small boy living in the Castalia community. He is chosen to go to the Waldzell school by the Music Master. Fairly early on, Joseph’s determined, driven nature begins to show when he decides that he wants to work his way up to the position of Magister Ludi. Many children in the community might dream of such a thing, but Joseph’s determination actually drives him to carry it out.
Later, Joseph shows this same trait when he decides to leave the community and resolves to do so whether or not the Order approves his request to resign. Joseph reaches a point where he longs to see the world outside Castalia. He not only wishes to know how the other people (that is, the people who were not chosen as artists and intellectuals to live in Castalia) live but to help them. He wonders how they are getting by without the great minds of his community and wishes to help them.
Because Joseph was raised by intellectuals and surrounding by them while he was growing up, he has no concept of how normal people live and therefore, comes across very innocent and kind in his mission. Joseph has several mentors in the novel including the Music Master and Elder Brother, among others. He looks up to these different men whom he feels represent some aspiration that he desires. Self-improvement through hard work is a big aspect of Joseph’s character.
In the end of the novel, several poems and three short stories that Joseph wrote in his lifetime are presented. It is made obvious that the short stories are representations of what Joseph believed to be his past lives. In his other lives, Joseph was always a similar character (once even having the same first name). The rainmaker was gifted, Josephus the confessor was kind and Dasa was in touch with his spirituality.
Joseph’s death in the novel comes very abruptly. He dies while swimming with Designori’s son after leaving Castalia. No aftermath it really shown and it is left up to the reader to infer what happens in the community next.
Plinio Designori – Joseph’s friend and rival. Designori and Joseph meet when they are both young boys studying at Waldzell school. Designori is meant to represent a foil for Joseph’s character. He is quite the opposite of Joseph, choosing to leave the school and the community instead of seeking a higher position within as Joseph does. Designori’s life is happy and Joseph seeks to have a similar life based off his friend’s example. Designori seems to live well in the capital and has a son whom he loves greatly.
Hermann Hesse Biography
Hermann Hesse was a German-born Swiss novelist and poet. His work was popular with the younger readers after World War II who identified with the main theme of many of his novels: the trails of youth – and especially of creative artists – in search of self.
Hesse was born n July 2nd, 1877 in Calw, Germany. The son of a former missionary, he was enrolled in a seminary but soon left school. Thereafter he educated himself through reading. As a young man he worked for a bookseller and did freelance journalism, which inspired his first novel “Peter Camenzind” (1904), the story of a dissolute writer.
During World War I, Hesse, who was a pacifist, moved to Montagnola, Switzerland. He became a Swiss citizen in 1923. His despair and disillusion with the war and by a series of personal tragedies caused his writing to become more focused on the spiritual search for new goals and values as seen in his next novels “Demian” (1919), “Siddhartha” (1922) and “Journey to the East” (1923) all of which are deeply symbolic and psychoanalytical in nature.
Hesse’s next novel, “Steppenwolf” (1927) is perhaps the most innovative of all of his works. In the book, the artist and heroes double nature – human and wolf like – force him into a labyrinth of nightmarish experiences. The work symbolizes the split between individuality and convention. Hesse viewed the rise of Nazism in Germany with disgust and worked against Hitler’s domination in his own way. He had publicly announced his opposition to Anti-Semitism many times before and married a Jewish woman. However, at no time did he openly speak against the Nazi party as he considered himself mostly detached from politics.
Hesse’s last novel, “Magister Ludi” (1943) set in a utopian future, is in effect a resolution of the author’s concerns. Several volumes of his nostalgic, mournful poetry have also been published. Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. In the last few years of his life he enjoyed writing short stories and painting watercolors.
Hesse died in Switzerland in 1962 at the age of 85 and was buried in San Abbondio cemetery in Montagnola, Switzerland.