Herman Hesse’s novel Demian tells of a young boy named Emil Sinclair and his childhood growing up during pre-World War I. Emil struggles to find his new self-knowledge in the immoral world and is caught between good and evil, which is represented as the light and dark realms. Hesse uses much symbolic diction in his novel to give a more puissant presentation of Emil Sinclair and the conflict between right and wrong. The symbolism gives direction, foreshadow, and significance towards every aspect of the novel.
Emil Sinclair’s home as a young child is a very important symbol in the novel. As Emil attends school he is shown a world immoral value. The confusion of which is right or wrong creates the need for a safe haven for Emil. Emil refers to his home as a realm of light and states that he and his family all belong to that realm. The house itself was once a monastery, giving it a more powerful representation of the light realm. This symbolic asylum represents Emil’s innocence within himself and casts him apart from the real world. Another safe haven Emil retreats to is after he finds himself as a member of the mark of Cain. Eva’s garden symbolizes the Garden of Eden (a religious setting therefore of the light realm) and Emil separates himself there as one with the mark of Cain apart from the rest of the corrupt world. Both settings symbolize Emil’s importance in the world as well as his destiny. The Garden of Eden presents itself as another symbolic location. The event that Emil told the story of stealing the apples from the garden was a very symbolic point of the novel in which Emil breaks away from his light realm. The garden that Emil stole the apples from represented the Garden of Eden and the apples, or forbidden fruit, symbolized Emil’s first sin. This event foreshadows what is next to come in the conflict of good and evil. Emil’s first step out of the light realm gives way to more symbolic events where he becomes more submerged into the dark realm. At the beginning of the novel, Emil notices that there is a coat of arms above his house representing the Cain religion. The coat of arms contained a sparrow hawk bird on it. Hesse uses this symbolic approach to give the sparrow hawk purpose in the rest of the story, as a symbol of the mark of Cain. Emil discovered that the bird represents the god Abraxas. From this point, Emil is determined to find the meaning of the bird and Abraxas.
After the rain washed away a painting of Beatrice that Emil painted, Emil could see Demian and himself in the canvas. Emil then painted a picture of the sparrow hawk on the same canvas. Hesse used this event to symbolize the connection between Emil, Demian, and Abraxas. After bringing these characters together as one, Hesse was able to conclude Emil’s transformation into the New World. Emil sees the bird again above the hallway of Frau Eva’s home. The bird in Eva’s hallway symbolized her home as a house of Cain. Now Emil has found himself and knows he belongs there. Emil sees the bird once again outside in the form of clouds in the raining sky. This clearly shows that the rest of the Old World is ready for the transformation into the New World. In the last scenes of the novel, Emil is on the battlefields of World War I. One night Emil looks up into the sky and sees an image of a vast village of people being engulfed into a god-like figure which resembles Eva. The figure then crouches over and gives birth to the people that are now bright shining stars. This is the most important symbolic event in Hesse’s novel. The god-like figure symbolizes Eva, being the leader of the Cain people. The people that where engulfed by the god-like figure symbolize the people of the Old World. The god-like figure now represents the Virgin Mary and gives birth to the New World, which are the people transformed into stars. This event concludes the passing of the Old World to the New World. Each character has now fulfilled their destiny. Hesse uses the last scene in his novel to illustrate a clearer presentation of the transformation.
The hospital where Demian and Emil last speak symbolized the stable in which baby Jesus was born. Hesse creates the setting of the barn and surrounding hay to enhance his representation. The irony of this symbolic setting helps conclude not only the characters destiny, but the Old World’s also. The symbolic elements lead Emil to find himself as an individual with the mark of Cain. Herman Hesse used many symbolic items and events throughout his novel to present Emil Sinclair’s new self-knowledge. The utilization of Hesse’s symbolic strategy shows his complexity as a writer as well as in his characters. Combining each of these symbolic elements created Emil Sinclair’s character, purpose, and destiny towards his new self-knowledge.