The narrator claims that although Haller was obviously very depressed and in bad shape, he does not believe that Haller has killed himself. The narrator states that the manuscript that follows has been left to him, and that although he is powerless to verify its accuracy, he believes that it reflects the Steppenwolf’s spiritual journey. He adds that these records, despite their at times disgusting content, are valuable because they are representative of the times. The narrator alleges that they express not just the psychological distress of one man, but the social ailments of a whole age—or rather, the distress of that specific breed of man who is caught between two ages.
The preface has four primary functions: it endows the text with compelling realism, provides justification and support for its story, introduces the character of Harry Haller, and announces the book’s major themes and motifs. The preface creates a strong sense of realism, suggesting that we are reading an actual document left behind by a real person. The fact that the name Harry Haller resembles the name Herman Hesse implies that Haller’s records are autobiographical for Hesse. As Steppenwolf is often fantastical and macabre, the fact that the preface is told by an upstanding, solid, average citizen provides a seemingly factual context.
In addition to aiding in suspending the reader’s disbelief, the preface also makes a strong case that justifies and supports the novel. The narrator’s claim that the manuscript is valuable functions as a less-than-subtle claim that Hesse’s novel is likewise valuable. Moreover, in agreeing with Haller’s self-conception of being a wolf from the steppes, the narrator affirms the painful confessions and self-criticisms we encounter in Haller’s own words. The fair, steadfast, and practical-minded nephew slowly comes to empathize with Haller as “a genius of suffering.” Because we can identify with the nephew, who gradually gains an appreciation of the Steppenwolf, we as readers make the same shift, coming to empathize with Haller and his story.
The preface also lays down a brief sketch of the man whose complex inner life forms the action of the novel. We learn of Harry Haller’s extreme dislocation, sense of estrangement, extraordinary intelligence, and sensitivity. Perhaps more important, the preface sets out the terms of the conflict in which the Steppenwolf sees himself caught. On the one hand, Haller is a disruptive wolf of the steppes, staying up late drinking wine and reading his colossally impractical books—generally living in a haphazard fashion. On the other hand, however, Haller also feels bound by a deep affection for the orderly bourgeois world to which he feels he can never belong. The fact that the outcome of this conflict is inevitably suffering, and that there is some value to this suffering—the nephew valorizes the Steppenwolf’s suffering when he calls him a “genius” of it—are important assessments that we are obviously meant to adopt.
Finally, the preface introduces some of the major themes and motifs of Haller’s existence. First, it invokes great thinkers such as Nietzsche, as Haller repeatedly tries to understand his own life in terms of his relation to the gifted cultural geniuses of the past. Second, through the rapture Haller experiences at the symphony and during his visits with the young woman, we see the power music and women have in transforming him. Third, we get a first glimpse of the symbolic contrast between solidity and fluidity. The quotation that Haller enthusiastically reads the narrator sets out a contrast between standing on the solid earth and being immersed in water. Hesse will repeatedly employ these two images in providing an allegory for Haller’s actions. While standing on solid earth reflects bourgeois existence, an unproblematic attachment to worldly life, the immersion in water reflects those few hyperintelligent risk-takers who are unsatisfied by simple answers and devote themselves to the most profound thought.