Posted in 1910s, Books, Hermann Hesse

Do you bear the Mark of Cain? (Demian, Part I: My personal relationship with the novel)

Published in 1919 under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair (the name of the narrator), Demian was Hermann Hesse’s long-awaited breakthrough novel. He felt compelled to publish it under a pen name because he was at such a moment of personal crisis, and also wanted a fresh slate after his five previous books hadn’t done as well as he wanted.

I cannot say enough about how very much this special book changed and influenced my entire life. It drew my attention in the summer of 1994, perhaps because of the cover. Many of my father’s old books were kept in my closet, and since my parents never believed in screening my books and forbidding me from reading certain things (except an adult book about the Shoah my mother found me reading at age eight), I had free rein to dive in immediately.

Though I always read about four grade levels up and have never been a slow or reluctant reader, I nevertheless didn’t finish reading it until February 1995. All these years later, I couldn’t begin to tell you what my reading schedule was or why I took about seven months to read a book with only eight chapters and less than 150 pages. Perhaps I just wanted to savour this special grownup book, the very first adult book I read on my own instead of for a school assignment, and the indescribably otherworldly mood it wrapped me in.

Many nights I read Demian in bed after my lights were supposed to be out, which increased the feeling of being right there with Emil Sinclair as he has all these esoteric, spiritual, supernatural experiences. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it like astral projection, but I did truly feel myself transported into the pages of this novel in a very eerie, indescribable, suprarational way.

Almost as if to make up for my longago slow reading, I reread the book in a single day when I was twenty-four.

Demian is one of those books where every time is like the first time all over again, and a book that speaks to you in new and different ways on the journey through life. Different details pop out; symbolism and literary references resonate more clearly; bits you overlooked now shine very prominently; personal experiences you’ve had since the last time make you relate even more strongly to those aspects of Sinclair’s life.

At fourteen and fifteen, Demian opened my mind to another dimension, with things like Abraxas (a half-good, half-evil deity) and the Midrash about the Mark of Cain being the mark of a nonconformist unafraid to go against the crowd. At twenty-four, the Mark of Cain theme shone even more prominently and personally. At forty-two, I understood how closely it parallels Hesse’s own life and immediately connected to prominent symbolism and cultural references, such as how Sinclair names his ideal of unrequited love Beatrice.

At forty-two, I also appreciated the details of the Mark of Cain Midrash and the concept of Abraxas in greater depth. Abraxas isn’t just a god who’s half-good, half-evil; he’s “a deity whose symbolic task is to unite the Divine and the Satanic.” This very much reminds me of the Jewish teaching that without the yetzer hara (evil inclination), no one would ever marry, have children, build a house, or go into business. It’s just a matter of channelling it in the right direction and having the proper motivation.

Likewise, the Mark of Cain was already there before he killed Abel, and may not even have been a physical mark. People were afraid of him either because he looked different or carried himself differently, a proud black sheep in a world of white sheep, one in a million instead of one of a million. Cain challenged their uncomplicated, conformist beliefs, and they started a story that he and his descendants were dangerous, sinister, immoral.

Also at forty-two, the constant references to Sinclair’s awakening sexual feelings, his recurring sexual dream involving a woman whom he eventually meets and discovers is Demian’s mother, and his frustration at having no outlet for these perfectly natural feelings were impossible to miss or brush aside as a minor plot point. Believe it or not, when I reread the book at twenty-four, I was still 100% virgin myself and believed I would be so until I found a husband. That only changed when I was twenty-eight. I wasn’t asexual; I just had no opportunities to experience sexual desire, and thus didn’t think I was missing anything.

And so many other interpretations, references, symbols, and details that didn’t pop out earlier, like how Demian isn’t just Sinclair’s dear friend, but his guiding daemon, and the very realistic depiction of childhood bullying and what draws certain types of children to be bullies.

I need to stop putting so many years between my rereading of this wonderful book! For over 100 years, it’s spoken so very deeply to so many people around the world.


Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

2 thoughts on “Do you bear the Mark of Cain? (Demian, Part I: My personal relationship with the novel)

  1. And if you keep putting in so many years between; you will be 65 or 70 years old.

    The whole Jungian “second act of life”.

    Found your 42-year-old reading particularly fascinating.

    Big difference between being asexual and opportunities to explore and experience sexual desire.

    [like Teresa Hawkins in FOR LOVE ALONE by Christina Stead – though she is in her late 20s by the time her book ends – and she is in London].

    The whole Demian connection might be easier for younger people who have read Phillip Pullman books [the Daemon concept].

    Hopefully not like derealisation or depersonalisation – or the very opposite of these experiences – which helped you grow more into yourself. And more rooted in yourself.

    The symbolism and the cultural references!

    Yetzer hara – great point for those who didn’t get this Jewish cultural and religious reference.

    Half-good and half-evil would take us into Jekyll and Hyde territory – and that ground has been trod and tilled.

    Unity – would it be the “right” motivation? [if we are to consider this of a literary Deity?]

    Leary the painter.

    Younger me would have loved the Harold Holt cover and the Thomas Mann foreword.

    The Fischer Verlag has a special connection to a Deutscherlehrein [I mean lady German teacher – or more likely STUDENT].

    [And I will stop outsourcing my spelling to the Goethe Institute!]


  2. “And so many other interpretations, references, symbols, and details that didn’t pop out earlier, like how Demian isn’t just Sinclair’s dear friend, but his guiding daemon, and the very realistic depiction of childhood bullying and what draws certain types of children to be bullies.”

    And in hindsight:

    Are you glad the bullying didn’t pop out at you when you were a teenager and in the thick of it?

    [Some readers might consider that a preventative].

    [or an off-putting factor – they might put Demian on a banned reading list or a censor list for that reason alone…]

    [and German schools and what they might or might not do with their classics and backlist works…]

    For interpretations; references; symbols; details…


Share your thoughts respectfully

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s