An unnamed narrator has found the writings of a former boarder in his aunt’s house, where he also lives. He then goes on to describe how several years ago, this man named Harry Haller, who was almost fifty, came to stay with them and took the furnished bedroom and sitting room in the attic. Harry stayed for nine or ten months and brought many books with him. Though their bedrooms were right next door and they often met on the stairs, it took awhile for them to become properly acquainted on account of Harry’s reclusiveness.
After the opening section narrated by this unnamed young man, we get to Harry’s records, with the title “For Madmen Only.” (This book has no chapters, and very few section breaks.)
A few years away from his 50th birthday, Harry Haller’s life isn’t exactly going the way he hoped it would. His wife Erika divorced him some years back; he’s suffering with gout; he feels totally disconnected from bourgeois society despite his emotional attachment to surface things like happy families and well-maintained homes with araucaria flowers; he has no long-term career or even job; and he’s overwhelmed with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Harry’s life changes when he goes out for a glass of wine at the Steel Helmet on a rainy night and instead discovers a previously unnoticed doorway with a Gothic arch in the middle of an old stone wall he loves. Even more surprisingly, there’s an electric sign on the door, blinking the message:
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
FOR MADMEN ONLY!
After Harry has a drink at the tavern, he goes back to the old stone wall in the hopes of seeing that tempting, mysterious sign again. However, the door, archway, and sign have vanished.
Harry encounters a man carrying a signboard on a pole, and in front of him an open tray held up by straps. When Harry asks him to stop so he can read the sign, it bears the message:
ANARCHIST EVENING ENTERTAINMENT
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
Harry asks him what, where, and when this Magic Theatre is, and the stranger reiterates that it’s not for everybody. However, he does give Harry a booklet on cheap paper, the type found at fairs, and vanishes before Harry can pay him.
When Harry gets home, he discovers this is no ordinary carnival poppycock, but a serious treatise that describes his own life, competing wolf and human natures, and gloomy future outlook perfectly. He doesn’t just see himself in this in an abstract way; it actually uses his own name.
Treatise on the Steppenwolf. Not for everybody.
Harry agrees with the eerie booklet that he ought to kill himself, though he doesn’t want to wait till his 50th birthday as it prescribes. There are still two years to go, and he’s awash in despair, disconnection from everything and everyone he used to love, and the aches and pains of middle-age. He makes a date with his razor for the near future.
A day after Harry tries again to find the mysterious door and sign, he runs across a professor whom he used to be good friends with. The professor invites him over for dinner, and Harry agrees against his own reservations.
Harry is set off by a ridiculous framed engraving of his idol Goethe, styled as a conceited old man with a blank expression. The evening gets worse when the professor lambasts a recent antiwar editorial in the newspaper, which, unbeknownst to his host, was written by Harry himself. Finally, Harry snaps and rips into the ridiculous picture of Goethe, and storms out of the house, visions of the razor dancing through his head.
Harry ends up in a tavern called the Black Eagle, where he meets a woman who takes him to task for not knowing how to dance and being so melodramatic. Though she’s giving him quite the tongue-lashing, Harry nevertheless dreads her leaving, since then he’ll have to go home and kill himself.
While she’s dancing with someone else, Harry falls asleep and has a surrealistic dream about Goethe, who also takes him to task for being so serious.
Since Harry is still terrified of going home and facing the razor, his anonymous new friend arranges for him to lodge upstairs overnight. Before he falls asleep again, he realizes he has something to live for after all, and his hopeless starts fading.
The next time he meets this woman, he guesses her name is Hermine, since she seems so much like the female version of his old friend Hermann. Over the ensuing months, Hermine teaches him to dance, introduces him to jazz music, takes him to buy a gramophone, and has many deep conversations with him.
During this time, Harry also becomes friends with a jazz musician named Pablo and lovers with a beautiful young woman named Maria. All three of his new friends are instrumental in his restoration to normalcy and hope.
And then comes the grand finale of Harry’s initiation into this new life, a masked ball followed by the Magic Theatre. Which rooms will he choose to go into, and what sorts of lessons and esoteric experiences will he have there? And will he pass this test?