On its face, Demian might seem like a very simple, lightweight novel, with only eight chapters, less than 150 pages, a very small cast, a rather episodic structure, and a plot that’s mostly about the journey through life and Emil Sinclair’s moral and spiritual development. But despite all of those things, the story truly shines as so much deeper and more profound.
Emil Sinclair’s story begins about 1906, when he’s ten years old. All his life, he’s felt safe, comforted, well-ordered, and secure in his family’s shiny, happy, peaceful, calm, pious, wealthy home. However, this home also contains an entirely different second world, that of the servants, who talk of things like prison, ghosts, alcoholism, murder, robbery, suicide, wife-beating, evil spells, injured horses, arson, and cops. From a young age, he’s been inextricably drawn to this forbidden underworld and has felt his family’s world to be boring and depressing in comparison.
Sinclair’s life begins changing forever when Franz Kromer, a 13-year-old public school student and son of an alcoholic tailor, joins him and two of his friends as they’re exploring the town. To try to impress the others when they’re swapping stories about heroics and pranks, Sinclair makes up a windy about robbing gourmet apples from an orchard.
Kromer makes him swear by God that it really happened, and when Sinclair reaches home, the nightmare begins. It so turns out that this orchard really was robbed, and the owner has offered a reward of two marks to anyone who can name the thief. Since Kromer doesn’t come from money like Sinclair, he’s eager to claim this reward.
Sinclair only has 65 cents, which means he’s entirely in Kromer’s servitude until he can produce the full sum of two marks, always summoned by a sickening whistle. During this period, Sinclair does a lot of stealing, lying, and performing humiliating tasks demanded by Kromer, like hopping on one leg for ten minutes and sticking notes on people’s jackets. His health suffers horribly, and his parents know something very wrong is going on, but he can’t tell them the truth.
While these torments are going on, a new boy comes to school, a few years older than Sinclair, who recently lost his father. Like Sinclair, his family is also well-to-do. Max Demian seems so much older than his years, since he carries himself with such maturity. None of the other boys like him, since he keeps to himself, refuses to fight, and acts more like a man than a schoolboy. The only thing they like about him is “the firm and confident tone he took with the teacher.” He and his mother also never attend church, and rumors about his true religion swirl.
One day when they’re walking home together, Demian tells Sinclair a fascinating alternative interpretation of the Cain and Abel story. Cain wasn’t the villain, he was the forward-thinking hero who was already marked and feared because he was so different from other people.
The situation with Kromer intensifies, and Sinclair begins having horrific recurring nightmares, the worst of which involves him murdering his father. Kromer also demands he bring his older sister, which Sinclair refuses to do. But then, after a personal conversation about the matter with Demian, Kromer mysteriously vanishes, and when he encounters Sinclair a few times afterwards, he flees in terror. Sinclair never finds out just how Demian did this.
A few years later, Demian shows up in Sinclair’s confirmation class, since he wasn’t confirmed at the usual age. In a world without separation of church and state, his mother presumably felt being unconfirmed might cause problems for his future.
In this class, Demian’s seat changes several times, until he ends up next to Sinclair. He also introduces Sinclair to psychic games, like compelling the pastor to not call on them or make other boys do a certain gesture. Even more profoundly, thanks to the earlier Midrash about the Mark of Cain, Demian has caused Sinclair to begin interpreting Biblical stories in a more creative, less literal fashion. In confirmation class, Demian shares a new Midrash, about the unrepentant thief at the Crucifixion having the courage of his convictions, while the story of the weepy, repentant thief is “nothing but a sanctimonious fairytale, treacly and dishonest, insipid and sentimental and obviously didactic.”
During one class, Demian goes into a statue-like trance which Sinclair tries and fails to replicate at home.
The next year, Sinclair starts a boarding school in another city, where he feels like a total outsider and unwanted loser until he begins going to bars and getting drunk regularly. His grades plummet as a result, and his parents are quite displeased. But then he encounters a beautiful, intelligent-looking woman whom he names Beatrice, in homage to Dante, and everything immediately turns around. His grades improve and he regains the respect of his teachers and parents, though his old friends reject him with mockery.
Sinclair begins painting, in the hopes of capturing Beatrice’s face, but all his efforts fail. Finally, he creates an image which eerily calls to him, a face both male and female, ageless, dreamy, strong-willed. He hides it in his drawer so no one sees it and makes fun of him, but when he’s alone, he pins it up over his bed so he can constantly gaze upon it.
It dawns on Sinclair that this is Demian’s face, though the features aren’t quite identical. Later, rain smudges the painting, and when it dries between heavy blotting paper, the mouth becomes exactly like Demian’s.
Sinclair’s next artistic mission is to paint the sparrow hawk on top of the coat of arms over his family’s front door, which Demian was very drawn to. He sends the painting to Demian, and in response finds a cryptic note in the pages of a textbook:
“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That god’s name is Abraxas.”
In that very lecture, the teacher discusses Abraxas, “a deity whose symbolic task is to unite the Divine and the Satanic.”
The winter before graduation, Sinclair is entranced by beautiful organ music from a small church, music that sounds like a prayer and with a great deal of personal expressiveness. He eventually tracks down the organist at a bar, and it turns out this fellow also knows about Abraxas.
Sinclair and Pistorius become fast friends, and spend much time together at Pistorius’s house, mostly lying on their stomachs and staring into the fireplace as the embers, smoke, and flames form pictures, shapes, and letters. However, Sinclair later feels himself growing apart from Pistorius. While Sinclair wants to find his own unique path to wisdom and enlightenment, Pistorius looks entirely to the past and other people’s ideas.
During Sinclair’s first semester at university, he finally encounters Demian again, after not seeing him since a brief meeting during Sinclair’s drunk phase. Demian and his mother Eva, whom Sinclair discovers in shock is the true face he painted and the woman in the recurring sexual dreams he’s had for years, have gathered a group of people who bear the Mark of Cain like they do. For the first time in his life, Sinclair feels like he belongs somewhere and is encouraged to find his own unique destiny and truth.
And then World War One breaks out, and nothing or no one will ever be the same again.