A REVIEW by ALEXA DUNCAN
DEMIAN by HERMANN HESSE (1919)
Demian by Hermann Hesse may seem like an odd choice for this review, especially since my reviews focus on young adult novels, but hear me out: It’s a young adult novel. Maybe you read Demian in high school. Maybe you read it in college. Maybe, like me, you’ve never even heard of it until recently. Whatever the case may be, I’m here to tell you that Demian is indeed a YA novel, and a good one at that.
Demian was initially published in 1919, but has experienced something of a resurgence these days, thanks to the rise of k-pop (Korean pop) group, BTS. I happen to be a big fan of the group, and one of their music videos (which you can check out by clicking this link) is what led me to want to read Demian. The music video in question mirrors many of the scenes in Demian and follows the book’s main theme of good and evil.
Many young people, after seeing what BTS did with the prose and themes of Demian, decided to read this classic novel in an attempt to feel closer to the group and better understand the themes of their music. BTS took their connection to Demian a step further by making a series of videos showcasing each member of the group. Direct quotes from Demian are used at the beginning of these videos to set the tone (here they are, if you’re curious).
All that aside, what is Demian actually about? The main character’s name is Emil Sinclair, and the novel starts when he is ten years old, a few years before the start of World War I. Sinclair may be young, but he is already struggling with the concepts of good and evil. His family is deeply religious, and so is Sinclair. At first. After being tormented by the town bully and eventually ending up in his employ, Sinclair slowly goes down the path of evil. That is, until he meets the titular Max Demian. Demian is not much older than Sinclair, but he carries himself with an almost supernatural maturity. He doesn’t attend church regularly and claims that the Biblical God is not the sort of God everyone should worship—rather both the good AND the evils of the world should be embraced.
Demian is Sinclair’s antithesis in every way. He represents the chaos of the world whereas Sinclair Is just trying to find a way to navigate through it. The book follows these two as they get older and eventually move onto boarding school, where Sinclair falls deeper and deeper into a life of corruption. The reason why this could definitely be considered a YA book is not just because the age of the characters (they’re all young), but because of what these characters grapple with. Demian is very much a 1919 version of today’s YA novels. Good and evil, resisting temptation, giving into temptation, free will, and more. As for the characters, Sinclair is dynamic, ever-changing throughout the story. He transforms from a young boy who is terrified of his own sin to a young man constantly being tempted by evil. Demian himself is a static character and doesn’t change very much, but he was still interesting to read about. The prose in this novel is beautiful and surprisingly accessible, especially since the book was published in 1919. It’s worth a read for the writing alone, even more so if you want to know what the heck BTS is talking about in that music video. Demian is one of Hesse’s masterworks, along with Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, and even though it may be considered a “classic,” it’s still something I think teens should check out.