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1-Page Summary of Narcissus and Goldmund
The German writer Hermann Hesse published a novel called Narcissus and Goldmund in 1930. The book explores the theme of duality through an allegorical fairy tale set in a vaguely medieval landscape. Nietzsche’s Apollonian/Dionysian theory is also explored, where we are torn between being creatures of pure reason and intellect or ruled by physical pleasure and earthy pursuits.
The main character of the novel is Goldmund, who starts out as a novice in a monastery during the Middle Ages. He wants to become a monk because his father insisted that his mother was guilty of unspecified sins. In the monastery, he meets Narcissus and they become friends despite their differences.
Goldmund is a beautiful young man who is attracted to the outside world. He falls in love with a Gypsy girl and realizes that he wants more than life in the monastery where he was raised. This realization leads him to leave Narcissus, his teacher, behind as well as any desire for an intellectual relationship. Goldmund decides that he must find himself and discover what it means to be human through relationships with other people.
The narrator wanders around for a while, performing odd jobs. He has an affair with the Count’s daughter and is kicked out of the castle. Then he resumes his wandering life.
The world is Goldmund’s oyster. He lives a carefree life and has many sexual encounters with women because of his good looks. But not everything is perfect for him, as he sometimes kills people when they try to steal from him or hurt the ones he loves. Feeling guilty about this, he confesses his sins to a priest and then becomes fascinated by an image of the Virgin Mary in the church.
Goldmund was looking for something that would be meaningful to him. He found it in the art of woodcarving, which he learned from a master, Niklaus. Goldmund worked on his own sculpture of the Apostle John’s face but was disappointed when he realized that Niklaus worked only for money and not just because he loved what he did. This made Goldmund abandon his next great project – a sculpture of Mary mother figure (or one who represents all women).
Goldmund was searching for the universal mother in art, but decides to look for her in life. He travels through villages that were destroyed by plague and is amazed at how the dead bodies are just piled up on top of each other without any ceremony or respect. The people there see this as a sign to eat their fill before they die, so Goldmund stays with them while they eat all the food left behind from those who died. His girlfriend Helene is raped by a villager and bitten, thus infecting her with Plague. When he sees his girlfriend looking at him with desire after she was raped by another man, he finds it interesting material for his next piece of art: an Eve who has been infected with plague.
After Helene dies, Goldmund is distraught by the anti-Semitism he sees. He falls in love with a Jewish woman named Rebekka who refuses to have sex with him. This makes him question God because of how Jews are being treated. His past catches up with him and he gets arrested for his crimes as a thief; however, Narcissus (his former mentor) has become an abbot at the monastery where Goldmund was raised and is there to hear his confession. The two men talk about why God allows evil things to happen in this world.
Goldmund and Narcissus return to the monastery where Goldmund will work as an artist. He’s trying to achieve personal perfection, which he thinks can be achieved through art. Soon after making decorative pieces for the abbey, Goldmund feels a desire to leave again. This time he sees that his old age has taken away his sexual appeal. This devastates him and leads him towards death, but before dying he confesses his love for Narcissus (a purely platonic intellectual love), who professes the same feelings in return.