Hermann Hesse: Kinderseele – A Child’s Heart (1919)

Die schönsten Erzählungen

Hermann Hesse was born into a family of priests, missionaries, and theologians. It’s easy to imagine how oppressing this must have been for a free-spirit like Hesse. But not only was his father a very religious man, he was also very strict. He was one of those patriarchs that the children feared more than loved. Whole books have been written about the “fear of the father”, so common in the upbringing of German children at the time, and of what is called black pedagogy. Hesse suffered and rebelled against his father. The tragedy of such an upbringing isn’t only that the children fear the father but that they internalize his judgment. While you can’t compare the writers Hesse and Kafka, there’s a similarity in some of their work and in what they experienced as children. Kafka wrote about his über-father in Letter to my Father. Hesse wrote about it in Kinderseele – A Child’s Heart and other writings. Both Letter to my Father and Hesse’s story came out in 1919.

The name of Hesse’s narrator is Emil Sinclair. Readers might be familiar with that name, as Hesse chose it as his pseudonym later. Sinclair tells a story of his childhood. It’s a story of fear and rebellion. One day, when Emil Sinclair is about eleven years old, he returns home from school. He describes the entrance of the house in minute, evocative details. It’s a grand entrance but chilling and eerie. The child can’t help but feeling anxious and depressed as soon as he enters. It’s as if something was lurking in the shadows. It’s clear for the reader that he means the presence of the father who is perceived as malevolent and controlling. The moment the child enters his realm, he must fear being caught doing something forbidden.

Emil Sinclair finds the house abandoned. He goes upstairs, hoping to find the father in his study but the study and his father’s bedroom are empty. He could just leave again but something pushes him, forces him to snoop and to steal. It’s interesting that he’s scared of being punished but steals nonetheless. At first he only takes two tips of a quill, then he finds sugared figs in a drawer, eats a handful and steals some more. From this moment on, his day is agony. He fears to be found out and hopes to be found out. Being punished would be a purification.

I loved this story. The writing is beautiful and the psychology is pertinent. I’ve rarely seen the fear of the father captured so well and with so much complexity. It’s a very tight, very well-constructed story. Interestingly, while we disapprove of the father, we feel for him. He must have been a tortured soul as well. Why else would he hide a delicacy and probably eat it in secret? We also learn that he suffered terrible headaches.

I’m not going to reveal the ending – just this much – it shows clearly that Hesse, unlike Kafka, was able to free himself from his father.

One word on the translation of the title. Kinderseele means The Soul of a Child. Since this is a very psychological story, I find “soul” makes much more sense than “heart”.

The cover I added is the cover of the German edition of Hesse collected short stories. The cover painting is by Hesse.

This is my last contribution to Hesse Week which ends today. I’ll probably wrap up the event tomorrow. If you’ve contributed to this week and I haven’t seen it, please leave a link to your post in the Mr. Linky in my introductory post.