Symbolism in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha
By G. Zhou
Posted on December 28, 2022
Cover Image Title: Bridge over Valley
Cover Image by: Alice
Known for his exploration into self-discovery and authenticity, Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel Siddhartha was an exceptionally comprehensive work focusing on one man’s spiritual journey that ultimately earned Hesse a Nobel Prize in Literature. The title character embarks on a whirlwind adventure with the primary goal of reaching enlightenment that changes his perspective and mentality in unexpected ways. The utilization of literary devices greatly contributes to Siddhartha's storyline- Hesse carefully crafts each chapter to reflect hidden messages imparted to the audience. Symbolism plays an important role in the reader’s understanding of Siddhartha and his road towards nirvana- through ordinarily mundane elements such as the ferryman, river, and his smile, the audience observes Siddhartha’s position between two ‘worlds’, the inevitable cycle of life, and spiritual fulfillment. The ongoing pursuit of happiness is a struggle that applies to everyone; comprehending the lessons and meaning behind Siddhartha can make a difference in the way life is spent and understood.
To begin, the ferryman represents the bridge from ordinary life to enlightenment. Vasudeva, the former guide, aided Siddhartha in finding nirvana; after he passed away, Siddhartha took up the mantle. As Hesse describes Siddhartha’s life, he remarks, “Siddhartha took many travelers across the river…” (Hesse 129). By understanding the meaning behind the ferryman, the reader knows that Siddhartha spends most of his life guiding people to enlightenment. Like Vasudeva guided him years ago, Siddhartha devotes his time and effort to listening to those surrounding him. When describing Siddhartha’s education as the ferryman, the author states, “Above all, he learned from it how to listen, to listen with a still heart…” (Hesse 106). His position as a boundary allowed him to invest years into learning from those who arrive at the river seeking advice, playing a crucial role in attaining enlightenment. This enforces the importance of learning from others and imparts a valuable belief to the audience: listening leads to understanding.
Furthermore, the author uses the river to represent life itself- Siddhartha’s realization of this leads to his own enlightenment. The flowing water symbolizes the eternal circle of life and death, a core concept of Hinduism. As Siddhartha observes the river, he notes, “...the water continually flowed and flowed, and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new” (Hesse 102). When Siddhartha becomes aware of this connection, he finally realizes that the experiences of life cannot be hindered or put on pause; similarly, the current of the stream cannot be stopped by rocks or branches. Instead of spending his years chasing meaningless material possessions, Siddhartha begins to prioritize inner peace and understanding; Vasudeva, the ferryman, quickly notes that Siddhartha has grown “‘tired of… fine clothes’” (Hesse 103). Siddhartha’s luxuries from his time as a merchant did not guide him to peace, prompting him to seek a metaphysical path to enlightenment. Much like how society nowadays is focused on obtaining more, the river puts into perspective the aspects of life that the audience should learn to value instead.
While some may argue that a smile is simply a display of emotion, in Siddhartha it represents much more. A symbol of peace and fulfillment, the ‘beatific smile’ is a subtle way the author displays “the visual manifestation of the inner achievement” (Ziolkowski 1). Both Buddha and Vasudeva attained nirvana, thus sharing the same smile with Siddhartha. When Govinda compares Siddhartha’s smile to that of the Buddha’s, he notes, “...was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama…” (Hesse 151). Evidently, this smile is always present to distinguish those who have achieved peace. Though Vasudeva, Siddhartha, and the Buddha followed separate paths, they all found enlightenment; demonstrating that each person’s road to happiness is individual and should not be impacted by society (or its unrealistic expectations), the ‘beatific smile’ teaches a core lesson to the reader.
Therefore, symbolism plays an important part in understanding the story of Siddhartha through the character of the ferryman, the river, and the recurring ‘beatific smile’ by reflecting Siddhartha’s position between enlightenment and the ordinary, the eternal cycle of life and death, and inner fulfillment. Though Siddhartha is strikingly like the historical Buddha (even sharing the same name), almost all can find a phase of his lengthy journey they can relate to - whether it is Siddhartha’s behavior, thoughts, or circumstances. Siddhartha experiences practically everything, from the allure of luxury and wealth to the unbreakable bond between father and son. By following Siddhartha’s Road to enlightenment, the audience can retain precious knowledge about life and hopefully change their perspectives and actions for the better.
Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. New York, Bantam Books, 1971.
Ziolkowski, Theodore. "Siddhartha: The Landscape of the Soul—The Beatific Smile and The Epiphany," in his The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme in Structure, Princeton University Press, 1965, pp. 170-77.
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