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An Analysis, Critique, and Comparison of "Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse and "Lilith: A Metamorphosis" by Dagmar Nick

Jennifer Wilber is an author and freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in creative writing and English.

This linguistic analysis and critique of "Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse and "Lilith: A Metamorphosis" by Dagmar Nick will help you better understand both classic novels and their significance.

This linguistic analysis and critique of "Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse and "Lilith: A Metamorphosis" by Dagmar Nick will help you better understand both classic novels and their significance.

A Comparison of Myths

This analysis was originally written for a linguistics course I took at Southern New Hampshire University for a literary analysis project. This analysis focuses primarily on the language choices and linguistic principles employed by both of these authors. The two pieces I have analyzed for this project are Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, which was originally published in 1922, and Lilith: A Metamorphosis by Dagmar Nick, which was first published in 1995. Siddhartha is a retelling of the story of the Buddha and his search for enlightenment. Lilith draws from Babylonian folklore and the Biblical account of the Garden of Eden to retell the story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish folklore.

Both stories were written by German authors and both draw upon mythology from older cultures to tell a story from a more modern perspective. Siddhartha was written in the pre-World War II era, and Lilith was written more recently in the 1990s. I chose these two books because they are two of my favorite works of literature and I am very interested in different mythologies and religions from around the world, and how these different myths and belief systems compare to one another.

Morphological, Phonological, and Semantic Concepts in Siddhartha and Lilith

Hesse has specific morphological, phonological, and semantic reasons for using specific words in Siddhartha. Siddhartha uses a number of compound words to form new words. Siddhartha wore an “earth-colored” cloak and practiced “self-denial.” Hesse made the morphological choice to use a hyphen to create these compound words, rather than writing them as separate words to emphasize their meanings. In the English translation of Siddhartha, there is a line that reads “Never had a sleep so refreshed him, so renewed him, so rejuvenated him!” The phonological sound “re” appears repeated three times as a prefix to stress the first syllable of each word. This emphasizes that this sleep had helped him to become spiritually reborn. These morphological and phonological choices reflect Hesse’s intent to write in a flowing lyrical style to reflect ancient religious writings. The time period in which this novel was written played a role in Hesse’s semantic choice to use “salvation” over “enlightenment.” In the 1920s, most western audiences would have been more familiar with the word “salvation” than with the word “enlightenment” in a spiritual context. Even though “enlightenment” better describes the goal of Buddhism, “salvation” is a more relatable term than “enlightenment” in the western world, especially during this time period when foreign religious ideas were less accessible to the average person.

Nick also chose to use certain words in Lilith based on morphological, phonological, and semantic concepts. In contrast to Siddhartha, Lilith does make use of the word “enlighten.” Lilith uses the word “enlighten” in the context of Lilith being determined to “to enlighten Adam about his body and soul.” The word “enlighten” was used to draw parallels between a sexual experience and a spiritual experience. Nick made the semantic choice to use “enlighten” in this way because it would have been understood to have spiritual connotations during the time in which she wrote Lilith. The English translation of Lilith uses the verb “enlighten,” but never affixes the suffix “-ment” to change it to the noun “enlightenment.” This morphological choice shows the more modern idea that spiritual fulfillment is something one does, rather than an object to attain. The dialogue between Lilith and Adam illustrates how phonology impacts the meaning of words. When Lilith first met Adam, he told her his name without stressing either syllable, which made Lilith unable to decipher what he was trying to tell her, or if he was merely babbling (Nicks, 5). In modern English, the first syllable of the name Adam is normally stressed.

The Historical Context and Analysis of Each Novel

Siddhartha was written in 1922 and Lilith: A Metamorphosis was written in 1995. Though the English translations of both works were written in modern English, there are some modifications that would make Siddhartha better reflect the time period in which Lilith was written. Siddhartha was written in a lyrical style, whereas the language in Lilith is more direct.

For example, on page 43 of Siddhartha, there is a paragraph that is made up of only one long sentence that could be revised into a more concise paragraph to better reflect the time period of Lilith. The original paragraph reads as:

He enquired from the first people that he met about the grove and the woman’s name, and learned that it was the grove of Kamala, the well-known courtesan, and that besides the grove she owned a house in the town.

To better reflect the time period of Lilith, I would revise it to read:

He asked the first people he met about the woman and the grove. Her name was Kamala, a well-known prostitute and the owner of the grove. She also owned a house in the town.

Aside from splitting the flowing, lyrical sentence structure into multiple shorter and more concise sentences, I would change a few of the words to better reflect the vocabulary of readers in the 1990s, including changing “enquired” to “asked” and “courtesan” to “prostitute.”

The Formal Register Level of Siddhartha vs. the Casual Register Level of Lilith

The register level used in Siddhartha is quite formal. The narrative itself, as well as the dialogue, are written in the same formal register. What struck me the most was that there was no discernable difference in the way in which Siddhartha spoke to the different people he interacted with along his journey. Whether he was speaking with his father, his best friend, the courtesan Kamala, or the Buddha himself, Siddhartha did not change the way he spoke. Normally you would expect there to be some code-switching between speaking with an authority figure or mentor (such as Siddhartha’s father and the Buddha) and with speaking to a friend or lover (such as Govinda and Kamala), but Siddhartha spoke to everyone as though he was speaking to an authority figure or stranger (Nichol). He never used any slang words or contractions in his dialogue. For example, when asking his father if he may leave to learn from the Samanas, Siddhartha said “with your permission, Father, I have come to tell you that I wish to leave your house tomorrow and join the ascetics.” He also uses this formal register when he meets the Buddha: “O Illustrious One, in one this above all have I admired your teachings.” Though one would usually speak in a more casual register with a close friend, Siddhartha speaks in the same formal register when he speaks with his friend, Govinda: “Govinda, come with me to the banyan tree. We will practice meditation.” Upon meeting the courtesan, Kamala, Siddhartha formally introduced himself with “[…] I would like to ask you to be my friend and teacher, for I do not know anything of the art of which you are mistress.” There is little emotion here, and he speaks with her as he would with his father, or any other authority figure (Hesse).

The register used in Lilith is more casual. The character Lilith narrates her story as though she is speaking to someone she knows. The narrative includes questions that Lilith asks herself throughout her journey, as though she is telling her story as much for her own benefit as for the reader. Upon discovering the garden, Lilith asks: “But who thought it up? And for what?” Once when leaving the garden, she asks herself: “What reason did I have to bother with him anymore?” These questions she asks herself casually as if she is simply asking a friend a rhetorical question. Lilith’s dialogues with Adam are also in the same register as the narrative. Though the two are intimately linked, they speak to each other using a casual register, rather than intimate (Nichol). Most of their dialogue is simply Lilith asking Adam questions to learn more about him, or attempting to teach him things that he doesn’t understand. Lilith asks Adam short and to-the-point questions like “Do you live here all alone?” and “How long have you lived here?” Adam does make up his own vocabulary for different things he finds, but this is done only because he believes that he must name everything he discovers. For example, he calls Lilith “Lilu” (Nicks).

Lilith: A Metamorphosis, German edition cover. Dagmar Nick

Lilith: A Metamorphosis, German edition cover. Dagmar Nick

The Use of the “Standard English Dialect” in the English Translations of Each Novel

The English translation of Siddhartha is written in the Standard English dialect that seems meant to transcend regional dialects in an effort to be universally relatable. The text contains no “stigmatized” pronunciations of words, such as r-less pronunciations of words or what Linguistics for Everyone refers to as “obvious regionalisms” (433). The speech in Siddhartha is simple and direct. “Will you take me across,” Siddhartha asked the ferryman at the river (83). Neither the dialogue nor the narrative gives away any specific regional setting. This information is known only by knowing the historical context of the novel.

Similarly, the English translation of Lilith also uses the Standard English dialect. This dialect is meant to make the story appeal to a wide audience. As in Siddhartha, the dialogue in Lilith is simple, to the point, and contains no indication of a regional dialect. “Don’t go away,” Adam said to Lilith. He repeated this simple line a couple of times (29). “Your companion is here,” Lilith told Adam on another occasion (39). The dialogue and narrative of Lilith are free from indications of regional dialects, much as they were in Siddhartha. According to Linguistics for Everyone, a Standard English dialect is important for decreasing communication problems that could arise from variations between regional dialects (432-3), and it is apparent that many authors prefer to use the Standard English dialect in their writings to avoid potential confusion in the intended meaning of their work, as well as to appeal to a larger audience.

First edition of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, 1922. Photo by Thomas Bernhard Jutzas

First edition of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, 1922. Photo by Thomas Bernhard Jutzas

The Language Styles and Figurative Language Used in Each Novel

Siddhartha is written in a lyrical style reminiscent of ancient spiritual texts. This lyrical style informs the reader of the spiritual journey that the main character is undertaking throughout the novel. This lyrical style is slow-paced and gives the reader a sense of spiritual growth as they follow the protagonist, Siddhartha, along his journey of spiritual transformation.

Siddhartha uses language in figurative ways. In the chapter “Om,” the novel says that “[t]he river laughed” (Hesse, 107). This is an example of the linguistic principle personification. This use of personification is a standard use of figurative language. According to Linguistics for Everyone, personification is a type of metaphorical language that “gives human attributes to something that is not human.” By giving the river the human attribute of being able to laugh, the reader is given insight into Siddhartha’s inner thoughts because the personification of the river was meant to represent Siddhartha himself. He felt foolish and was projecting his feelings toward himself onto the river. Hesse used the personification of the river as a means of representing Siddhartha’s spiritual journey (Hesse).

Lilith is written in a more informal and conversational style. Lilith uses the stylistic device of foreshadowing throughout the story. Serpents are mentioned throughout the story, and one chapter ends with “At that time, I still had my legs.” At the end of the story, Lilith is turned into a snake. There are also many uses of the stylistic device of rhetorical questions. At one point, Lilith asks herself “What reason did I have to bother with him anymore?” After becoming a snake, Lilith asks, rhetorically, “How am I to talk with you, without sound? How am I to console you? How am I to take you in my arms, without arms?” She obviously isn’t expecting a response to these questions, since Adam cannot hear her. She asks these questions silently to herself to make the point that she can no longer do these things. The stylistic choice of an initial lack of emotional involvement shows that Lilith wasn’t willing to give up her own personal freedom to be with Adam, despite her feelings for him. The dialogue is presented in an informal way, without punctuations marks, which gives the impression that Lilith is paraphrasing her interactions with Adam, rather than giving exact quotes of their interactions. This stylistic choice shows that the events told in the narrative are entirely Lilith’s interpretation of what happened in the garden, rather than an objective perspective (Nicks).

Lilith also makes use of figurative language. At the beginning of the book, Lilith described Adam’s eyes as being “clear as water” (Nicks, 5). Adam’s eyes are described in this way to give the reader an idea of what Adam looked like. This particular language was likely also used to give the reader the impression that Adam was pure and innocent by associating his eyes with pure, clear water. This is a standard use of a simile. This simile compares Adam’s eyes with clear water to give the reader a better understanding of the character’s appearance.

"Lilith" by John Collier, 1982

"Lilith" by John Collier, 1982

One thing that stood out about the use of language in Siddhartha was the frequent use of longer sentences divided by commas. The long, flowing sentence structure added to the lyrical style of the novel, but the intended message of some of the sentences got lost in the complexity of the prose. This had the effect of slowing the pace of the story to give the impression of going on a slow spiritual journey with the main character. The biggest problem with these long sentences are the instances where they contain comma splices. For example, page 15 contains this sentence: “I have always thirsted for knowledge, I have always been full of questions.” This non-standard use of language fails to follow established linguistic principles and hinders the novel’s ability to convey its intended message.

Siddhartha also makes use of several Sanskrit words. The use of unfamiliar Sanskrit words throughout the story both helps and hinders the intended message. Sanskrit words such as “Brahmin,” “Samana,” and “Atman” make the story more immersive and help to remind the reader of the story’s setting, but most western readers in the 1920s wouldn’t have been familiar with these words and would have to rely on the context to decipher the meanings. If Hesse had attempted to use approximate (German, and later, English) translations of these words, they may have lost their meanings since these words are intimately linked to Hindu cultural practices.

I would recommend that the comma splices in Siddhartha be corrected to better align with linguistic principles. The comma should be replaced with either a semicolon, the word “and,” or a period to correct the comma splice in the sentence on page 15 (“I have always thirsted for knowledge, I have always been full of questions).” Similarly, the sentence appearing on page 121 (“Yet none of them died, they only changed, were always reborn, continually had a new face: only time stood between one face and another.”) should be revised to “Yet none of them died: they only changed, were always reborn, and continually had a new face. Only time stood between one face and another.” I would also recommend that the meanings of the Sanskrit words be better explained within the novel.

A Rock cut Seated Buddha Statue at Bojjannakonda, Visakhapatnam District by Adityamadhav83, 2011

A Rock cut Seated Buddha Statue at Bojjannakonda, Visakhapatnam District by Adityamadhav83, 2011

The use of language in Lilith is rather informal and certain established linguistic principles are ignored. For example, there are frequent sentence fragments. Lilith uses more direct language that focused almost exclusively on the actions and thoughts of the main character and her observations of Adam. This more direct approach makes the story feel faster-paced, as though the events of the story happened over a short period of time. In some instances, Lilith uses sentence fragments, such as beginning a paragraph on page seven with “No answer. No movement at all.” The use of sentence fragments makes the story feel more conversational and informal, but hinders the intended message of the phrases.

Lilith made use of an Akkadian word when Lilith revealed that people called her “Lilu. (Nick, 19)” The word “lilu” refers to a demonic spirit in the ancient Akkadian language. Though modern audiences would be unfamiliar with this Akkadian word, it reveals the setting of the story. The inclusion of this word helps to convey the fact that this story is based as much on ancient Babylonian myths as it is on more recent Biblical descriptions of the Garden of Eden.

For Lilith to better align with the standard use of language and linguistic principles, I would recommend changing the fragmented sentences to full sentences with a subject, verb, and object. I would change the sentence fragments “No answer. No movement at all.” to “He gave no answer and made no movement at all.” The addition of the subject “he” and the verbs “gave” and “made” helps this line to better align with the standard use of the English language.

Hermann Hesse, 1927 by Gret Widmann

Hermann Hesse, 1927 by Gret Widmann

What Influenced Each Author?

The time Hermann Hess spent in India directly influenced the language used in Siddhartha. The cultural influences that Hesse was exposed to had a profound effect on the environment of his novel (Hermann Hesse). The overall plot of the story was directly influenced by the story of the Buddha and Hesse’s experience with Buddhism and eastern religious practices, and the lyrical style of his prose was inspired by religious texts. Hesse used some Sanskrit words throughout the story, such as “Atman” and “Brahmin’ that he became familiar with during his time in India. He also used Indian names for each of the characters, rather than western names that his readers would have been more familiar with. Though most western readers wouldn’t have been familiar with Sanskrit words or Indian culture during the 1920s, the use of these words does make the setting of the novel feel more authentic.

Dagmar Nick drew from Biblical sources as well as ancient Babylonian sources to create Lilith, but the story was written in the mid-1990s. The language used reflects that the main character, Lilith, is self-centered and thinks mostly of herself. Almost every sentence in the story contains either the word “I” or “me.” When Lilith speaks of Adam, she usually describes him in terms of how he relates to her (e.g. “Adam looked at me [17].” “He did not look for me [37].” “As if Adam had read my mind, he turned around and discovered my hideout [39].”). This type of self-focused language was influenced by the time period in which it was written. Cultural attitudes had shifted to be more focused on one’s self than on others between the time when Siddhartha was written (1922) and the time when Lilith was written (1995).

Herman Hesse was influenced by linguistic factors from both his own native culture as well as the culture of India in the 1920s when he wrote Siddhartha. While he attempted to write in a lyrical style reminiscent of ancient religious texts, he violated some basic linguistic principles that obscured his intended meaning (i.e. comma splices). Hesse’s experiences, as well as the setting of the story, impacted the language Hesse used in Siddhartha.

Dagmar Nick drew upon Biblical stories as well as Babylonian mythology as the major influences for Lilith, though the modern use of language in the 1990s greatly influenced the way in which Lilith was written. The story was written in a direct conversational style that doesn’t always follow conventional linguistic practices (such as Nick’s use of sentence fragments). Though the story drew from ancient sources, Nick used the linguistic factors of her own time, particularly the tendency of using self-focused language, in writing Lilith.


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© 2018 Jennifer Wilber


Joel Eisenberg from Los Angeles, CA on January 18, 2018:

Very nice work.