The novel describes the path to adulthood of Emil Sinclair, a bourgeois child. The protagonist explores himself along the novel, with the influence of his mysterious classmate Max Demian, developing his ideas and way of seeing the world around him. Demian also touches on themes such as duality and the god Abraxas, who represents good and evil.
The novel won the Fontane Award, which was given to new writers. The misunderstanding was due to the pseudonym of Emil Sinclair, and soon afterwards Hesse returned the award.