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E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker: A Summary and Analysis of the Dark, Creepy Story Behind the Classic Christmas Tale

Most famous and proliferate of all Hoffmann’s tales, “Nutcracker and the Mouse-King” was not very well received by its contemporaries. Hoffmann himself considered it a flop, and tweaked the plot considerably into “The Stranger Child” – another Christmas tale about two siblings who befriend an exiled supernatural being who is pursued by a villainous animal hybrid (in this case a fly), whom the children help to restore to his throne. While “The Stranger Child” was better reviewed during Hoffmann’s lifetime, it would be his earlier Yuletide fairy tale that would preserve his fame in the coming centuries. And a fairy it most certainly is: with its plot about a disguised prince cursed with an ugly exterior and only restored to his rightful form by the unqualified love of a good woman, “Nutcracker” builds on the legacy of European folk classics like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Six Wild Swans,” “The Frog Prince,” and “King Thrush-beard” (or in German, “König Drosselbart” – the source of Godfather Drosselmeier’s surname).

 

The moral of these stories are generally that society can be prejudiced against good people for very superficial reasons, but that wise and discerning hearts will choose to protect, appreciate, and love a virtuous outcast without casting judgment on their looks or power. For Hoffmann – who considered himself physically and psychologically ludicrous – this childlike ability to see beyond society’s measures of worth and to value a person for their character rather than their external value was priceless, and he often identified it in the young girls who always seemed to feature in his life (Julia Mark being the most significant, along with his niece who briefly lived with his family, and his daughter who died as a toddler).

 

The modern concepts of “Nutcracker” are largely due to two important developments in its history: a French adaptation by Alexandre Dumas which toned down Hoffmann’s horror elements and humanized the largely unlikable Herr Drosselmeier (who in Hoffmann’s tale is aloof, cruel, overly sensitive, and frightening), and the libretto of Pytor Tchaikovsky’s ballet which wildly overemphasized the penultimate chapter which takes place in Candyland (in Hoffmann’s tale, this occupies exactly 14.8% of the plot, while Tchaikovsky makes it over 45% of his ballet, including new characters like the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier).

 

Transforming Hoffmann’s Kafkaesque dark fantasy into a charming Christmas fairy tale was enough to rehabilitate the story and introduce it to new generations. While the original tale is not drastically different, there is a strong atmosphere of unease and anxiety that doesn’t exist in Tchaikovsky’s ballet: Drosselmeier gaslights Marie (Clara in the ballet) by pretending not to know about her experiences (of which he is clearly the orchestrator) and frightens her multiple times with his weird stories and nonsense poems; her parents, too, threaten her with punishment if she doesn’t shut up about Nutcracker, and by the end of the story she is a disillusioned daydreamer suffering from depression and a potentially fatal infection. Ultimately, Drosselmeier seems to be urging Marie through a ritualistic initiation into the world of perceiving-things-as-they-are: as in “The Golden Flower Pot,” Hoffmann uses a character’s imagination to bring energizing vision to the mundane and ordinary comforts to the imagination.

 

The fickle eccentric Drosselmeier uses Marie’s openmindedness to break a curse settled on his nephew by a gluttonous mouse (representing corruption) and a spoiled princess (representing the aristocracy): she sees things as they are, and doesn’t question Drosselmeier’s satirical parable (instead of assuming that the mouse and princess are symbols of a prejudiced, shallow society, she takes them at face value), causing her feelings for the ugly Nutcracker to become deeply held convictions. Today “Nutcracker” is warmly regarded as a cozy Christmas story, but Hoffmann’s original – brooding with direful gloom, fearturing psychological abuse, a nearly fatal wound to the young protagonist, and a bevvy of erotic subtext – was hardly cozy. It is a wild, manic indictment of bourgeois culture, presenting a revolutionary treatise on the power of imagination to free the soul and the staggering costs of releasing oneself from society’s power – as Marie will find out, it may cost you your friends, your family, your health, and your home, and – as some somber theorists believe – maybe even your life.

 

II.

 

The story begins on Christmas Eve. The Stahlbaum house is brimming with nervous spiritual energy: Marie and Fritz, the two youngest Stahlbaums, imagine ghostly noises in locked rooms and sense the ominous approach of some external power. They anticipate the arrival of their eccentric, one-eyed Godfather Drosselmeier – a jurist and tinkerer who makes them elaborate clockwork toys every Christmas – and are excited when he arrives with a massive mechanical castle inhabited by robotic courtiers (including a miniature Drosselmeier), but quickly grow bored after realizing that the toys are forced to repeat the same mechanical movements indefinitely. As Fritz – a sadistic little boy who delights in punishing his toy soldiers – forces his new troopers to fight each other, Marie is attracted to a wooden nutcracker in a violet hussar’s uniform: ugly but sincere, it reminds her of her godfather, and she falls in love with the unassuming toy. After Fritz brutally forces Nutcracker to shatter one too many nuts, resulting in broken teeth, Drosselmeier assures Marie that he can be repaired, while Marie bandages him with a ribbon from her dress.

 

That night, she stays up late with the new toys, and is briefly frightened when Nutcracker’s eyes glow green and his face distorts in disgust at the mention of Drosselmeier’s name. She puts him to bed in a glass-doored toy cabinet and heads to bed. Before she can, she hears the grandfather clock strike twelve and thinks she can see Drosselmeier perched atop it. She scolds the old man for frightening her, but is interrupted by an army of mice who descend on the toys and candy like pillagers. She is further horrified when their seven-headed king bursts through the floor, but is comforted by Nutcracker, who comes to life and leads the toys in a valiant defense against the greedy rodents. The battle grows violent, with the mice pelting the toys with feces and chewing them to bits, and Marie falls against the glass cabinet as she hurls a shoe at the Mouse-King who is poised to kill Nutcracker, smashing the glass and cutting her arm open.

 

In the morning she finds herself bandaged in bed and weak from massive blood loss. Her parents berate her fantastic story, but Drosselmeier offers to tell her the backstory behind Nutcracker and the Mouse-King. Two decades earlier, a one-eyed tinkerer named Drosselmeier was called upon to help the royals of a distant kingdom. The infant Princess Pirlipat had been turned into an ugly gnome by the vengeful Mouse Queen (whose family had been massacred by Drosselmeier’s ingenious mousetraps after having plundered the king’s kitchen and humiliating the queen), and no one knows how to turn her back to a beautiful child. Consulting his alchemical research, he learns that she must be handed a special nut by a man who has never shaved or worn shoes, who then walks backward seven steps. After years of searching for the nut and the man, Drosselmeier finds that his brother has the nut and that his young nephew has never shaved or worn shoes. The young man bites the nut, gives it to Pirlipat, takes six steps backwards, but is tripped by the vengeful Mouse Queen (who is killed under his feet), and has the curse transferred to him. Pirlipat, beautiful again, is consumed with vanity and cruelly rejects Young Drosselmeier, who takes the shape of a wooden nutcracker.

 

Marie is astounded by the tale and finds herself even more drawn to the selfless Nutcracker. That night the Mouse-King (the rodent queen’s mutated son) breaks into Marie’s sick room and whispers threats to the Nutcracker unless she surrender all her toys to him. Sadly, she gives them over, but the next two nights he demands her candies and her fine clothes. On the third day Nutcracker tells her that if she can procure him a sword, he can slay that Mouse-King. Armed with one of Fritz’s soldier’s sabers, Nutcracker arrives at her bed the next night with the Mouse-King’s seven crowns in tow. Together, Marie and Nutcracker climb through her father’s cloak, which acts as a portal to Candyland, where Nutcracker reigns as a beloved prince. They explore the rivers of lemonade and gingerbread houses, meeting a race of cookie-people who exhibit an existential horror of the godlike Candyman, and live lives of fatalistic apathy.

 

In the morning Marie awakes in her bed and realizes that her parents’ world is little different from Candyland or Drosselmeier’s mechanical castle: all three are inhabited by listless sycophants following a predestined set of complicit behaviors. Society, she realizes, requires conformity, good behavior, and performative docility. Weeks later, scolded by her parents for her fantasies, Marie is listless and depressed. While her godfather repairs the grandfather clock, she whispers that she would love Young Drosselmeier even if he were an ugly gnome, and faints when the old man laughs. When she awakens, Young Drosselmeier appears in the door in the form of a teenaged boy. He thanks her for her help in breaking his curse, and promises to come back for her hand in marriage in a year and a day. The story ends with the narrator informing us that Young Drosselmeier kept his promise and took her to Candyland… “or so they say.”

 

III.

 

One of the more curious elements of “Nutcracker and the Mouse-King” is the relationship between Marie and her eccentric godfather. As previously mentioned, the story borrows much from “don’t judge a book by its cover” fairy tales like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Frog Prince,” “The Wild Swans,” and “King Thrush-Beard” (“König Drosselbart” – the likely source of Drosselmeier’s name). Part of the story involves a sort of proxy romance between Marie and a younger version of the old tinker, and while it is overdramatic to suggest that the story involves heavy themes of pedophilia, it is clear that sexual sublimation is unquestionably at work. Drosselmeier blushes shamefully when Marie suggestively comments that even the old man would present a striking figure if dressed in Nutcracker’s tight uniform, and the moment of transformation (which causes Marie to faint in a fit of Freudian hysteria) comes when she utters the words “Dear Mr. Drosselmeier … I shouldn’t despise you because you had had to give up being a nice, handsome gentleman…” The vaguely addressed declaration could apply to either prepubescent nephew or geriatric uncle, and after Drosselmeier calls such a promise “stuff and nonsense,” the sound of his voice is the harbinger of her fainting fit. Both seem to be sublimating unacceptable feelings for the other, but – like in “The Gnome-King’s Bride” – they successfully reroute their embarrassing attractions through the redeeming figure of Young Drosselmeier, allowing the romance to consummate itself vicariously through a socially acceptable medium.

Untoward attractions aside, Hoffmann’s Drosselmeier behaves much differently from Tchaikovsky’s dotting protector: he frightens Marie several times, startles her with gibberish poems, makes fun of her attachment to Nutcracker, abandons her when she needs support, and has a far more villainous aspect (earning even Nutcracker’s glaring disdain). But both characters serve as handlers to their goddaughters – carefully grooming them to serve as the redemptive savior of the Krakatook Saga. Marie notably spies Drosselmeier perched atop his pet grandfather clock, trying to silence the chimes and virtually overseeing (and ensuring) the following battle. He operates as a priest inducting a novice into her vows, presenting barriers to her success, pushing her towards humiliation and isolation, and testing her mettle in the crucible of self-doubt. But Marie excels at each test: she rebukes her materialistic doll Clara, detests the vain Princess Pirlipat, and refuses to exchange Nutcracker’s life in return for her childish delights. After being tested three nights in a row by the devilish mouse mutant – like Christ moldering in the tomb – she is proven worthy, given the key to the Mouse-King’s destruction, and inducted into the charming world of Candyland, where all of her losses are accounted for by a surplus of indulgences.

 

Both she and Nutcracker are transformed in a redemptive apotheosis that raises them from their respective graves: Nutcracker from the fate of being chronically misunderstood by virtue of his ugliness, and Marie from a life bereft of authenticity, understanding, and belonging. In the Stahlbaum house there is no room for social nonconformity, and while the children are obviously loved and indulged, when Marie insists that her experiences were genuine (and whether they were or not, as we know Hoffmann wants us to understand that they are True – that they reflect the true nature of society whether literally or allegorically), her parents angrily upbraid her and even the once-believing Fritz has had enough of her fantasies. Whether we read that ominous aside (“or so they say”) as referring to Marie’s death, to her unaccountable disappearance, or to being supernaturally spirited away, Hoffmann assures us that by leaving the lifeless Stahlbaum (“Steel Tree,” recall) universe, she has been saved from a life of repressive predestination. As Drosselmeier attempted to demonstrate with the clockwork castle, modern society may look luscious and appealing, but behind the prancing postures is a life of mindless servitude, soulless repetition, and purposeless existence.

 

Although Tchaikovsky’s ballet is an unquestionable joy (my wife and I see it every Christmas), it tells a tale of a childish diversion – an imaginative indulgence humored in the coddled mind of a little girl – removing Hoffmann’s muscle and grit. The original tale is an existential coming-of-age saga as powerful as Harry Potter, as complex as Alice in Wonderland, and as poignant as The Wizard of Oz. About music, Hoffmann (whom I think would have loved Tchaikovsky’s romantic score, if not his pandering libretto) once said “[it] reveals an unknown kingdom to mankind: a world that has nothing in common with the outward, material world that surrounds it, and in which we leave behind all predetermined conceptual feelings in order to give ourselves up to the inexpressible.” The same is true of “Nutcracker and Mouse-King,” on the surface a bizarre fairy tale, but beneath which churns emotional fire and biting satire. It allows Hoffmann to teach his readers about the importance of character and authenticity, of sacrifice and imagination, and steers them away from the thoughtless violence of Fritz (who lacks compassion), and the heartless vanity of Pirlipat (who lacks empathy). Marie learns to spurn these attitudes in pursuit of an independent, open-minded life guided by her heart and imagination rather than her material wants and vain desires. The process is grueling, humiliating, and dangerous, and it may have cost her everything, but once she proves herself worthy of Nutcracker’s love, the spells of corruption are broken, and the doors of the Living World are flung wide in grateful welcome.

 

You can read the original "Nutcracker and the Mouse-King" HERE!

 

And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of E. T. A. Hoffmann's creepiest weird tales HERE!

 

 

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