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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker: A Summary and Literary Analysis of the Dark Fairy 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 open-mindedness 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.




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 who works as a sycophantic high court councilor but whose true passion is ingenious engineering and inventing (every Christmas he makes them elaborate clockwork toys). The children are delighted 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 -- a very specific moral lesson that Drosselmeier wants them to learn.

As Fritz – a sadistic little boy who delights in flogging his toy soldiers – forces his new troops to fight each other, Marie is deeply drawn to a wooden nutcracker in a violet hussar’s uniform: he is ugly but sincere, and oddly reminds her of her godfather. Heart-warmed by the toy's humble unconventionality she falls in love with the unassuming toy. After Fritz brutally forces Nutcracker to crack one too many nuts, resulting in a shattered jaw, Drosselmeier assures Marie that he can be repaired, while Marie tenderly bandages his injury 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 gets there, she hears the grandfather clock strike twelve and vaguely thinks she can see Drosselmeier, grinning and perched playfully 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 barbarian hoardes.