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E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Sandman: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Horror Story

None of Hoffmann’s tales compares in literary merit, psychological scope, or popular influence like “The Sandman.” While “Nutcracker and the Mouse-King” has secured more attention in the genres of fantasy and children’s literature, “The Sandman” reigns in the hearts of horror aficionados as his unparalleled masterpiece. Dark, swirling, and dizzy, it is a brilliant parable of predestination and freewill. Adored and analyzed by Freud, and mimicked by filmmakers from Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang to Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, its use of unreliable narrators, psychological suspense, and philosophical subtext blend it into a masterful allegory of the struggle between rationality and madness – between objectivity and subjectivity. Founded, like so many of Hoffmann’s tales, on the perversion of a nursery story, it uses the image of the Sandman to represent the dark side of human nature. Everything the Sandman touches is spoiled; everyone he has influence over is ruined; his only desire is to sow suffering and hopelessness.

 

While the original Sandman – a Nordic fairy who sprinkles magic sand into the eyes of wakeful children, causing them to drift off to Slumberland – was a benign creature intended to encourage children to be quiet and still, Hoffmann characteristically views this agent of order as a threat. His Sandman not only brings a bag of sand (in this case it is burning hot), but has another bag to collect the eyes of youngsters whom he has blinded as punishment for their attentiveness. While Freud considered eyes to be representative of the male sex organs, others have seen them as symbols of reason and objectivity – of connecting with the Truth.

 

Nathanael, our manic protagonist, is incessantly blinded to reality by his own all-consuming imagination. He is repeatedly deceived and misled because of his inability to separate the objective reality from the subjective experience. This treatment is somewhat unusual for Hoffmann, who typically encourages readers to embark from the inanity of everyday life to the fulfilling realms of imagination and poetry. But even in tales like “Nutcracker” and “The Golden Flower-Pot,” he manages to keep his daydreamers rooted to some semblance of reality and order (both stories end with the protagonist settling into a bourgeois lifestyle in their new supernatural homes).

 

Indeed, “The Sandman” operates as something of a ballast to these other tales – like “The Gnome-King’s Bride” and “The Mines of Falun” it warns that pitching head-over-heels into the kingdoms of subjectivity will usually result in utter self-destruction. This is the same in “The Walled-Up Door” and “Councilor Krespel,” which advise their readers to be in touch with their emotions but not overwhelmed – lest they end up wrung dry and tossed aside like Antonia or Seraphina. The ultimate battle in “The Sandman” is waged between two characters representing the warring factions of German intellectualism: the rational Enlightenment (represented by the wise but robotic Clara) and the expressive Romantics (represented by the impulsive but sincere Nathanael). The two lovers regularly quarrel over their different interpretations of free will: Clara considers it a critical belief necessary to live a responsible and fulfilling life, while Nathanael seems to find freedom in the notion of predestination – that his life’s journey is caught in the inescapable currents of Fate, and that he cannot be held responsible for his affinities.

 

At first these seem like the heady squabbles of an A-type personality and a free spirit, but then enters a third combatant with nothing to lose. The Sandman – manifested in the grotesque figures of the alchemist Coppelius and the glass salesman Coppola – represents the ultimate fate of free spirits and daydreamers who refuse to grip the world with both hands and claim a stake in their own lives. While Freud views Coppelius as the “bad father” – an evil Doppelgänger of Nathanael’s own, dominated parent – there are many other symbols absorbed by his larger-than-life persona: the power of obsession, the brute strength of the ego, and the dark, Shadow-side of human nature. Whenever the Sandman walks into Nathanael’s life, only one thing is for certain: chaos, heartbreak, and loss. Whoever the Sandman is or whatever he represents, it is diametrically opposed to human community and hope – he is the embodiment of selfishness and the pustular soul of the Shadow.

 

II.

Nathanael is writing to his friend Lothar -- brother to his fiancee Clara -- with a story about his childhood. He remembers how his family maid would tell him terrifying stories of the Sandman, who visits children in the night to make sure they are sleeping; if they aren't he has a bag of burning sand that he throws into their eyes before plucking them from the sockets and taking the cooked orbs to the moon where he feeds them to his ravenous children. As a boy Nathanael was sure that the Sandman was disguising himself as Coppelius, a grotesque and domineering man who visited his father from time to time, using his arcane knowledge to perform alchemical experiments in secret. One night Nathanael spies on his father and Coppelius and finds them surrounded by robotic faces, trying to bring an automaton to life. Enraged, Coppelius threatens to throw Nathanael in the fire, but his father stops him in time. Soon afterwards, his father is killed in an explosion during an experiment, and Coppelius disappears, never to be seen again. Nathanael explains that an obnoxious barometer- and eyeglass-salesman named Coppola -- an Italian who has recently solicited him -- is the same man, and that he is eager for revenge. 

 

Having read this letter, Clara writes to Nathanael and urges him to be reasonable, logically explaining that he is probably projecting a childhood trauma onto a harmless foreigner. Lothar also writes to him vouching for Coppola: a local physics professor -- whose beautiful daughter, Olimpia, has become an object of widespread curiosity -- has been close to Coppola for years and considers him trustworthy. Nathanael returns to his friends, but his obsession drives a wedge between them. Highly logical, Clara grows tired of his whimsical fantasies (including one disturbing poem where he imagines Coppelius arriving at his and Clara's wedding, gouging out her eyes, and tossing him into flames), and he in turn tires of Clara's insistence that he is being overly dramatic. In a rage he accuses her of being a robotic, cold-hearted automaton, and it is only her intervention that prevents Lothar from challenging him to a duel. 

 

Confused and frustrated, he develops and obsession for the beautiful Olimpia, daughter of Coppola's professor friend, whom he can see through a window with a small telescope that he purchases from Coppola. Olimpia sits for hours in the same position, doing nothing in particular but smiling, and he finds himself enraptured by her docility: unlike the confrontational Clara, here is a woman who will listen to and support his indulgent ravings. When it is announced that the professor is going to throw a grand ball at which Olimpia will debut in public for the first time, Nathanael makes sure to attend and his enchanted by her gentle-if-oddly-emotionless beauty. While the other guests are disturbed by her lack of personality and stiffness of motion, Nathanael dances the night away with her, bestowing endless compliments to which she only replies "Ah! Ah!" After the party, he talks to her long into the night, pleased but undisturbed by her monosyllabic replies. 

 

Determined to marry her, he visits the professor's house but finds him and Coppola locked in a brutal fight over Olimpia's body -- each claiming the right to own her: the professor has designed her "clockwork," but Coppola supplied the "eyes."During a tug of war, her eyes roll out of her head, and Coppola -- now exposed as Coppelius, who has finally succeeded at the task he had been pursuing with Nathanael's father: the creation of a lifelike robot -- runs off with the mechanical doll over his shoulder. Horrified at his self-deception, Nathanael is committed to an asylum after attempting to strangle the professor. Coppelius disappears again, the professor loses his job, and for years afterward, wary young men closely inspect their lovers to make sure they aren't automatons in disguise.

 

After recovering, Nathanael commits himself to Clara and she and Lothar and their friend Siegmund travel to the church where they intend to marry. They climb to the top of the steeple to take in the gorgeous view, and Clara directs their attention to what appears to be a bush moving towards them. Using Coppola's telescope, Nathanael sees Clara's face on the other side of the lens, and is driven insane by the suggestion that the girl beside him is another automaton. He locks Lothar out of the tower and begins spinning Clara around and around and around, dancing maniacally with her and threatening to throw her to her death below. Siegmund breaks down the door and saves Clara, leaving Nathanael alone, staring down at the crowd which has assembled to see what all the commotion is about. Looking down below, he spies Coppelius' leering face in the crowd, where he is assuring bystanders that "he will soon come down." Confronted with his ancient enemy's obvious victory, Nathanael cries out "pretty eyes! Pretty eyes!" (Coppola's catch phrase when peddling telescopes) and hurls himself from the tower to his death. In the ensuing years, the narrator shows us Clara spending time with her loving husband (implied to be Siegmund) and children, relieved of Nathanael's nightmarish presence.

 

III.

Ultimately, “The Sandman” is a story about psychological defense mechanisms run amuck – denial and projection chief amongst them – and the dangers of straying too far into a subjective worldview cut free from the perspectives and advice of others. Hoffmann experienced this sort of estrangement frequently throughout his life, finding himself at odds with his friends and family, who often shamed him for his outlandish behavior and irresponsible impulses. Inappropriate obsessions with underage students, emotional upheavals swinging from suicidal depressions to manic moods of invincibility, and self-destructive attacks against the political establishment often overtook Hoffmann’s life, leaving him burdened with humiliating self-loathing and frustration. In one moment he seemed to have no doubts that he should leave his devoted wife for a music student barely in the first stages of puberty – almost oblivious to the catastrophic results this would have on his life and reputations – while in another he viewed himself as a pathetic lothario – a walking embarrassment.

 

Swinging back and forth between manic and depressive episodes taught Hoffmann to rely on others for perspective, and to be suspicious of his momentary feelings. Years after the Julia Mark affair, he would be grateful that he hadn’t followed his repeated impulses to kill himself, and while he never turned his back on a life rich in whimsy, imagination, and spontaneity, as he aged he seemed to recognize the toll that his unmoored will had exerted on his happiness. Balance was critical to keep him grounded and secure, and while a life without mirth and indulgence was unimaginable, one entirely lost to the shifting winds of impulse was every bit as terrifying as “The Sandman” suggests. Nathanael rejects Clara’s offer to provide him with her vision – a clear perspective sharpened by reason – and as a result, unknowingly hands his eyes over to Coppelius, trading them for the salesman’s three ducat telescope. Whenever Nathanael peers through this prejudiced perspective, he sees only that which he expects to see: Olimpia is a beautiful if strange girl, and the grey figure approaching the tower is the Sandman himself, coming for his eyes.

 

The motif of vision which haunts this story is naturally a symbolic one – one which studies our ability to be fooled and to have our objectivity compromised. Nathanael grows up terrified by the idea of having his vision hijacked by the Sandman – a mythic figure whom he blames for compromising his father’s judgment and luring him into a series of fatal alchemical experiments. Of course we have every reason to doubt this narrator as unreliable, and Clara makes a strong case for this: the Sandman was a folkloric archetype who came to represent the loss of self-control and objectivity, and this symbol was conflated with the bizarre Coppelius, who seemed to take control away from their servile father. After the latter’s death, Nathanael became neurotically obsessed with suffering the same fate – having a nefarious influence strip him of self-control and self-possession, effectively robbing him of his psychological vision – and when the Italian salesman came to town, Nathanael mistakenly projected his internal anxieties onto a harmless hawker. But Clara’s warning doesn’t take root in her lover’s heart: she is barely able to bring clarity and understanding to him in time to save him from dueling her brother. Instead, he finds solace in the arms of a 19th century Stepford Wife – the pleasantly agreeable Olimpia.

 

Unlike Clara, who frustrates Nathanael by challenging his manias, Olimpia agrees with monosyllabic vigor, crying out “Oh! Oh! Oh!” to all of his comments and questions. Her orgasmic affirmation soothes his insecurities and builds up his ego to perilous heights. Essentially a sex doll (and frequently interpreted as such by productions of Offenbach’s opera, “Tales of Hoffmann,” and Delibes’ ballet, “Coppelia”), Olimpia overwhelms Nathanael’s imagination – robbing him of his eyes – soothing his bruised self-doubts with her nymphic adulation. Completely compromised, he does what any Hoffmann protagonist would do, and makes a public spectacle of himself, shocking strangers and embarrassing friends by making love to a robot.

 

By the time Nathanael realizes that he has traded Clara’s clarity for the mindless approval of a puppet, he has lost all faith in his judgment, and is barely able to beg his jilted lover for forgiveness. When the sort-of-happy couple go to the church to marry, the Sandman seems to reappear in the crowd below the steeple, leading Nathanael to anticipate further delusions and deceptions. Conflating Clara with Olimpia in that moment, he projects his sexual frustration onto the living woman and attempts to destroy her as surely and easily as Olimpia was destroyed by her creators. After Siegmund (whose name tellingly means “defender” or “protector”) saves Clara, Nathanael’s humiliation is complete: he sees Coppola in the crowd below, where he predicts (or so Nathanael seems to hear) that there is no need to strong arm him: “he will come down of his own accord.”

 

As if responding to a command, Nathanael screams out to the apparition that he now has the same “foine oyes” that the foreigner had been hawking earlier, and after making this sinister comparison, consigns himself to suicide. The transformation has been realized: Nathanael has lost his eyes to his new master just as hopelessly as his father lost his willpower and life. Freud was mesmerized by the story and considered it a parable of sexual impotence, and the reading is not without validity. Anxious about the prospect of having to consummate his love with Clara (an anxiety that stems from his Oedipal rage towards his own impotent father – a rage which manifests itself in the father-killing Doppelgänger Coppelius), Nathanael easily transfers his affections to an inanimate sex doll designed to affirm and confirm. This union, however, only leads to more humiliation and reinforces the idea that he is incapable of making love to a living woman. His death from the top of the phallic tower is the apotheosis of his latent performance anxieties – the ultimate case of pre-wedding cold feet.

 

IV.

The idea of choosing between the challenges of a living, willful partner, and the allure of a self-soothing, affirming sex toy have been rehashed in dozens of books, movies, and musicals. Early German films like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (wherein an evil robot stirs up havoc by impersonating a popular social activist) and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (wherein a hypnotized sleepwalker is programmed to murder) are excessively Hoffmann-esque, delving into the Uncanny Valley and the tensions between reality and imagination. Modern films like “The Stepford Wives” (suburban housewives are turned into mindless robots), “Vertigo” (a man tries to fashion his girlfriend into a replicate of the dead stranger he became obsessed with), “Coraline” (a little girl finds a “Nutcracker”-like parallel universe where her parents are perfect versions of themselves, save that they have had their eyes replaced with buttons, and she is threatened with the same “Sandman”-like treatment), and “The Matrix” (a man learns that the world is a vast illusion, and is tasked with choosing between the lethargy of remaining deluded and the challenging work of fighting against the deception) build on Hoffmann’s “Sandman.” It remains his most psychologically powerful and literarily fertile work, forcing readers to wonder how much of the story was real, how much was imagined, and – most importantly – to what extent it matters at all.

 

In most of Hoffmann’s works, he comes to a similar conclusion: even if this is all fake, it doesn’t change its reality if Experience is Truth. And in this sense, “The Sandman” – like most of Hoffmann’s works – is almost postmodern in its vertigo-inducing philosophy. If reality is subjective (as the proto-postmodernist Nathanael argues with the staunch modernist Clara) then the possibilities of life are endless. Nathanael is consumed both by a belief in the limitlessness of life and in the inescapability of destiny. In a sense, he views life as a funhouse with a closing time: you can do or be anything you want (and you can make others do or be anything you want), but when the Manager turns the lights out and drags you into the dark, there is nothing you can do to resist. While Clara may be arguably a tad unimaginative and lacking in passion, she sees herself as the master of her life choices: she can choose to interrupt Nathanael’s windy speeches to save her coffee from burning, and she can choose to break up his fight with her brother, and she can choose to reject or marry him. Her universe is far more libertarian and self-possessed, founded on free will rather than predestination.

 

Disgusted by her willpower and lack of self-indulgence, Nathanael momentarily saturates himself in Olimpia’s mindless servitude, before he recognizes himself in her: just like Olimpia, he has allowed himself to be the mindless puppet of malevolent external forces. By the time he returns to Clara – seeking counsel and education in the arts of self-control – it is far too late; like Olimpia he has resigned his destiny to impulses – handing his eyes willingly over to deceivers – and like her he is torn apart by the warring forces that he has allowed to control him.

 

You can read the original story HERE!

 

And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Hoffmann's best weird tales HERE!

 

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