In 1810 Hoffmann began teaching music to Julia Mark, the teenaged cousin of one of his close friends. Hoffmann met her when she was twelve – about a year after the death of his infant daughter, and not long after his twelve-year-old niece – who had lived with he and his wife for years – moved out of their house. James McGlathery notes that after these two losses, Julia filled a daughterly hole in Hoffmann’s tenderized heart, filling “an emotional need for a substitute object of paternal affection.” At first Hoffmann’s affection for Julia was purely paternal, but as she grew into sexual maturity, a deep attraction developed within him – one which was so powerful that her mother would ultimately fire him due to his visible adoration.
Hoffmann’s obsession with his nubile student became so all-encompassing that he feared that he was losing his sanity and dreaded that he would impulsively commit suicide in a moment of irrational mania. Initially he hoped, rather oddly, that his love for Julia would be revealed to her in a dream – relieving him of the awkward prospect of exposing himself to a humiliating rejection. But neither would ever happen: he was finally banished by Julia’s mother after an emotional outburst in which Hoffmann verbally berated her fiancé for being unfit to marry her (the young banker’s son had collapsed in public while inebriated). Three months later the two were married, but Hoffmann’s impressions weren’t merely jealous; they were prophetic, and Julia would divorce her husband a few years later. This was the end for Hoffmann, however, and he would never see Julia again.
But her influence on him was irrevocably insidious, infecting his imagination for years to come. To him she represented the childlike innocence he idealized in most of his fictional heroines: impressionable ingénues under the sway of eccentric and possessive paternal figures. In the following story Hoffmann is largely believed to have exorcised his suicidal anxieties: it tells of how a family man’s adulterous fascination with a prostitute named Julia results in the loss of his reflection, an existential disfigurement for which there is only one cure: the murder of his wife and young son.
The story begins, of course, on a snow-swept New Year’s Eve. Like Christmas Eve and All Hallow’s Eve, this night was traditionally seen as a time when magic – both fantastic and fearful – was more potent, and when spiritual energy was more likely to pierce through the world of the mundane. The narrator is explaining how he found himself running through the snowy streets without a hat or coat, raving like a possessed man. He had just been to a New Year’s Eve ball held by a city politician and although it was a rather boring function, he was beginning to feel like something horrible was about to happen. Every New Year’s Eve, he points out, the Devil seems to have it out for him, and he finds himself ambushed by some new humiliation or disaster. Feeling depressed and edgy, he enters the main parlor and is shocked to see his old flame, Julia (whom he didn’t know even knew the politician or anyone in his circle), lounging on a couch with several other beautiful women. She is dressed in a sultry, revealing ball-gown, and he finds himself overwhelmed with lust and obsession as their eyes meet.
He has not seen Julia for quite some time, and is desperate to speak with her, elbowing his way through the crowds to get through to her. She greets him pleasantly, but then turns back to her friends and they talk about the theater. Nervous and worked up, the narrator jostles the host’s tea cup, makes a scene and draws the ire of those around him. He begins to despair, but suddenly realizes that Julia is beside him, that her arm is in his, and that she is leading him into another room. She mentions how she wished he were playing piano for her and singing to her of lost things and bygone times. He feels her dress against his fingers and smells her perfume as they recline on a couch in a dark room lit only by a small lamp. A waiter offers them a tray of champagne flutes, and among them is one crystal goblet of uncommon beauty. Julia chooses it and offers it to the narrator, asking if he still trusts her to hand him a drink (indeed, the strange liquor inside is flickering with diabolical blue flames), and he eagerly drinks it down.
As they nuzzle on the couch, however, a spindly, crooked old man bursts in the room asking for his wife. Julia pleasantly introduces the narrator to her husband, and chides him (the narrator) for being “amusingly overly emotional.” Shocked to learn that she is married – and to a pop-eyed, monkey-like “cretin” with a croaking, toad’s voice – the humiliated narrator runs out into the snowstorm without his hat or coat. Her we pick back up with him finding his way to a dusky beer cellar where he is joined in his shame by two other love-stuck men who have fled society to drink away bad memories. One – tall and thin – anxiously keeps close to the wall, while the other – short and fat – asks the barkeep to cover the mirror. All three men have lost some aspect of their dignity, pride, and personality in pursuit of a hopeless romance: he has lost his hat and coat, but the two others have it far worse – the tall man, Peter, had sold his shadow and the short man, Erasmus Spicker, has lost his reflection.
Drunk and depressed, the narrator stumbles out to find a room for the night (his house keys are in his coat). Upon entering the dark room and lighting candles, however, he is thrown back into hysterics when he looks up at a mirror on the wall and sees Julia looking back at him. He is doubly shocked to hear a voice call out behind him: “Giulietta!” He turns and finds that he has a roommate and that this roommate is screaming in his sleep. Not only this, but he recognizes the man as the short man without a reflection. Waking up from his terrors, Spicker points out that while the tall man had sold his shadow to the Devil, he had freely given his reflection away – for love. He promises to explain his story in the morning, and they go to bed, where the narrator is troubled by bizarre dreams. In the morning, Spicker has left, but the narrator finds a manuscript entitled “The Lost Reflection,” explaining his sad history.
Spicker was a happily married family man who went to Italy on a business trip while his wife and children stayed home in Germany. His fellow travelers quickly took up Italian mistresses and began decadent lifestyles, but Spicker loved his wife, and while he sat in on the ribald parties, he remained faithful. His friends mock this resolution and introduce him to the beautiful Giulietta (Julia in Italian) to test his resolve. He is immediately smitten with her, and despite his love for his wife, he quickly falls in love. This is apparently more than his friends had expected, and they warn him that he is going to make an ass of himself if he doesn’t watch it: Giulietta is not the marrying kind and seems to bring some dark influence with her.
Troubled and embarrassed, Spicker is approached one day by an ugly old man named Signor Dapertutto who ruthlessly mocks him, but also tempts him into seeing Giulietta one last time before the party returns to Germany. Both piqued and provoked by the sinister Dapertutto, Spicker takes his advice, but when he meets her, he ends up getting into a brawl over her with an Italian man, whom he kills. Giulietta hides him from the authorities, but eventually he knows he must leave. She agrees to let him go only if he leaves his reflection behind with her as a pledge of love, which he thinks nothing of, hardly believing that she is serious. However, when he agrees, he watches his reflection dissolve into her mirror, and she herself disappears with it.
Disturbed, he returns to Germany, but is the source of horror anytime his missing reflection is noted, and when he arrives home, his wife and children are revolted and dismayed. Immediately, he confesses the whole story, and while his wife is sympathetic – appreciating his honesty – she insists that it is unwholesome for the children to have a father without a reflection. Distraught, he walks outside to clear his head and finds himself confronted by Dapertutto – whom, he realizes, must be Giulietta’s pimp or demonic handler. The crooked old man offers to restore Spicker’s reflection – and Giulietta’s love – if he will poison his wife and children with a vial that Dapertutto holds out to him. Initially revolted, he begins to weaken when Dapertutto offers to do it himself on Spicker’s behalf. However, he is about to sign their lives over, when his mother’s ghost appears to him and brings him to his senses. He shakes off Dapertutto and returns to his wife, confessing this as well. She blesses him for his good heart, and tells him that once he recovers his reflection – through ethical means – he is welcome back home.
Ever since that day, Spicker has been wandering the earth in hope of redemption, but has not yet found it. The narrator is deeply disturbed by the story, and realizes that he has had a close call: Julia matches Giulietta’s description down to her hair style and dress and taste in music, and Julia’s “new husband” is obviously the demonic Dapertutto.
Borrowing tropes from “Faust,” “The Wandering Jew,” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Hoffmann’s tortured odyssey served as a literary self-flagellation: simultaneously cursing and redeeming himself for his fanatical obsession with the teenaged Julia Mark. Lust, like an intoxicant, pollutes and distorts the mind and soul of his characters (the sexually unnerved protagonist, the pathetic Peter Spikher, and the tragic Erasmus). All three men seem to be victims of the same woman (or same type of woman): a seductive, bare shouldered beauty who seems to be a prostitute being pimped out by the Devil. While a merely biographical interpretation of this story might unfairly characterize it as a chauvinistic character assassination of the harmless Julia (whose scrawny, lecherous fiancé physically resembled the nefarious Dapertutto), a psychological survey of its symbolism and motifs reveals a more complex portrait of shame, self-loathing, and duplicity. All three men are tormented by the power that their respective women (or shared woman) wield over their flimsy willpower, toppling their convictions, and endangering their places in society.
The narrator is in jeopardy of earning a reputation (flirting with a married woman at a civil function, becoming drunk in public, and roaming around the snowy streets without a coat or hat), while Erasmus has been completely banished from his family, forced to associate with fools like Peter, forever adrift in a lonely world. The insidious demon of this story is not women, but the human will. All three men have had their wills toppled and dominated – incapable of shaking off their overpowering obsessions, all three roam through the night bereft of a part of their physical-spiritual identity: the narrator his keys and coat (which tie him to security and place), Peter his shadow (which ties him to reality and space), and Erasmus his reflection (which ties him to his self-esteem, soul, and self-awareness). All three meet on New Year’s Eve, a time of year that is traditionally meant for self-reflection (pun rather intended) and community, but all three meet in a dingy beer cellar, hiding their respective deficits, nursing their respective wounds. Julia – or Giulietta – doesn’t represent the entirety of womankind, but rather serves as a manifestation of Obsession itself. Beautiful, appealing, impossibly perfect, she seems to step out the paintings of the Great Masters (who, no doubt, saw her as their artistic muse, too) and offers a goblet of habit forming narcotic to the passionate (or merely impressionable) men whom she encounters.
Lead around by the Mephistophelean Dr. Dapertutto (a leering, sneering, possessive archetype common to Hoffmann’s fiction) who may either be her cuckold husband or her diabolical pimp, she ruins homes, upsets brilliant minds, and destroys careers. Julia’s appealing form and sinister nature are virtually vampiric, sharing a likeness with Keats’ dominating “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” Coleridge’s insidious Geraldine and Life-in-Death, the biblical Whore of Babylon, and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. More than a personification of womankind, Julia seems to symbolize the power of an idée fixe – whether it be sex, drugs, art, vanity, power, money, imagination, or fame – to consume and possess a soul to its absolute detriment. Erasmus barely escapes the murder of his family (“Faust’s” Gretchen is not so lucky) – the price his Obsession demanded for his release – but could not recover his shattered relationship with them.
In typical Hoffmann fashion, the rift between husband and family is centered around humiliation and shame: his wife affirms his love but announces that both she and their son have lost their respect for a man who can’t keep his own reflection. Sexually and socially shamed, burning with humiliation and despair, Erasmus is sent forth into a cold and inhospitable world, incapable of enjoying the warm community of a New Year’s celebration. When Hoffmann wrote this story, Julia was probably going through her own humiliating experience: the details of her sham marriage and following divorce were leaking into the public, and while his adoration of her had been spoiled by her marriage to a man he considered “a bastard… a common, prosaic putz,” he must have felt like a fairy tale had ended: the virtuous virgin was now the defamed divorcee, and in spite of his efforts, both his and her happiness had been crushed. It was likely a New Year’s spent in somber reflection about what he had lost to her, and what could never be recovered…