The Sandman


“I tormented myself as to how to begin my account in a significant, original, gripping fashion,” says the narrator of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman, though, as we are at that point almost halfway through the story, what he’s really asking is, what do you do when you begin in epistolary mode and then realise that’s not going to get you to your desired conclusion.

This sudden shift from letter form to chatty raconteur is only one of the many strange occurrences in this famous story. It begins and ends with death, death bringing its two lovers, Nathaniel and Clara, together:

“…shortly after the death of Nathaniel’s father, Clara and Lothar, the children of a distant relatives who likewise died and left them orphaned, were taken in by Nathaniel’s mother. Clara and Nathaniel took a great liking to each other, to which no person on earth objected; they were therefore betrothed when Nathaniel left home to pursue his studies…”

Nathaniel’s father’s death is linked to the visits of Coppelius, “altogether repulsive and disgusting,” whom Nathaniel compounds in his mind with stories of the sandman once used to threaten him to sleep. He spies on Coppelius and his father one night, claiming that he sees “human faces …visible all about but without eyes.” When he is discovered his father begs for him to be allowed to keep his eyes. Later his father dies in an explosion which Nathaniel is certain relates to the activities he has pursued with Coppelius.

This memory resurfaces when he meets an Italian barometer salesman, Coppola, whom he is at first convinced is Coppelius, only to be fortuitously distracted by the daughter of his professor (Spalanzani), Olympia, “whom for some reason he keeps locked up so no-one can come near.” Naturally he falls in love, and naturally these two plotlines – Coppelius and his eyes and Olympia’s isolation – coincide.

The Sandman has an undeniable power – largely created by the hysterical pitch of Nathaniel’s madness – but it struck me that Hoffmann crams in more horror tropes than are necessary creating something of a Gothic hotchpotch. Though he ties these together, the scene in which Spalanzani and Coppola tug-of-war with Olympia echoes the way the plot elements wrestle for supremacy. Either would have made a powerful story on their own and would, perhaps, have made the rather desperate ending less necessary.

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3 Responses to “The Sandman”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    I love the way it’s so over the top; it makes me think of Monty Python or League of Gentlemen. Some of Hoffmann’s other stories are even more bizarre.

  2. German Literature Month VI: (Belated) Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life Says:

    […] Park 1 Hesse: The Glass Bead Game 1 Narcissus and Goldmund 1 Rosshalde 1 Hoffmann: The Sandman 1Hofmann: The Film Explainer 1 Hofmannsthal Electra 1 Der Rosenkavalier 1 Hotschig: Ludwig’s […]

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