E.T.A. Hoffmann never reveals the true nature of his protagonist Nathanael’s childhood incident, and thus by design creates ambiguity within The Sandman. This ambiguity leads to two possible interpretations of the story, one of reality and one of fantasy. Neither of the interpretations dominates the story, and they are not meant to. However, Hoffman uses each of the two interpretations of The Sandman to critique the Romantics and proponents of the Enlightenment; that is, each interpretation serves to reflect the two major movements that dominated Hoffmann’s time.
Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann (1776-1822), better known as Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, was a German Romantic author and a pioneer of the fantastic fiction genre. Drawing from “English Gothic romance, eighteenth-century Italian comedy, the psychology of the abnormal, and the occult, he created both a world in which everyday life is infused with the supernatural,” and crafted characters that are placed in this palpably real, yet strangely unfamiliar world (“Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann”). Published in 1816, The Sandman embodies all these aforementioned characteristics; the story features the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, the grotesque, the uncanny, hallucinatory characters, and horror beneath the surface of everyday life. In writing The Sandman, Hoffmann essentially reflects these elements to (1) create a sense of ambiguity, (2) leave the reader uncertain of the reality or fantasy of the story, and (3) put forth his commentary on Romanticism and Enlightenment.
The ambiguity in The Sandman rests in Nathanael’s traumatic childhood episode with the manifestation of the fictional sandman in a man named Coppelius. Until the end of the story it remains open whether the experience is real or just a dream, or whether the sandman and its reincarnation exists or is it all a post-traumatic hallucination. In other words, Nathanael is either a sane protagonist whom the reader can trust to find an objective view of reality, or Nathanael is a madman whose obsession only gives the reader a subjective and distorted view of reality. Hoffmann consciously leaves room for both interpretations in the story, and the reader is torn between reality and fantasy. The two interpretations are as follows:
The first possible interpretation of the story follows from the letter addressed from Nathanael to Lothaire. This interpretation is the fantastical explanation of the story, and it is of course that Nathanael’s experience with the sandman is real. Nathanael learns of the sandman at an early age and every night he hears “something slow, and heavy coming up the stairs…he trembles with agony and alarm” (Hoffmann, pg. 3). At first the sandman merely “drives Nathanael and his siblings away from Papa” (pg. 2), and creates certain imaginary fear in the young boy. However, one night Nathanael hears the nurse’s tale: “The sandman is a wicked man who comes to children when they won’t go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads. He puts their eyes in a bag and carries them to the crescent moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up there. They have crooked beaks like owls so they can pick up the eyes of naughty human children” (pg. 2).
At this juncture, the sandman becomes something more than just a folklore boogeyman and transcends all the fear Nathanael previously attributed to the sandman. Though Nathanael grows old enough to reject the folklore with the passing years, the sandman remains a fearful specter and an object of his obsession. Nathanael explains that the sandman “introduced him to thoughts of marvels and wonders that gained a hold on his child mind” (pg. 2), a clear indication that the sandman has made a permanent impression on Nathanael. One night Nathanael decides to confront the sandman.
Until the moment Nathanael confronts the sandman, the fearful obsession is only a faceless character. When Nathanael finally identifies the sandman to be the old advocate Coppelius, whom Nathanael is well familiar with, the sandman does not die, but on the contrary manifests itself onto Coppelius. Nathanael describes Coppelius as “a large broad-shouldered man, with a head disproportionately big, a face of the color of yellow ochre, a pair of bushy grey eyebrows, green cat’s eyes sparkled with the most penetrating luster, and a large nose curved over his upper lip” (pg. 3). The sandman takes on shape and form, literally, it is no longer the bogy of the nurse’s tale, but a spectral monster, and Coppelius is the new sandman. Now that the sandman embodies a physical and real form, it is also capable of physical and real harm. Coppelius next attacks Nathanael, which renders the young boy unconscious, and one year later in the final encounter murders Nathanael’s father. Coppelius is not heard from again. This traumatic episode with the sandman not only imprints a permanent scar in Nathanael’s mind, but also sees the death of his father. Although the sandman vanishes along with Coppelius, Nathanael struggles with post-traumatic stress his entire life and the sandman who is now a physical entity never really dies.
We do not hear of the sandman again until a barometer-dealer by the name of Giuseppe Coppola appears in Nathanael’s home. Now an adult, Nathanael identifies many of the dark and horrific features of Coppelius in Coppola, and believes that Coppelius disguised as Coppola is the returning sandman. Indeed, the sandman never died, just disappeared. Nathanael explains that “the barometer-dealer is the accursed Coppelius himself…he is dressed differently, but the figure and features of Coppelius are too deeply imprinted in my mind for an error of this sort” (pg. 6). Nathanael truly believes that Coppelius is Coppola, specifically citing the fact that Coppelius has altered his name rather insufficiently, from Coppelius to Coppola is not a significant difference. If the argument follows, it can also be alleged that Coppelius/Coppola, who is German, can easily fake his disguised Italian accent, use his new profession as a pretense to return, and so on. Ultimately, in this interpretation of the story the sandman is real, and the dark, unexplained forcers that control Nathanael exist. Of course, if Nathanael is mentally disturbed as his obsession and fear of the sandman suggest, there is an alternative interpretation.
The second possible interpretation of the story follows from the letter addressed from Clara to Nathanael. This interpretation is the realistic explanation of the story that dismisses the sandman and all its manifestations with facts and logic. Clara explains that at first even she was touched by Nathanael’s fear; “the fatal barometer dealer followed me at every step…he disturbed my healthy and usually peaceful sleep with all sorts of horrible visions…yet the next day I was quite changed again” (pg. 7). Clara clearly demonstrates that though the fear exists, it is not real. In other words, the fear of the sandman is imaginary. Clara explains this to Nathanael, “all the terrible things of which you speak occurred merely in your own mind, and had little to do with the actual world. Coppelius may have been repulsive enough, but his hatred of children was what really caused the abhorrence you felt towards him” (pg. 7). In her letter, Clara essentially argues that Nathanael’s fear is a psychological element, where the young Nathanael unconsciously created a link between a man he abhorred and a folklore character he feared. For Nathanael, Coppelius and the sandman are indistinguishable. Clara concludes by telling Nathanael that all his dark and hostile fears of the sandman only exist because his belief in them gives them life.
Clara also provides Nathanael with factual evidence that his childhood experience, although traumatic, was merely a misunderstanding and an accident between two experimental alchemists. There were certain psychological consequences on the young Nathanael, but nothing that cannot be explained with facts. Clara notes that Nathanael’s father and Coppelius were indulged in certain secret alchemical experiments, which were dangerous and unpredictable by nature. Participating in such experiments, Nathanael’s father essentially occasioned his own death. To reassure Nathanael, Clara cites her neighbor, the apothecary, and explains that sudden and fatal explosions are possible and common, as is typical of alchemy, and by some careless mistake Nathanael’s father was a victim of an unfortunate incident, not Coppelius. The reason that Coppelius escaped was, by the same argument, not because he murdered his associate, but simply to avoid legal repercussions (pg. 7). This interpretation of the story ultimately places reality above fantasy. In fact, Clara is able to clear all the fantastical elements of Nathanael’s letter with factual and logical evidence. Again, neither of the two interpretations prevails, and this is by design. The reader is meant to read the story with two possible understandings, each designed to reflect on the two major movements of Hoffmann’s life, Romanticism and Enlightenment.
The fantastical interpretation of The Sandman parallels German Romanticism. In E.T.A. Hoffmann’s time, German Romanticism was best understood as a vision of an ideal world. In fact, German Romantic writers rejected their everyday world and instead sought an idyllic past. In Germany this past was synonymous with the medieval world, which was never what the Germans wished it to be, and so it led to a world of the fairy tale and the dream, a world of splendor. Romanticism has since been recognized as philosophy of imagination, where emotion is elevated above reason and the ideal above the actual, and where the ordinary and the prosaic are imbued with the extraordinary and incomprehensible. German Romanticism however did more than celebrate the existence of the supernatural; it particularly viewed the world and men through a dark lens and saw man as the victim of the supernatural, hostile, and unpredictable forces. German Romantic writers and Hoffmann in particular has essentially combined these Romantic characteristics with concepts like the uncanny and the grotesque to create something that was supernatural and imaginary, but dark and hostile (Mahlendorf). The uncanny and the grotesque are two of Hoffmann’s more important Romanticist elements, and directly correlate to the fantastical interpretation of The Sandman.
The uncanny is an experience where something is familiar yet foreign at the same time, or where something is concealed and then exposed, which almost always creates a feeling of the bizarre and the strange (Steig). The uncanny is largely evident when the young Nathanael first identifies the sandman to be the old Coppelius. In that instance Coppelius is both familiar, having visited Nathanael in the past, and simultaneously foreign, becoming the physical manifestation of the sandman. This is also true when Nathanael sees a disguised Coppelius in the barometer-dealer. On one hand Coppola is an unknown, but on the other hand he is strangely familiar and reminiscent. The sandman however is not the only actor of the uncanny; Olympia is actually believed to be the other source of the uncanny effect. Olympia is hidden for much of her early mention and revealed only later in the story, presumably to hide her abominable existence from the public eye. Olympia, who is ultimately an automaton, appears first as a silent and motionless, yet life-like daughter of Professor Spalanzani. The fact that her mechanical clockwork passes as real and her robotic existence as life is a combination of the familiar and the foreign or appearance and illusion, which combine to create the uncanny. Essentially, the ease at which Hoffmann is able to merge and juxtapose the familiar with the foreign not only accounts for much of the horror and strangeness beneath the surface, but also demonstrates that the world of the fantastic and the supernatural is an inescapable dimension of everyday life.
The grotesque erases the boundary separating the human and animal realm and, by doing so, reduces a man to a puppet or a victim of the dark and hostile forces of the supernatural. Through personification, the grotesque also extends its range to encompass the mechanical and robotic, which develops a threatening or abominable life of its own as is the case with Olympia. In The Sandman, the grotesque is assigned a reality which contradicts the known reality and at the same time becomes true reality, a higher reality, even perhaps the one and only reality. It is when the fantasy and imagination become physical and the grotesque unveils the true absurdity of the world (Steig). Olympia is merely an imagination of its creators, and she becomes real. For Nathanael, she is alive and even becomes more of a reality than Clara, whom at one point Nathanael calls an automaton. The doll transcends all reality and Clara herself, yet Olympia is only a doll. The grotesque creates a vision of the world which is chaotic, where reality is not what it seems, and where madness is the only sanity, because the world itself is a lunatic asylum. In this sense, Nathanael is no more of a madman for believing in the sandman than is Clara for dismissing fantasy as part of everyday life. Nathanael’s strange fears hold power over him because they do exist, his belief in their influence makes them real. Hoffman uses the grotesque to demonstrate that men are puppets on the great stage of the supernatural world and they are driven by forcers they do not understand. Fantasy, imagination, and dreams are part of their reality, perhaps they are the reality, because their belief in them makes it so.
German Romanticism was not only a philosophy all in itself, but also a protest against the precepts of Enlightenment and a reaction to the scientific rationalization of the world. This perhaps explains why Hoffmann, being a German Romantic writer wished to leave these two interpretations in The Sandman; one for Romanticism and one for Enlightenment.
The interpretation of The Sandman that is fantasy reflects Romanticism and to the same effect counters the interpretation of the reality that reflects Enlightenment. In essence, the realistic interpretation of the story is simply everything that the fantastical interpretation is not. Romanticism is a polarized opposite to Enlightenment in every facet. Enlightenment is a philosophy of reason and rational thought, it explains the world with science and facts, and views reality for what it actually is. Enlightenment also values form and structure over individual freedom and imagination, as well as deductive reasoning over emotion and feeling. In fact, enlightened thinkers assign such great importance to their realism and rationalism that they have often accused Romanticists of irrationalism. It is also important to note that whereas Romanticism is open to any explanation of the world, be it supernatural and incomprehensible, Enlightenment only seeks that what can be humanly understood and rejects that what cannot (Mormann). Clara’s letter to Nathanael embodies these aforementioned Enlightenment characteristics. She dismisses all of Nathanael’s Romantic fantasies with facts, evidence, logic, common sense, and psychological reasoning. Whereas Nathanael represents Romanticism and fantasy, Clara represents Enlightenment and understanding. She is the clarity and light to Nathanael’s personal demons.
Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann was a German Romantic author of fantasy who published his famous short story The Sandman in 1816. The Sandman borrowed from the culturally popular folklore character, the sandman, as its name suggests, but transcended far beyond it, and influenced the psychological undertakings of men like Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud. The Sandman is open to interpretation, and as a multi-interpretive story serves as a social commentary on Romanticism and Enlightenment. Today its relevance is perhaps slightly diminished by the absence of the rivalry between Romanticism and Enlightenment, but the literary genius remains. The ambiguity of the story, coexistence of two opposing explanations, and a masterful fashion to insert social commentary makes The Sandman a legend in the fantasy genre.
“Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2010.
Hoffmann, E.T.A. The Sandman.1994-1999 Robert Godwin-Jones. Virginia Commonwealth University: Department of Foreign Languages.
Mahlendorf, Ursula. “E. T. A. Hoffmann: The Romantic Writer.” American Imago (1975). Pgs. 217-239. EBSCO. Web.
Mormann, Thomas. “Enlightenment or Counter-Romanticism.” Logical Empiricism (Vienna Circle Institute). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2010. Philosopher’s Index.
Steig, Michael. “Defining the Uncanny and the Grotesque.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1970). Pgs. 253-260. Philosopher’s Index.
Essentialist Feminism in The Sandman
E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman” could easily be read as a satire that rails against meek, docile women. However, when looking at the form of feminism in this story, one finds that the protagonist Nathaniel seems to struggle with an abstract mind, while the women who surround him are focused on the material world. The women he grew up with, namely his mother and fiancée Clara, clearly show materialistic principles, leaving Nathaniel alone with his more philosophically-inclined thoughts until he is able to project a similar mindset on the automaton, Olympia.
Essentialism states that men are more attracted to abstract thinking while women, whose unimaginative minds cannot comprehend the abstract, are drawn to the materialistic. For the purposes of this argument, “material thought” will be defined as Nathaniel’s idea of the prosaic: unimaginative, factual, and lacking deeper emotions. This definition arises when Clara writes to her fiancé and all but diagnoses him of derangement, and is promptly discounted and ignored. The letter is described as “sensible,” but it does not satisfy Nathaniel’s preference for the mysterious. Meanwhile, abstract can be described as Nathaniel’s idea of the poetic: mystical, deeper thinking. This concept emerges in Nathaniel’s reaction to Clara’s letter when he tries to “initiate her into the mysteries” by reading her books with much more imagination than she would have been used to. Nathaniel is trying to draw her in to something a little less logical and practical and more fanciful. In other words, he is trying to show Clara the abstract, but she resists him.
Nathaniel’s inclination towards the abstract can be seen in his insistence of his mysticisms. When he tries to explain to Clara his idea of “dark powers,” he starts to read “all sorts of mystical books” to her in an attempt to persuade her to understand. After being rejected, he goes on to write a dark poem about their relationship and how Coppelius destroys it (Hoffman 10). Rather than viewing Coppelius as something in his own mind to be conquered, or taking some other practical approach (as an essentialist woman would), he allows his dark imagination to take over his childhood memories. In doing this, he is thinking in the abstract, as essentialism ordains men do.
The very first material-abstract struggle Nathaniel faced occurred with his mother. When Nathaniel, having been sent to bed early, asked who the Sandman was, her only answer was that the Sandman wasn’t real (Hoffman 1). Unsatisfied, he turned to his sister’s nurse for a much more gruesome tale of torn-out eyes. Nathaniel, in his abstract thinking, was unable to accept his mother’s practical explanation of the childhood story and sought out reasoning from a mind that operated more similarly to his own. The mother, meanwhile, is much more materialistic-minded. She rejects the information that isn’t realistic and pragmatic. In neglecting to comply with her son’s imagination the mother fulfills the essentialist woman’s role. Clara is described as being clear-headed, practical, and clever. Yet Nathaniel eventually rejects her, claiming she is “cold, unreceptive” and “prosaic” (Hoffman 9-10). What Clara calls intellect, Nathaniel sees as closed-minded and unaccepting. Clara is always reaching for the practical explanation, as seen in the letter and again when Nathaniel returns home to her with his stories. She refuses to be convinced of things she can’t feel or experience for herself, and so tells herself that they don’t exist. This pattern can be seen all throughout the story, with Nathaniel stressing his preference for the “poetic” mind rather than the “prosaic.” In accordance with essentialist ideas, Clara is concerned with materialistic convictions, while Nathaniel thrives in the realm of the abstract.
Clara is also ladylike to a fault. In a letter to Nathaniel, she explains that “even if the house were about to fall in, I should smooth down a wrong fold in the window curtain in a most ladylike manner” before escaping (Hoffman 5). She is so concerned about being feminine and gentle that she would put these characteristics before her own life. She fits perfectly into the essentialist mold of a woman: materialistic and, until Nathaniel goes mad, docile. Her attraction to the materialistic puts her at odds with Nathaniel’s love for the abstract.
After becoming thoroughly disappointed with Clara’s resistance to the mysterious, Nathaniel instead turns to Olympia. As a lifeless doll, Olympia proved to be the perfect canvas on to which Nathaniel could project his poetic, abstract mind, even saying that it seemed “as if [Olympia’s] voice had actually sounded from within himself” (Hoffman p. 16). The automaton was not capable of thought on her own—she needed Nathaniel’s projections to come to life, and for him, she did so convincingly. Olympia became a silent echo of Nathaniel’s abstract mind. Only in her could he find the comfort of a person who had the ability to think more deeply than materialism would allow. Most people would describe Olympia as being the epitome of the silent, obedient woman. However, in Nathaniel’s eyes, Olympia was strong and beautiful; in her, he found what Clara lacked: an understanding of the abstract. This is exemplified when he praises her “deep, noble mind” (Hoffman p. 15). Unlike Clara, Olympia has the ability to understand the abstract, rendering her the more attractive woman to Nathaniel. The fact that Nathaniel prefers her because of her poetic mind lends credence to this; if he loved her for her yielding nature, he wouldn’t glorify her “deep knowledge of the spiritual life” (Hoffman p. 15). With Olympia, he doesn’t have to fight the prosaic. Instead he finds the comfort of his own abstract way of thinking. Unlike the other women he’s known, Olympia is not confined by essentialism’s womanly guidelines. In that, Nathaniel finds someone to love and someone who understands him. The struggle for the abstract can also be seen in the public reaction to the discovery of Olympia as an automaton. Society in the story was once satisfied with silent women who did not respond to much of anything. After the fear inspired by the lifeless doll, people began to favor women who showed signs of life through various tests, such as knitting or yawning. This could be seen as a sort of awakening into Nathaniel’s abstract. In requiring women to participate in conversations rather than sit idly, this conception begins to break essentialism’s idea of women. If women can speak, perhaps they might even learn to think or imagine things beyond those which they can touch.
Taken together, the characters in this story fit into the mentality prescribed by essentialism: abstract-thinking males and materialistic women. Nathaniel’s mother and Clara both show signs of material thought in the ways they interact with him. Nathaniel, Olympia, and general members of society are all abstract thinkers.
Symbolism of Eyes in “The Sandman”
In “The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Nathanael composes a letter to his fiancée’s brother Lothar recalling the terror of the legendary Sandman who would steal the eyes of children who wouldn’t go to bed and feed them to his own children in the moon. From then on in the short story, any mention of eyes drives him to remember the terror of the Sandman. In a most terrifying experience, Nathanael sees Olimpia, the girl he is going to propose to who later turns out to be a robot, lying on the ground with her eyes removed. He becomes hysteric and in his state of insanity is taken to an asylum. Of central importance is the theme of “eyes”, which symbolizes narcissism and the struggles some have coping with stress, and in a more specific sense, Sigmund Freud interprets this theme as the fear of castration.
The climax of the short story is where Nathanael sees Olimpia, his muse, with her eyes removed, and Coppelius (which means “eye cavities” in Italian), the one who ripped them out. His childhood nightmares return as he realizes Olimpia was only a reflection of himself, that he had imposed his soul into her so that she was everything he ever wanted, even though she was not real. Nathanael’s struggles with reality and his obsession with “pretty eyes” reveals his narcissistic nature; with that, Hoffmann creates a satire of society. These pretty eyes cause him to fall out of love with his fiancé Clara and in love with Olimpia, a girl he thinks is perfect and with whom he could have whatever he wanted. Hoffmann is criticizing society in that people are always seeking perfection in others when they are not perfect themselves. He criticizes the fashion and beauty industries and society by saying that what we have fallen in love with the gorgeous models and the rich lifestyles we strive for that we cannot have. We fall in love with images we create in our heads, and become controlled by the fear of our nightmares. We have lost touch with reality, just as Nathanael did.
Freud, on the other hand, draws on a completely different aspect of the story, believing that Olimpia, who is seemingly real but truly not, is not the central focus of the story. Freud, in his essay “Uncanny,” describes the symbolism of “being robbed of one’s eyes” as the most uncanny, important aspect of the tale. He cites the times where Nathanael is forced to relive the same moments, retrace the same steps, as being robbed of his eyesight, which Freud sees as a symbolic fear of castration. The fear of going blind, Freud says, is the substitute for being castrated. He references Greek mythology and the blinding of Oedipus, which was a mitigated form of castration, as proof. Freud’s beliefs always seem to be a stretch at first, but he has the literary background to be able to prove any theory he has, and it seems like he is spot on with this one. With the main focus of love by Nathanael, the fear of Coppelius, a large and malformed man who haunts him from his childhood, it seems very possible that Nathanael could have witnessed a castration as a child, maybe one that caused the death of his father, or feared being castrated himself, which caused his trauma and tore the fabric of his mind that kept him in touch with reality. It would help explain the reason that he is able to fall in love with a robot or try to throw Clara off a bridge, or finally kill himself just at the sight of Coppelius, or at the thought of “pretty eyes.”
Due to Nathanael’s psychological problems, Hoffman does not allow the reader to have a complete grasp on what is truly wrong with Nathanael, which is also why Freud’s theory of the symbolism of the eyes succeeds. Hoffman really leaves it up to the individual reader to decide what is wrong with Nathanael. At the time it was written, it seems to many critics that Hoffman may have been speaking out against the Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers of the time. In today’s society, that critique can be adapted to the media industry, which is always trying to distort reality with commercials and slogans of what the perfect man, woman, or society should be.
“The Sandman” is an abstract story from start to finish, and it captures the reader with its ability to make a plot that is completely fantastical seem like it could actually happen. Hoffmann’s character of Nathanael is troubled by his past, and Olimpia is presented as a real woman right until the end, so the reader does not know that Nathanael is crazy until then. Throughout the story though, the motif of the “eyes” that are always watching, that are missing, or the ones that fascinate Nathanael is what gradually brings the reader to the climax, the critique on society, and the theme of the story. When the story concludes, the watching eyes as a symbol arrives at the forefront as the undeniable, uncanny, central focus of the story, and not Nathanael and his undeniable love for himself or his inability to get in touch with reality.
Fantasy Against Misogyny: An Analysis of the Societal Expectations of Women as Portrayed in The Sandman
The portrayal of women written by E. T. A. Hoffmann in The Sandman can appear to be shockingly misogynistic. However, it is written in such a parodic way that it is clear to the reader that these are not Hoffmann’s views, but rather, his critique of the views of the greater society. Nathaniel’s fragile ego causes him to be insecure in his relationship with Clara and find solace in his relationship with Olympia. This critiques the fact that women were expected to be docile creatures who only existed to please their significant others and that intelligent, opinionated women were generally frowned upon. The Sandman is not only a fantastical masterpiece, but also a brilliant commentary on the social status and role of women in 19th century Germany.
Nathaniel regards his relationship with Olympia as incredibly profound, though her dimness is made clear to the reader throughout the entire story. In addition, it is revealed towards the end of the narrative that she had been a brainless automaton all along, therefore their relationship can really be described as anything but profound. This in and of itself is very telling of Nathaniel’s attitude towards women, which is likely intended as a reflection of society’s attitude towards women at the time. Of Nathaniel’s feelings towards Olympia, Hoffmann writes:
Never had he known such an admirable listener. She neither embroidered nor knitted, she never looked out of window, she fed no favourite bird, she played neither with lap-dog nor pet car, she did not twist a slip of paper not anything else in her hand, she was not obliged to suppress a yawn by a gentle forced cough. In short, she sat for hours looking straight into her lover’s eyes, without stirring and her glance became more and more lively and animated. (35)
Everything mentioned in this passage that Nathaniel finds admirable about Olympia is in direct contrast with the behaviours that his fiancée Clara exhibits which he finds so irritating. Though Clara finds his stories tedious, the fact that Olympia is an automaton means that she can listen to his stories for hours on end with apparent interest, and thus Nathaniel believes her to be the better woman for him. Olympia rarely does more than utter a gentle sigh in response to Nathaniel, which excites him greatly as he sees a blank canvas “in which all [his] being is reflected” (Hoffmann 32). Nathaniel evidently finds this shallowness so rewarding due to his own overwhelming egocentrism that he completely forgets his fiancée and resolves to propose to Olympia instead, and is only deterred when he realizes she is in fact not even human. This behaviour reflects men’s attitudes towards women and shows to what extent women were expected to be empty vessels meant only to absorb every word their male companion had to say, and essentially have their identity defined by a man.
Further supporting this idea is the fact that Nathaniel’s main conflict with Clara is that she is an intelligent, logical woman who finds his obsession with The Sandman to be ridiculous. After receiving a letter from Clara in which she tries to dissuade him from his fantasies, Nathaniel writes to her brother Lothaire and says of Clara; “Indeed, one could not believe that the mind which often peers out of those bright, smiling, childish eyes, like a sweet charming dream, could define with such intelligence, in such a professor-like manner” (Hoffmann 16). It is apparent that an intelligent woman causes Nathaniel great distress and to compensate for the fact that she is more clever than he is, he tries to infantilize her to invalidate what she is saying by making reference to her; “bright, smiling, childish eyes” and comparing her to a “sweet charming dream” (Hoffmann 16). The general implication of these statements is that sharp intellect has no place in a woman. Additionally, Nathaniel shames Clara for her rationality by calling her an “inanimate, accursed automaton” (Hoffmann 25) when he reads her a poem he has written about The Sandman and she begs him to “throw that mad, senseless, insane stuff into the fire” (Hoffmann 24). This in itself is an incredibly ironic statement given that he goes on to fall in love with an automaton, but it mostly serves to reflect the fact that Nathaniel cannot handle exchanges with anyone who does not reinforce his ego. To Nathaniel, the fact that Clara does not believe his eccentric tales must mean that she is inhumane and shallow. In fact, Clara is the exact opposite of Nathaniel’s description of her. She is a strong spirited woman, and her intimidated fiancé feels the need to crush that spirit.
Hoffmann dedicates the final paragraph of his novel to Clara, assuring the reader that she has found a good life for herself filled with happiness “which the morbid Nathaniel would never have given her” (Hoffmann 42). This is a striking choice as, despite her cleverness, Clara is easily viewed as passive character affected by circumstance throughout the story. However, the fact that the story ends with a focus on Clara implies that she is the character this story actually revolves around, lending to the idea that this story is a social commentary on the status and role of women, and not only fantasy writing. By giving Clara a happy ending, Hoffmann paints a bright picture of the future. He makes clear throughout this story that the life of a woman in his era was difficult and that they were constantly being socially oppressed. Nevertheless, this closing paragraph shows that he envisioned a brighter future in which women would come out on top.
Hoffmann, E.T.A. “The Sandman.” Two Mysterious Tales: German Classics, Mondial, 2008, pp. 3–42.