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.