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.
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Steig, Michael. “Defining the Uncanny and the Grotesque.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1970). Pgs. 253-260. Philosopher’s Index.