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.