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.
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