Der Sandmann; The Sandman

[This page by Seán Williams]

Der Sandmann; The Sandman (1816)

Hoffmann’s ‘Der Sandmann’; ‘The Sandman’ appeared in the first volume of his collection Nachtstücke; Night Pieces (1816) and is representative of the author’s short stories. Specifically, this is a horror story, and as such is thrilling to read. It is framed by letters that reveal Nathanael’s childhood fear of the Sandman, who according to legend stole the eyes from those children who refused to go to bed, feeding them to his own offspring on the moon. The eye recurs as a motif throughout the strange events of the narrative, and a character from Nathanael’s early memories, Coppelius, seems to re-appear in the form of Coppola in the protagonist’s adult life. Coppola, together with Professor Spalanzani, dupes Nathanael with the automaton Olympia while the protagonist is away at university. Nathanael’s love for the doll and the recursion of traumatic symbolism from his erstwhile night terrors triggers the young student’s pathological madness, leading to his admission to a mental asylum and, eventually, his death. The narrative depicts what Ernst Jentsch termed in 1906, and more famously Sigmund Freud called in 1919, ‘das Unheimliche’ or ‘the uncanny’: something that is unsettlingly familiar.

‘Der Sandmann’; ‘The Sandman’ is complex because of the range of influences that Hoffmann subversively appropriates, and the intricacy of the story’s internal structure. With regard to the theme of madness, the text refers explicitly to Franz Moor’s mental instability in Schiller’s Die Räuber; The Robbers (1781: Act V, Scene I). And critics often cite two sources for Hoffmann’s creation of Olympia: in Goethe’s Triumph der Empfindsamkeit; Victorious Sensibility (1787), Prince Oranaro loves a doll; and in Jean Paul’s Auswahl aus des Teufels Papieren; Selection from the Devil’s Papers (1789), a female figure made out of wood becomes a wife. Towards the end of Hoffmann’s story, a fictive professor of poetics and rhetoric offers a glib and ostentatious response to the popular gossip concerning Professor Spalanzani’s and Coppola’s deception of Nathanael, which according to the narrator had spread like wildfire around the university town:

Das Ganze ist eine Allegorie – eine fortgeführte Metapher! – Sie verstehen mich! – Sapienti sat!

It’s all an allegory – an extended metaphor, you understand! Sapienti sat [enough said]!’

But if we read the story closely, it is indeed shot through with consistent metaphors that give coherence to manifold and at times confusing perspectives.

For example, throughout the story Nathanael is contrasted with characters who are described as ‘heiter’ – those who are of a ‘clear mind’ and ‘serene disposition’. The word describes the protagonist’s mother and father, and is consistently used in relation to Nathanael’s fiancée, Klara. When Nathanael is home from university and in love with the girl, he is also described as ‘heiter’. In this mood, Nathanael is able to write calmly about his troubled thoughts: he pens a poem about Coppelius, and far from going mad in this creative moment, Nathanael finds literary endeavour something of a cathartic process, a therapy for ridding him of his mental affliction. He imagines scenes filled with darkness, death and fire imagery and yet ‘während Nathanael dies dichtete, war er sehr ruhig und besonnen’; ‘while Nathanael wrote this, he was very quiet and cool-headed’. Nathanael only becomes possessed and intensely emotional once he reads the poem aloud – experiencing self-affectation unsuppressed by the concentration written composition requires – and because his work is unappreciated by Klara. Importantly, whenever Nathanael experiences a loss of self-control, his madness is metaphorically expressed in opposition to light: his mood is overcast by the shadows of black clouds (‘schwarze Wolkenschatten’), or a dull haze hangs over him (a ‘trüber Wolkenschleier’) that disables him from thinking straight.

According to the narrator, there is a simple division between Klara and Nathanael: the former is apparently representative of reason (she is ‘verständig’), whereas the latter embodies ‘mystische Schwärmerei’ (‘mythical enthusiasm’). Further, Nathanael’s head lies shattered at the end of the story: his fate is in part due to the dislocation of rationality. This does not mean, though, that Klara is the entirely positive example of mental health and Nathanael is intended to demonstrate entirely negative traits. For most writers of the age, enthusiasm was crucial for the imagination and was thus a pre-condition for writing. But it had to be kept in check; and in Nathanael it gets out of control. Moreover, Nathanael’s madness entails not just the rupture of his head, but the breakdown of his whole body. The condition encompasses his ‘Brust, Sinn und Gedanken’ (‘chest, senses and thoughts’), and it is frequently presented in terms of heat-related corporeal metaphors. Nathanel’s temperature is too high.

In a sense, then, the comical words of the professor of poetics and rhetoric in the narrative hold true. ‘Der Sandmann’; ‘The Sandman’ is in part an allegory, a network of metaphors. It also forms part of an emergent preoccupation with – uncanny – psychological reality in German literature. In fact, it is has become the most salient text for Hoffmann’s portrayal of madness as well as, more generally, for literary manifestations of the uncanny. Not least for this reason, Hoffmann’s story has gained an important place within the canon.

English Translation

Ritchie Robertson, ‘The Sandman’ in E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Golden Pot and Other Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 85-118

Further Reading in English

Susan Brantly, ‘A Thermographic Reading of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann’, The German Quarterly 55:3 (1982), 324-35

Hanne Castein, ‘“Zerrbilder des Lebens”: E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann and the Robot Heritage’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 67 (1998), 43-54

John M. Ellis, ‘Clara, Nathanael and the Narrator: Interpreting Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann’, The German Quarterly 54:1 (1981), 1-18

Jutta Fortin, ‘Brides of the Fantastic: Gautier’s Le pied de momie and Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann’, Comparative Literature Studies 41 (2004), 257-75

S.S. Prawer, ‘Hoffmann’s Uncanny Guest: A Reading of Der Sandmann’, German Life and Letters 18:4 (1965), 297-308

James Simpson, ‘Canny Allusions: Der Sandmann as Kontrafaktur’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 71 (2002), 37-49

Maria M. Tatar, ‘E.T.A. Hoffmann's Der Sandmann: Reflection and Romantic Irony’, Modern Language Notes 95:3 (1980), 585-608

Andrew J. Webber, The Doppelgänger: Double Visions in German Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), Chapter 3: ‘Hoffmann’s Chronic Dualisms’, pp. 113-94

Séan M. Williams, ‘Consumption, Creativity, and Authors around 1800: The Case of E. T. A. Hoffmann’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 87 (2018), 81-98

Further Reading in German

Rudolf Drux, Erläuterungen und Dokumente zu E.T.A. Hoffmann. Der Sandmann (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1994)

Detlef Kremer, ‘Der Sandmann’ in E.T.A. Hoffmann: Leben, Werk, Wirkung (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2009), pp. 169-85

Günter Saße (ed.), ‘Der Sandmann’, in Interpretationen. E.T.A. Hoffmann: Romane und Erzählungen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2004), pp. 96-116

Web Link

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