This is a classic horror story, first published in 1816 in a collection titled “Nachtstücke” (“Night Pieces”) by E. T. A. Hoffmann, a writer, composer, and caricaturist with a day job as a jurist. It remains one of his most often anthologized works in English—and little wonder. Even if the language is a bit thick to the twenty-first-century ear, and it’s light on the boobs and booms so common in modern stories, this is the stuff of nightmares.
The story begins with three undated letters. An oddly omniscient first-person narrator, who identifies himself only as a friend of one of the characters, finishes the tale.
In the letter written to his friend, Lothar, university student Nathanael tells how a recent encounter with a man trying to sell him barometers recalls tragic and terrifying events from his childhood.
Nathanael recounts how, as a small child, he would repeatedly hear “a heavy, slow step come thudding up the stairs” to his father’s room after his mother put him and his siblings to bed. This must be “the Sandman” his mother told them about.
Unsatisfied with his mother’s explanation that the Sandman is just a saying about being sleepy, he asked his sister’s nurse about him. She told him the Sandman punishes children who don’t go to bed by throwing sand in their eyes “so that they start out bleeding from their heads. These eyes he puts in a bag and carries them to the half-moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up yonder, and have crooked beaks like owls with which they may pick up the eyes of the naughty human children.”
Want to hire her to babysit your kids?
When he got a little older, Nathanael stayed up past his bedtime one night to see this Sandman for himself by sneaking into his father’s room while the Sandman was visiting. Much to his surprise, he saw a family friend, a lawyer named Coppelius, whom the children found repulsive. He was found out, leading to a violent confrontation, with Coppelius threatening to burn out his eyes. Nathanael’s father prevented this but failed to prevent Coppelius from beating the boy.
His next memory was waking up in his bed being comforted by his mother. She assured him the Sandman had gone and wouldn’t hurt him.
A year later, (Nathanael continues) Coppelius returned. His father promised his mother this was the last time. Nathanael and the other children were hustled off to bed. Sometime around midnight, a sound “like the firing of a gun” rattled the house. His father was killed. Coppelius disappeared.
Until the barometer-dealer appeared, Nathanael writes, he had not seen Coppelius. The man called himself Coppola, but he is sure he is the same Coppelius…
Clara, Lothar’s sister, who is engaged the Nathanael, responds to this letter. Among other things, she tells him that if there is a dark power that follows people, “it must form itself inside us and out of ourselves, indeed; it must become identical with ourselves.” She encourages him to put this Coppola/Coppelius out of his mind. She and Lothar have discussed the matter. Lothar told her, though she doesn’t quite understand (it would be too much for her pretty little head anyway), “It is the phantom of our own selves, the close relationship with which, and its deep operation on our mind, casts us into hell or transports us into heaven.”
He responds (…to Lothar) that she’s right, of course, and resolves to put it all out of his mind. He concentrates on his studies. He mentions the lectures of a professor of physics, Spalanzani: “His name is the same as that of the famous natural philosopher, Spalanzani, and he is of Italian origin. He has known Coppola for years.” Coppelius was German (“though no honest one”), and Coppola is Italian. They must be two different men—right?
He also describes seeing a tall, beautiful woman in a room who doesn’t appear to notice him. She seems to do nothing but sit at a table. Is something wrong with her? Is she simple-minded? Blind, perhaps?
In one stunning scene, he buys a “pocket spyglass” from Coppola after the man has laid out an array of spectacles in his room. The spectacles appear to Nathanael to be eyes in a momentary flash. Later, he uses the spyglass to look at the woman sitting passively at the table and is amazed at her beauty. He never finishes the letter he was writing to Clara.
He learns this is Spalanzani’s daughter, Olimpia, whom he keeps locked away from public view. Nathanael meets her at a coming-out party Spalanzani throws and falls madly in love with her, forgetting Clara entirely.
Spalanzani blesses his attempts at courting Olimpia by saying if he wants to spend time with the stupid girl, he won’t object.
They do not live happily ever after.
Greater minds than mine have spilled vast quantities of ink analyzing this story. I doubt I will solve mysteries they didn’t. Nevertheless, there are some obvious recurring themes. The first and most prominent are eyes and the visceral fear of losing them.
I remember being literal-minded as a kid. Since little Nathanael hears someone coming after he and his siblings are sent to bed with his mother telling them, “The Sandman is coming,” it makes sense he would think this must be the Sandman. The governess’ story about the Sandman gouging out the eyes of children who don’t go to bed is the stuff of nightmares.
It then follows that when Nathanael stays up past his bedtime, discovers his father’s secret, and a man he already despises threatens to burn his eyes out, he would see this as his punishment for disobedience. Why does Coppelius cry, “We have eyes”? What on earth would he use an extra set for? (Not a rhetorical question).
The next time Coppelius appears, his father dies violently.
A separate and related theme is that Nathanael has trouble telling fantasy from reality. Nothing is as it seems for him. What he thought was a cupboard in his father’s study turns out to be a furnace used for alchemy. After his father’s death, he never mentions his siblings, only Lothar and Clara, who are distant relatives his mother took in after misfortune struck that part of the family. Marrying a cousin isn’t done anymore, but this was some two hundred years ago.
How much of that unfathomable world is of Nathanael’s own making? This question is never fully resolved. That, I think, adds to the horror of the story. Was Nathanael crazy? He certainly had moments of clarity, moments of uncontrollable violence, and moments of insanity. Was there an evil force out to destroy him? It becomes clear late in the game that Coppola and Coppelius are the same person, but what motive would he have for harassing Nathanael? This, too, is never answered.
Nathanael looked through the spyglass at Olimpia—who wasn’t even alive and couldn’t talk—and saw the perfect woman. He looked through the spyglass at Clara—who had the moxie to talk back to him—and called her a “wooden doll.” Is this inability to perceive reality a property of the spyglass or something innate in Nathanael? Or is his inability to perceive reality a result of deliberate deception?
One of the heavyweights who have analyzed this story is Sigmund Freud. In a 1919 essay titled “The Uncanny” (German, “Unheimlich”), he uses the story as an example to rebut a 1906 article by Ernst Jentsch, who saw the uncanny as a “lack of orientation.” Freud uses “The Sandman” as an example where the uncanny is not a lack of orientation, but a sublimated castration complex expressed as fear of losing one’s eyes.
Granted, I’m not a psychologist, but I think this says more about Freud than it does about the story. In my not quite humble opinion, the story is about the horror that arises when one is not able to trust the reality of the world. Is the Sandman a harmless fairy story or a punishment for disobedient children? Is Nathanael unable to release this childhood fear because it is entwined with his father’s death, or does some evil actually seek to destroy him?
It is difficult to dismiss Nathanael as merely insane with moments of clarity, a victim of a childhood trauma he cannot overcome, or (as was fashionable at the time) simply of weak moral character. He is traumatized, and the trauma is disregarded by those he is closest to. Since childhood, he has blamed Coppelius for his father’s death. Now, Clara tells him his father may be to blame for his own death.
Perhaps this is why he feels an affinity for a “wooden doll” (Olimpia) who has no feelings. At the same time, he is repulsed by a human (Clara) he sees as having no feelings for him despite her love for him. Neither she nor Lothar understands his trauma, and both regard his broodings as something he should just stop, although they care for him. When Nathanael writes a bizarre, prophetic poem, Clara tells him to throw it in the fire. On the other hand, Olimpia can listen to him read his writings for hours without interrupting him. She doesn’t knit during his readings or pause to pet the cat. What an appreciative audience!
The problem is Olimpia isn’t real. There is irony here and some humor, but that pales compared to Nathanael’s shock when he discovers Olimpia is not human.
I believe the horror—and the durability of the story—lies in its ambiguity.
My two cents’ worth.
Born in Königsberg in 1776, then in the Kingdom of Prussia (present-day Kaliningrad, Russian Federation), author E. T. A Hoffman studied law. Additionally, he was a caricaturist, writer, composer, and critic. One of his works, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” was the basis for the familiar “Nutcracker” ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
The story can be read here.
A kindle version for $1.99 is available here.
Title: “The Sandman” (Originally “Der Sandmann”)
Author: E. T. A. Hoffmann (Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann) 1776-1822
First published: 1816, in the collection Nachtstücke