The Sand-Man (Der Sandmann) by E. T. A. Hoffmann, 1816
THE SAND-MAN (Der Sandmann)
by E. T. A. Hoffmann, 1816
Although E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Sand-Man" ("Der Sandmann") is carefully crafted short fiction, it also combines in an articulate narrative a pattern of childish fantasies that include foreboding, terror, longing, frustration, and self-destruction. Typical of a general fascination with the grotesque by no means confined to German authors at this period, "The Sand-Man" is of particular importance on three accounts. First, it is technically an exceedingly accomplished and complex piece of writing. Second, it makes clear that what are linked together into a narrative with the perfunctory logic of mental association are, in fact, the apparently desperate conceptualizations of deep psychic sensations to which Hoffmann seems to have had unusually immediate access. Third, the story narrates the panic-stricken and in the end unsuccessful efforts of the central character, Nathanael, to preserve his sanity partly by effectively exteriorizing into a coherent conceptual and narrative pattern his deepest and most interior feelings of horror.
"The Sand-Man" was written in 1815, shortly after Hoffmann had finished his only completed novel, The Devil's Elixir (Die Elixiere des Teufels), but it came after the first dozen of his 50 or so short stories. It was published as the first of four stories in the first volume of Nachtstücke in 1816. All eight stories in the two volumes are linked by a theme, possibly inspired by Novalis's 1799 Hymns to Night, that joins a consideration of the deeper and darker recesses of the personality to a background of nighttime, when most of the incidents occur, and to dark colors occasionally illuminated by brilliant shafts of light. This latter quality shows the influence of the paintings of Rembrandt, which Hoffmann, who was a caricaturist and painter and a professional musician as well as a writer, much admired. Hoffmann first became known in English-speaking countries through the 1824 Edinburgh publication of The Devil's Elixir, of which extracts were also published by Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. This provoked Sir Walter Scott's 1827 essay "On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition; And Particularly on the Works of E. T. A. Hoffmann." His treatment of "The Sand-Man" as psychotic raving was particularly harsh and was at the origin of the story's neglect for well over a century. In contrast, interest in Hoffmann since 1970 has concentrated on the story.
In "The Sand-Man" the communication of the efforts of Nathanael's imagination to exorcise his childhood terrors by exteriorizing and conceptualizing them into narrative was extremely powerful. It gave new life to the Pygmalion myth, in which a human artifact is endowed with real life, but it did so in an inverted form, in which a real person—the Olimpia of the story—turns out to be a lifeless doll. Freud used the story as the subject for psychological interpretation in one of his important essays, the 1919 "Das Unheimliche" (The Uncanny), and he saw the theme of threatening eyes, even more emphatic in earlier drafts of the story, in terms of the fear of castration. Freud has since been controverted by Jochen Schmidt and others, and 11 essays more or less specifically devoted to questioning Freud's interpretation of the story, together with a score of other interpretations published between 1970 and 1988, have been listed in Gerhard Kaiser's 1988 E. T. A. Hoffmann (in German).
"The Sand-Man" begins with three letters. The first is a lengthy letter, written in a highly artificial style, that includes passages of conversation and shows a deliberate self-consciousness. It contains an elaborate account of incidents from the student Nathanael's past and is written to his friend Lothar, and it later reaches Lothar's sister, Clara, to whom Nathanael is engaged. The second is a shorter letter from Clara to Nathanael, and the third is a short letter from Nathanael to Lothar. From the first letter we learn that a few days earlier, at midday on October 30, a peddler of barometers known as Coppola—whose name is connected by resonance to the Italian word coppa (eye socket)—had called on Nathanael to try to sell his wares. On being threatened with forcible ejection, he had gone away quietly. Something in Nathanael's memory was stirred by this trivial event, whose time he so precisely recorded, and he explains to Lothar that as a child he had been sent to bed with the threat that the sandman was on his way. His mother had explained that this was just a way of saying that the children were tired and could no longer see out of their eyes, "as if sand had been scattered over them."
His sister's governess had a different story. The sandman was a threatening monster who threw sand into the eyes of children who would not go to bed so that their eyes bled and sprang out of their sockets. The letter recounts how Nathanael became obsessed with fears of the sandman. One night, when he was 10 years old, he hid in his father's study and waited for the sandman to come. The person who came, and who therefore had to be the sandman, was the fearsome but familiar lawyer Coppelius, who used to come to lunch. Nathanael saw the men doing frightening things, performing alchemy experiments, in fact, but when Nathanael was discovered, Coppelius threatened to put out his eyes with burning coals. For several weeks afterward Nathanael had had a fever. On the last night of the experiments, undertaken against the wishes of Nathanael's mother, there was an explosion that killed his father. The letter ends by saying that the barometer peddler was none other than Coppelius, now known as Giuseppe Coppola.
Clara's letter contains a perfectly normal explanation of Nathanael's childhood fears, that he confused the frightening old man with the fairy-tale monster, and although she does not use the terminology, she suggests that Nathanael was projecting his insecurity onto external objects. She and Lothar do not believe in the powers of darkness. In the third letter Nathanael reproaches Lothar for having allowed Clara to see his letter. Coppola has turned out not to be Coppelius. The new professor of physics, Spalanzani, has long known Coppola, and he vouches for the fact that Coppola is Italian, whereas Coppelius had been German. Spalanzani is a good-looking man, and he has a beautiful daughter, Olimpia, whom Nathanael has seen.
These letters cover more than a third of the text. After the letters, which are not introduced, Hoffmann switches to a first-person narrator, a friend of Nathanael's. He addresses the reader directly, but he is himself in turmoil about how to understand what has happened and whether or not to recount it. The narrator tells the reader that, not having known how to begin, he has simply reproduced the three letters without introduction or comment. Hoffmann, of course, has ensured that the first letter contains enough information for the reader to know roughly who is writing to whom and who Clara is. The narrator now tells us that he is going to get on with the story, and he fills us in. Lothar and Clara were distant relatives and orphans who had been brought up by Nathanael's mother. The engagement of Clara and Nathanael was not only reasonable but also desirable. Before he goes on, however, the narrator says that he wants to tell us about Clara, who is the opposite of Nathanael—innocent, fun loving, unafraid, sensitive and kindly, and statuesque although not pretty.
A gap occurs in the paragraph layout after the letters, and another occurs two-thirds of the way through the story. In the second part Nathanael pushes Clara from him, saying, "You lifeless, damned automaton," and Clara stops Nathanael and Lothar from fighting a duel over the incident. Nathanael goes back to his university to find his room burned out from a fire that had broken out at the chemist's downstairs.
Some of the paragraphs of the final section are immensely long. Nathanael, we are told, bought a small pocket telescope from Coppola, thought he heard a "death sigh," looked at Olimpia through the telescope, and fell in love with her, much encouraged by her father. Olimpia played the piano at a concert before a ball but behaved strangely and unresponsively as Nathanael made his declaration. She could only sigh. Others, too, found her lifeless, and she behaved more and more oddly. One day Nathanael, who had become totally obsessed with Olimpia, found her father and Coppola packing her up, disputing the relative importance of their roles in her creation. She was a lifeless doll animated by alchemy. When Nathanael discovered this, he returned to Clara. They were admiring the view from a mountain when Nathanael went mad and tried to throw Clara over the parapet. Lothar heard screams and saved her. Nathanael heard Coppelius beckoning him from below to jump, and he leaped to his death. The narrator tells us that Clara got over it all and married and that she would not have been happy with Nathanael anyway.
—A. H. T. Levi