The Sandman (short story)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Sandman (Der Sandmann, 1816) is German language short story written by E. T. A. Hoffmann. It was the first in a book of stories titled Die Nachtstücke (The Night Pieces).

The story tells of a student who carries from childhood a fear of the terrible Sandman who steals eyes. He has come to associate the Sandman in his mind with the unpleasant Coppelius who became implicated in the death of his father, and later in life he again encounters Coppelius who haunts his thoughts. Despite being engaged, he becomes enamoured of Olympia, a gynoid automaton built by Coppelius and an accomplice, believing her to be real. The discovery of the trick drives him into madness, and he ultimately jumps to his death.

Elements of the story were later adapted (very loosely) as the ballet Coppélia. Subsequently, it was also adapted as Act I of the opera Les contes d'Hoffmann.

"Der Sandmann" is extensively interpreted by Freud in a famous 1919 essay, The Uncanny ("Das Unheimliche").


Plot summary

The story is told by a narrator who claims to have known Nathanael. It begins by quoting three letters:

1. A letter from Nathanael to Lothar, brother of his fiancée Clara. Nathanael recalls his childhood terror of the legendary Sandman, who it was said would steal the eyes of children who would't go to bed and feed them to his own children who lived in the moon. Nathanael came to associate the Sandman with a mysterious nightly visitor to his father, and after discovering that the visitor was the obnoxious lawyer Coppelius coming to carry out alchemical experiments he comes to see Coppelius as the Sandman. One of these experiments caused his father's death in the presence of Coppelius, who then vanished without a trace. Nathanael believes that a barometer-seller who arrived recently at his rooms under the name Giuseppe Coppola is none other than the hated Coppelius, and he is determined to seek vengeance.

2. A letter from Clara to Nathanael, explaining that Nathanael had addressed the previous letter to her instead of to Lothar. She was touched at the account of Nathanael's childhood trauma, and discussed it with Lothar, but she is convinced that the terrors are of Nathanael's own imagining and urges him to put Coppelius/Coppola from his mind.

3. A letter from Nathanael to Lothar, in which Nathanael declares that Coppola is not, after all, Coppelius: Coppola is clearly Italian, while Coppelius was German, and Coppola is also vouched for by the new physics professor, Spalanzani, who is also Italian and has known Coppola for years. Nathanael adds that Spalanzani has a daughter, Olimpia, whose briefly glimpsed appearance has made a considerable impression on him.

Shortly after this third letter, Nathanael returns to his home town from his studies to see Clara and Lothar, and in the joy of their reunion Coppelius/Coppola is at first forgotten. Nevertheless, the encounter with Coppola has had a profound effect on Nathanael, driving him toward a gloomy mysticism which bores Clara and leads to a gradual estrangement. Indeed Nathanael's frustration leads him to call her an "inanimate, accursed automaton", which so enrages Lothar that he in turn insults Nathanael, and a duel is only narrowly averted by Clara's intervention. Nathanael pleads for Clara's forgiveness, and declares his true love for her, and a reconciliation is brought about.

Nathanael returns to complete the final year of his studies, after which he intends to return to his home town for ever. He finds his student lodgings destroyed by fire, though his possessions were rescued by his friends and moved to a new house which is opposite that of Spalanzani. His window now looks directly into that of Olimpia, and he is again struck by her beauty. Coppola calls to sell his wares, and offers "pretty eyes, pretty eyes!" which reawakens Nathanael's childish fear of the Sandman. However, it turns out that Coppola has lenses and spectacles to sell, and also small telescopes, and Nathanael buys one of these from him to set matters right after his earlier outburst. As Coppola leaves, Nathanael becomes fixated on watching Olimpia through his telescope, although her fixed gaze and motionless stance disconcert him.

Spalanzani gives a grand party at which it is reported that his daughter will be presented in public for the first time. Nathanael is invited, and becomes enraptured by Olimpia who plays the harpsichord, sings and dances. Her stiffness of movement and coldness of touch appear strange to many of the company. Nathanael dances with her repeatedly, although her timing is not quite right with the music, and eventually tells her of his passion for her, to which Olimpia replies only "Ah, ah!". In the days that follow he visits Olimpia repeatedly, reading her the poems and mysticism that had so bored Clara, and Olimpia listens to it all and replies only "Ah, ah!", which Nathanael interprets as understanding. Most other people consider her dull and stupid, although pretty, and with strangely mechanical actions.

Eventually Nathanael determines to propose to Olimpia, but when he arrives at her rooms he finds an argument in progress between Spalanzani and Coppola, who are fighting over the body of Olimpia and arguing over who made the eyes and who made the clockwork. Coppola, who is now revealed as Coppelius in truth, wins the struggle, and makes off with the lifeless and eyeless body, while the injured Spalanzani urges Nathanael to chase after him and recover the automaton to which he has devoted so many years of his life. The sight of Olimpia's eyes lying on the ground drives Nathanael to madness, however, and he flies at the professor to strangle him. He is pulled away by other people drawn by the noise of the struggle, and in a state of insanity is taken to an asylum.

Spalanzani recovers from the encounter, but is forced to leave the university because of the sensational revelation of the trick he had played in trying to pass off an automaton as a living person. Coppelius once more vanishes without trace. The narrator adds that the story of the automaton had a widespread effect on society, with many lovers taking steps to ensure they were not enamoured of puppets but of real flesh and blood.

Nathanael appears to recover from his madness and is reunited with Clara and Lothar. He resolves to marry Clara and move to a pleasant estate near his home town. On the way to visit the place, they pass through the town and climb the high steeple to look out at the view. The madness strikes Nathanael again, and he tries to hurl Clara from the steeple. She is saved by Lothar, but in the crowd that gathers below Coppelius appears, and when Nathanael sees him he cries "pretty eyes, pretty eyes!" and leaps over the railing to his death. Coppelius disappears into the crowd.

Many years afterward, the narrator concludes, it is said that Clara was seen with a kind-looking man sitting before a country house with two lively boys, and thus found the domestic happiness which Nathanael would never have given her.

Characters in "Der Sandmann"

  • Nathanael (the gift of God): narcissistic protagonist with a manic sense of mission.
  • Clara (the clear one): Nathanael's fiancée with a peaceful, judicious, yet fiery temperament.
  • Lothar: Clara's brother and Nathanael's friend
  • Nathanael's father: does alchemical experiments with Coppelius during Nathanael's childhood which lead to his death.
  • Coppelius: Fear-instilling, large and malformed man who spoiled the happiness of Nathanael and his siblings in their childhood and may be implicated in the death of Nathanael's father.
  • Coppola (ital.: eye cavities): Italian trader in barometers and lenses, in whom Nathanael recognizes Coppelius.
  • Spalanzani: physics professor with whom Nathanael is studying, and collaborator with Coppelius on building a lifelike automaton.
  • Olimpia ("she who comes from Olympus"; Classical context): "Daughter" of Nathanael's professor, who later is shown to be an automaton and is a reason for Nathanael's madness.
  • Siegmund (Protection): Attempts to save his friend Nathanael from unhappiness.

Folklore references

The story contains an example of a horrific depiction of the folklore character, the Sandman, who is traditionally said to throw sand in the eyes of children to help them fall asleep. The following excerpt is from an English translation of the story:

Most curious to know more of this Sandman and his particular connection with children, I at last asked the old woman who looked after my youngest sister what sort of man he was.

'Eh, Natty,' said she, 'don't you know that yet? He is a wicked man, who comes to children when they won't go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads. He puts their eyes in a bag and carries them to the crescent moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up there. They have crooked beaks like owls so that they can pick up the eyes of naughty human children.'


In the three opening letters which clarify the situation in this book , the characters and the conflict are first defined. Furthermore the psychic conflict of the protagonist,Nathannael, is represented, who is torn between hallucinations and reality. Nathanael struggles his whole life against post traumatic stress which comes from a traumatic episode with the sandman in his childhood experience. Until the end of the book it remains open whether this experience was real, or just a dream of the young Nathanael. The text clearly leaves the decision open in as much as it offers two understandings: that of Nathanael's belief that there is a dark power controlling him, and Clara's postulation (together with Lothar) against this that this is only a psychological element.

The story is partly a subjective description of the proceedings from Nathanael's viewpoint which, due to enormous psychological problems, is hardly likely to be an objective view of reality, or possibly also partially objectively portrayed, in which case the decision is not so easy to reach. Hoffman consciously leaves the reader unsure of this.

In this was the interpretation from an enlightenment perspective makes sense against the Romantic view, whereby Clara represents the enlightenment and Nathanael the Romantics.

Of central importance is the "eyes" theme (interpreted by Freud as fear of castration), the "steps", the robot and laughing. Consider eyes as a window to the soul, why would Nathanael see life in Olimpia’s eyes but not in Clara’s? Which of the women is really the robot? The doll who can integrate herself into high-society or the bourgeois girl with her enlightened scientific views?

Hoffman, well known for not conforming to society, manages to give a satirical critique of society here, which offers a lesson to both Enlightened scientists and Romantic "hoverers and floaters".

Consider the Coppelius / Coppola character not as a real physical character, but as a metaphor, like Nathanael does when he returns home. We can consider him to represent the dark side WITHIN Nathanael. Notice when this character appears during the novella, at what dramatic moments. Are they the same? Note the fight between Spalanzani and one or both of them for the “wooden doll”. We hear Coppelius’ voice but see Coppola.

Consider the motif of fists. Coppelius is always described as having fists, never hands.

"Der Sandmann" is extensively interpreted by Freud in a famous 1919 essay, The Uncanny ("Das Unheimliche").

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Sandman (short story)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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