Ah, my dear Lothaire, how shall I begin? How shall I make you in any way realize that what happened to me a few days ago can really have had such a fatal effect on my life? If you were here you could see for yourself; but, as it is, you will certainly take me for a crazy fellow who sees ghosts.Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Sandman” begins with a series of letters between the protagonist, Nathaniel, his close friend Lothaire, and Clara, Nathaniel’s betrothed. Nathaniel tells his friend (though the letter is accidentally read by his fiancée) about how the tale of the Sandman terrified him in his youth. According to folklore, the Sandman is a being that sprinkles sand over children’s eyes to make them go to sleep. As his nurse puts it,
‘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.’Nathaniel came to associate this terrifying being with his father’s friend Coppelius, and his fear only increases when this man becomes associated with his father’s death. At the time the letters are written, Nathaniel is away at university, and he has come to believe that a barometer seller by the name of Giuseppe Coppola who came to his room is really his father’s old friend returned.
“The Sandman” juxtaposes psychological horror with supernatural elements, and part of its appeal is exactly that the reader is never sure if Nathaniel is simply losing his mind or if he’s really being haunted, like his father before him might have been. Because what happens exactly remains unclear, the story can be read in many ways (Freud famously interpreted it as being about castration anxiety, and as much as I’m not a fan of psychoanalytical analyses you can see how easily he’d have a field day here). This kind of ambiguity is something we have come to expect from a good Gothic story, but it’s interesting to consider that Hoffmann was not repeating a trope but establishing it.
“The Sandman” is also very clearly a story in the Romantic tradition. This is visible in Nathaniel’s discussions with Clara and Lothaire, with pit a rational and ordered worldview against a belief in dark powers, a frenzied imagination, and a willingness to question the nature of reality; in Hoffmann’s portrayal of the themes of love and madness; and most of all in Hoffmann’s imagery. Hoffmann uses images not usually explored outside of folklore and fairy tales and places them in everyday settings, which somehow magnifies their strangeness. Again, this is something we have come to expect from the Gothic and the fantastic, but here is one of the places where it began. The very eeriness of this story made it groundbreaking, and nearly two-hundred years later it retains the power to chill readers.
[Spoiler warning for this paragraph] One of the strangest elements in what is already a very strange story is Olympia, the automaton Nathaniel mistakes for a flesh and blood woman and falls in love with. That this mistake is possible tells us plenty about the extent to which women were expected to be empty vessels, but what struck me the most about it was how creepy the idea of a clockwork machine that can nearly pass for a human being remains.
The image I opened this post with is a still from a 1991 stop-motion animation based on the story. I think I have found one of my Halloween films for this year.
You can read “The Sandman” online here. I read this story for the Classic Circuit’s Gothic Literature tour, which focuses on pre-Victorian Gothic classics. Visit the Classic Circuit’s site for the full tour schedule.
They read it too: Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, Reading While Female, Desperate Reader