Oct 19, 2011

The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann

The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann
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 fiancĂ©e) 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.

The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann
Illustration by Paul Gavarni

[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.

Classics Circuit Gothic Literature Tour

They read it too: Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, Reading While Female, Desperate Reader

(You?)

26 comments:

  1. Great review :) This is one I'll have to get around to soon. I've just finished Hoffmann's 'The Devil's Elixirs' (review posted on the 22nd), my first book of his, and I loved his style, even if I'm not really one for Gothic lit usually.

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  2. I ve a couple of his short stories lined up hopefully for german lit month,he is a writer I ve read very little of I ve note this one down as one to try thanks ,all the best stu

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  3. Oh thanks for the link. I love the sound of this. A rather sinister version of the Sandman I grew up with.

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  4. I never read anything about the Sandman (good thing or I really wouldn't have been able to sleep as a kid), but everyone knows the general idea. Plus who doesn't love Metallica's song? Ha. I want to read this. Very spooky!

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  5. When I first started reading your review, I didn't think I'd be trying this. But by the end of it I'm sure I'll be giving it a go sometime...and I'll be reading it during broad daylight, thank you very much! It does sound like a ground-breaking story, and it should be very interesting from all you describe it to be. Great review!:D

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  6. That excerpt you posted was truly chilling, especially when you think that it might be told to a young child! This sounds like a very interesting book, and like something that would make for a great Halloween read. I am off to check it out. Thanks, Ana!

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  7. Oh, creepy! I'll have to check out that film too.

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  8. Now this sounds like the creepy book I need for Halloween. I can't imagine this as a story told to children though...a bit too much for a child I think. Unless of course you prefer your child cranky and sleepless!

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  9. I'd heard of this story but never knew what it was actually about - now I feel like I have to read it! I like supernatural stories with an everyday setting - it does make it much scarier.

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  10. I recently read The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt which referenced this story a few times, so I'm definitely interested in reading it. It does sound very creepy!

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  11. Ooh, the whole psychological aspect of the audience not being entirely sure whether the protagonist is going insane or is justifiably freaked out reminds me a lot of Wish Her Safe at Home. And The Turn of the Screw. Delicious reading for October :-)

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  12. I love books where you can't tell what's real and what's not!

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  13. This sounds like a great October read!

    Also, everything you said in your spoiler warning reminds me of the book Edison's Eve: A Magical History for Mechanical Life. There's a lot of discussion in that book of the whole doll/woman as empty vessel thing and, ah, seriously creepy automatons. YIKES.

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  14. Great review as always! I can see why Freud would have a field day with this story, and I love how you always point out a literary or psychological theory in your reviews. They always make analyzing the text more fun. :) I'm off to save a copy of The Sandman, so I can read it as soon as I can.

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  15. Ah, Freud. He certainly did see sex in every situation, the poor fella. Anyway, I would love to read this short story so just powered up my Nook to see if I can download away. Thanks for the heads up and I'll look for the film, too.

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  16. I had a E.T.A. Hoffmann phase and read a lot of his work but this remains one of the creepiest. It's interesting in many ways and perfectly illustrates "uncanny". I was reminded of Freud's theory of the uncanny when reading Alois Hotschnig's short stories a few months back.

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  17. Wow! Finally something I don't have to run out and buy! Only because I've already read it, of course--because your review would have made me want to own it if I didn't already. :P This was definitely one of my favorites from the collection I read.

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  18. Spook-y!

    I read another review (sorry, forgot which) where they talked about the role "eyes" have in the book. Apparently they have a Freudian meaning (doesn't everything?).

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  19. Oooo, this sounds REALLY creepy...and really good. Great review :D

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  20. Loved this. And Happy Halloween Time!

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  21. that first picture is very creepy to me. I don't usually do well with creepy and I"m not sure I can handle Romantic/gothic era literature so well, but maybe in a spooky-ish story! I've been enjoying the ghost stories I've been reading, and this sounds quite interesting with the psychological horror...

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  22. This doesn't half sound creepy!! One to be read in a well lit room I think just like The Turn of the Screw!

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  23. Ooh, I love a good, classic, gothic story. I haven't read anything by Hoffman yet so I'll be giving this one a try, hopefully at night time!

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  24. I have a soft spot for Hoffman who can be utterly terrifying. I have this in a collection of short stories and read it a few years ago. I think I'll be getting it back off the shelf now.

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  25. Ah I'm so excited the sandman got Ana-approval! :)
    I fell for this story and then Hoffmann's other works in school. Alchemy, automatons, madness, interesting depiction of gender roles, what's not to love :D

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  26. Finally I get a chance to comment on this post :) I read 'The Sandman' today and found it really scary, creepy, eerie. I liked your observation about how the story can be read in different ways and how till the end we are not sure whether what Nathaniel sees and feels are real or are a product of his own mind. I loved the passage where Clara comments on this.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.