The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann



What would German literature month be without E.T.A Hoffman? I recently read Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson which I thoroughly enjoyed, and since the collection opened with Hoffmann’s short story, The Sandman, it seemed a perfect addition to German Literature month.

The story is just 30 pages and begins as an epistolary. A very troubled young man named Nathanael writes a letter to his friend, Lothar, but in emotional turmoil, he makes the mistake of addressing the letter to Lothar’s sister, Nathanael’s love interest, Clara. The letter details Nathanael’s childhood exposure to tales of the Sandman;

He’s a wicked man who comes to children when they don’t want to go to bed and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes; that makes their eyes fill with blood and jump out of their heads, and he throws the eyes into a bag and takes them into the crescent moon to feed to his own children, who are sitting in the nest there; the Sandman’s children have crooked beaks, like owls, with which to peck the eyes of naughty human children.

Yes, a wonderful thing to tell children especially at bedtime.

Nathanael relates a childhood in which a strange visitor he identifies as the Sandman (a creature who, according to Nathanael’s mother, does not exist)  periodically visits his father. These mysterious visits throw an atmosphere of gloom over the family and are accompanied by foul-smells suggesting the practice of alchemy. One terrifying night, Nathanael, after getting a good look at the Sandman, realizes that the Sandman in none other than Coppelius, an “old advocate.”

Years later, in the letter to Lothar, Nathanael, now a student, is convinced that he has met Coppelius again…

After 3 letters, the narrator of the tale takes over, and we shift from the Sandman as a major threat to Nathanael falling in love with Olimpia, the strange daughter of professor Spalanzani.

We could take the tale at face value or we can, from a psychological viewpoint, consider this a tale of obsession and madness. Clara, who believes that the “demon” exists only in Nathanael’s mind,  offers her fiancé some sensible advice:

If there is a dark power which malevolently and treacherously places a thread within us, with which to hold us and draw us down a perilous and pernicious path that we must never otherwise have set foot on–if there is such a power, then it must take the same form as we do, it must become our very self; for only in this way can we believe in it and give it the scope it requires to accomplish its secret task.

Nathanael is annoyed with Clara and considers her unfeeling, but no matter, to Nathanael, Olimpia seems to be the perfect woman–she sits and listens, never argues, never expresses an opinion of her own, and it seems only a small flaw that she can’t dance well. …

At around 30 pages, this is a short tale, and for its psychological elements,  I much preferred this to Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scuderi. Nathanael makes an interesting main character and while we can sympathise with him, it’s easy to see that he’s his own worst enemy–a man who, haunted by childhood demons, seems to rush with both arms open towards his own fate.



Filed under Fiction, Hoffmann

15 responses to “The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann

  1. It’s funny how I cannot disassociate ETA Hoffmann from the small yellow Reclam books we had in school: Das Fraulein von Scuderi, Der Sandmann, Kater Murr and many others. I think it went a little over my head at the time (although I enjoyed the opera based on his stories).

  2. Considering all the symbols used in this masterful story, I bet Dr. Freud had a field day when he read The Sandman.

  3. This sounds like the perfect story for a dark winter’s night. My grandfather used to scare me witless with a version of The Sandman.

  4. Jonathan

    Ah, The Sandman, if people read only one story by Hoffmann then make it this one.

    I’m determined to include some Hoffmann in my GLM as well.

  5. Excellent. I was thinking about writing about this one, but I went for The Golden Pot instead, which I’ll write about next week, I think.

    Your piece reminds me of the similarities between “The Sandman” and Hoffmann’s wackier pieces, even though “The Sandman” is areal horror story. Olimpia is an original creation. The whole thing, really.

    • This is the first time I’ve read The Sandman and yet there’s something about Olimpia which made me think I’d read something else along the same lines. Can you think of another similar creation?

  6. I don’t think it is going too far to say that Freud based most of his concept of the uncanny on E. T. A. Hoffmann. See “The Uncanny,” 1919, quite readable and of high interest to readers of fantasy literature.

    Olimpia has been much copied, so there could be any number of stories or films that have a descendant. She is a big part of Offenbach’s “Hoffmann” opera, which made the character well known outside of Germany.

  7. I have not read E.T.A. Hoffmann at all. This makes me really want to read him.

    Psychological horror that is full of symbols sounds great.

  8. I agree with Tom on this. there could be numerous books this reminds you of because it’s been copied so often. It’s wonderfully creepy.

  9. That sounds great, and like a fantastic story to read on a winter’s night. “Wonderfully creepy”? Sign me up! Thanks for the recommendation.

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