Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This is a story-within-a-story, which is sometimes published under the title “A New Year’s Eve Adventure” and sometimes published only with Spikher’s insert story and entitled “The Lost Reflection.” It belongs within the Romantic tradition in nineteenth century Germany, a tradition of the novellas that begins with the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and develops in more detail with those of Ludwig Tieck, Chamisso, and Hoffmann himself. American readers are most familiar with the tradition in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, both of whom make use of the familiar convention of the double figure, which is based on the notion of the split in the self between the body and the soul. “A New Year’s Eve Adventure” also makes use of the convention, made most famous by Goethe, of the man who falls in love with a beautiful woman, sells his soul to the devil, and is doomed to wander eternally in search of his lost self.

In this story, Hoffmann makes the convention a bit more complicated both by making use of it and by simultaneously making fun of it. Thus, one has a classic Romantic story of the lost self, even as one has a story that burlesques the theme. The fact that the story of the Travelling Enthusiast serves as a framework for the story of Erasmus Spikher suggests that Spikher similarly serves as a double for the Travelling Enthusiast, even as within his story one meets a character out of the fiction of Hoffmann’s friend Chamisso. The fact that a fictional character such as Peter Schlemihl enters into the frame story as if he were a real character is indicative of Hoffmann’s innovation of integrating the world of dream, fantasy, fairy tale, and psychological projection into the world of “as if” reality.