Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In the first of the three letters that open the story, Nathanael writes Lothar, a distant cousin who lives with his sister Clara and Nathanael’s mother, of the distress he has felt following the recent visit to his room by an instrument trader named Giuseppe Coppola. Nathanael is convinced that Coppola is the lawyer Coppelius, who was responsible for the death of Nathanael’s father years earlier during his childhood. As a child, Nathanael believed Coppelius to be the Sandman, who, according to a nursemaid’s fairy tale, threw sand into children’s eyes when they did not want to go to bed, causing their eyes to spring bloodily out of their sockets. One evening Nathanael decided to investigate the Sandman’s activities in his father’s room and hid himself behind a curtain in his father’s closet. When the Sandman entered the room and Nathanael discovered that it was Coppelius, an old lawyer who occasionally had dinner with the family and whom the children found ugly and repulsive, Nathanael was transfixed. As the two men worked on a steaming experiment, his father suddenly appeared to him to be Coppelius’s satanic double. When Coppelius shouted “Eyes here, eyes here,” Nathanael fell out of his hiding place onto the floor, whereupon Coppelius threatened to burn out his eyes, causing Nathanael to faint. A year or so later, during Coppelius’s next visit, an explosion in the laboratory killed the father.
Nathanael has addressed the letter by mistake to his fiancé, Lothar’s sister, Clara, who tries to reassure Nathanael in the story’s second letter that all the horrible things he experienced existed only in his imagination and not in reality. She recommends that he forget all about Coppelius and Coppola and adds that by recognizing them as phantoms of his real self he will be free of their evil influence over him.
A somewhat more sober Nathanael tells Lothar in the third letter of his acquaintance with a new physics professor by the name of Spalanzani, who has known Coppola for years and claims that Coppola has left the city. Nathanael now doubts that Coppola and Coppelius are identical, yet insists that he cannot rid himself of the image of Coppelius’s hideous bearing. He also mentions that on the way to Spalanzani’s lecture he caught sight of the professor’s daughter Olimpia, whom Spalanzani keeps locked in a glass cabinet behind closed curtains. Her eyes seemed to stare at him, though she appeared not to see him.
At this point, the narrator breaks in to say that he has prefaced his own narration with these three letters because he knows of no other beginning that could adequately reflect the ardent intensity of Nathanael’s story. The narrator then continues with Nathanael’s return home, where the coolly rational Clara again tries to dismiss Nathanael’s demoniac visions as imaginary. The ill effect of Coppola’s visit on Nathanael, however, is apparent to everyone. In a long, murky poem, he depicts how Coppelius was destroying their love. According to the poem, at their marriage Coppelius touched Clara’s eyes, which sprang...
(The entire section is 1264 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Sandman,” justly regarded as one of Hoffmann’s greatest stories, is the basis for a scene from the opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) by Jacques Offenbach and for the Léo Delibes ballet Coppélia. It is a typical example of Hoffmann’s use of doubles.
While studying at the university, Nathaniel, a sensitive aspiring writer, believes that a barometer maker and binocular salesman named Coppola is a terrifying figure from his childhood. Dabbling in alchemistic experiments with a lawyer named Coppelius, Nathaniel’s father died in a laboratory explosion. So that she could hurry the children into bed whenever Coppelius visited Nathaniel’s father, Nathaniel’s nurse had used the figure of Coppelius to scare the children with stories of the Sandman, who steals the eyes of children for his nefarious purposes. Although rationally, the two men cannot be identical, despite the similarity of their names (Coppelius and Coppola), an encounter with Coppola reminds Nathaniel of his father’s death.
Nathaniel’s agitation at encountering Coppola is soothed by a trip to his home. His fiancé, Clara, a name suggesting the clarity and reason recommended by the Enlightenment, exercises a healing influence on him, although she does not comprehend his confessional and deeply felt poetic art. In Clara’s opinion, Nathaniel’s preoccupation with emotionally stimulating poetry is not good for him.
(The entire section is 511 words.)