Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Sandman,” like all of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales, deals with the unsettling disparity between the self and the external world. For Hoffmann there were three possibilities for facing the basic disharmony between internal and external reality: Like Nathanael, one may allow the inner visions and feelings to predominate, leading eventually to madness; like Clara, one may insist on the primary importance of everyday, factual reality; or, like the Romantic writer, one may accept this dualism and try to transcend it with ironic detachment.

Nathanael’s early childhood experiences (the nursemaid’s story of the Sandman, Coppelius’s threat to his eyes, and his father’s death) make him susceptible to the destructive workings of his imagination. His obsession with losing his eyes and his fear of the evil father-substitutes, Coppelius and Coppola, destroy his love for Clara and make him easy prey for Spalanzani’s and Coppelius’s suggestive manipulations. The pocket telescope further distorts his vision, for instead of bringing external objects nearer and into sharper focus, it only magnifies their effect on his soul.

In Olimpia he discovers a mirror of his involuntary emotional responses. His statement to a friend that “only in Olimpia’s love do I find my own self again” is a telling expression of his latent narcissism. He fails to take seriously Clara’s sensible advice and becomes very upset when she sharply criticizes his premonitory poem about Coppelius’s destruction of their love. It is easier for him to retreat into his private world and converse with a mechanical doll than to develop an open, unselfish relationship with Clara.

Nevertheless, the narrator’s and Hoffmann’s sympathies lie with Nathanael, for he is the one who recognizes the deeper creative and destructive powers that are hidden behind everyday experience. Nathanael, however, fails both as a poet and as an individual because he is unable to communicate his dark and esoteric visions with the least bit of distance and objectivity. The persistent motif of eyes and seeing emphasizes all the more the tragedy of Nathanael’s blindness to his own drives and desires.