As is typical of Dark Romantic fiction (which Hoffmann partly originated), in "The Sandman " one does not know for sure if Nathanael's experiences are presented as reality or as the product of his own disordered imagination. Thus the illusion vs. reality theme, which is present in literature of...
As is typical of Dark Romantic fiction (which Hoffmann partly originated), in "The Sandman" one does not know for sure if Nathanael's experiences are presented as reality or as the product of his own disordered imagination. Thus the illusion vs. reality theme, which is present in literature of virtually all periods, is given a new treatment which, as stated, became a pattern in early nineteenth-century fiction, among the German authors, as well as in the English and American writers influenced to a degree by them.
The fixation through "The Sandman" on eyes—whether Nathanael's own eyes which he fears the Sandman will take away or the artificial eyes created by Coppelius—is symbolic of the fact that eyes are our means of perceiving reality. But is that which is perceived—by Nathanael, or by anyone—"real"? There is no definitive answer. The automaton Olimpia is, of course, similar to the monster in Mary Shelley's contemporaneous Frankenstein. Olimpia is an artificial being, but Nathanael perceives her as a real woman, and then, just before he is finally driven mad and kills himself, he seems to identify Clara with Olimpia. His own view of the outside world has become indistinguishable from a dream.
How does this relate to the theme of knowing or communicating with one's inner self? In some sense, because Nathanael does not fully understand himself and his own imagination, he allows Coppelius and the terror he felt about Coppelius during his childhood to dominate him and to determine the course of his life. His obsession with Olimpia, who as a mechanical doll being presented as a woman represents this false reality, indicates that Nathanael, against the better judgement he would have had if he understood himself, prefers this world of illusion to real life. He thus loses Clara, a real woman, because of his immersion in a dream-like world of terror. We can see this same theme presented in the Hoffmann-influenced works of Poe and Hawthorne two decades later. Man becomes a prisoner of his distorted perceptions, including his lack of understanding of himself.