E. T. A. Hoffmann Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fiction moves on two levels: a fantastic, imaginary level and an everyday, realistic one. The basic worldview underlying Hoffmann’s “higher realm,” the “marvellous magical world” beyond ordinary earthly reality, is German Classical Idealism in its late Romantic form as developed by thinkers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Schelling, and Johann Fichte, who saw external nature as a complex, contingent manifestation of the absolute spirit world. Literarily, this idea took the form of interpreting nature, especially its strangest or most symbolic phenomena (hypnosis, the occult, somnambulism, mental telepathy, insanity, dreams, mythology, music, religion) as hieroglyphics and evidences of the deeper strata of being, which could be “higher,” as in the aesthetic and religious sublimity intimated in the great music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or could open mysterious abysses of darkness as in Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert’s book on the “dark side of nature.” In the words of critic Kenneth Negus, Hoffmann’s myths “pictorialize invisible truths of nature.”

The principle governing the depiction of this mythical, transcendental level in Hoffmann’s stories is described in the framework story of The Serapion Brethren.

“The Story of Serapion”

In “The Story of Serapion,” an insane man living in the woods in southern Germany in modern times believes himself to be the hermit Serapion who suffered martyrdom in Alexandria under the Emperor Decius. He is perfectly rational apart from this “idée fixe” with its aftermath that, having passed through martyrdom, by God’s omnipotence he now lives on for centuries in great serenity “in the Theban desert” and receives visits from great men of history: Ariosto, Dante, Petrarch. When the realistic narrator challenges him that these interesting events really happen only in his mind, he answers, in accord with the subjectivistic philosophy of the time, that “if it is the mind only which takes cognizance of events around us, it follows that what it has taken cognizance of has actually occurred.” The Serapion Brothers, a group of writers, including the narrator—who meet regularly to read to one another the stories that constitute the book—adopt Serapion’s name and creative fantasy as their ideal, stressing both concrete vividness and Romantic sovereignty over the artistic material. A counterpointed realistic principle stated more than once later in the framework is that “the foot of the heavenly ladder, which we have got to mount in order to reach the higher regions, has got to be fixed firmly in every-day life,” for “it is the outer world which causes the spirit to exercise those functions which take cognizance.” The charm of “The Story of Serapion” consists in the interplay of attitudes between the totally subjective title figure and the realistic narrator. The very first story Hoffmann wrote, “Ritter Gluck,” is much like “The Story of Serapion” in describing a genial delusionary who masterfully plays the famous composer’s music from blank pages and at the end identifies himself with the words, “I am Ritter Gluck.”

Far from being all of one type, the greatness of Hoffmann’s works resides precisely in his awareness of point of view, in his expert modulation of perspective and narrative texture, thus creating a great number of styles and genres, depending on the narrator stance within the realism-Romanticism spectrum. In some stories, such as the famous The Golden Flower Pot (1814) and “The Mines of Falun,” the balance shifts away from normal reality to the fantastic and mythical, while in others, such as “Councillor Krespel,” “A Fragment of the Lives of Three Friends,” and “Automatons,” the marvelous and imaginary does not shatter the stance of an urbane, rational narrator.

The Golden Flower Pot

The Golden Flower Pot, a fantastic Märchen, sharply contrasts the two conflicting strata and focuses mainly on the spirit realm. The student Anselmus struggles between the two perspectives represented by his love for Serpentina, a blue-eyed little green snake, daughter of Archivist Lindhorst, a powerful age-old Salamander (spiritprince) of the paradisaic Atlantis Kingdom, and his love for Veronica, whose aspirations are purely prosaic and conventional. In the end, the imaginary realm wins out; Anselmus marries Serpentina and vanishes from the earth, and the beautiful Xanadu-like dream realm is given an allegorical explanation as “life in poetry,” which reveals “the sacred harmony of all begins, the deepest secret of nature.” The story’s fame stems from the scintillating descriptions of the Romantic realm, such as the Fairyland Atlantis and the Archivist’s fabled chambers with their strange unearthly trees and flowers, birds and insects, as well as from the ironic effects produced by the clash of perspectives.

“The Mines of Falun”

“The Mines of Falun” strikes...

(The entire section is 2092 words.)