E. T. A. Hoffmann World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1950

Hoffmann’s fiction is noted for its astonishing depiction of pathological psychological states; for the use of description emulating the detail of dreams; for the introduction of grotesque, supernatural, and bizarre elements into his narratives; for its sometimes macabre humor; and for the portrayal of characters torn between two conflicting desires....

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Hoffmann’s fiction is noted for its astonishing depiction of pathological psychological states; for the use of description emulating the detail of dreams; for the introduction of grotesque, supernatural, and bizarre elements into his narratives; for its sometimes macabre humor; and for the portrayal of characters torn between two conflicting desires. His work, like his life, is dualistic, full of two-sided heroes leading frenetic, eccentric lives.

Hoffmann came to fame as a writer after having considered the calling of an artist or a composer-musician. He accompanied his efforts as a lawyer and author with the writing of operas, symphonies, and a wealth of smaller compositions. He often gave private music lessons to augment his precarious income and published critical articles about the music of his time.

Musicians and other kinds of artists play a significant role in Hoffmann’s fiction as ambivalent heroes. The most famous (partly autobiographical) character that he created was Kapellmeister (Conductor) Johannes Kreisler, the hero of a cycle of stories, which served as the inspiration for the occasional music titled Kreisleriana by the nineteenth century composer Robert Schumann. Kreisler was also the hero of Hoffmann’s avant-garde novel Lebensansichten des Katers Murr, nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufalligen Makulaturblättern (1819-1821; The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr, with the Fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Scrap Paper, 1969; also known as The Educated Cat). In this novel, Hoffmann’s dualism is graphically displayed, since the book purports to be the autobiography of a tomcat, who uses the reverse sides of the musician Kreisler’s autobiography for his own story. Thus, each page of the cat’s life alternates with pages of the musician’s confessions. Murr (Purr) is the very embodiment of a limited and judgmental member of the middle class, and the composer’s struggles are caused precisely because of such attitudes.

The eighteenth century composer Christoph Gluck is a main character in Hoffmann’s earliest story, “Ritter Gluck.” In this tale, as in most, the supernatural plays a role because the composer is a ghost. Other magical, often humorous, elements figure prominently in the stories, including fire spirits and salamanders, in “The Golden Flower Pot”; twisted demoniac characters who appear in various guises and may be in league with the Devil, such as Coppelius in “Der Sandmann” (“The Sandman”); or eccentric violin collectors, who build houses symmetrical only on the inside, like Councillor Krespel in “Rat Krespel” (“Councillor Krespel”). Titles such as “Das ode Haus” (“The Deserted House”) from Nachtstücke (1817; night pieces), Die Elixiere des Teufels: Nachgelassene Papiere des Bruders Medardus, eines Kapuziners (1815-1816; The Devil’s Elixirs: From the Posthumous Papers of Brother Medardus, a Capuchin Friar, 1824), and “Der Elementargeist” (“The Nature Spirit”) attest to the range of fantasic themes that crowd Hoffmann’s tales.

Hoffmann often wrote about people who were obsessed by one peculiar idea. For example, he depicted the slightly mad obsession of Councillor Krespel for taking violins apart in order to see where their beautiful tone resided. That is analogous to the futility of doing an autopsy on a human body to search for the soul or the cause of a beautiful singing voice. Indeed, Krespel, a lawyer like Hoffmann, has been unhappily married to an operatic soprano from Italy (where the best violins were also made) and has a daughter who will die if she sings. Of course, she has a divinely beautiful voice, and, inevitably, she succumbs to the fatal temptation to sing. This theme is taken up by such later authors as Thomas Mann in his novella Tristan (1903; English translation, 1925). It is also typical of Hoffmann’s fiction that more than one related theme is treated in the same story, for example, building an inwardly symmetrical house, dismantling violins, and enforcing silence on a gifted, but physically frail, singer.

Hoffmann was the first author to write mystery fiction, when he published, “Das Fräulein von Scuderi” (“Mademoiselle de Scudéry”) in volume three of Die Serapionsbrüder(1819-1821; The Serapion Brethren, 1886-1892), twenty-two years before Edgar Allan Poe. It contains a fanciful description of an artist-criminal obsessed with a beautiful work of art, a theme that has enjoyed wide currency since Hoffmann’s time.

The author arranged his stories into collections, with names such as The Serapion Brethren, perhaps a reference to his own friends and fellow Romantics, or Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier (1814-1815; Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner, 1996). In all, he wrote nearly fifty tales. Although an entire collection may not be remembered, individual stories have entered the canon of world literature and, aided by their use in musical compositions, have become part of the Western heritage, particularly through the use of “Nussknacker and Mausekönig” (“Nutcracker and the King of Mice”) in The Nutcracker Suite ballet of Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky.

Fascinated by mesmerism, an early fad related to hypnosis, and by the ways in which the human spirit is drawn to conflicting realities, one of which may be fatal, Hoffmann captured the imagination of a Romantic generation. He is still read in numerous translations throughout the world.

“The Sandman”

First published: “Der Sandmann,” 1816 (collected Selected Writings of E. T. A. Hoffmann, 1969)

Type of work: Short story

A promising young author becomes the victim of an obsession with the identity of the two women whom he loves, and he plunges to his death.

“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.

Upon his return to the university, Nathaniel discovers his rooming house destroyed by fire. His new lodgings face the apartment of the mysterious scientist Spalanzani and his daughter Olympia. Using the binoculars purchased from Coppola before Nathaniel’s restorative trip home, he observes and falls hopelessly in love with Olympia.

After meeting her at a gathering at the professor’s home, Nathaniel is confirmed in his opinion that she is a woman who truly understands his artistic soul. She listens to his compositions by the hour, sometimes punctuating Nathaniel’s reading with the single cry, “Oh!” Olympia, however, is an automaton, built by the scientist and fantastically endowed with “life” from the essence of Nathaniel’s eyes, stolen by the “Sandman” Coppola when Nathaniel bought the binoculars. Thus, when Nathaniel looks into Olympia’s eyes he sees and loves himself.

Nathaniel goes mad one day because he chances to see Spalanzani and Coppola struggling over ownership of Olympia and tearing her limb from limb in the process. Again nursed back to health by Clara, Nathaniel accidentally turns his binoculars on her. He suddenly understands that it is Clara who is really a lifeless doll. He attempts to murder her, but instead he falls from a great height onto the city square, just as the barometer maker is walking by.

In this tale, the themes of identity, the supernatural, demonism, alchemy, and automata, reflecting a fear of scientific innovation and the dilemma of the artist in society, combine to create the typical Hoffmannesque thrill of fear and alienation, combined with horror and tragic disappointment. One can see why such tales influenced writers such as Poe and may be the forerunners of modern science fiction.

“Mademoiselle de Scudéry”

First published: “Das Fräulein von Scuderi,” 1820 (collected in The Serapion Brethren, 1886-1892)

Type of work: Short story

The obsessive desire of a master jeweler to possess his creations leads him to murder and death in seventeenth century Paris.

“Mademoiselle de Scudéry,” considered to be Hoffmann’s supreme achievement, may be the earliest mystery story. It served also as the inspiration for the opera Cardillac by twentieth century composer Paul Hindemith. Like many of Hoffmann’s tales, it provides a psychologically accurate portrait of a pathological personality, in this case a split personality, or a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure, the master jeweler Cardillac. Written with attention to historical accuracy, and the creation of the mood in Paris during the reign of Louis XIV, the story is also a masterpiece of narrative technique, using a minor poet and spinster of advanced age, Mademoiselle de Scudéry, as the agency by which the fiendish criminal-artist is brought to justice.

A lengthy tale, “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” includes a narrative about a rash of notorious poisonings and the consequent creation of a special tribunal in Paris to hunt down malefactors. This reference serves to explain the mood of Parisians, who are almost hysterical even before the murders are perpetrated by Cardillac. It also calls into question the kind of justice available in society when a citizenry is roused, a query pertinent to events not only in Hoffmann’s time but also in the present age.

In the main story, Cardillac’s apprentice Olivier, who has Mademoiselle’s special “pet” as a baby, and Madelon, the jeweler’s daughter, are wrongfully accused of the theft of Cardillac’s jewels and his murder. The young couple are portrayed as shining examples of virtue, and Scudéry must clear up the confusion to save the innocent couple.

In what proves to be a tortuous process, Cardillac’s criminal behavior is revealed, but, to protect Madelon from knowledge of her father’s crimes, Mademoiselle de Scudéry must secretly narrate the true events to the king himself, whose heart is softened by Madelon’s resemblance to a woman whom the king once loved but lost to the convent. Formal procedures are circumvented in the interest of subjective and arbitrary considerations. Only the honesty of individuals assures that the streets of Paris are safe and that justice has been served.

Cardillac is revealed to be the victim of a prenatal influence—his mother’s pathological appetite for jewelry during her pregnancy. He is driven to create masterpieces of jewelry in his daytime identity as the irreproachable jeweler for Paris nobility (Dr. Jekyll). At night, however, he is obsessively compelled to steal the lovely baubles back, killing their rightful owners (Mr. Hyde). After many baffling murders, one of Cardillac’s victims parries the knife thrust intended to kill him and stabs Cardillac instead. Olivier, who has discovered his master’s secret, drags the jeweler back to his apartment, only to be taken for the thief-murderer himself. After Mademoiselle has explained the unique situation to the king, the young couple is permitted to immigrate to another country, thus keeping the truth from Madelon and the public while providing a rather questionable and subjective kind of justice.

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Hoffmann, E. T. A. (1776 - 1822)