E. T. A. Hoffmann E. T. A. Hoffmann World Literature Analysis
by Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffman

Start Your Free Trial

Download E. T. A. Hoffmann Study Guide

Subscribe Now

E. T. A. Hoffmann World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,950 words.)