E. T. A. Hoffmann Hoffmann, E. T. A. (1776 - 1822)
by Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffman

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(Gothic Literature)

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

(Born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, changed third name to Amadeus) German short story writer, novella writer, novelist, and music critic.

Composer, musician, and artist E. T. A. Hoffmann is best known as a writer of bizarre and fantastic fiction. Drawing from English Gothic romance, eighteenth-century Italian comedy, the psychology of the abnormal, and the occult, he created a world in which everyday life is infused with the supernatural. Hoffmann's tales were influential in the nineteenth century throughout Europe and America. Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Heinrich Heine, and George Meredith are among the authors who derived plots, characters, and motifs from Hoffmann.


The child of estranged parents, Hoffmann lived with his uncle, a pragmatic civil servant who did not encourage his nephew's prodigious talents. Hoffmann studied law and accepted a government appointment, but cared for music above all and devoted himself to composing theatrical scores, opera, and ecclesiastical pieces. A public official by day and a composer of romantic music by night, Hoffmann experienced the conflict that became a recurring theme in his fiction: the opposition between artistic endeavors and mundane concerns and the struggle of the artist to create in an unsympathetic, philistine society. In 1806 Hoffmann lost his bureaucratic post and joined the Bamberg theater as musical conductor and stage director. His theatrical experience provided Hoffmann with an understanding of character, dialogue, and dramatic structure that enriched his fiction. Also significant was Hoffmann's passionate attachment to Julia Marc, a gifted voice student whom he idealized in his writings as a representation of music incarnate. In Hoffmann's life, however, as in his fiction, the ideal is inviolable, and his love for Julia remained platonic.


Hoffmann's first published works were reviews of the works of composers such as Ludwig von Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, Christoph Willibald Gluck, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the last of whom Hoffmann honored by changing his own third name from Wilhelm to Amadeus. Believing that music was the supreme mode of expression, Hoffmann tried to replicate in his fiction what he viewed as music's superior traits, such as its immediacy, emotional power, and supernatural qualities. Hoffmann hoped to transport readers beyond the physical realm by thrusting them into an environment palpably real, yet strangely unfamiliar. Hoffmann's stories range from fairy tales to traditional narratives, but his most characteristic works feature doppelgängers, automata, and mad artists and each has a dark, hallucinatory tone. His most famous story is "Der Sandmann" (1817; "The Sandman"). The tale begins in epistolary form and centers on a young man, Nathanael, who believes a salesman he encounters is a gruesome childhood fairy tale character come to life. As with many of Hoffmann's stories, the line between fantasy and reality is blurred. Nathanael links the Sandman to an associate of his late father's, by whom he was once attacked. The eerie similarities between the Sandman, the father's friend and the salesman inspired Sigmund Freud's celebrated essay "The Uncanny," in which Freud uses Hoffman's story to illustrate his ideas, which eventually led to his theory of the Oedipal castration complex.

Hoffmann himself considered "Der goldene Topf" (1814; "The Golden Pot"), in which the supernatural enters a poet's everyday life, as his best piece of writing. Additional stories in the Gothic tradition include "Die Automate" (1814; "Automata") a two-part tale containing a ghost story and a mystery centering on an automaton or robot, and "Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht" (1814; "A New Year's Eve Adventure ") in which two characters in two different settings represent polarities of the same personality. In both stories, Hoffmann underscores his belief that real-life activities...

(The entire section is 26,648 words.)