A New Year's Eve Adventure Summary
“A New Year’s Eve Adventure” is partially E. T. A. Hoffmann’s own romantic fantasy, but it is also a satire on the convention of the lost reflection or shadow familiar in other German fantasies of the early nineteenth century. It is typical of Hoffmann in that its reality seems to hover halfway between the real world and the world of fairy tale; thus the split in the central character, Spikher, both between himself and his reflection, as well as between himself and the Travelling Enthusiast, is reflective of the duality of the world as Hoffmann sees it—always half-actual, half-imaginative, always half-comic, half-tragic.
The basic nature of such a split is announced in the editor’s foreword to the story, in which the Travelling Enthusiast is described as one who cannot separate the events of his inner life from those of the outside world. Suggesting that the reader is to enter a world where he cannot determine where inner world ends and outer world begins, the editor warns the reader that in this story he will be in a strange magical realm, where figures of fantasy step right into his own life.
The story opens with the convention, familiar in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe (who was highly influenced by Hoffmann’s fiction), of the Enthusiast’s sense of inexplicable fear and madness, the source of which is the fact that every New Year’s Eve the Devil keeps a special treat for him. He goes to a party given by the counselor of justice and there sees Julia, a beautiful woman from his former life of love and poetry, only to discover that she is married to a spindle-legged little cretin with eyes like a frog.
Retreating from the grand party to a beer cellar, the Enthusiast meets a tall, sad man who looks like a character from a Peter Paul Rubens painting and a short, dried-up fellow who has a powerful antipathy toward mirrors. This second stranger has two different faces, one that of a pleasant young man and the other that of a demoniac old man. The reader discovers that this little man is Erasmus Spikher, who has lost his reflection, and that the tall man is Peter Schlemihl, the man who lost his shadow, the title character of Adelbert von Chamisso’s 1814 novel. When the narrator goes to a room that night, he looks into a mirror and sees from the background of his own reflection the image of Julia, which then changes into the image of the little man, Erasmus Spikher.
The duality of the narrator and Spikher is made clear when Spikher tells him that he has lost his reflection because he earlier gave it to Julia, or Giuletta, as he calls her. When the Enthusiast awakes the next morning after having strange dreams of Julia as a demoniac figure out of the paintings of Pieter Brueghel, Jacques Callot, and Rembrandt, he thinks that it all must be a dream until he finds a manuscript that is “The Story of the Lost Reflection”—the story of Erasmus Spikher, which is now inserted into the text and becomes the greater part of “A New Year’s Eve Adventure.” This story begins with Spikher traveling from the cold North to the beautiful warmth of Italy. Leaving his wife in order to fulfill this dream of travel, he sets off for Florence, where he meets Giuletta, who looks exactly as if she were a woman from a Rembrandt painting, walking about. He immediately falls in love with her, saying that he has seen her in his dreams, that he has always been in love with her, that she is his life.
It is at this point that Spikher also meets the strange figure of Dr. Dapertutto and, in a madness of jealousy, kills a young Italian suitor of Giuletta. When he realizes that he must now leave her to avoid prosecution, she begs him to leave her his reflection. Spikher travels back home to his wife and child and gradually forgets Giuletta—that is, until his son and wife discover that he has no reflection and reject him as a demon. Claiming that Giuletta must now have him body and soul, he calls up Dr. Dapertutto, who tries to make him poison his wife and child. When he refuses, Giuletta tries to convince him to sign over his wife and child to Dr. Dapertutto, but this, too, he refuses at the last moment. Spikher’s story ends with his wife telling him to go out into the world again to see if he can track down his reflection and get it away from the Devil. Spikher follows this advice, meets with Peter Schlemihl, and plans to travel with him.
The story ends with a postscript by the Travelling Enthusiast, who once again takes over the narration to tell Hoffmann that he is completely saturated with the manifestations of this New Year’s Eve and that he now believes that Julia is a picture of a siren by Rembrandt or Callot.