(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Peter Schlemihl belongs to the Romantic era, a literary period that drew heavily on fairy tale motives, magical tools, and supernatural occurrences. In this case, the elements include a magical gold sack, a bird’s nest that renders its wearer invisible, a magic hood, and the seven-league boots. The story often has been labeled a fantastic novella or a fairy tale novella. It opens with a narrative frame that consists of letters written by the author, Adelbert von Chamisso, who explains how he received Peter Schlemihl’s notebook; Baron Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, the man who first published the story anonymously in 1814; and Eduard Hitzig, the publisher of the second edition in 1827. The work was an immediate success and was translated into almost every European language, and it was one of the most popular stories of its time. It was also well received by Chamisso’s literary colleagues, many of whom became inspired to create follow-up stories or invent their own shadowless hero stories.

Complexity and rich structure make Peter Schlemihl such a timeless and rewarding work. Because of its casual treatment of the supernatural and the constant shift between the fantastic and the real, it undermines the reader’s expectations, thus allowing for a more critical and unmediated reading. In addition, because of its fantastic theme of a man becoming a social outcast after losing his shadow, the novella has found many different...

(The entire section is 491 words.)