Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1159
Written in an epistolary form, this short story begins as a letter from Nathanael to Lothar. Nathanael is in a state of upset because a peddler has come to visit him. He explains that in order for his distress to make sense, he must tell Lothar the story of his life.
Nathanael explains that, as a child, he and his siblings rarely saw their father, except in the evenings, when he would give them picture books. At nine or so, his mother would send the children to bed, saying that "the Sandman" had come—and indeed they would hear a heavy tread on the stairs which they assumed to be the Sandman. Frightened, Nathanael asked his mother about the Sandman, but she assured him he was not real—she just meant it was time for sleep. His nurse, however, told a different story. She said that when children wouldn't sleep, the Sandman would come and throw sand in their eyes and then take them home for his children to eat.
At this point, of course, the "incubus" of the Sandman came to terrify Nathanael at night, although he knew it couldn't really all be true. He drew an association between the Sandman and his father's room, the door of which could be heard opening at night. Then, when he was ten, his mother moved him from the nursery into a room near his father's.
Desperate to see the Sandman, Nathanael concealed himself one night in his father's room and waited for the footsteps. Peering out, he saw that the Sandman was not an ogre at all, but an old lawyer friend of the family, Coppelius. Nathanael explained, however, that the children and their mother alike all hated Coppelius, who was ugly and spiteful; however, their father seemed to idolize him. Seeing his father sitting with Coppelius, Nathanael noticed his father start to become ugly by association.
Coppelius caught Nathanael in his hiding place, and then (the narrative suggests this is really happening) threw him on the fire and took out some fiery grains, intending to throw them in the boy's eyes. The boy's father intervened, but Coppelius still began to twist the boy's limbs.
At this point, blackness overtook Nathanael; he awoke in his own room. Nathanael explains to Lothar that probably what happened was that Coppelius found him, "roughly handled" him, and subsequently fell ill; the details were in his imagination. Still, he was terrified. Coppelius then left town.
A year later, Coppelius returned. Nathanael's father promised this would be his last visit; but then the servant maid found Nathanael's father dead, his features burned. Coppelius then disappeared, fleeing the authorities.
Nathanael now reveals that the peddler who has appeared is Coppelius—and he, Nathanael, is resolved to avenge his father's death.
The next letter is from Clara, Lothar's brother, to Nathanael. She tells him that he inadvertently addressed his last letter to her, and she has read it. She tries to assure Nathanael that he is wrong—the peddler is Gieseppe Coppola, not Coppelius, and the horrors Nathanael relates were only in his child's mind. She tells him it is probable that his father's death was caused by misfortune and begs him not to let himself be consumed by the idea that there is some dark power in the universe.
Nathanael writes back to Lothar to tell him what Clara has said, but he stresses that the peddler is not Coppola. He also tells the story of a beautiful young woman, Olimpia, he has seen, who is kept imprisoned by her father, Spalanzani. He hopes to return to Lothar and Clara soon.
At this point, the narrative changes. A third person introduces himself as a "friend" of Lothar's and says he has been given these letters as a basis from which to tell the story of what really happened to Nathanael. He explains that Clara and Lothar were adopted by Nathanael's mother but that Clara was the object of Nathanael's affections, being very...
(The entire section contains 2423 words.)
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