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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Written first in epistolary form, "The Sandman" begins as a letter from Nathanael to his childhood friend Lothar. Nathanael is in a state of upset because a peddler of barometers has come to visit him. He explains that his distress over this mundane visitation stems from memories of his traumatic childhood, which he details to Lothar.

Nathanael explains that, as a child, he and his siblings rarely saw their father. They would join him in his study at 7:30 p.m. for dinner; he would give them picture books or tell fabulous stories. These times were often joyous but always ended as soon as the clock struck 9:00. His mother would collect the gleeful children and send them to bed, warning them that “the Sandman” was coming. 

Indeed, as they shuffled disappointedly to bed, they would hear a heavy tread on the stairs that 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 refused to sleep, the Sandman would come and throw sand in their eyes and then take them home for his children to eat.

For much of his childhood, images of the Sandman flitted through Nathanael’s mind, terrifying him at night, even though he knew the story could not be true. He formed an association between the Sandman and his father's room, the door of which could be heard opening at night after the Sandman’s footsteps had echoed through the stairwell. Then, when he was ten, his mother moved him from the nursery into a room near his father's. From there, his fearful fascination with the object of his nightly terrors only grew.

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 a monstrous ogre, but an old lawyer friend of the family, Coppelius. Nathanael explained, however, that the children and their mother 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. The pair work on strange “alchemy” together. The scene is one of hellfire and torment, as the study morphs into a horrifying laboratory of frightening sounds and scents. 

Startled by his father’s transformation and the devilish sights before him, Nathanael screams in terror and falls from his hiding spot. Coppelius, seeing the frightened boy supine before him, scoops him up, throws him upon the fire, and then retrieves a handful of fiery grains, intending to throw them in the boy’s wild, frantic eyes. Only the intervention of his father saves his sight, but he soon slips from consciousness as Coppelius wrenches the young boy’s limbs to and fro.

Blackness overtakes Nathanael; he awakes much later in his room. Nathanael explains to Lothar that probably what happened was that Coppelius found him, "roughly handled" him, and subsequently, he fell ill from terror; the finer, devilish details must have been his imagination. Regardless, the encounter rattled him, sparking a deep-rooted fear of Coppelius’s fearsome visage. Thankfully, the object of his nightmares left town, leaving Nathanael—and his household—to their domestic peace. 

Their respite was brief; a year later, Coppelius returned. Nathanael's father promised this would be his last visit. His words were tragically prophetic because shortly after Coppelius’s arrival, the study exploded, wounding him horribly. The family’s maid discovered his burned body, mutilated beyond recognition by their devilish...

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work. Coppelius, however, escaped unscathed and evaded justice.  

With the story of his youth explained in detail, Nathanael now reveals that the barometer peddler who appeared to him was Coppelius—and he, Nathanael, is resolved to avenge his father's death.

The following letter is from Clara, Lothar's sister, to Nathanael. She tells him that he inadvertently addressed his last letter to her, and she mistakenly read it. She tries to assure Nathanael that he is wrong—the peddler is Giuseppe 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 simply misfortune and begs him not to let his belief in dark powers consume him.

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, whom he has encountered only briefly because her father, Professor Spalanzani, keeps her imprisoned. He finishes the letter by expressing his hope to return to Lothar and Clara soon.

After this third letter, the narrative changes. The story no longer unfolds in an epistolary form. Instead, an unnamed narrator appears, introducing himself as a "friend" of Lothar's. He explains that Lothar gave him these letters to tell Nathanael’s tale. Briefly, he discusses himself as a writer before returning to the subject of Nathanael, whose death he foreshadows. The third-person narrator picks up the story just after Nathanael’s father’s passing. 

He explains that, after her husband’s passing, Nathanael’s mother adopted Clara and Lothar. From childhood, Nathanael showed immense affection for Clara, and their relationship soon blossomed into a romantic affair, which continues to this day. Returning to the present, the narrator explains that, after writing these letters, Nathanael returned home. 

However, the young man was much altered, constantly in a pensive and gloomy mood. He tries to argue that Coppelius is evil incarnate and will ruin the couple's happiness. Clara tries to convince Nathanael to banish him from his mind, but Nathanael instead begins to compose a poem about the destruction of their love. He falls deeper into depression and resists Clara's insistence that he cast the subject from his mind. 

Finally, he pushes Clara away from him and speaks sharply to her. She is heartbroken by his remonstration, and Lothar discovers her sobbing quietly. Lothar is incensed and proposes a duel between himself and Nathanael, to which the latter readily agrees. However, Clara interferes, stopping the duel. 

Nathanael returns to school, but once more encounters Coppola, who is now selling “fine eyes,” meaning spectacles. Nathanael is terrified but replays Clara’s rational words; he sends the peddler away but first purchases a spyglass from him.

He spies Olimpia through the spyglass, and the accursed glass lights a fire in him; he is enamored with her and attends a gala her father throws in her honor. At the gala, he becomes infatuated with her, disregarding the instincts that warn him otherwise. 

Nathanael becomes obsessed with Olimpia and forgets Clara and Lothar entirely. He plans to propose to Olimpia, but the proposal is ruined when he overhears Spalanzani and Coppelius arguing over ownership of Olimpia, revealing that she is a clockwork doll made by Spalanzani. Her eyes were the work of Coppelius, who absconds with her limp form. 

The young man is stunned by this revelation and attacks the enraged Spalanzani. Neighbors, alerted by the sounds of arguing, quickly separate the pair. Nathanael’s madness subsides, rendering him violently ill. He returns home and recovers thanks to Clara’s careful ministrations. At home, he rekindles his relationship with Clara, and the pair appear happy. 

However, Nathanael still has Coppola’s spyglass. One day, while he and Clara are touring the local bell tower, he turns the glass unintentionally upon her. Immediately, he is filled with maddening rage, calling her a “wooden doll” and attempting to fling her from the top of the tower.

The pair grapple, but Lothar—hearing his sister’s terrified cries—intervenes, pulling his sister to safety. A crowd gathers at the foot of the tower, just in time to witness Nathanael, who has just spotted Coppelius in the crowd, plummet to the ground. 

Coppelius disappears again, just as swiftly as he had returned. The story ends with an image of Clara, who has gone on to live a happy life as a married woman with children, a domestic scene that the tormented Nathanael could never have given her.