Last Updated November 3, 2023.
“The Sandman” opens with the narration of Nathanael, who describes his childhood experiences to his old friend Lothar. At some points, Nathanael is the narrator of the story. At others, he is the object of the story as it is retold by a third-person narrator. Nathanael is a writer and is studying at a university some distance from his hometown. Despite his intellect, Nathanael is deeply superstitious, which makes him suspicious of the world around him. He sees monsters around every corner, a habit born of his childhood interaction with the Sandman, a gruesome, demonic figure that threatened to steal his eyes and, one fateful night, murdered his father. Both fear and vengeance fuel his search for the Sandman; Nathanael is terrified of the nightmarish creature that has plagued his adult life but also wishes to bring his father justice.
Nathanael is a poet; as such, he is susceptible to beauty and easily influenced. Throughout the short story, he is swayed by external forces, showing himself to be fickle in love and demeanor. He cycles through stages of depression, normalcy, and madness, flickering from one emotional extreme to the next in response to the tumultuous events of his life. His early encounter with the Sandman seems to have marked him for life; darkness follows him wherever he goes, and he ultimately meets an equally gruesome and disfiguring fate.
At first, the Sandman is little more than a wives’ tale told to scare small children into abiding by their bedtimes for fear of encountering the gruesome demon, who is said to fill their eyes with sand before stealing them. Quickly, however, the Sandman becomes material. Nathanael hears his “heavy, slow step” on the stairs just after he has gone to bed, and the ghoulish figure grows increasingly real. When Nathanael hides in his father’s study to catch a glimpse of the Sandman, he realizes that the figure of his nightmares is Coppelius, an associate of his father. His fears do not abate, as Coppelius is an equally frightening character. No longer a “frightful apparition,” the Sandman is real, embodied by the cruel and hateful Coppelius, who dislikes children and leads Nathanael’s father in demonic work that ultimately kills him. The Sandman is an elusive figure who reappears throughout Nathanael’s life, sowing chaos, sorrow, and death wherever he goes.
Orphaned at a young age, Lothar soon came to live with Nathanael and his widowed mother. The two grew up as brothers, and their relationship is fraught with fraternal tension. Lothar is an understanding but logical man, and it is his advice that Nathanael seeks out at the beginning of the short story. However, the two come to odds over Clara, Lothar’s biological sister and the object of Nathanael’s lifelong affection, which ultimately taints their relationship.
Like Lothar, Clara came to live with Nathanael’s family after the loss of her parents. In their youth, she and Nathanael grew close, building an intense connection that would follow them into adulthood. She has a strong feminine spirit that Nathanael explains belies a logical and masculinely intelligent soul. According to Nathanael, Clara is lovely beyond measure, but the narrator of the story’s second half disagrees. In his terms, she is no beauty; however, she embodies a sense of grace and poise that is at once musical and painterly, as if she is made of art itself. Clara is a forgiving woman who stands by Nathanael throughout his recurring illnesses and madness. Although he often treats her poorly, her love remains strong. However, his attempt to murder her succeeds in alienating her,...
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and she moves on to find happiness with another man.
Olimpia is a woman with whom Nathanael becomes enamored. She is objectively beautiful, with a lovely figure and well-formed face, and excels musically. Nathanael sees her but rarely, glimpsing her through the window of her room, where her father, Professor Spalanzani, keeps her prisoner. When he finally meets her at a gala, he is infatuated and immediately falls in love, squashing the instincts screaming at him to stop. Her hands are cold, her eyes lifeless, and her lips dispassionate, yet Nathanael finds her strangely alluring. Olimpia does not speak, but Nathanael imagines that she communes with him through glances and looks; he adores her for her attentiveness, appreciating that she seems to cling to his every word and never offer one of her own. Her idiosyncrasies are soon explained: she is an automaton made of clockwork and born of Spalanzani’s handiwork.