Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

At the beginning of his tale, Hoffmann provides no stable base of objective reality with which to distinguish between Nathanael’s delusions and actual events. The narrative perspective constantly shifts between impartial observation and empathetic closeness. Although the three opening letters give the tale a documentary quality, the narrator’s humorous digression on his difficulties in telling the story leaves the reader in doubt as to how seriously to take Nathanael’s anxious concerns. Furthermore, Clara’s rational interpretation of Nathanael’s stories is just as unsatisfactory an explanation of Coppelius’s hold over him as Nathanael’s own understanding of the childhood events.

In order to blur the boundary between appearance and reality, Hoffmann seems to want to disorient the reader. Thus, Coppola’s true identity remains uncertain until the climactic fight between Spalanzani and Coppelius; Olimpia’s dollhood, though hinted at, is not revealed earlier, for she is described solely from the perspective of Nathanael, for whom she is a more loving and deeply spiritual being than Clara; Coppelius’s final “giant” appearance in the crowd in front of the city hall may or may not be a product of Nathanael’s madness. The author and narrator play both sides of the story—the psychological and demoniac, realistic and fantastic—against each other, and in the end give neither more credence than the other.