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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 379

"The Sandman" is an archetypal Romantic tale about the power of the mind to project its own reality, independent of what we might term the conventional world that our senses normally show us.

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The protagonist of this story, Nathanael, has a continuing terror regarding a man named Coppelius, who would come to Nathanael's house in the night when Nathanael was a child. Coppelius has appeared in visions, which could have been dreams, and, like the contemporaneous Dr. Frankenstein (from mary Shelley's famous book), he is evidently working on the creation of an artificial human, though no one believes Nathanael's memories of him. Years later, Coppelius reappears as a man named Coppola who has created a robot-like woman named Olimpia. Nathanael falls in love with her, believing her a real woman, and the revelation that she is actually an automaton leads to Nathanael's going mad and eventually committing suicide.

If this seems to have elements of fiction we have seen before, in not only Mary Shelley's work but that of Hawthorne and Poe as well, it's because it does—only Hoffmann was the one who preceded the American Gothic writers by two decades. The themes of futuristic science, horror, madness, and a fluid passing back and forth between the worlds of reality and illusion are all present in "The Sandman." Throughout the story, there is an obsession with eyes: Nathanael's own eyes, which he was afraid Coppelius would take away from him, and the eyes of the automaton, Olimpia. The eyes function as a metaphor for our contact with the outside world, which is the crux of the story's theme. Is what we see real or illusory? If it were possible to create an artificial human, would that being be "real"? Do we create "reality" out of our own mental processes, or does it exist as objective truth independently of our senses? These are questions with which the writers and philosophers of Hoffmann's time were obsessed. A corollary theme, again as in Shelley, Poe, and Hawthorne, is that of the morality or immorality of science, of whether it is right to pursue scientific efforts that go beyond what has traditionally been thought possible or justifiable under the laws of God and humanity. All these themes are implicit in "The Sandman."

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 226

At the beginning of his tale, Hoffmann provides no stable base of objective reality with...

(The entire section contains 605 words.)

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