Last Updated on January 19, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 758
Ernst Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Sandman” is a tale of psychological torment that deals in razor-thin margins: the protagonist switches between lucidity and madness; the story lurches from realistic to gothic; the reader struggles with objective reality and subjective experience; the work lingers in Romanticism but lurches toward Realism. Ultimately, the story discusses the power of the mind to determine reality independent of the conventional world of the objective senses. Hoffman is ensconced in the literary canon as a German Romantic, but his interest in the grotesque and macabre mark him as an early Realist.
“The Sandman” takes place in the mind of Nathanael, a troubled young man haunted by his past. His internal reality consumes the story, leading readers to question the veracity of his increasingly addled perspective. The short story begins in epistolary form, unfolding across a series of three letters describing Nathanael’s perspective and introducing the central cast of characters. This glimpse into Nathanael’s interior life is short-lived. After the three introductory letters, the perspective changes, and Nathanael’s tragic tale unfolds second-hand, told by a third-person narrator who posthumously recounts the young man’s mental decline. Hoffmann’s dualistic structure makes it difficult for readers to discern the truth. Neither Nathanael—whose objectivity is inevitably questioned—nor the narrator—who can only recount events and not Nathanael’s emotions—speak with certainty.
As such, readers must consider whether or not the gothic figure haunting Nathanael exists outside of the troubled young man's mind. Realistically, the Sandman is a metaphor for the dark side of Nathanael’s mind, with which he often finds himself at odds. The Sandman is a physical manifestation of Nathanael’s suppressed emotions that the tormented young man projects onto both Coppelius and, later, Coppola. The story’s horror is two-fold: either a demonic figure haunts Nathanael and is bent on his destruction, or the troubled young man simply projects external enemies to avoid facing his internal demons. By design, Hoffmann evades clarity. Nathanael’s encounter and subsequent infatuation with Olimpia is either the result of a mystical spyglass, which makes him act irrationally or is simply an expression of his narcissistic desire for a captive audience. His narrations are unreliable, and his character is uncertain; Hoffmann leaves it to the reader to determine whether or not Nathanael's suicide is supernaturally induced.
“The Sandman” shares elements of early-nineteenth-century fiction with contemporary authors such as Mary Shelley and, later, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. His work preceded, but ultimately helped inspire, the American Gothic movement and toyed with novel themes that, like Shelley, helped develop new genres and avenues of literary exploration. Futuristic science, horror, madness, psychological torment, and the fluidity of reality figure heavily in Hoffmann’s work, including “The Sandman.” This story in particular is laden with motifs that relate to these themes, the most important of which is the recurring obsession with eyes.
Both Nathanael and the Sandman share this fascination with eyes. Nathanael fears that the Sandman will steal his eyes, but it is not physical blindness that he most fears. Instead, the motif conjures the idea of vision as connection because sight is how humans most often connect with the outside world. Moreover, sight permits understanding and clarity, which Nathanael increasingly lacks. As he allows the fear of the Sandman to overtake him, he loses that which he fears will be stolen: his objectivity. With his metaphorical sight clouded, Nathanael slips further and further into madness, seeing the world through an altered lens of terror and anxiety. His self-induced blindness to reality forces readers to question whether what he describes is real or illusory and ponder the human ability to distort what is plainly in front of them.
The motif of eyes as the bearers of reality is most present in Olimpia, whose automated form lacks consciousness, a fact revealed by her flat, dead eyes. Although she appears human, she is artificial; yet, Nathanael convinces himself that she is brought to life by his touch. This strange relationship between object and human begs several questions, leading readers to wonder whether reality is simply a contrivance of individual interpretation or if there is indeed such a thing as objective truth. Such questions—alongside Nathanael’s slow descent to madness—consume the narrator, leaving readers in the dark about the true nature of events. “The Sandman” is deeply psychological and explores the nature of reality as it appears in the mind of a troubled man plagued by demons, either of his own or supernatural making.