Last Updated September 5, 2023.
As a child, Nathanael encountered a devilish figure who has haunted him ever since. When he was young, his mother would send him to bed with stories of the Sandman, a monstrous figure who punishes restless children. However, this nightmarish figure was soon made material one fateful night, appearing to Nathanael as Coppelius, an associate of his father, who was ultimately responsible for his father’s violent death. He tells Lothar, a childhood friend, of these events from many years later and describes the lingering effects of his encounter with the Sandman, writing:
Something horrible has crossed my path of life. Dark forebodings of a cruel, threatening, fate spread themselves over me like dark clouds, which no friendly sunbeam can penetrate.
The encounter with the Sandman traumatized Nathanael and followed him throughout his adult life. He fears this devilish enemy, and his fear primes him to see him around every corner. Darkness hangs over him, leaving him in a state of ceaseless depression. He writes:
. . . all to me seems colourless, but that a dark fatality has actually suspended over my life a gloomy veil of clouds, which I shall perhaps only tear away in death.
The Sandman has left an indelible impression on Nathanael’s life, and the bleak, stormy imagery of his similes hints at the inescapability of this natural phenomenon. No sunbeam might penetrate such darkened clouds, which cannot be parted but by death. The futility of these natural scenes parallels the futility of his own life, which has always been lived in the shadow of inescapable fear of the Sandman’s terrifying story:
He is a wicked man, who comes to children when they will not go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads. These eyes he puts in a bag and carries them to the half-moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up yonder, and have crooked beaks like owls with which they may pick up the eyes of the naughty human children.
Nathanael’s horror is well-earned; the story paints a vividly grotesque picture of the Sandman, and his real-life form seems equally awful. The graphic imagery of eyes "bleeding from their heads" and the animalistic imagery of the Sandman's children, sitting in their "nest" with their "crooked beaks like owls," create the impression that the Sandman is a cruel, inhuman creature. Moreover, his fear is married to sorrow and anger; the Sandman was responsible for his father’s equally gruesome death:
On the floor of the smoking hearth lay my father dead, with his face burned and blackened, and hideously distorted,—my sisters were shrieking and moaning around him,—and my mother had fainted.
The language Nathanael employs connotes fire and burning, which subconsciously conjures images of hellfire and demons, furthering the impression that the Sandman is a demonic figure. Moreover, Nathanael’s first-hand encounter furthers this sense of hellishness:
I saw human faces around without any eyes—but with deep holes instead. "Eyes here, eyes!" said Coppelius in a dull roaring voice . . . Coppelius seized me, and showing his teeth, bleated out, "Ah—little wretch,—little wretch!"—then dragging me up, he flung me on the hearth, where the fire began to singe my hair. "Now we have eyes enough—a pretty pair of child's eyes." Thus whispered Coppelius and taking out of the flame some red-hot grains with his fists, he was about to sprinkle them in my eyes.
This is the first instance in which the Sandman, or Coppelius, as he is also known, speaks. His voice is described partly in animalistic...
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terms ("bleated") and is repetitive and frenzied, as suggested by the repetition of exclamation marks. The implication is that he is psychotically excited at the prospect of the eyes, and also that he does not pity the boy, whom he calls a "little wretch." His speech is also rather sneering and covetous ("a pretty pair of child's eyes"). His voice fits perfectly with the demonic, monstrous descriptions of his physical appearance.
Nathanael’s lifelong fixation upon this loathsome figure is understandable, given the traumatic context of his childhood encounter. However, the figure of the Sandman forever lurks at the fringes of his subconscious and primes Nathanael for tragedy, ensuring that his life will be lived in cowering fear and, ultimately, end with the same grotesque drama as his father’s.