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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223

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One important theme is self-knowledge: E. T. A. Hoffman explores humankind’s quest to know oneself and the incompleteness, or even impossibility, of accomplishing that goal. A close corollary is the importance of genuinely extending oneself to others in order to achieve that understanding. Another theme is the illusory nature of reality, a theme that the author explores extensively through the motif of seeing and eyes. Finally, the problematic qualities of father–son relationships, with Oedipal overtones, pervade the story.

The poet Nathanael is a visionary who seems obsessed with his inner self, imagining that his internal reality is the most important aspect of his life. Although he believes he loves Olimpia, he understands the emotion as an extension of himself; he tries to use her, in his words, to “find my own self.” So obsessed has he become that he refuses to see she is an automaton and not a real person. The obsession pulls him away from Clara, a compassionate and sensible person whose love he no longer deserves.

Nathanael seems unable to distinguish memory from invention. In part because of his own guilt over his father’s death, he dwells incessantly on the Coppola–Coppelius connection. His obsession directly contributes to his death, as his leap to his death seems, to him, to be a pursuit of the evil nemesis.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 352

“The Sandman,” like all of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales, deals with the unsettling disparity between the self and the external world. For Hoffmann there were three possibilities for facing the basic disharmony between internal and external reality: Like Nathanael, one may allow the inner visions and feelings to predominate, leading eventually to madness; like Clara, one may insist on the primary importance of everyday, factual reality; or, like the Romantic writer, one may accept this dualism and try to transcend it with ironic detachment.

Nathanael’s early childhood experiences (the nursemaid’s story of the Sandman, Coppelius’s threat to his eyes, and his father’s death) make him susceptible to the destructive workings of his imagination. His obsession with losing his eyes and his fear of the evil father-substitutes, Coppelius and Coppola, destroy his love for Clara and make him easy prey for Spalanzani’s and Coppelius’s suggestive manipulations. The pocket telescope further distorts his vision, for instead of bringing external objects nearer and into sharper focus, it only magnifies their effect on his soul.

In Olimpia he discovers a mirror of his involuntary emotional responses. His statement to a friend that “only in Olimpia’s love do I find my own self again” is a telling expression of his latent narcissism. He fails to take seriously Clara’s sensible advice and becomes very upset when she sharply criticizes his premonitory poem about Coppelius’s destruction of their love. It is easier for him to retreat into his private world and converse with a mechanical doll than to develop an open, unselfish relationship with Clara.

Nevertheless, the narrator’s and Hoffmann’s sympathies lie with Nathanael, for he is the one who recognizes the deeper creative and destructive powers that are hidden behind everyday experience. Nathanael, however, fails both as a poet and as an individual because he is unable to communicate his dark and esoteric visions with the least bit of distance and objectivity. The persistent motif of eyes and seeing emphasizes all the more the tragedy of Nathanael’s blindness to his own drives and desires.


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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 149

"The Sandman" is a short story by Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffman. Part of the narrative is told in the form of several letters, which are quoted in the beginning. The first theme of the story is the division between illusions or hallucinations and reality. The story examines what we perceive as reality and how our construction of reality is dependent on our senses and mental processes.

The other theme is the haunting nature of one's past, specifically in the form of trauma. The main character is haunted by traumas from his past and experiences post-traumatic stress. This theme is intertwined with the theme of reality perception, because the readers are left wondering if the protagonist's past trauma is just a hallucination. Another theme is fear. The symbolic eyes in the story are a recurring image and have been interpreted by psychologist Sigmund Freud as representing a fear of castration.