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

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 724 words.)

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