Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Hoffmann helped make the short story a viable literary genre. His influence on Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe was profound. Brief prose narratives and tales had been around longer than the written language, but before the nineteenth century they were usually written down in ways as unstructured, rambling, and episodic as the stories themselves happened to be. Hoffmann was among the first generation of writers who deliberately set about to give those amorphous forms more artistic shape.

The conflict between Serapion and the storyteller follows a pattern that became virtually definitive of the short story as a literary form. First comes a complicating incident (the puzzling reply in the forest) that draws the opposing forces into conflict. The action mounts to a climax (their debate) where the forces do decisive battle. Then the action falls to a point of final resolution (Serapion’s death).

The tales of Hoffmann have been called the culmination of gothicism. The Romantic revival of emotionalism, supernatural faith, noble savagery, and the like precipitated in Europe a craving for things gothic. Dark forests, melancholy, superstitious peasants, misty ruins, mystery, and other obstacles to rationalism came back into vogue. The gothic style can be felt in the forest setting, supernatural events, numerous medieval allusions, and the eerie, supernal tone that pervades this story.

Hoffmann cleverly uses an unnamed narrator to enlist the reader’s sympathy for Serapion. Namelessness suggests a lack of individuality, which is appropriate to an avatar of rationalism, and it helps make his clash with Serapion philosophical rather than personal in nature. He is the Everyman of rationalism who adopts a cynical attitude toward imagination. Ordinarily, most readers would share his initial reaction to Serapion’s madness. Thus, when he begins to appreciate the madman, the reader is tempted to do the same.

Because this story is a mental adventure, philosophical dialogue plays a greater role in it than action. Even the lively details of an atrocious martyrdom, the capture and escape from the lunatic asylum, are rendered narratively rather than dramatically. Serapion’s astonishing character is revealed by words and scarcely developed through action, while the storyteller’s character is developed largely through dialogue.