E.T.A. Hoffmann: The Sandman aka Der Sandmann (1816)

The Sandman was the short story I read for this years R.I.P. challenge.

Much has been said about E.T.A.Hofmann’s The Sandman. Interpretations abound. Even Sigmund Freud used this story to illustrate some of his theories. Hoffmann was part of the so-called dark romanticism that explored the uncanny in all its forms. Be it as it may, for me this is and will always be one of the spookiest stories I have ever read. I remember that it haunted me quite  a bit when I read it for the first time years ago but I did not expect it to have the same effect after all these years. But it did.

It is a mysterious story, many interpretations are possible. Nathanael lives away from his beloved and his family in a student town when, one afternoon, he sees a person who reminds him of someone who visited their father when he was a child. These memories are very dark and scary. Whenever the old man, Coppelius, appeared the children had to go to bed as fast as they could. They were told that the Sandman was coming and that he was after their eyes. Nathanael being the most curious of the children sneaked into the study of his father one night and hid behind the curtains. Unfortunately he got caught and what followed shocked him so much that he came down with a fever that lasted for weeks. Shortly after this evening Coppelius came one last time during which they all of a sudden heard a big bang from the father’s study. Upon entering the family finds him dead, with a completely blackened face.

It is this very Coppelius that Nathanael believes to have seen. Once again he feels the same terror as in his childhood. I do not want to further spoil this story. It does get scarier and darker from then on. We never really know if these things happen or if Nathanael has gone mad. Is Coppelius the devil? Did he and Nathanael’s father do some alchemical experiments? There are a lot of mysterious elements the strangest of which is Nathanael’s falling in love with Olympia who doesn’t seem human.

Hoffmann has written quite a lot. Novels and short stories. Many are very famous and were influential. The Sandman is the most famous of his stories. In Jacques Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, one part is dedicated to The Sandman. There is also a movie based on the opera including many ballet scenes. I attached a video for those who like opera or ballet.

Hoffmann who was very talented at drawing illustrated some of his tales, as you can see above.

You can find a link to the story here, if you would like to read it.

17 thoughts on “E.T.A. Hoffmann: The Sandman aka Der Sandmann (1816)

    • I usually prefer novels as well but often I remember short stories much better. Don´t know why. I always think you have to read what you really feel like reading. Then again The Sandman has 40 pages, not such a short story after all.

  1. wow! that’s really old. I haven’t read something that old.

    I try peeking into shakespear’s work once and I was totally confused. The language was too high. Was this one also sound too unusual, I mean it’s language

  2. To be honest it was awful in German (and it is my second native language) as the German language has changed much more than let´s say English or French. I have read French books that are way older and it was fine. No problem. Shakespeare is different, I agree, especially for us it is not easy. You can try Hoffmann´s tales in translation, should not be so bad to read, I checked the beginning. What is good with these old books you find them all online for free. gutenberg has a version. Try it and you will get a taste. Poe is not as difficult to read as Shakespeare either.
    Here is a link:

    This is an interesting site anyway as it has loads of free sf and fantasy stories.
    Added it to my post as well now.

  3. Pingback: The Sandman – The Oldest Story I Have Ever Read « Polychrome Interest

  4. Pingback: German Literature Month – Week 5 : Part 2 – Two novellas and a short story « Vishy’s Blog

  5. Thanks! You did very well to remind readers of this great story and maybe your post helped to get some more readers acquainted with Hoffmann. I love almost everything by him but “The Sandman” might be his best story. There are a few things that must have attracted Freud very much: Nathanael is writing most of the story as a letter to his best friend Lothar whom he entrusts with things he keeps even secret from his own fiancee and then puts this letter in an envelope which he unconsciously addresses – to his fiancee! Also the eye motif is extremely interesting from a psychoanalytical point of view.
    Beside “Lenz” and maybe “The Rider on the White Horse” the best German story of the 19th century in my opinion.

    • It’s one of Hoffmann’s best stories, I agree. And one of the best 19th Century stories. I’m quite fond of Storm’s Immensee as well.
      The post actually made a few people pick it up. It showed some worksing of the subconscious quite nicely.

  6. Dear Caroline, I too loved the spooky, creepy atmosphere of “The Tales of Hoffmann” when we read them years ago in a Comparative Literature course (that’s how they refer to “world” literature in courses here in the States that are neither wholly American lit or British lit). Also, I loved the opera, and thought it was the perfect fulfillment of the stories themselves. I tried to view your video, but I think the post was put up too long ago (2010) for me to access it now. I didn’t even have a link to WordPress back then (not until 2012) so I missed this excellent post of yours until today. The really contagious thing about “dark romanticism” as practiced by Hoffmann, I think, is that when the stories are over, the mysteries are still intact, for the most part: the unanswered questions are still mostly unanswered, or have deepened in some way.

    • I’m puzzled to find two comments in one day on such an old post.
      What you say is very true. A lot of the mystery is still intact once the story is over. That makes it so eerie, I’d say.
      I attached a new video. Thanks for telling me the old one didn’t work anymore.

      • Thanks a lot for the new video. As to why there are two comments on “such an old post,” I can’t speak for Mytwostotinki, who left the one before me, but I’ve been signed up to read the comments on your site as they come down the line for quite some time now, so when Mytwostotinki’s comment appeared, I got a record of it too, and wanted to comment. Signing up to follow the comments is a different apparatus in addition to signing up to follow the site posts, apparently.

        • I didn’t even know you could do that. I thought that was only posible on individual posts.
          I Mytwostotinki’s case it’s different. We share an interest in German literature, and I suppose he followed the tags on my blog.

          • It’s not that I’m not interested in German literature, but simply that you cover so much ground so quickly that I can’t keep up with you and get my own work done as well, so I generally end up commenting upon something I’ve either read, or am reading, or hope to read soon. I think German literature is a fascinating field of study, and I’m glad you cover it, even if I can’t by any stretch cover it all.

            • I know, I can’t keep up with all the blog I like either or read everything I feel I should or would like to. I don’t even read such a lot German literature anymore as so much has not been translated.

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