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.