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Literature / The Sandman (1816)

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A short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, first published in 1816.

Nathanael is a young student, moved from his provincial home to a city where he attends university. It is there where he meets Coppola, a hawker of oculars and eye-glasses and a man whose looks and name have an uncanny similarity to the tormentor of Nathanael's childhood, the advocate Coppelius, the man Nathanael holds responsible for his father's death. Excited with the thought that Coppelius has assumed a new identity as Coppola and may yet be brought to justice, he discloses the circumstances of his father's tragic death in a letter to his friend Lothair:

When Nathanael was very small, the mean, ugly Coppelius would often come at night to pursue alchemical experiments with Nathanael's father. Every night Coppelius came, Nathanael was sent to bed early with the words that "the Sandman comes" (as in: the Sandman that makes sure little children sleep), and so, little Nathanael thought that Coppelius was the Sandman. His fears were in no way stilled when a nanny told him the Sandman was a creature that rips out the eyes of children that won't sleep.

One day Nathanael sneaked into his father's laboratory to watch the experiments and was severely traumatized when Coppelius discovered him and threw him into the fireplace, threatening to rip his eyes out. The father promised to stop the experiments, but when he went to the lab with Coppelius one last time, the lab exploded, killing him. Coppelius disappeared, never to be seen again.

Nathanael's fiancée Clara – sister of Lothair — tries to talk Nathanael out of his obsession, and indeed Nathanael's agitation wears off when he comes to the conclusion that Coppola cannot be Coppelius, after all. Anyway, his mind is soon occupied by something entirely different when he becomes acquainted with his teacher Professor Spalanzani and falls madly in love with the Professor's beautiful daughter, Olimpia. If only he wouldn't keep running into Coppola...

Probably the most analyzed piece of fiction by E. T. A. Hoffmann; interpreted, among others, by Sigmund Freud in his essay "The Uncanny".

In 1870 it was adapted into the Lighter and Softer ballet Coppélia by Léo Delibes, and in 1881 it became the source for the "Olympia" act of Jacques Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann. It also served as inspiration for the 2007 Point-and-Click Adventure Game What Makes You Tick by Matthias Kempke, who subsequently worked on The Night of the Rabbit and Leisure Suit Larry: Wet Dreams Dry Twice. It was adapted into a 1991 animated short, The Sandman (1991).

Can be read online in German.

Tropes in "The Sandman":

  • Big Damn Heroes: When Nathanael tries to throw Clara off a steeple, Lothaire comes to the rescue, breaks down a door barring his way, and forces the lunatic to relinquish his victim with a single punch to the face.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Nathanael goes insane, tries to murder Clara and commits suicide. Clara, however survives, and ends up Happily Married with children.
  • Child Hater: Coppelius. Children are instinctively repulsed by him, which he cruelly exploits.
  • Clockpunk: Arguably one of the earliest representatives of the genre. The storyline features a highly sophisticated clockwork automaton, that is, Olimpia, as well as the spyglasses and barometers devised by Coppola that are also implied to have fantastic properties.
  • Clockwork Creature: Olimpia is eventually revealed to be a highly sophisticated automaton.
  • Creating Life: From what Nathanael saw in his father's lab, it seems that Coppelius and the father were trying to create a homunculus or mechanical human.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The narrator (seemingly Hoffmann himself) says he knew Nathanael, Lothair and Clara.
  • Do Well, But Not Perfect: After Olimpia is exposed as a robot, it becomes fashionable for ladies to sing or dance a bit out of tune in order to stay further away from the Uncanny Valley.
  • Duel to the Death: After Nathanael insults Clara for dismissing his poetry, he gets into a fight with Lothair and they agree on a duel with swords. Clara stops them by stepping between them and saying that if they want to kill each other, they should kill her first. Nathanael then has a Heel Realization, asks for Clara and Lothair's forgiveness and they reconcile.
  • Doppelgänger: Coppola and Coppelius (provided they are not one and the same).
  • Driven to Suicide: Nathanael ends up going mad and, after attempting to kill Clara, jumps off a building to his death.
  • Epistolary Novel: This story begins with a trio of letters between Nathanael, Lothair, and Clara, but then changes to the author narrating the rest of the events.
  • Eye Motifs: The Sandman, according to the old nanny, steals eyes. Coppelius threatened to rip Nathanael's eyes out. Coppola sells oculars and eye-glasses and his name means eye cavities. Spalanzani and Coppola fight over Olimpia's eyes.
  • Eye Scream: Nathanael's nurse scares him with a story about "the Sandman" who throws sand into childrens' eyes to make them pop out of their skulls. Coppelius later threatens to gouge out Nathanael's eyes when the latter is caught observing an alchemical experiment.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Nathanael, when he finds out that Olimpia was a machine. "Then madness dug her burning talons into him and swept down into his heart, rending his mind and thoughts to shreds."
  • Happily Married: The story concludes with a brief paragraph informing the reader that Clara eventually married a man who truly loved her, had two children with him and finally found the domestic happiness she had always longed for.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Olimpia is once referred to as blöde, which in contemporary German means "stupid"; accordingly some English translations have Spalanzani refer to his own daughter as "the stupid girl". However, in Hoffmann's time blöd meant, among other thingsnote "short-sighted".
  • Hope Spot: After Nathanael nearly strangles Spalanzani to death in a fit of madness, he spends some time in an asylum where he seems to recover from his traumatic experiences, reconciles with Clara and Lothaire, and finally decides to marry Clara. Everything seems fine until Nathanael looks at Clara through Coppola's telescope, causing him to relapse into his delusion and attempt to murder Clara under the belief that she is an automaton like Olimpia. Lothair manages to save Clara, but Nathanael commits suicide.
  • Irony: Nathanael calls Clara a lifeless automaton for not appreciating his poetry. He ends up falling in love with Olimpia, an actual lifeless automaton.
  • Karma Houdini: By the end of the story, Coppelius has vanished without a trace and is never brought to justice for killing Nathanael's father, stealing Olimpia and driving Nathanael to suicide — assuming, of course, that he is actually guilty of the aforementioned crimes.
  • Kiss Me, I'm Virtual: Nathanael falls deeply in love with Olimpia (even forgetting his hometown fiancée in the process) — then going mad when he finds out that Olimpia is merely an automaton constructed by her supposed "father". He failed to notice that Olimpia actually was quite mind- and lifeless and could only perform mechanical actions, and the "deep understanding" Nathanael detected was entirely his own imagination.
  • Madness Mantra: Nathanael's "Spin 'round, pretty wooden doll..." after Olimpia turns out to be an automaton.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Olimpia is the beautiful daughter of Nathanael's excentric professor Spalanzani. Subverted in that she is not his actual daughter, but a robot he built.
  • Magic Realism: Even with Olimpia's limited repertoir of behavior, her existence breaks the confines of the possible. And while the public is astonished, they are not nearly astonished enough — more like indignant that Spalanzani has introduced a machine into society.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The main conflict between Nathanael and Clara comes down to the fact that the former blames Coppelius, whom he believes to be some kind of demon or bogeyman, for all his misfortunes whereas the latter believes that there is a rational explanation for everything and that Nathanael is merely imagining things. While Nathanael is clearly mentally unstable and therefore not the most reliable source of information, there are some aspects of the story that cannot be easily explained in a rational manner:
    • Coppelius disappears instantly and without leaving a trace after Nathanael's father is killed in an explosion and again after he steals Olimpia from Spalanzani, but suddenly returns at the end of the story just in time to witness Nathanael's mental breakdown and attempted murder of Clara, as if he knew what would happen. His sudden appearance is what ultimately causes Nathanael to take his own life, after which Coppelius disappears once more. Sheer coincidence or proof that Coppelius really was conspiring with dark forces to ruin Nathanael’s life?
    • For that matter, the telescope which Nathanael buys from Coppola (who is later revealed to be Coppelius' alter ego) seems to warp his perception to an uncanny degree. He has some interest in Olimpia even before he buys the telescope, but he becomes fixated with watching her after buying it and his infatuation grows to the point that he’s willing to leave Clara for her, unaware that Olimpia is actually an automaton. At the end of the story, when he watches Clara through the same telescope, he suddenly becomes convinced that she is an automaton as well and tries to throw her off a building. Are these events merely the result of his mental instability or is the telescope cursed?
  • Meaningful Name: Clara means "clear". Spalanzani is named after Lazzaro Spallanzani (1719-99), who invented (among other things) artificial fertilization in stockbreeding. Coppola means eye sockets in Italian.
  • Mind Screw: Is Coppola Coppelius or not? If he is, how did he get the Italian accent? Are there demonic powers out to get Nathanael, or is he just imagining that? And how could anybody with early 1800s technology build a lifelike robot that gets mistaken for a human being?
  • Mistaken for Profound: Olimpia can only react with "Ah! Ah!" to everything. Besotted Nathanael sees that as an indication of the depth of her feelings.
  • Motifs: Eyes, glasses and lenses feature heavily in the story. Nathanael's deep-seated fear of losing his eyes (i.e. the ability to see things clearly) reflects his unstable mental state while the telescope he buys from Coppoloa and which he uses to spy on Olimpia serves as a metaphor for his unhealthy obsession that blinds him to the fact that the object of his affection is not even a real person.
  • Naughty Birdwatching: Nathanael buys a telescope from Coppola, so he could watch Olimpia through the window.
  • Robot Girl: Olimpia is a robot constructed to look like an attractive young woman.
  • Robotic Reveal: Olimpia is revealed to be an automaton that is visually indistinguishable from a real human and can even mimic some basic human behaviour.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Nathanael is a deeply passionate, emotionally volatile individual who believes that he is haunted by supernatural forces. His fiancée Clara, by contrast, is rational, level-headed and tries to convince him that his "haunting" is merely the result of a traumatic childhood experience.
  • Room Full of Crazy: The boy Nathanael develops a compulsion to draw the terrible Sandman of his imagination on walls and furniture:
    "I enjoyed nothing better than reading or hearing horrible stories of goblins, witches, pigmies, etc.; but most horrible of all was the Sandman, whom I was always drawing with chalk or charcoal on the tables, cupboards and walls, in the oddest and most frightful shapes."
  • The Sandman: In the story, Nathanael not only believes that the story of the Sandman is real, but also that Coppelius is the Sandman. Part of the reason for the conflict is Nathaneal's inability to realize there is no real Sandman.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Nathanael is convinced that Coppelius is out to ruin his life. His paranoia ends up driving him into insanity and, eventually, suicide.
  • Stepford Smiler: Olimpia. Tellingly, Nathanael falls in love with her because unlike Clara she reacts uncritically positively to his lame poetic efforts.
  • Uncanny Valley: Olimpia is so precise in singing and dancing that Nathaneal's friends notice there's something off about her, telling him: "We find your Olimpia quite uncanny, and prefer to have nothing to do with her. She seems to act like a living being, and yet has some strange peculiarity of her own."
  • You Killed My Father: Nathanael believes Coppelius is responsible for his father's death.
    "Coppelius! - cursed devil! You have slain my father!"

Alternative Title(s): Der Sandmann, The Sandman