Tag Archives: automata

‘The Sandman’ by E.T.A. Hoffmann

E.T.A. Hoffmann has to be one of my favourite authors and The Sandman is one of my favourite of Hoffmann’s stories, it is also the most famous of his works. I would say that the story is as near to perfection as is possible although I’m not sure exactly how I’d justify that. Anyway, I recently (well, back in January, so not that recently) posted about another story called The Entail from the book called Tales of Hoffmann which was published in 1932 by Dodd, Mead & Co. It was really just an excuse to include the luxurious illustrations by Mario Laboccetta in a post. I intend to do the same with every story in the book but it is a time-consuming process which involves scanning pictures from an old book whilst trying not to damage it, cleaning the scans, re-reading the story and then posting a review or summary of the story. Reading Hoffmann is always fun though, so I’m not complaining.

So below is a plot summary of The Sandman and not a review. If you do not want to know the plot then do not read all of the text. I have added the scans in a reasonably high definition so if you click on the picture you should be able to view the picture enlarged. Although the pictures are taken from the Dodd, Mead & Co. book, the quotations are taken from the Penguin version translated by R.J. Hollingdale.

In a letter to his friend Lothario, Nathaniel tells of a recent meeting with a barometer salesman, called Coppola, that has upset him. To explain why he is so upset he tells Lothario about his childhood. After supper his father would often tell the children tales or they would be left to read by themselves. When it was time for bed their mother would tell them ‘Now, children, to bed, to bed! The sandman is coming.’ When Nathaniel enquired about the sandman his mother would tell him that it was just a saying – but his sister’s nanny scared him with a graphic description:

‘Oh Nat,’ she replied. ‘don’t you know that yet? It is a wicked man who comes after children when they won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody, and then he throws them into his sack and carries them to the crescent moon as food for his little children, who have their nest up there and have crooked beaks like owls and peck up the eyes of the naughty children.’

This made Nathaniel terrified of the sandman, even when he was old enough to know that the story could not be true. Hoffmann-Sandman-02-reducedHis father often had a visitor at night after the children had gone to bed and in Nathaniel’s mind this visitor could only be the sandman. One night, to determine the sandman’s identity, Nathaniel hid in his father’s room, but to his surprise it was a ‘family friend’ called Coppelius whom the children and their mother found ‘loathsome and repellent’ but whom their father admired. Coppelius and his father were involved in some alchemical experiments. But Nathaniel soon made his presence known and when Coppelius grabbed hold of him he whispered ‘Now we have eyes – eyes – a lovely pair of children’s eyes!’ which, of course, terrified Nathaniel so much that he passed out.

Nathaniel took weeks to recover from this shock. Coppelius did not visit his father again until a year later, whereupon the children were rushed to bed. At midnight there was an explosion and when the family went to investigate they found Nathaneil’s father was dead and Coppelius had fled. In his letter Nathaniel reveals that his recent visitor was Coppelius, or so he believes.

It happens that Nathaniel accidently sent the above letter to his fiancée Clara. Clara was at first upset by the letter, but she is a sensible woman who rationalises Nathaniel’s fears: his childish fears were imaginary but the sandman got mixed up with the ugly Coppelius. She urges Nathaniel to dismiss the fantastic thoughts from his mind.

In another letter to Lothario, this time addressed correctly, Nathaniel appears calmer. He is attending lectures by Spalanzani, a professor in physics, who has known Coppola for years and who convinces Nathaniel that Coppola cannot be Coppelius. Whilst visiting Spalanzani Nathaniel encounters Spalanzani’s daughter, Olympia:

She was sitting opposite the door, so that I saw the whole of her angelic face. She seemed not to notice me, and her eyes had in general something fixed and staring about them, I could almost say she was sightless, as if she was sleeping with her eyes open. It made me feel quite uncanny, and I crept softly away…

Hoffmann-Sandman-04-reducedNathaniel discovers that Spalanzani keeps Olympia locked away from others.

The narrative now switches to the third-person. Clara is described as sensible and level-headed although others sometimes view her as cold and unfeeling. Nathaniel tries to convince Clara that Copellius is an evil force but Clara is not convinced and tries to get Nathaniel to banish such thoughts from his mind. Nathaniel finds Clara cold and prosaic whilst Clara finds Nathaniel’s mysticism gloomy and boring – Nathaniel and Clara are growing apart:

Nathaniel looked into Clara’s eyes, but it was death which gazed at him mildly out of them.

When Clara is not moved by Nathaniel’s poetry, and instead urges him to throw it into the fire Nathaniel shouts to her ‘Oh, you lifeless accursed automaton!’ Lothario gets involved on Clara’s behalf and a duel is arranged between Nathaniel and Lothario but Clara intervenes and begs them to abandon it. Now reconciled with Clara, Nathaniel returns to his studies.

Hoffmann-Sandman-03-reducedNathaniel finds that his student house has burnt down and so he finds new accommodation. He now lives opposite Professor Spalanzani; in fact his room faces Olympia’s room and he often sees Olympia sitting for hours at her desk. He finds her beautiful but his heart is with Clara.

One day Nathaniel is visited by Coppola. Nathaniel, trying to keep his composure, tells him he doesn’t want any barometers. Coppola replies ‘I also got lov-ely occe, lov-ely occe!’ Nathaniel is horrified but it is revealed that Coppola means spectacles, not eyes. Once Nathaniel has recovered from this shock he sees that Coppola is also selling telescopes and whilst testing one he happens to look at Olympia’s beautiful face – he buys the telescope.

He now can’t stop looking at Olympia through his telescope; Clara’s image is now wiped from his mind. Nathaniel is invited to a party, hosted by Spalanzani, at which Olympia will be present. When Olympia makes her appearance at the party she is admired by everyone, although some consider her a bit ‘deliberate and stiff’. Nathaniel, however, is besotted and cannot turn his eyes away.

Olympia’s hand was icy cold; he felt a coldness as of death thrill through him; he looked into Olympia’s eyes, which gazed back at him full of love and desire; and at that instant it seemed as though a pulse began to beat in the cold hand and a stream of life blood began to glow. And in Nathaniel’s heart, too, the joy of love glowed brighter, he embraced the lovely Olympia and flew with her into the dancing throng.

Hoffmann-Sandman-06-reducedNathaniel dances again and again with Olympia and between dances they sit together while Spalanzani looks on, smiling at the couple. Spalanzani allows Nathaniel to visit his daughter in future. Nathaniel’s friends find Olympia beautiful but soulless, she only seems to be ‘acting like a living creature’. Nathaniel can only think of Olympia; unlike Clara she doesn’t criticise his poetry, instead she listens, quietly and enraptured.

Nathaniel has completely forgotten about Clara, and with Spalanzani’s approval he visits Olympia with the intention of asking her to marry him. However, when he arrives the house is in an uproar, Spalanzani and Coppola are arguing. When Nathaniel bursts in he sees the two men tugging at Olympia’s head and feet, Coppola manages to wrench Olympia free from Spalanzani and leaves with the lifeless Olympia over his shoulder. Nathaniel notices that Olympia’s eyes are missing. It is at this point that Spalanzani explicitly reveals, what every reader must have realised long before now, that Olympia is an automaton. Spalanzani picks up Olympia’s eyes, throws them towards Nathaniel and urges him to get Olympia back for him. Well, this tips Nathaniel’s mind over the edge and he tries to strangle Spalanzani while shouting ‘Spin, puppet, spin! Circle of fire, circle of fire! Spin, spin!’ Nathaniel is overpowered and sent to the madhouse.

Spalanzani survives the attack from Nathaniel but has to leave the city. The city’s inhabitants discuss the recent events and try to determine exactly what had happened and what it means for them; would they be able to tell if their beloved were an automaton?

But the minds of many esteemed gentlemen were still not set at rest: the episode of the automaton had struck deep roots into their souls, and there stealthily arose in fact a detectable mistrust of the human form. To be quite convinced they were not in love with a wooden doll, many enamoured young men demanded that their young ladies should sing and dance in a less than perfect manner, that while being read to they should knit, sew, play with their puppy and so on, but above all that they should not merely listen but sometimes speak too, and in such a way that what they said gave evidence of some real thinking and feeling behind it.

So, Nathaniel recovers and is reunited with his mother and Clara. All seems to be ok until one day when they’re out shopping; Clara and Nathaniel decide to go to the top of the town hall’s tower to look at the view but when Nathaniel looks through his telescope at the people below he goes crazy again, shouting ‘Spin, puppet, spin!’ etc. He tries to throw Clara off the tower but she clings on. Lothario manages to save Clara but leaves Nathaniel at the top of the tower. Nathaniel had seen Coppelius in the crowd below; screaming ‘Lov-ely occe! Lov-ely occe!’ he throws himself off the tower. Coppelius disappears into the crowd.


Filed under Fiction, Hoffmann, E.T.A., Laboccetta, Mario