Jul 15, 2014

Teaching Notes on E.T.A Hoffman, "The Sandman"

Citations refer to Heather Masri's text Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts.

The Uncanny is a theme we will look at: "uncanny doubles, fatal obsessions, and dark secrets. Uncertainty about boundaries -- between reality and fantasy, between the animate and the inanimate -- is typical of Hoffman's work, and a key to its disturbing effects" (Masri 196).

The Sandman is a key story in the history of Gothic and Romantic fiction. It is a precursor to Science Fiction and horror genres. There is an uneasiness about the creative powers of technology. Automata were popular back then. Automata are mechanical dolls that could perform lifelike tricks. They are precursors of modern robots.

Hoffman is most interested in the pathology of the imagination in "The Sandman." Is Nathaniel victimized by real supernatural forces or by his own diseased mind? This ambiguity charges the story with tension, and it is these aspects of horror that give it a lingering appeal to audiences.


Hoffman begins it as an epistolary tale: a set of letters written between the characters, then he shifts to the participant narrator (a friend of Nathaniel) who tells the rest of the story, what happened to his friend.

Letter from Nathaniel to Lothaire: Nathaniel wants to tell him about something horrible that happened to him, something that had a "fatal effect" on his life.

On October 13, a barometer salesman came to his room and Nathaniel kicked him out. To explain the importance of this, he flashes back to tell a story from his childhood, how when his mother would send the children to bed, she would tell them the Sandman was coming. Nathaniel would hear footsteps on the stair, fearing it was the Sandman. When he asked the old nanny, she told him the Sandman was a wicked man who throws sand in the eyes of children. The eyes bleed from their heads. He puts their eyes in a sack and takes them to the moon, and feeds them to his own children. These children have crooked beaks that pick out the eyes of misbehaving children (198).

This scares the bejesus out of poor Nathaniel, and though he is old enough to know better, the specter of the Sandman looms. He hears those footsteps. He once heard him violently force his way into his father's room. It preoccupies him: "his intercourse with my father began more and more to occupy my fancy."

When he was ten years old, his mother moved him to new bedroom down the hall from his father's room. Now that he is closer to encountering the Sandman (he hears more, he smells more), Nathaniel sneaks around, finally hiding in his father's room to await the appearance of the Sandman. It so turns out that the Sandman is actually Coppelius, a man who frequently dined with the family. Coppelius is described as a disgusting, offensive, repulsive figure. But his father treats Coppelius "as though he were a superior being, whose bad manners were to be tolerated and who was to be kept in good humor at any cost."

Quote the passage on page 200, where the father and Coppelius work at the fireplace.

As my old father stooped down to the fire, he looked quite another man. Some convulsive pain seemed to have distorted his mild features into a repulsive, diabolical countenance. He looked like Coppelius, whom I saw brandishing red-hot tongs, which he used to take glowing masses out of the thick smoke, which objects he afterwards hammered. I seemed to catch a glimpse of human faces lying around without any eyes -- but with deep holes instead. (200)

Coppelius seizes him, intends to burn his eyes. The father intercedes. Then Coppelius screws his hands and feet roughly. It is almost as if he is treating Nathaniel like a doll. Nathaniel faints. He regains consciousness and his mother is stooping over him.

Did any of this actually happen?

Coppelius disappears. A year later, he returns, ominously, and an explosion occurs in the father's room. His father is burned to death. Coppelius vanishes.

But this is the man who returns as the barometer salesman, freaking out Nathaniel.

Some questions for low-stakes writing and discussion:

What aspects of the story strike you as being particularly frightening, creepy, disturbing?

How does Freud define the uncanny? How does he use this concept to analyze "The Sandman"? Does Freud's interpretation make sense? Do you have a different interpretation?

Discuss Nathaniel's character. How much of his memories and experiences really happened, how much is in his imagination? On what evidence do your base your interpretation?

Discuss Clara's character. In what ways is she distinguished apart from Nathaniel? Explain her reaction to his poem. How is she trying to help him? Why does Nathaniel turn away from Clara and fall in love with Olympia?

Discuss the motif of "the double" in the story. Where do you see evidence of doubles? What might be significant about them? Use Freud's comments on doubles to help you out.

Discuss the motif of the automaton. Where do you see evidence of automata

Discuss the motif of "eyes" in the story. Highlight every mention of eyes, then analyze their significance. Compare to what Freud says about this aspect of the story.