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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 12 October 2015

"The Sandman" by E T A Hoffmann

In  this short story, Nathanael grows up to fear the Sandman, the bogeyman who sprinkles sand into the eyes of children when they don't fall asleep; he then steals the eyes and takes them back to feed his family who live in a nest in the half-moon. As a child he identifies the Sandman with his father's friend, Coppelius, with whom his father practises alchemy.

After his father's death from one of these experiments, Nathanael grows up and becomes a student. Here he is terrorised by barometer salesman Coppola, who is the very image of Coppelius, and who sells him a telescope. He uses the telescope to spy on Olimpia, the pretty daughter of his Physics teacher, who sits in the window opposite his. He becomes obsessed with Olimpia, forgetting his childhood sweetheart Clara. He dances with Olimpia at a ball, despite the fact that she scarcely says anything other than "Ah ah ah" and she is very stiff and stylised in her movements. Sure enough, she is revealed to be an automaton and Nathanael goes mad.

This story is the basis for the first act of Offenbach's Tales from Hoffmann; another of Hoffmann's short stories became the basis for Tschaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet.

The story has in interesting structure. It starts with three letters written by Nathanael; although the author claims that this means that he starts in media res, in the middle of things, these letters actually recount the back story of Nathanael's childhood. The narrator then begins the second portion of the story, the student days; this has a conventional narrative structure. It ends with the destruction of the automaton and Nathanael recovering from his madness. But wait! This is not the end. In a final postscript Nathanael tries to murder Clara and then kills himself. At this stage I wondered whether Hoffman had tried out the happy ending and didn't like it so added another; it felt a little like a false appendix.

The whole tone of the story reminded me very much of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther; it was as fatalistically despairing, a hero doomed from the start. Fortunately, it was much shorter.

Unfortunately, I found the whole thing so over the top and hysterical that I couldn't believe in the sinister characters.

October 2015; 73 pages

Supplement, January 2016
I have read Nicholas Royle's The Uncanny. He points out (p 39) the multiple identity confusion:

  • The Sandman
  • The advocate Coppelius who is repellent
  • The narrator's father who has a repulsive face and who practises alchemy with Coppelius
  • The barometer salesman who looks like Coppelius but is called Coppola

Royle (p 46) thinks that Freud missed a lot of the meaning of the Sandman, including the passage which presages Freud's description of the death drive, when  Clara speaks of "a dark power which strives to ruin us within our own selves".

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