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The automaton cometh: “The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffmann; Ritchie Robertson, trans.

Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson
“The Sandman” constitutes a key example of the uncanny for Freud

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story “The Sandman,” one of the author’s most famous and most frequently anthologized tales, is an early 19th century progenitor of the modern horror story. It is also a touchstone for Sigmund Freud’s idea of the uncanny. In his essay “The Uncanny,” written more than a century after Hoffmann’s story, Freud refers “to the quite unparalleled atmosphere of uncanniness“ evoked in “The Sandman.” He centres this on the extended metaphor of eyes and seeing, as well as the protagonist Nathanael’s fear of blindness or losing his eyes, a fear that Freud links to castration anxiety.

One need not buy into Freud’s Oedipal fixation in order to countenance the importance of eyes and everything they represent in Hoffmann’s tale, nor to apprehend their connection with the story’s explicitly uncanny elements.

In the early epistolary sections of the story, Nathanael recalls his mother’s tales about the Sandman, who comes to misbehaving children at night and throws sand in their eyes, thereby popping the children’s eyes out of their sockets. The eyes are collected and taken back to be fed to the Sandman’s own children. This finds its counterpart in a scene featuring the hideous and venal lawyer Coppelius, who catches the boy Nathanael spying on him and Nathanael’s father and grabs a pair of hot coals out of the fire, with the explicit intention of using them to harvest the child’s eyes. For what precise purpose – and what Coppelius and Nathanael’s father are up to in the dead of night – is unclear in the story’s early stages, but already we are confronted with multiple examples of eyes in the context of horror and unnatural events.

Before secreting himself behind the curtain to observe his father and Coppelius, Nathanael hears the latter’s footfalls on the stairs and presumes that he is, in fact, the Sandman – an association that makes the lawyer’s threat to tear out the boy’s eyes all the more terrifying. In the second half of the story, the character of Coppelius is conflated with an optician named Coppola who foists his wares on the adult Nathanael: he claims to be selling eyes, which frightens Nathanael until he realizes the man is referring to spectacles. Nathanael ends up buying a miniature telescope from him. It is this spyglass through which Nathanael views his beloved, Clara, at the end of the story, before attempting to kill her and subsequently taking his own life by throwing himself off the parapet of a tower. Before he jumps, Nathanael spies Coppelius – who is by now shown to be Coppola – in the crowd below and repeats the eyeglass salesman’s pitch in broken English: ”Beautiful eyes-a! Beautiful eyes-a!”

Injury to one’s eyes is a pervasive fear, given the importance attached to the organs of sight and their fragile nature (they are delicate, dreadfully squishy orbs that damage easily). They are also colloquially referred to as ”the windows to the soul,” an ironic locution when applied to Hoffman’s tale, since Nathanael spends much of the story’s second half gazing into the eyes of Olimpia, the ”daughter” of Nathanael’s neighbour, who turns out to be an automaton – a doll that can be impelled to move and make rudimentary noises when wound by a clock-like mechanism. The narcissist Nathanael gazes into the doll’s eyes and professes his undying love, all the while innocent of the fact that Olimpia is literally an empty vessel, devoid of organs and sense and subject to the workings of a mechanical device. Long before there was such a thing, Nathanael fails the most basic Turing test.

This is also one of a series of doubling motifs in the story – the double being another element Freud deals with extensively in his essay. Olimpia is a double for Clara and it is clear to everyone except the vain and self-absorbed Nathanael that there is something wrong with the former. Nathanael prizes Olimpia because she listens to him without responding or challenging him (her lack of a functioning brain would go some way to explaining this) and interacts only in monosyllables or rudimentary, pre-programmed sentences: ”Goodnight, my dear friend.”

The doubling of Olimpia and Clara is made explicit in the final scene, following a ball at which Nathanael dances with the automaton, about “whom” his friend Siegmund later remarks, ”She plays and sings with the disagreeably perfect, soulless timing of a machine, and she dances similarly.” Once Olimpia’s true nature is revealed, Nathanael descends into madness, but the story’s finale finds him having recuperated and about to embark upon a life together with Clara. After spying her visage through Coppola’s glass on the parapet, Nathanael’s madness returns and he attempts to murder Clara, all the while screaming, ”Spin, wooden dolly! Spin, wooden dolly.”

A further pair of doubles have already been alluded to: Coppelius and Coppola. Coppelius (and therefore Coppola) is also explicitly associated with the Sandman of legend; it is the connection with the Sandman – and his fixation on eyes – that allows Nathanael to connect the repulsive lawyer with the spectacle salesman.

The construction of the narrative is interesting and goes to heighten the uncertainty around the events in the story, which adds to the overall mood of disquiet and strangeness. The first half of the story is told in a series of three letters between Nathanael, Clara, and Lothar, Nathanael’s friend and Clara’s brother. Two of the letters are written by Nathanael; the intervening missive is by Clara. The first-person account of the incident with Coppelius and his father’s subsequent death calls into question Nathanael’s essential grasp on reality: he is recalling events from his childhood, but there is sufficient evidence to believe that as an adult he has been severely traumatized. If he is not precisely insane in the early parts of the story, there is certainly a tendency toward mental fragility that will push him over the edge at the end.

The second half of the story is narrated in the first person by an anonymous authorial voice; this provides psychic distance from Nathanael and allows the reader to view him more clearly for what he is: a vainglorious, arrogant young man with an inability to detect the truth about a person’s real nature. Metaphorically speaking, he is deficient in the ability to “see” other people, most especially Olimpia. He is described in the closing sentence as ”self-divided,” an anticipation of Freud’s reaction to the story and perhaps another instance of a kind of “doubling” motif.

In his first letter, which is intended for Lothar but delivered instead to Clara, Nathanael refers to the Sandman as “a fearsome spectre” capable of eliciting “terror, indeed horror.” The distinction is a key one. Aristotle posited that tragedy is imbued with catharsis meant to elicit ”pity and terror” from its audience, thereby achieving the purgation of those emotions. Terror is here conceived as fear, something unnerving and capable of disturbing us on a deep psychological level. Horror, by contrast, contains connotations of disgust or revulsion. (This point is made with reference to Gothic fiction by Daryll Jones in his notes to the story in the Oxford World Classics volume Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, which is the source for this piece.) Both terror and horror are at work in Hoffmann’s story and both will become germane moving into the 20th and 21st centuries. The fact that ”The Sandman” achieves both, while also operating as a Freudian case study more than one hundred years before Freud came along, is only part of what makes it such a foundational text for the modern horror genre.

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