Summary of “The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffmann

When Nathanael was young, his mother was accustomed to send them to bed at nine in the evening with the words: “The sandman is coming, I can see.” Eventually, Nathanael asked his mother who the sandman was. His mother replied that there was no sandman. She simply meant that their eyes were sleepy, just as if sand were in them.

Nathanael was not convinced, so he asked Natty, an old woman who took care of his younger sister, to describe the sandman. She told him that if children did not want to go to sleep at bedtime, the sandman came and threw sand into their eyes. Then he took their eyes and fed them to his children, who had a nest on the half moon. His children would then eat the eyes with their owl-shaped beaks.

Nathanael frequently heard footsteps coming up the steps as their mother sent the children to bed. He became firmly convinced that they were the footsteps of the approaching sandman. One evening, he decided to spy on the sandman. Instead of going to bed, he sneaked into his father’s work-room and hid himself. He learned that the approaching footsteps belonged to an advocate named Coppelius, a sadistic man who had often been mean to Nathanael and his siblings.

As Nathanael watched from his hiding place, his father and Coppelius performed an alchemy experiment. Of course, Nathanael did not know what they were doing. He managed to stay hidden until Coppelius happened to say: “Eyes here, eyes!” In view of what Natty had told him about the sandman, it is not surprising that Nathanael screamed when he heard the word “eyes.”

Coppelius angrily dragged the boy to the place where they were conducting their experiments and sadistically remarked that now they had a pretty pair of child’s eyes. Nathanael’s father asked Coppelius to spare the boy’s eyes. Nevertheless, Coppelius treated the child roughly. It seemed to Nathanael that the sadistic advocate was screwing his hands and feet off and putting them on again. Needless to say, this experience convinced Nathanael that Coppelius was the sinister sandman.

On another occasion, an explosion occurred while the two men were performing an experiment, and Nathanael’s father was killed. Nathanael believed that Coppelius was responsible for his death.

Shortly afterwards, a distant relative passed away, leaving two orphans named Clara and Lothar. Nathanael’s mother took them in. When Nathanael and Clara grew up, they became engaged to one another.

Before they could get married, Nathanael had to leave town to pursue his studies. One day, a salesman named Giuseppe Coppola unsuccessfully tried to sell a barometer to Nathanael. Coppola looked like Coppelius, and Nathanael initially thought that they were the same person. However, he changed his mind when Spalanzani, his physics professor, stated that he had known Coppola for years. Besides, in contrast to the German Coppelius, the accent of Coppola clearly revealed that he was Italian.

After this brush with Coppola, Nathanael was no longer as cheerful as he used to be. When he returned home during a school break, his relations with Clara and Lothar became strained. On one occasion, Lothar and Nathanael were going to fight a duel with one another, and blood might have been spilled if Clara had not intervened.

Meanwhile, Nathanael’s lodgings at the university had burned to the ground. When he returned to continue his studies, his new lodgings happened to be located in a place where he could see Spalanzani’s daughter Olimpia sitting in a chair when he looked through his window. Strangely, the daughter never left her seat. It was rumored that Spalanzani strictly excluded her from public view.

Coppola came again. Since this salesman was a friend of Spalanzani, Nathanael tried to treat him kindly. He reacted aggressively when Coppola said that he had pretty eyes for sale and put a great number of spectacles on the table. Nathanael was again reminded of the sandman and the eyes. However, he quickly concluded that his fears were groundless and even bought a small telescope.

Trying out the telescope, he happened to see Olimpia more clearly than he had ever seen her before. He conceived an unfortunate passion for her.

Not long after, Spalanzani invited Nathanael and others to a celebration at his place. At this event, Olimpia appeared in public for the first time. Nathanael danced with her all night.

Spalanzani invited Nathanael to visit Olimpia, and he did so often. He lost his love for Clara and forgot his promises to her. Strangely, he never noticed that Olimpia hardly ever talked.

One day, Nathanael heard a ruckus in Spanlanzani’s quarters. He rushed in and saw Spalanzani and Coppelius trying to pull Olimpia away from one another. Coppelius won the tug of war and ran away with Olimpia dangling over his shoulder.

When Nathanael noticed that Olimpia’s eyes had fallen out of her head, he knew that she was an automated doll. He became insane, tried to kill Spalanzani, and was consigned to a madhouse.

Spalanzani had to leave the university. People did not like it that he pretended that a doll was a real person and introduced her to the public as such.

Eventually Nathanael recovered. He loved Clara once more, and seemed to be cheerful. However, when he ascended a tall tower with Clara, he looked down through his small telescope. His madness immediately recurred. He thought that Clara was a doll and tried to hurl her to the ground, but Lothar rescued her and took her to safety.

Coppelius was among the crowd assembled at the base of the tower. When Nathanael saw him, he made a remark about pretty eyes, jumped from the tower, and died.

Clara later married someone else, became the happy mother, and enjoyed a pleasant life.

Jacques Offenbach later wrote an opera entitled “The Tales of Hoffmann.” A slightly altered version of the romance with the automated doll was one of the tales featured in this opera.

I was not able to find the complete German text of Hoffmann’s tale. An English translation furnished by the Read Book Online website has been the principal source of my summary.


Read Book Online: The Sandman

Christoph Daniel Rüegg: E.T.A. Hoffmann – Der Sandmann

Wikipedia: The Sandman (short story)

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