Deal Me In, Week 7 ~ “The Sandman”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Sandman” by E. T. A. Hoffmann

Card picked: Two of Diamonds – A WILD card. Yes, seven weeks in and I’ve already drawn two wild cards. I don’t much like the deck I’m drawing from.

From: Weird Tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by T.J. Bealby, available from Project Gutenberg


This is the second story I’ve read from the Obscure Literary Monsters list. The story might be “obscure” in that I’m not sure it’s widely read, but some of the details have a curious legacy. The Sandman in his most benevolent form sprinkles sand into children’s eyes to bring sleep and dreams. I understand that this is a myth to explain the grit in the corner of your eyes that you wake up with, but I’ve always thought the concept sounded terrible. A guy sneaking around and sprinkling *sand* in someone’s eyes? Nothing about this says sleep and good dreams to me. E.T.A. Hoffmann seems to agree.

Our protagonist is Nathanael, a student at an Italian university. We learn in a letter from him to Lothar, the brother of his fiance, that he is being troubled by something that he believes he left behind in childhood: the Sandman. When he was a kid, he explains, his nurse scared the bejeezus out of him with tales of a Sandman that threw sand in the eyes of children who refused to go to sleep and then would pluck their eyes out to feed to his own children. That’s a tale that will put a kid to sleep…never again. Young Nathanael convinces himself that a particularly loathsome man, Coppelius, who occasionally visits his father late at night, is actually the Sandman. Nathanael sneaks out of his room one night in hopes of proving his theory, but he’s quickly found out and further scared by Coppelius. In fact, Nathanael is convinced that Coppelius removes Nathanael’s hands and feet to examine them, before his father rescues him. His childhood trauma culminates a few months later with an accident–a late-night explosion which kills Nathanael’s father. Nathanael is certain Coppelius, or rather the Sandman, had something to do with it What has troubled older Nathanael is the arrival at the university of a weather glass salesman who looks *just* like feral old Coppelius.

The letter ends up being read by his fiance, Clara. On one hand, Clara is level-headed about it all. Her theory is that Nathanael has blown his childhood fears way out of proportion. His nurse told him a cruel story, Coppelius didn’t care for children and delighted in scaring him, and his father died while doing some sort of chemical experiment. The monster that is dogging Nathanael is all in his head; we create our monsters.  On the other hand, Clara is sort of annoyingly optimistic.”[T]he intuitive prescience of a dark power working within us to our own ruin cannot exist also in minds which are cheerful” is sort of her final statement on the subject.

Nathanael seems to mostly agree. In a second letter, he admits that he’s been a bit foolish. The weather glass salesman doesn’t look *that* much like Coppelius. One of his teachers, Spalanzani, knows the guy and vouches for him. All in all, Nathanael is happy to be coming home for holidays. He relates one more thing to Lothar. Speaking of Spalanzani, Nathanael peeked through a crack in the door to catch a glimpse of Spalanzani’s daughter. She’s beautiful, but sort of vacant…

Despite the tone of the letter, Nathanael isn’t over the whole Sandman/Coppelius thing. He drones on about everyone being the playthings of some evil ultimate power. He even pens a poem in which he and Clara happily woo but when they come to the marriage altar, Coppelius shows up and plucks out Clara’s eyes. Needless to say, this poem is not endearing to Clara.  She’s not unhappy when he goes back to the university.

When Nathanael returns, he finds that the building where he used to live has been burnt down. Some of his fellow students rescued his belongings and he’s been moved to an apartment next to where Spalanzani and his daughter, Olimpia, live. In fact, often Nathanael has a direct view into the room where Olimpia sits for hours on end not really moving or doing anything. The weather glass salesman finally pays Nathanael a visit and to get rid of the guy, Nathanael buys a mini telescope from him. Now with an even better way of spying on Olimpia, Nathanael becomes utterly besotted. It’s as though, she never had life in her eyes until he looked into her eyes. Olimpia is given a coming out party, but Nathanael is her only suitor. She can dance, but is stiff in her movements. She can sing songs, but doesn’t talk much beyond saying “Ack!” But she listens to Nathanael with utmost attention. She’s the perfect woman! Alas, Nathanael is doomed. He walks in on an argument between Spalanzani and the weather glass man (who actually *is* Coppelius) about who made Olimpia’s clockwork and who made her eyes. Coppelius makes off with Olimpia’s body, leaving her eyes behind. That’s not the end of Nathanael’s story, but I don’t want to spoil it all.

I wasn’t expecting a 1816 tale called “The Sandman” to so heavily involve an automaton. (Due to the name. The subject matter–life from unlife–was definitely having a resurgence.) Other sinister versions of the Sandman have been done, but I have to wonder if there isn’t more than a little of this story in the movie Blade Runner.

About the Author: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s best known work, at least in its ballet form, is The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. “The Sandman” gets a much more light-hearted dance adaptation too with Coppelia, the story of an inventor with a life-like dancing doll, the young man who falls in love with it, and Swanhilde, the girl he was supposed to marry who saves him from himself by pretending to be the doll. Presumably things work out better for all involved in this version.

Swanhilde (performed by Leanne Benjamin). I have to think that abrupt, wooden movement do not make for easy ballet.

4 thoughts on “Deal Me In, Week 7 ~ “The Sandman”

  1. Pingback: Deal Me In 2015 – Week 7 Wrap Up | Bibliophilopolis

  2. Jay

    This sounds like a great story. I always thought the sandman myth was weird too, and used to wonder if he and the tooth fairy were one and the same since they both visited you while you were asleep.

    The band “America” had a single by the name of “The Sandman” back in the 70s. It has nothing to do with this story but your post reminded me of it – and where I first heard it. I was at a party with my classmates at one of their houses and one of the classmates’ older brother was in “a band,” and they played at our party. (It was probably one of their first ‘gigs’ and you could tell they were taking it pretty seriously) They played a bunch of cover songs from that era, including a few “America” songs like the hit single “Sister Golden Hair” and of course, “The Sandman.” Thanks for excavating that memory. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Coming Up: Month-Long #Weirdathon – The Writerly Reader

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