Science Fiction Friday: ETA Hoffman, “The Sand-Man”

ETA Hoffman’s “The Sand-Man” tells the story of a man named Nathanael whose childhood fears of the man he associates and blames for the death of his father have haunted him all his life, as one would expect. The story begins with letters from Nathanael as he laments to his friends Lothair and Clara that he has caught sight of the man, Coppelius, whom he hasn’t seen since his father’s death. Coppelius is the man from his nightmares, but he is not figment of the imagination; he is in fact, very real.

He divulges his past to Lothair and Clara so they will understand his fear and hatred of the man. As Nathanael tells it, Coppelius would visit his family’s home very late each night to meet with Nathanael’s father. His mother disapproved highly of Coppelius so she would rush the children through their bedtime routine, always telling them the Sand-Man was here and that they must go to sleep. Naturally then Nathaneal began to associate the loud banging-open of the front door mixed with the sounds of drunken stumbling in the adjoining rooms to be the sound of the Sand-Man coming to get him. By the time Nathanael did finally learn that Coppelius was not, in fact, the specter-like demon of his nightmares, he had already developed an intense fixation and anxiety about him.

Now many years later he has run into Coppelius once again and is terrified of what he will do to him. Clara repeatedly tells Nathanael that the anxiety of Coppelius is all in his head, that he must not continue to give it power by believing in it. However, this drives a wedge in their relationship as Nathanael cannot let go of this fear and Clara is forced to bear witness to its destroying him. Coppelius appears and reappears in Nathanael’s life, though he can never quite tell if it is really him or not. At last just before he and Clara are to be married, when they think the past has finally gone to rest, Coppelius appears just one last time and it is enough to send Nathanael to the breaking point.

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