Analysis of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "Der Sandmann"

With special regard to Sigmund Freud's interpretation and central motifs

Term Paper, 2005

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

A „Der Sandmann“ – a much-discussed story

B Analysis of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story „Der Sandmann“ with particular regard to the interpretation by Sigmund Freud and central motifs
I. Sigmund Freud's „Das Unheimliche“
1. Attempt to define the "Uncanny"
2. The embodiment of the "uncanny" by Olimpia and the Sandman
3. Relationship Eye Anxiety – Castration Anxiety
4. The doppelgänger motif
II. Further interpretations
III. Central motifs in „Der Sandmann“
1. The eye motif
2. Laughter
4. The fire and the temperature
III. Thematic aspects
1. The vending machine
2. The problem of artists
IV. Comparison of „Der Sandmann“ with Todorov's approaches

C The role of the reader in „Der Sandmann“

Literature used:
Primary literature:
Secondary literature:

A „Der Sandmann“ – a much-discussed story

The story "Der Sandmann" by E.T.A. Hoffmann appeared in 1816 in the first part of the narrative cycle "Nachtstücke". Throughout the cycle, the typical romantic interest in the night sides of nature prevails, for the uncanny, morbid and criminal. „Der Sandmann“ is the best-known story in the collection. It is about the student Nathanael, who, already engaged to the middle-class girl Clara, falls in love with the daughter of a professor, the beautiful Olimpia, at the place of study, until it turns out that she is not a human being, but an automaton. This deception and also the repeated confrontation with the horror of his childhood, the Sandman, threatens his identity so much that it drives him to madness and finally to death.

Probably the best-known analysis of the "Sandmann" was written by Sigmund Freud in 1919 in his study of the uncanny, which links the fear of eye robbery with castration anxiety. The discussion that has arisen from this makes Hoffmann's first night piece one of his most discussed narratives, which has been taken up again and again by many interpreters of different scientific theoretical orientations.

This essay by Freud, as well as various other interpretation approaches, will now be discussed in more detail here. In addition, the central motifs that permeate the narrative and occur in an extraordinary density are examined in detail and some thematic aspects, such as the automaton motif and the artist's problem, are presented. A comparison to Todorov's definition of fantasy should also be drawn.

B Analysis of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story „Der Sandmann“ with particular regard to the interpretation by Sigmund Freud and central motifs

I. Sigmund Freud's „Das Unheimliche“

1. Attempt to define the "Uncanny"

In the essay „Das Unheimliche“, Sigmund Freud tried to develop a definition of it. It seems clear to him, although it is not always needed in a sharply defined sense, that it belongs to the frightening, frightening and horrifying. But Freud wants to make out the special core of the term "uncanny", which justifies the fact that there is a certain term word for it. On the part of the medical-psychological literature, E. Jentsch has made an attempt in this regard: He sees the uncanny as the kind of frightening that goes back to the well-known, long-familiar. Under what conditions the familiar is now uncanny and frighteningly analyzed by him. The German word "unheimlich" stands in contrast to "heimlich", "heimisch" and "vertraut", which suggests that it is not frightening because it is not known and familiar. But of course, not everything that is new and not known is frightening, so the relationship is not reversible. Still, anything new can easily become scary and scary. To the new and unfamiliar must first be added something that makes it uncanny. According to Jentsch, an essential condition for the creation of the uncanny feeling is intellectual insecurity. However, he stops at this realization, cannot find a definitive answer to his question and thus the definition of the "uncanny" is not complete.

Freud therefore tries to supplement his definition by analyzing various dictionaries. For example, he examines the information on the word "secret" in Daniel Sander's "Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache" of 1860, from which he concludes that the word "secretly" among the multiple nuances of its meaning has one that coincides with its contrast "uncanny". This word is therefore not unambiguous, associates two circles of imagination: on the one hand the familiar, comfortable, on the other hand the hidden and hidden. This statement thus harmonizes with Jentsch's definition in the point that the uncanny always has something to do with the familiar.

Freud also refers to the "Deutsches Wörterbuch" by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. Here, "secretly" is presented as a word that develops its meaning after an ambivalence until it finally coincides with its contrast "uncanny".

2. The embodiment of the "uncanny" by Olimpia and the Sandman

Freud then goes directly into E.T.A. Hoffmann's story „Der Sandmann“, which he sees as a prime example of an eerie work. Here he again quotes Jentsch, who sees it as the surest trick to produce sinister effects to leave the reader in the dark about whether he has a person or an automaton in front of him in a certain figure, so that the uncertainty does not come directly into the focus of his attention, so that he is not prompted to immediately investigate and clarify the matter. , because the special emotion is easily lost. This doubt about the anensuring of an apparently living being and also about whether a lifeless object is not animated, this uncanny emotion arises and also generally by the impression of wax figures and automatons and the uncanny of epileptic seizures and utterances of madness, hunches of automatic, mechanical processes are awakened, which remain hidden behind the usual image of soul. This is caused in the "Sandman" by the appearance of the seemingly animated doll Olimpia, with which the reader can not be sure at first whether she is not a woman of flesh and blood. But the vending machine motif is not the only one responsible for the eerie effect of the narrative. Of course, the focus is on the motif of the Sandman, who tears out the eyes of the children. Despite his happiness in the present, Nathanael cannot banish the memory of his father's mysterious death. Because in his childhood he had terrible experiences with the Sandman, of whom the mother denies that he really exists. But little Nathanael is sure that he exists, after all, he always hears his heavy steps on the stairs. His conviction is further confirmed by the anti-fairy tale of the nanny, who builds up an evil, frightening image of the Sandman. Actually, Nathanael would have been old and reasonable enough not to believe this literally, but nevertheless the fear takes hold in him. A rationalist interpretation of the Sandman would be possible by believing in the influence of the fairy tale of the nanny that continues to have an effect in the child's imagination. According to Freud, it is already clear here that it is doubtful for the poet whether this is about the serious delirium of a fear-obsessed child or whether it is to be understood as real in the world of representation of the narrative.

Later, the frightening figure of childhood appears in the university town. Nathanael's initial horror is appeased by the fact that the "Sköne Oke!" touted by Coppola are just harmless lenses. A new fit of madness occurs when Nathanael realizes that Olimpia is a doll. The ensuing delirium is a reminiscence of the death of the father combined with the fresh impression of the loss of his great love, which is reflected in his exclamation "Hui – hui – hui! – Fire Circle – Fire Circle!", which is reminiscent of the experimental scene.

In the scene on the tower, Nathanael looks at a strange apparition through Coppola's perspective and is once again gripped by madness. With the words "Holzpüpplein, turn!" he wants to throw his bride Clara into the depths and races around with the repeated exclamation "Circle of fire, turn". Immediately after Coppelius' words "He comes down by himself" he throws himself over the railing with the cry "Sköne Oke!" and jumps to his death while the Sandman disappears into the hustle and bustle. So, according to Freud, there is no doubt that the feeling of the uncanny can be pinned directly on the figure of the Sandman and especially on the idea of being deprived of eyes.

Nathanael is therefore a neurotic who, for example, tries to get out of his narcissistic isolation through his relationship with Clara. Freud describes these experiments and the whole narrative as a history of illness.

3. Relationship Eye Anxiety – Castration Anxiety

According to Sigmund Freud, this fear of losing the organ of vision often occurs in psychoanalytic experience. It is a terrible childhood fear to damage or lose the eyes, this fear often persists into adulthood. It is not for nothing that there is the saying "protect something like the apple of your eye" when you want to express that something is worth a lot to you and you don't want to lose it for anything in the world.

Sigmund Freud particularly emphasizes the interpretation approach of „Der Sandmann“, in which he associates the fear of losing one's eyes with castration anxiety. He concludes this from the study of dreams, fantasies and myths, especially by comparing it with the legend of the mythical criminal Oedipus, Freud wants to prove this. His self-glare is only a reduction for the penalty of castration, which would have been appropriate for his act.

The Oedipus complex analyzed by Freud is a complex that arises in the early genital phase due to the displacement or inadequate coping with the libidinous attachment of the boy to the mother or the girl to the father. It is associated with feelings of rivalry with the same-sex parent and is usually overcome during the transition to the latency phase, but can recur in puberty and subsequently lead to neuroses.1

This connection is also obvious in the interpretation of the "Sandman", the fear of the eyes is brought into the closest relationship with the death of the father and the Sandman always appears as a disturber of love. He divides Nathanael from his bride Clara and her brother Lothar, does without the doll Olimpia, whom he loves so much, and forces him to commit suicide himself when he is about to reunite with Clara. This seems arbitrary if one rejects the connection between eye anxiety and castration anxiety, but if one admits the connection, this becomes meaningful if one uses the dreaded father for the Sandman, from whom one expects castration as punishment for one's own love for the mother. Nathanael fears being punished by his father for his illicit affection for his mother. The image of the father splits into the "good father", who is Nathanael's real father, and the "evil father", who is embodied by Coppelius and the Sandman respectively.

4. The doppelgänger motif

According to Sigmund Freud, another motif for „Das Unheimliche“ in "Der Sandmann" is doppelgängerism. By this he means the appearance of persons who must be considered identical because of their same appearance. The motif is increased by skipping mental processes from one of these people to the other, for example through telepathy, so that one has the knowledge, feeling and experience of the other. The doppelgänger identifies with another person, so that the foreign ego is put in the place of one's own, whereby one speaks of ego doubling, ego division and I-exchange. The constant return of the same, repetition of the same facial features, character traits, fates, criminal acts and names by several successive generations are also an important indication of doppelgängerism. The moment of repetition of the like is often the source of an eerie feeling. In this way, chance is denied and the event is classified as an idea of the fatal and inescapable.

This effect is also had by the appearance of doppelgängerism in E.T.A. Hoffmann's „Der Sandmann“. Above all, the repeated appearance of the Sandman under slightly changed names creates the eerie moment in the reader. But for Freud, none of this justifies the extraordinarily high degree of uncanniness attached to it.2

II. Further interpretations

Not only Sigmund Freud dealt with the interpretation of the "Sandman" by E.T.A. Hoffmann, but his analysis of the story was certainly the most important and consequential. But other literary scholars also tried to examine the text, partly criticizing Freud's study, partly supplementing it with their opinions.

Ingrid Aichinger praises Freud's interpretation for capturing a depth dimension of the text that escapes traditional literary observation, but she also works out weaknesses of the essay. for example, she criticizes the danger of reducing a complex topic to a basic pattern that is too simple, i.e. finds Freud's analysis of the Oedipus complex too one-sided. So she analyzes what goes beyond this investigation and asks herself the question: Why is it that Hoffmann's novella takes us deeper and at the same time leaves us deeper than the psychopathological case histories, to which Nathanael's clinical appearance looks so similar? What is the plus that goes beyond a mere illness report? She finds no solution to this with Freud, for whom the story of the "Sandman" is a pure history of illness. She concludes that although psychoanalysis deciphers phenomena, this does not come close to the phenomenon of art, in this point she sees the limits of psychoanalytic literature consideration. „Der Sandmann“ thus offers more and different than a psychopathological case study.

Wolfgang Nehring turns to the "Sandmann" from the point of view of narrative technique, sees in him variation of a structural model that has most likely found its archetypal imprint in "Goldener Topf": a person surprisingly becomes uncertain about the ground of his normal experience, he enters the spell of a sphere that is strange and inexplicable, and oscillates back and forth between the areas undecided. The relationship seems to start from the foreign world, the hero appears like a pawn of higher powers. He brings with him inner willingness to surrender to the mysterious being, even if he is destroyed, as in the "Sandmann". The poet does not have fatalistic control over his life, but interprets fate from his soul, the inexplicable and unusual is in many cases the wonderful. He sees the "Sandmann" as a variation of this narrative structural model.

Wulf Segebrecht's essay on E.T.A. Hoffmann's reception of medical science (1978) also provides valuable information on interpretation: He assumes that science is increasingly revealing the demonic forces of nature that are actually effective in humans and uses these powers for therapy. The deeper science penetrates into the mysteries of nature, the deeper the abyss of his soul recognizable to man becomes: The distance of the healthy from the actually recognizable depths of the soul becomes greater, they get out of the center of normality into an extreme position, which can lead to automaton and doll-like soullessness. But also the sick who suffer from their consciousness come with increasing scientific knowledge about the effective forces of this disease more and more hopelessly under the influence of these forces. In Hoffmann's work, these are embodied by artists, dreamers, herders, fantasists, enthusiasts and enthusiasts. Both groups suffer from a limited one-sidedness of consciousness: just as healthy people are not able to establish an inner world, so the sick are not able to establish the outside world, both are brought out of the limbo of balance by which all wholeness is determined. Thus, both manifestations are of an unbalanced, sick society. Medicine now offers opportunities for the knowledge of the sick society, diagnoses the disease state of society on a case-by-case basis. But medicine does not develop the means to heal society, it is dependent on using the same demonic forces whose effectiveness it has discovered, without at the same time being able to stabilize defenses against its dangers. This therefore often degenerates into an abuse of power or an end in itself, their findings must be brought into line with the vital ambiguity of being, the mediation of the necessity of this knowledge serves Hoffmann's work.

Werner Obermeit studied psychology around 1800 in 1980 and came to the conclusion that Hoffmann does not regard madness as a distant object, he cannot succeed in distancing himself from madness. He feels affected by him and entangled in an insane world, but Hoffmann himself is not crazy, he is only bound to a world that makes it necessary. However, his own concern does not allow him to objectify the madness, it forces him to get close to the insane objects, to empathize with them. He has to let the mad individual have his say, to lend him his own language. Hoffmann does not put himself above the madman, he stands in the middle of madness, does not write about madness, but out of madness. The reader should make connections between himself and the narrative, between characters from his environment and those from the narrative, between his reality and the reality of the Sandman. For Obermeit, reality and the miraculous belong together, which becomes apparent when the reader gets involved with the "Sandman". He is persuaded to deal with Hoffmann's psychology, to follow his various states of consciousness, his normality and his madness. In addition, he himself is put into these states, so that Clara and Nathanael present the personifications of the reader's states of consciousness. By drawing the reader over to him, Hoffmann deprives him of any chance to see madness as a distant object, he will, like Hoffmann, follow and comprehend the paths of the madman, will not understand madness, but will touch him and feel it.


1 Der große Brockhaus in zwölf Bänden, Achter Band, MOR-PHA, F.A. Brockhaus, 18th edition, Wiesbaden 1979

2 cf. Freud, Sigmund: Das Unheimliche, Aufsätze zur Literatur. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1963

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Analysis of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "Der Sandmann"
With special regard to Sigmund Freud's interpretation and central motifs
University of Regensburg
Catalog Number
analysis, hoffmann, sandmann, with, sigmund, freud
Quote paper
Angelika Zahn (Author), 2005, Analysis of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "Der Sandmann", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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