Short-Story Spotlight: The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffman
Welcome to my new feature, the Short-Story Spotlight, in which I spotlight a short-story or short-story author. Today's featured story is The Sandman by E.T.A Hoffman, which was published in his 1816 book The Night Pieces. Hoffman is famous for writing the novella The Nutcracker and The Mouse King, on which is based the famous ballet The Nutcracker. The Sandman is a gothic tale of madness, alchemy, automatons, and eyes.
Summary (no spoilers): The Sandman tells the story of Nathaniel, a bright young university student studying the sciences. The story starts with a letter Nathaniel wrote to his friend Lother, who is the brother of Nathaniel's fiance Clara. In this letter he tells Lother that he has seen a terrible person from his past: an ugly abomination of a man who, as a child, Nathaniel was convinced was The Sandman, an evil monster who would pluck out the eyes of naughty children. That man was present during a strange explosion at night that killed Nathaniel's father. Nathaniel, seeing him again all these years later, vows revenge. He accidentally sends the letter detailing this encounter to Clara, his beautiful, quiet, rational fiance. She tells him that he is just imagining the whole thing, that because he was afriad of the man as a child he imagined that he was responsible for his father's death, and that he is only imagining him now. The story continues, and the reader is left to decide to what extent later events actually occur, and to what extent they are only in the mind of Nathaniel.
Review: This story is filled with both wonder and fright. It reminds me a little bit of Frankenstein, except that it is obviously shorter, and it is more plot oriented than the slow and thoughtful novel. It is also somewhat like many Poe stories, in that the reader is never sure just how reliable the narrator is, and exactly how much of this story should be believed. The titular Sandman steals eyes, and the theme of eyes comes back numerous times, with referenes to eyes, glasses, lenses, and spyglasses, as well as the fiery eyes or red eyes of an angry (or insane) man. This story also contains some satire of the ridgid expectations of upper-class society, especially for women. Though it is very plot-oriented, this is a very psychological story. In fact, The Sandman has so many layers of both interpretation and straight-up creepiness that Freud analysed it in his famous essay The Uncanny (Das Unheimliche).
This is definitely a story that will stick with you, and it leaves more questions than answers. The endless interpretations make this story great for discussion. If you're looking for something both spooky and intelligent, I highly recommend The Sandman.