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The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann Summary - Summary of E.T.A. Hoffmann's Novella "the Sandman"

the Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann (German)


Summary of the Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann

The book starts with three letters. The story is mainly told by an auctorial narrator. The first letter is from Nathanael, the protagonist, to his friend Lothar. Lothar is the brother of his beloved girlfriend Clara. He writes to Lothar that something crazy has happened to him and in order to make it more understandable he tells him something, what has happened in his childhood.

Back in the days, he and his sister sometimes had to go to bed immediately at nine o’clock, because their mother said to them that the sandman is coming. From an early age, he learnt to fear the sandman. There was a person, who came to Nathanael’s family time and again and went into a room, where his father was. Nathanael asked an old servant, who or what a sandman is and she told him that it is a gruesome being, who takes out the eyes of little children.

Once, when Nathanael was already somewhat older, he wanted to know, who this person really is. He hid in a hideout and waited. The mysterious came in and he saw that it was an old disgusting friend of his father, Coppelius. He was noticed by him and then he had a very traumatic experience. Coppelius took him and changed his arms with his legs and wanted to take out his eyes, but his father begged for forgiveness and then there was an explosion, where his father died.

He then goes on by writing that he has met a person in the town, where he studies, who is called Coppola and looks quite similar to the gruesome Coppelius.

In the second letter, Clara writes to Nathanael. She writes that she has read his letter by mistake, because it was wrongly addressed. She also tells her concerns to him and that such things are sometimes a product of the mind, a projection from the ego.

In a third letter, Nathanael writes to Lothar another time. He basically writes about Coppola again. He’s sure that Coppola can’t be the old Coppelius, because there’s a new professor at university, who knows Coppola for a long, long time. He tells him that he saw a girl through an opening, but only from the backside. He also tells him that he will come and visit them in 14 days.

Nathanael is very happy to see his passionately beloved girl Clara. They pass a good time. Sometimes, Nathanael talks about mystical things, which bore Clara. Also, Nathanael’s poems become more and more uninteresting to her.

Nathanael writes a very dark poem, which he thought to be very good. He reads it to Clara. She is very frightened of it and Nathanael becomes very angry. Even Clara’s brother has to step in.

The next morning, they have a duel, but Clara prevents them from killing each other. Nathanael has some sort of enlightment and things seem to get better.

When he gets back at his old home, his house is burnt down. In the basement, there was someone experimenting with chemicals and caused an explosion. Nathanael’s belongings are saved by friends and brought to another house, where Nathanael lives now.

From his new room, he can see right into the room of the girl called Olimpia. Nathanael wrote of her in the letter to Lothar. The girl seems to take all of Nathanael’s attention. But he’s never actually able to meet her. Something weird about her is that she always rests in the same pose for hours and her look has something dollish. Coppola knocks on his door and Nathanael is very disgusted by his view, but he decides, not to act irrationally and buys off a little pocket telescope. With this, he’s able to see Olimpia very, very clearly.

E.T.A. Hoffmann


The new professor, Spalanzani, makes a festival, where half of the university is invited to. It is said that also his daughter Olimpia should come. When Nathanael goes there, he hears her sing, what sounds somehow inhuman and later he dances with her. Her dancing is more like a program than human dancing.

He is seeing her more often and he thinks she is a great companion, because he talks to her for hours and she never gets bored of it. But she also barely speaks and it is said that she’s dumb and can’t speak many words. Nathanael completely forgets about Clara and all the others.

Some days later, he goes up to her room, but on the way there, he hears strange voices and noises. He opens the door and he sees the professor, holding Olimpia at one end, and the old Coppelius/Coppola, holding her at the other end. Coppelius wants to take Olimpia with him and the scene becomes very mad. The professor is dangerously injured and wants Nathanael to take two eyeballs, which were lying on the ground, put it in Olimpia’s head and get her back. But Nathanael goes insane; he talks madly and tries to strangle the professor. The noisiness has attracted many other people, who try to calm Nathanael and hold him down.

He returns to his old town, where he lives with Clara and has a good life. They go to the town and go on a tower. From there, they see something grey. He takes out his pocket telescope and looks through it. He looks at Clara and freaks out. He tries to throw Clara down the tower, but Clara manages to free her. In the end, he jumps down and dies. The noises attracted many people and amongst them, there was Coppelius, watching him going insane and dying.

It is said that Clara managed to have a calm, simple life with her husband and two children.

Stefan Zweig – Fear

Hermann Hesse – the Steppenwolf

Scroll to Continue

Hermann Hesse – Siddharta

Hermann Hesse – Demian

Hermann Hesse – Narcissus and Goldmund

Hermann Hesse – Glass Bead Game

Jean-Paul Sartre – Huis Clos

Molière – The Imaginary Invalid

William Golding – Lord of the Flies

Bernand Shaw – Pygmalion

Vsevolod Garshin – A red flower

Viktor Pelevin – The life of insects

Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan Ilyich

More Summaries

Novalis – Heinrich von Ofterdingen

Goethe – Faust I

Goethe – Clavigo

Goethe – Iphigenie auf Tauris

Goethe – Egmont

Goethe – Stella

E.T.A Hoffmann – The Sandman

Joseph von Eichendorff – Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts

Joseph von Eichendorff – The Marble Statue

Joseph von Eichendorff – Schloss Dürande

Georg Büchner – Woyzeck

© 2013 Slaven Cvijetic


Emmanuel on March 26, 2015:

Awesome site. Thank you

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