E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story The Sandman (1816) has spooked and inspired many with its troubling tale of the folkloric Sandman who haunts the protagonist Nathaniel. This blog post is about this well-known story that Freud references in his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’, looking at why it was such an apt and powerful inspiration for Freud – and many other artists and thinkers ever since.
What’s the story?
Hoffmann’s The Sandman is the story of Nathaniel and his obsession with the Sandman. The nanny in Hoffmann’s story tells Nathaniel that the Sandman is ‘a wicked man, who comes to children when they won’t go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads.’ Athough Nathaniel’s mother denies the Sandman’s existence, Nathaniel believes the thuds up the staircase he hears at night in their family home is the Sandman.
Nathaniel hides in his father’s room after bedtime one evening, hoping to discover the identity of the man thudding up the stairs. He finds out it is a family acquaintance – the lawyer Coppelius. He reports that ‘When I now saw this Coppelius, the frightful and terrific thought took possession of my soul, that indeed no one but he could be the Sandman…he was a hideous, spectral monster, who brought with him grief, misery and destruction – temporal and eternal – wherever he appeared.’ Nathaniel recalls that Coppelius discovered him hiding, threatened to take out his eyes but at the protest of his father, started to pull at his limbs instead, at which point Nathaniel awoke and the reader is left unsure whether it was a dream. Later, in a letter, Nathaniel’s fiancée Clara bravely reassures Nathaniel that ‘all the terrible things of which you speak occurred merely in your own mind, and had little to do with the actual external world’. Nathaniel reports, however, that Coppelius returned and his father died mysteriously, after which Coppelius vanished.
Later on Nathaniel meets an optician, Giuseppe Coppola, who he thinks is Coppelius until Clara convinces him otherwise. Nathaniel meets his professor Spalanzani’s daughter, Olympia, and falls in love with her. She is an automaton whom Nathaniel believes is real until he sees her fall apart when Spalanzani and Coppola fight over her. Nathaniel is then reunited with Clara but up on a balcony, looks through a telescope and, startled with what (or who) he sees, then tries to throw her off. Clara’s brother Lothaire saves her but then Coppola appears and Nathaniel jumps off and kills himself. The Sandman ends with a hasty line about Clara living happily having had children: a strange nod to a fairytale ending after such a horror-filled story.
‘Take, gentle reader, the three letters, which my friend Lothaire was good enough to give me, as the sketch of the picture which I shall endeavor to color more and more brightly as I proceed with my narrative.’
Hoffmann uses three letters to introduce his story. My colleague Tom Derose describes Hoffmann as protomodernist in the way in which Hoffmann uses this structure to destabilise his narrative. Its form is fractured and written from multiple perspectives. The introductory letter is from Nathaniel, who in the first paragraph sets the tone in exclaiming that ‘Dark forebodings of a cruel, threatening fate tower over me like dark clouds, which no friendly sunbeam can penetrate‘ and raises the question of reliability and mental health by referring to himself as ‘crazy’ and a ‘madman’. Following the letters, the main body of the text is written from the perspective of an unstable narrator we don’t know if we can trust. The story twists and turns in an incoherent and confusing way. This confusion engenders a sense of insecurity and fear: even the structure is spooky.
Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’
In his essay ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), Sigmund Freud could be said to replicate this meandering, protomodernist approach. Freud calls the essay ‘The Uncanny’, but as Forbes Morlock points out (Morlock 2019), Freud does not offer a clear definition of his idea of the uncanny: it is a strange feeling, ‘that undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror…the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread’ (Freud 1919). Freud’s essay has a circuitous beginning, with Freud stating that there are two possible structures: ‘my investigation was actually begun by collecting a number of individual cases, and only later received confirmation after I had examined what language could tell us. In this discussion, however, I shall follow the opposite course.’
Freud points to themes that are strong in The Sandman and considered uncanny. For example, uncertain identities and doubles. To Freud, writing about The Sandman, ‘Coppola the optician really is the lawyer Coppelius and thus also the Sand-Man’: identities conflate. There is also confusion over the identity of Clara and the doll Olympia at the end of the story: ‘Nathaniel sprang up enraged and, thrusting Clara from him, cried: ‘Oh, inanimate, accursed automaton!’
Another theme is madness: in contrast to Hoffmann, Freud rarely touches on this aside from to say that it can be experienced by others as uncanny since it can feel both ‘other’ and external, and at the same time relatable and internal. Freud writes that ‘The ordinary person sees in [epilepsy and madness] the workings of forces hitherto unsuspected in his fellow-man but which at the same time he is dimly aware of in a remote corner of his own being’.
Freud argues that the theme of castration anxiety, his theory about the developmental stage when children fear losing or damaging their genitalia (standing in for the fear the Sandman provokes of losing one’s eyes) is the greatest concern in Hoffmann’s story. Freud also points to other themes such as the concept of what is real and what is not. Freud references the earlier influential paper on the uncanny, ‘The Psychology of the Uncanny’ (1906) written by German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch. He states that ‘Jentsch believes that a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny sensations is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not’. As Hoffmann has Nathaniel’s brother say: ‘We find your Olympia quite uncanny, and prefer to have nothing to do with her. She seems to act like a living being, and yet has some strange peculiarity of her own.’
With its meandering structure, multiple perspectives, and themes of doubles, reality, and terror, it is easy to see why Freud references The Sandman in his essay ‘The Uncanny’. Both texts are unsettling, and question reality, truth, identity and love: themes that preoccupy us just as strongly today.
In the Freud Museum’s exhibition celebrating one hundred years of the Uncanny, it was no surprise that artists wanted to work with this theme, with two pieces directly working with The Sandman. We wanted to give visitors the opportunity to learn about Freud’s text, its context and its legacy, and also to reflect on their own uncanny experiences by means of Elizabeth Dearnley’s app and installation. If you came to the exhibition when it was on, we hope you enjoyed it. If you didn’t and want to learn more, please explore our blogs, listen to related podcasts and read the original texts. Look out for uncanny-themed events in future. Feel free to post any pictures or thoughts about the uncanny online using the hashtag #theuncannyfreud
Freud, S. (1919) ‘The Uncanny’. Available in the Freud Museum Shop
Freud Museum London (2019) The Uncanny: A Centenary (Exhibition Catalogue). London: Freud Museum.
Hoffmann, E.T.A. (1816) ‘The Sandman’, trans. Oxenford, J. Available at: https://www.ux1.eiu.edu/~rlbeebe/sandman.pdf
Morlock, F. (2019) ‘Ghost Writing’, in The Uncanny: A Centenary (Exhibition Catalogue). London: Freud Museum, pp. 13-18. Available in the Freud Museum Shop
The Uncanny: A Centenary
Join us this winter for a haunting program, as we mark the centenary of the publication of Sigmund Freud’s paper on ‘The Uncanny’. The exhibition The Uncanny: A Centenary runs from 30 October 2019 to 9 February 2020, alongside a programme of related events.