The sandman (e.t.a hoffmann) – summary

The Sandman was first published in 1816 by Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann and tells the story of Nathanael, who feels haunted by the Sandman from his childhood.

During his childhood Nathanael meets the Sandman, who apparently killed his father. Years later, the weather-glass merchant Coppola appears in Nathanael’s life. His resemblance to the Sandman makes Nathanael fall into madness. What exactly will happen to Nathanael, which characters are connected and how the work can be classified in terms of contemporary history you can read in the following article.

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Summary The Sandman

E.T.A Hoffmann’s romantic tale "The Sandman" reflects a central conflict of his era: it is about the conflict between reason, fantasy, rationality, and imagination.

The narrative begins with three letters that precede the following account by the actual first-person narrator. In the first letter, the protagonist of the story, the young, artistically gifted student Nathanael, writes to his foster brother Lothar. In this letter he reports about the strange encounter with a weather glass dealer Coppola, which has put him in strong mental turmoil. The esteemed Lothar could only understand this if one was informed about a traumatic childhood experience of Nathanael. This is exactly what the student now reports:

As a child, Nathanael was regularly sent to bed by his mother with the threat that the sandman was already on his way. One evening, he repeatedly heard strange noises, for which he had no explanation. Therefore he had secretly hidden in his father’s room, because he – motivated by childlike curiosity – wanted to find out what was hidden behind the alleged fairy tale figure of the Sandman. In fact, he has been able to unmask the advocate (lawyer) Coppelius, who is hated by the family, as the Sandman. The latter had obviously carried out alchemical experiments with his intimidated father. However, Coppelius discovered him and threatened him with the violent removal of the eyes. Today, many years later, he has met the hated Coppelius again. He now bears the similar name Coppola.

Nathanael’s first letter is followed – also in letter form – by the reply of Clara, his fiancee. The latter has mistakenly received and read the letter that was actually addressed to her brother. She tries to take away Nathaniel’s fear by giving a rational explanation for the childhood experience: The danger emanating from the Sandman is merely imagined and a logical consequence of psychological processes. In reality, there is no such figure, which acts on Nathanael from the outside with malicious intent. Therefore he can calm down.

In the further course the events are now represented by a first-person narrator, who calls himself a friend of the protagonist. He reports how Nathanael’s belief in the efficacy of dark forces gradually increases. Nathaniel obviously suffers from a kind of persecution mania. His fiancee Clara tries to take away these fears that determine him and his life, but does not succeed. On the contrary, a poem recited by Nathaniel with great fervor, which deals with the violent destruction of his love for Clara, leads to a great quarrel, which, however, can be resolved in the end, so that Nathaniel happily returns to his place of study.

Once there, he is visited once again by the weather glass dealer Coppola. The latter sells him a small pocket telescope, which Nathaniel uses to get a secret glimpse of the legendary daughter of his professor Spalanzani. The girl named Olimpia, who has been kept from society, lives in a room that Nathaniel can see from his student quarters. He observes her more and more frequently through his telescope and falls in love with the unknown beauty – an invitation to the professor’s house ball comes just at the right time.

Nathanael attends the ball and, during a chance visit to Spalanzani’s room, becomes an eyewitness to an unheard-of occurrence: the weather-glass merchant Coppola is a guest and argues in a crude manner with the master of the house about Olimpia. The two fight for the girl and destroy it violently. Nathanael has to realize that his great love is in reality only an automaton doll. These shocking impressions are too much for the sensitive artist’s soul: the young man goes mad and with murderous intent lunges at Spalanzani, who, however, manages to escape.

Nathaniel is taken to a mental hospital and, after a prolonged illness, wakes up seemingly cured in Clara’s arms. But this appearance is deceptive: during an excursion with the happy Clara to a lookout tower, Nathanael suffers a serious setback.

When he sees the hated advocate Coppelius in the crowd gathering under the tower, he throws himself from the tower and dies.

(Excerpt from the 1. Chapters from EinFach Deutsch… understand: E.T.A. Hoffmann: Der Sandmann, published by Bildungshaus Schulbuchverlage Westermann Schroedel Diesterweg Schoningh Winklers GmbH)

Overview of important characters


  • Main character of the story
  • is a young student
  • sees himself as a poet and painter
  • blames Sandmann for father’s death
  • thinks Coppola is the Sandman
  • Trauma from childhood comes out
  • Madness catches up with him at the end of the work, whereupon he throws himself to his death


  • Nathanael’s fiancee
  • is self-confident and believes in reason
  • tries to bring Nathanael rationally to the reason
  • stands with its values for the epoch of enlightenment

The weather glass dealer Coppola

  • alleged murderer of Nathanael’s father
  • appears without warning as a weather glass dealer at Nathanael’s place
  • Trigger for Nathanael’s relapse into past emotions
  • is discovered by Nathanael in the crowd under the tower, whereupon Nathanael throws himself to his death

(Excerpt from the chapter "Looking at the Characters: Characterizing the Characters" from EinFach Deutsch… verstehen: E.T.A. Hoffmann: The Sandman, published by Bildungshaus Schulbuchverlage Westermann Schroedel Diesterweg Schoningh Winklers GmbH)

Person constellation

(Excerpt of the chapter "The Constellation of Characters" from EinFach Deutsch… verstehen: E.T.A. Hoffmann: Der Sandmann, published by Bildungshaus Schulbuchverlage Westermann Schroedel Diesterweg Schoningh Winklers GmbH)

Contemporary history

In the history of literature, the period from about 1790 to 1835 is called Romanticism. The common distinction between early, high and late Romanticism, as well as Jena and Heidelberg Romanticism, serves the purpose of bringing order and structure to the diversity and heterogeneity of literary and artistic works.

The essential artistic currents of Romanticism can only be understood against the background of Classicism (ca. 1786 – 1832) and the Enlightenment to understand. The close relationship with the classical period can be guessed from the fact that the romantic period overlaps with it.

Goethe as the classic author of the novel "Wilhelm Meister" was initially appreciated by many Romantic authors, also the ego-centeredness and emotionality of Goethe’s striker Werther enthused and inspired Romantic poets. Hoffmann’s Nathanael is also quite similar to Werther in its radical emotionality and sensitivity.

The epoch of enlightenment (something 1720 – 1785) on the other hand served rather as a negative foil for many romantics. The latter asserted the primacy of reason over emotion and at the same time emphasized the maturity of man who can lead a self-responsible life.

It was believed, then, that with the help of man’s own reason, one could penetrate, understand, and in this way master the things of the outside world. The enlightenment thought is formulated in Hoffmann’s story "The Sandman" especially by the character Clara. She explains the fears and imaginations of her fiance Nathanael alone rationally. If Nathanael would think hard enough, he would also realize that the dreaded Sandman existed only inside him. Once he, as a sensible person, has recognized this, then the danger is already averted and dissolves into thin air.

Once we have identified Clara as a typical romantic figure in the narrative, it quickly becomes clear that Nathanael himself, as a typical romantic, represents her counterpart: He writes poetry, he paints, and with the help of his art he wants to expand his mind and the world in which he lives. That this plan does not work out is another matter and indicates that it is hardly possible to E.T.A. Attributing Hoffmann to the Enlightenment camp or the Romantic camp.

(Excerpt of the chapter "Backgrounds" from EinFach Deutsch… verstehen: E.T.A. Hoffmann: The Sandman, published by Bildungshaus Schulbuchverlage Westermann Schroedel Diesterweg Schoningh Winklers GmbH)

Short biography E.T.A. Hoffmann

  • full name: Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann
  • born: 24. January 1776
  • a civil servant by profession& Artist
  • famous works: The Golden Pot, Don Juan, The Sandman and many more.
  • wrote also musical works
  • died on 25.06.1822 in Berlin

Notes on the article

This article is a significantly shortened version. A comprehensive and much more detailed analysis of the work "The Sandman" can be found here. In the reading guide you will find more background to all chapters, characteristics of characters and a lot of useful knowledge!

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