Discussion Questions for E. T. A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman”
1) Nathanael has difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality to say the least, yet he is the character to narrate the tale overall. To what extent do you trust Nathanael to convey the true story? Is there anything that Nathanael does not say about what happened which comes across to the reader nevertheless? Is there anything that Nathanael is especially deluded about? To what extent do you believe Hoffmann expects the reader to share in such denials or delusions as well? In the end, why does Hoffmann have such an unreliable narrator? Does it make the story more interesting and effective? How would the story be different if narrated by Clara throughout?
2) Not only do a number of images and events repeat throughout the story, but a number of characters seem to be doubles (or “alter egos”) of each other as well. After compiling a list of as many of these recurring symbols, situations, or character traits as you can think of, explain the significance of those that you find most important to the theme, structure, and atmosphere of the tale.
3) Why would Nathaniel prefer the automaton Olympia to his childhood companion Clara? What would make the man-made, mechanical woman preferable to the natural and human one? If Nathanael’s desire for a compliant, artificial creature is indicative if the aspirations of men in general, what would that desire indicate about masculinity (or heterosexuality) as such? What would it indicate about femininity, at least as traditionally conceived? Do you believe that Nathanael is, in fact, representative of men in general, at least to some extent? Is there anything about either Olympia or Clara that seems representative of women in general?
4) How would this tale be different if it were titled “Olympia” rather than “The Sandman”? Would the protagonist have the same tragic fate and flaws, or would they be slightly different? Would the tale still be a horror story or would it be a romance or comedy instead? To what extent is the tale already a romantic comedy, even though not so very amusing, amorous, or humorous on the whole? Why does Hoffmann begin with the frame tale of Nathanael’s early childhood experiences and the fairy-tale Sandman? How would this story be different if, instead of switching back and forth from the present to the past, it unfolded chronologically, beginning with Nathanael’s entrance to college? Does the complicated temporal structure of the story help to enhance the fear (and enjoyment) of the reader?