Nathanael the German Romantic

While writing my essay on the German short stories this past weekend, I reread E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” and made some connections that I hadn’t previously noticed. Throughout the story, the main character Nathanael’s love of creative writing and poetry is referenced, mostly in relation to how his love interests react and respond to his work. Nathanael writes a poem for Clara in which on their wedding day the “terrible Coppelius appears and touches Clara’s lovely eyes, which start from her head and penetrate Nathanael’s breast like bloody sparks” (71). After revisiting Professor Lieblang’s lecture slides on German Romanticism I noticed that Nathanael seems like he might fall into that category , were he a real author. His dark fixations and deeply emotional reactions to the world around him seem, to me at least, to fit with the German Romantic themes. Along with this, he also strongly resents Clara’s rationality and her “cold, prosaic spirit” (69), which fits with the idea of  romanticism being opposed to calm and rationality.

It seems, through my interpretation, that Hoffmann is painting German Romanticism in a negative way, seeing as Clara is shown in a more positive light throughout the story and the reader is assured that she has a happy ending. But seeing as Hoffmann is categorized as a German Romantic, why would he do this? I don’t know a lot about Hoffmann as a writer or of his views, but if this parallel was in fact intentional and not just something that I projected on the story, I can’t really grasp his motives. I was wondering if anyone else noticed this, and if so, what are your thoughts?

3 responses to “Nathanael the German Romantic

  1. Wow, that’s a really cool interpretation Analisa. Even though I never noticed this myself, after reading the story again, I think that this interpretation makes sense. But, as you mention in your post, the problem is that, if we interpret the story in this way, then Hoffman’s story could be a criticism of German Romanticism. However, I think it is also possible to look at it from the opposite point of view: Hoffman is criticizing people who don’t understand German Romanticism. In lecture, Dr. Lieblang pointed out how the German Romantics had no interest in reconciling their philosophy with the rationality seen in groups such as the Enlightenment. The way in which Hoffman describes Clara makes her seem as though she might be the epitome of reason. After all, Clara, apparently, has a “very bright mind capable of subtle distinctions. People with clouded, unfocused thoughts were out of luck when dealing with her…” (65). Thus, people often “called Clara cold, unfeeling, prosaic; others, however, who had clearly comprehended the profundities of life, loved the affectionate, sensible, childlike girl extremely–but none as much as Nathanael, who moved about in the world of science and art with assurance and ease” (67). Honestly, I don’t know much about the Enlightenment, but from what I have gotten out of our discussions about the Enlightenment this year, I think that it consisted of people in both the arts and sciences, whose writings and opinions were so persuasive that they became the prevalent philosophical view of 18th century Europe. Thus, the people of the Enlightenment would have appeared to traverse the subjects of art and science with assurance and ease; they would have also been people who loved other people of reason–such as Clara. Hence, it appears that Nathanael, prior to the events of the story, might have been originally categorized as an Enlightenment figure.

    Yet, after meeting Coppola, something about Nathanael seems to have changed. After all, Hoffman states that “the barometer vendor Coppola had entered his life in a truly hostile way. Everyone perceived this, for it was obvious even in those first few days that Nathanael’s entire nature was altogether changed” (67). Hoffman describes this “new” Nathanael much like a German Romantic, as he “fell into gloomy reveries” and “constantly spoke of how every person, under the delusion of acting freely, was merely being used in a cruel game by dark powers; of how pointless it was to rebel–one must humbly bow to the dictates of fate” (67). Yet, when Nathanael writes his ideas down, they are thought of as “gloomy, incomprehensible and formless” (69) to Clara, the girl of reason. But, when Nathanael writes a particularly dark poem that he reads to Clara, Clara tells him to throw the poem in the fire. Hurt, Nathanael calls Clara a “‘lifeless automaton'” (73). The narrator seems to sympathize with Nathanael’s frustrations to express himself, for when the narrator begins his account of Nathanael’s story, he asks: “Have you…ever had an experience that completely occupied your heart, mind and thoughts, driving out all else?”. The narrator then goes on to state that “you wanted to describe your inner vision with all its glowing colours and shadows and lights, and struggled to find the words to even begin….You try and try, you stutter and stammer, and your friends’ sober questions blow upon your inner flame like icy blasts of wind until it almost goes out” (61). So, Nathanael’s inability to communicate his thoughts well seems only to be part of the problem. The other half of the problem seems to be your friends’ inability to think along the same lines as you and understand what you are trying to get at. After all, if Clara–or someone else that Nathanael knew–had understood, or at least, came to truly accept Nathanael’s new romantic vision, he probably wouldn’t have needed the automaton Olimpia, who he seems to love because she, being an automaton, would raptly listen to Nathanael’s ideas, stories, and poems for hours without moving (91). Because of this, Nathanael projects himself into Olimpia and comes to believe that she has the same views as he does (91). Thus, when talking to a friend, Nathanael says that “‘Olimpia may very well make you cold, prosaic people uneasy. Only to a poetic spirit can a similarly formed spirit reveal itself! It was only for me that her loving looks grew bright, filling my mind and thoughts with radiance; only in Olimpia’s love do I find my own self again'” (89). It seems that Nathanael has come to think that no one in the world, except Olimpia, understands him and appreciates his opinions. Yet, his relationship with Olimpia only seems to make his life more unstable, until his childhood fear of the sandman and eyes has slowly begun to consume him. At the end of the story, when Nathanael’s professor throughs Olimpia’s bloody eyes at Nathanael’s chest, he freaks out screams “Hey–hey–hey!–Circle of fire–Circle of fire! Turn, circle of fire–briskly–briskly!–Wooden doll, hey pretty wooden doll– turn–” (95) before throwing himself at the professor and strangling him. Nathanael, in his rage, attracted a lot of people, who save the professor and bring Nathanael to an insane asylum (95). Later, when he has supposedly recovered and is released from the asylum, he spots Coppelius–the sandman–in the crowd and attempts to strangle Clara (101). When this turns out to be unsuccessful, he kills himself by jumping off a tall building (103). Therefore, if Nathanael wasn’t treated as being insane and if someone human had accepted Nathanael’s views and helped him overcome his fear of the sandman, then maybe he wouldn’t have felt so alone and, in his loneliness, wouldn’t have allowed his fear to effect him so much. Yet, with this interpretation, I can’t seem to make sense of the last line, which reads: “Clara was still able to find that peaceful domestic happiness which suited her cheerful, pleasure-loving temperament and which Nathanael, with the fundamental conflicts in his nature, would have never been able to offer her” (1o3). Thus, in this line, the narrator seems to be expressing that there is some flaw in Nathanael’s nature itself. Since Nathanael’s nature is, in this interpretation, that of a German Romantic, this seems imply that the narrator is criticizing the German Romantics, which of course doesn’t make much sense, since Hoffman was a Romantic….Thus, the interpretation that I presented here still needs to be developed, or, may even be incorrect….

    • Wow, Cara, you brought up a lot of details that I overlooked. I especially liked your point that if Nathanael wasn’t treated as insane by others but actually listened to then he probably wouldn’t have felt so alone or allowed his fears to affect him so severely. But while this is a really well thought out argument, I also got stuck on the line that you brought up, “Clara was still able to find that peaceful domestic happiness which suited her cheerful, pleasure-loving temperament and which Nathanael, with the fundamental conflicts in his nature, would have never been able to offer her” (1o3). This line is what caused my initial confusion, as it contradicts all the other evidence that would support my wondering and your well thought out interpretation. Since there is no way to really know what exactly Hoffmann meant with these, I guess the best we can do is speculate!

  2. Great discussion here! The one thing that trips me up is that after meeting Coppola, who brings up Nathanael’s memory of Coppelius and starts him thinking gloomy thoughts, Nathanael starts talking about how we are all subject to “dark powers” and don’t really have free will but just have to “bow to the dictates of fate” (67). Is this sense of not having any free will but just having to go along with powers outside of you part of German Romanticism? Honestly, I don’t know; it doesn’t fit with my idea of English Romanticism, but I know very little of the German version (just what Prof. Lieblang told us in class). It doesn’t seem to me to fit the idea of German idealism, at least.

    I do think it makes sense to say the narrator is presenting Clara in a somewhat negative light when she more or less just starts ignoring what Nathanael writes, dismissing it, not listening anymore. And she does seem to represent reason vs. the poetic spirit. But I also think Nathanael is presented as flawed as well, not just in that he attempts to kill Clara, but in that the narrator himself (him?) says that Nathanael’s work had actually become boring (not just that Clara thought it so) (69). Even if he is a romantic, the narrator is suggesting he is not writing well as one at that point. Perhaps his emphasis on being completely taken over by dark powers and not having his own free will is part of this?

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