Nathaniel the metal menace – an automaton in human clothing?


In Hoffmann’s 1816 “The Sandman”, the main protagonist Nathaniel falls in love with Olimpia – an automaton created by university professor Spallanzani and Coppelius-double Coppola. How did Nathaniel not find out earlier?

Had robot technology advanced so far in 1816 that an automaton became indistinguishable from humans?

Was Nathaniel just blinded by his humongous ego?

Or perhaps was Nathaniel attracted to an automaton because he is one too?


During his childhood, Nathaniel gets caught trying to find out who the Sandman is in his father’s room. As a result, Coppelius “ripped me [Nathaniel] open” and “unscrewed my hands and feet” (Hoffmann 47). The evocative imagery used to describe what happens to Nathaniel is often labeled a confabulation. This blog post will instead take an alternative perspective and explore the possibility that Nathaniel was killed in this incident, and Nathaniel’s father revived him as an automaton.

Nathaniel’s father is described to have been working with or for Coppelius for a long time – there are multiple instances of the ‘sandman’ coming to visit. Presumably, Coppelius and Nathaniel’s father created automatons during this period of time. Nathaniel describes “human faces… visible all around” after Coppelius was seen hammering lumps. Moreover, the act of creating automaton seems to be either taboo or looked down upon – Coppelius and Nathaniel’s father take great care in hiding this from the family. The children are sent to bed immediately upon the arrival of Coppelius and the stove is disguised as a wall closet.

It could be conceivable then that Nathaniel is then killed or badly injured for seeing Coppelius and his father in the act of creating automatons. Nathaniel’s father, in an act of desperation, revived or healed Nathaniel by giving him automaton parts. Why? Perhaps because going to a hospital would not only raise questions within the household but also with the government. Nathaniel wakes up when “A gentle, warm breath” passes over his face and “awoke as if from the sleep of death” (Hoffmann 47). The “warm breath” is paralleled by the breath of life that God breathes into man in Genesis. Furthermore the simile used in “as if from the sleep of death” may be suggestive of his death as a complete human. Importantly, Nathaniel is stuck in bed for “several weeks” (Hoffmann 48) because of a fever. Although much has changed over the last two hundred years, a 2015 article from WebMD states that in most cases a fever “goes away on its own in 3 days” and other sources state that most extreme fevers last 1-2 weeks. Instead, perhaps the several weeks was put into Nathaniel getting automaton parts.

Why does Nathaniel fear Coppelius so irrationally? One possible explanation is that Coppelius was direct responsible for murdering Nathaniel’s father, possibly because he revived Nathaniel as an automaton. Nathaniel’s heavy preoccupation with his creator Coppelius may be grounded in his fear of disassembly. It would then make sense that Nathaniel falls in love with another automaton – Olimpia – and doesn’t see the emptiness or “lifelessness” that his colleagues see in Olimpia. Nathaniel claims that he was rendered color-blind because of his childhood experience. However, the faulty eyes may be a result of his father’s desperate attempt to give his son eyes without the help of Coppelius – the one seen with eyes the most.

Lastly, at the very end Nathaniel attacks Clara whilst muttering recurring phrases in a robot-like way. With his father and thus his creator dead for so long, it wouldn’t been a surprise that the automaton portions of his body malfunctioned.





2 Thoughts.

  1. Excellent point! I appreciate your unique point of view and well-reasoned argument. I used to regard Nathan as an automaton from scratch; however, your opinion is better. There were obvious changes in Nathan’s temperament and behaviors after the disassembly scene.

  2. I also felt that Nathaniel was an automaton, but no one seems to want to agree with me. Glad I found this interesting perspective.

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