Reading short novels is fun, but sometimes you realize that your own thoughts about what you've read are uninspired and make the word itself seem tedious. I have often thought about the idea of being able to invite someone to read a story along with me and give me a fascinating interpretation that I could never come up with myself.

That's why I've recently decided to invite Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud and French philosopher Sarah Kofman to come read 19th century German writer's E.T.A Hoffman's The Sandman with me. So, in this node, we proceed to look at E.T.A Hoffman's short novel Sandman through Freud's eyes and through the eyes of a contemporary French philosopher Sarah Kofman who built upon his interpretation and yet significantly modified it.(P.S: Forgive me for giving Kofman's view more room than the Herr Doctor's)

The plot of the story

The story is about a young man Nathaniel who has the spookiest things happen to him in his childhood. His home is visited by a diabolical lawyer Cornelius, who, according to his nurse, throws sand into the eyes of children and makes them fall out of their sockets if the disobedient little ones don't go to sleep on time.

Though Nathaniel's mother reassures her son that his father's associate is no demonic creature, Nathaniel stumbles upon dad and Cornelius stripped down to special white robes with the wickedly-smiling Cornelius urging daddy to throw some disembodied eyes into the fireplace. Once Cornelius spots Nathaniel peering through the door, he grabs hold of him and somehow tries to unscrew his body parts as if they were some metal rods. In a vague resemblance of the nurse's story, the "villain" also tries to throw sparks into the little boy's eyes to make them pop out of their sockets. Though his father saves Nathaniel from ocular harm, the old man himself dies later in the story. The given reason: a dangerous fireplace experiment with Cornelius gone wrong

After Nathaniel falls in love and becomes engaged with Clara, he keeps reading her self-written horror stories about the evil Cornelius outloud and his quest to destroy eyes. Nathaniel fears the scenario and the story presents a version of events that somehow fulfills his nightmares. At the University, Nathaniel buys spectacles from an Italian seller Coppola, who eerily looks like Cornelius. He uses the device to peer through the window of Professor Spalanzani's house to watch his daughter Olympia sitting at the window. After much extended gazing and ahing und oohing, Nathaniel is sure that he has fallen in love with Olympia and decides to break off his engagement to Clara. At a party, he dances with this almost always silent daughter of the professor who always nods her head admiringly at his stories. This behavior is very much unlike Clara's who hates listening to the hrror them and asks her fiancé to stop reading them. Nathaniel falls in love with Olympica because she loves his stories, smiles when he tells them, and urges him to go on.

Unfortunately this initially promising love tryst leads to the recurrence of the nightmare scenario with Cornelius. The charming Olympia turns out to not be a good listener of stories but simply a robot. Once her non-human status is revealed, Spalanzani and Coppola fight over who gets to keep their mutual creation. During the fight, Coppola rips Olympia's artificial eyes out and leaves them in Spalanzani's hands. Nathaniel screams when he sees these mechanical eyes that were handcrafted by Copolla. The shock he experiences is so severe that he plunges into insanity. Though he recovers after a while, he goes crazy again when he acidentally spots Coppola from the top of a tower at a fair that he attends with his fiancée Clara. Ironically enough, he gazes at Copolla through the very spectacles that he bought from him. This third recurrence of his Sandman nightmare makes him lose his mind, curse out at Clara in hatred, and jump off the tower to his death.

Freud's Interpretation

Freud's Essay The Uncanny interprets the whole story in psychological terms. He casts Nathaniel as a neurotic who regresses to an infantile stage. In this infantile stage, the neurotic does not perceive the difference between ego and the physical world and thus animates the physical world with his fears and desires. Except as an adult, the fears and desires that he projects on the external world are ones that he repressed from childhood. Supposedly, Nathaniel's nightmares are a reenactment of the Oedipus complex. Freud argues that the early appearance of the eye-ripping "Sandman" in the guise of Cornelius who wants to rip Nathaniel's out is associated with the chil'd fear of his father's desire to castrate him.

What evidence does he use to make this point? Pretty convoluted evidence, but followable nonetheless if you can be patient and suspend your desbelief. Freud relies on the father and Cornelius are in the same room when Cornelius almost throws sparks into the child's eyes to argue that Cornelius is the child's projection of his repressed fear of his father into an imaginary person. To sum it up Freud asserts that Cornelius is a projection of a child's repressed knowledge of his father's wish to castrate him onto an imaginary figure that doesn't exist.

Creative literary critic that he is, Freud strings together a bunch of more facts to support his symbolic analysis. The recurrence of Cornelius as Coppola is the reenactment of the projection of castration fears on to this imaginary figure. Apparently, when Coppola's ripping out the eyes of Nathaniel's object of affection, Olympia, and reveals to be a robot, he rends his son's loins ineffective by taking away the object of his sexual desire. Can a father appearing as an imaginary figure in the nightmares of his son where and taking away his girlfriend disguised as that imaginary figure be a symbol of castration. Is frustrating the testicles a symbolic equivalent of castration? Freud seems to think so.

Thus, according to Freud, our poor Nathaniel invents nightmares by creating imaginary doubles on which he projects his repressed fear of his father's plants to castrate him.

Sarah Kofman's modified Freudian Interpretation

Like Freud, Kofman believed that Nathaniel was projecting his repressed fears to create imaginary figures. But unlike Freud, she believes that Nathaniel's repressed fear has do with losing his power of fantasy rather than with castration.

To make this point, Kofman tries to prove that Nathaniel's nightmares of eyes being ripped out really have to do with his disilussionment on having to cease fantasizing and lose contact the objects of his imagination. According to this theory, the scene in which Olympia's eyes are ripped out as she is revealed to be a robot is supposed to express Nathaniel's fear of his losing the ideal image of a woman he created in his head

This interpretation would make sense if we were to assume that Olympia is an imagined double designed to compensate for the defects that Nathaniel finds irritating in his fiancée Clara. The reader does not know what in the story is real or Nathaniel's fantasy. However, if the whole Olympia episode is a fantasy it would certainly make sense. It would certainly be plausible that Nathaniel's anger at his bride Clara for having to listen to his horror stories of the Sandman could have inspired him to imagine Olympia an ideal double of Clara that would smile and listen to his stories willingly unlike the former.

According to Sarah Kofman, both eyes and spectacles function in Nathaniel's fantasy of Olympia and the story as whole as a metaphor of the distorted nature of his imagined visions. Since the horror of eyes being ripped out occurs at the precise moment when Olympia is revealed to be a bot instead of a human, Kofman belives that the nightmare of ocular dismemberment is a symbolic projection of Nathaniel's real fear that his idealized visions are doomed to collapse at some given moment when the imagining stops and the reimmersion in real life begins.

Kofman finds more examples to prove that the symbol is valid by pointing out that Nathaniel first saw Olympia through spectacles sold to him by the Sandman in his guise as Coppola. Just like in Nathaniel's childhood, Coppola/Cornelius/The Sandman's entrance on to the stage in the Olympia part of the short novel serves as a catalyst for getting the young man on the path to fantasizing and imagining in delusional ways. In this case, Coppola's appearance along with the spectacles that he sells to Nathaniel lead the young man to use the fantasy-producing spectacles to paint himself the image of Olympia as the ideal woman.

The view that the spectacles offered by the Sandman are spectacles through which man sees delusions is an argument that infers much symbolical significance from some insignificant details. The logic isn't foolproof, but for the sake of humoring Kofman, let's give her the benefit of the doubt. Besides, she has another piece of evidence that proves her point more powerfully. The fact that Nathaniel loves writing fantastical letters and reading them outloud shows that he is the type who would create a dream maiden on a piece of paper and try to live in her presence by reading his own words.

Despite her deviation from Freud's own interpretation of the story, Kofman keeps the key Freudian belief that Nathaniel's imagination of fantastic events in this story are a projection of his repressed fears. At the risk of sounding convoluted, Nathaniel is thus characterized as a lover of imagining the unreal. His thirst for the imaginary makes his frightened that he will leave this beautiful rumble. The fears of departure from virtual reality is apparently the cause of the eyes-being-ripped-out nightmare. His eyes are his vision of the unreal; once they are ripped out, the perfect Olympia is no longer avaiable to him.

Nathaniel is like a dreamer who screams in his sleep because he is afraid to wake up. For Kofman, his attachment to "the imaginary" over "the real" explains Nathaniel's death by falling from the tower at the end.

To link over-hyper and over-eager imagination with death, Kofman refers to Freudian theory. In this theory, the decoupling of one's fears from the consciousness and their reintegration with the external physical world ultimately leads to a loss of an active ego. Without that active ego, the awareness of the the world's as a realm of real, non self-identical objects fades away. The vanishment of the the real world's objects leaves behind nothing but a narcisstic ego whose visions and dreams fill the whole world at the price of other egos who are excluded. The reversion to a state where there is no consciousness of self and others but only of one's fears running rampant through the world leads to loss of consciousness in general and to death.

That is exactly what happens when Nathaniel forgets about his love for his fiancée Clara at the top of the top of the tower and sees her as an ugly thing in the context of the delusional nightmares that have taken hold of his mind.


Kofman, Sarah. Freud and Fiction.Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991

Freud, Sigmund. On the Uncanny. New York Penguin Books, 2003.

Cixous, Hélène. Prénoms de personne Paris: Seuil, 1994