A persuasive essay on the Uncanny and Sandman

A persuasive essay on the Uncanny and Sandman

Summary of “The Sandman” by Hoffman

This story is about a young boy who has a phobia of the sandman who is a mythical creature in German folklore. The belief was that this character would come to take the eyes of little children who failed to go to sleep at bed time. He would then feed these eyes he had ‘harvested’ to his children who lived on the moon. The boy, Nathanael suspected that this Sandman was the sinister figure that visited their house at night. Nathanael’s curiosity got the better of him and he decided to hide in a closet to watch the visitor. This was Copellius, a lawyer who also practiced alchemy with the boy’s father. As they proceeded with their experiments, Copellius mentioned something about eyes spooking the boy.

When Nathanael was discovered, Copellius commented on his eyes and wanted to remove them but the father restrained him. The father later died in an accident while with Copellius. By this time, Nathanael was convinced that this sinister figure was indeed the sandman. Later on in life while he is studying he comes across Coppola, a salesman who introduces himself as an Italian. Nathanael however suspects him to be Copellius. These doubts are later overcome temporarily but confirmed when he comes across the allegedly Italian salesman gouging out the eyes of Nathanael’s love interest who turned out to be an automaton doll. Nathanael returns home to marry Clara, his initial fiancé but this too is short-lived as he spots Copellius through a telescope. He instantly loses his sanity and commits suicide while mentioning “pretty eyes.” (Hoffman, 15)

Sigmund Freud’s article on the Uncanny

Sigmund Freud, an early 21st century psychologist took keen interest in the Sandman and this is seen in his psychoanalysis of the main protagonist in the story, Nathanael. The specific aspect of Nathanael’s life that captivated Freud was the great fear that he had since childhood about losing his eyes to the Sandman. This is what Freud describes as the ‘uncanny.’ According to Sigmund Freud, the uncanny refers to something that ironically falls into the categories of familiar and strange concurrently.

Since the uncanny falls into two categories that are polar opposites, its manifestation leads an individual to experience cognitive dissonance which is the confusion of one’s ability to perceive the happenings in his or her environment. To put this into the context of the story, Freud believes that Nathanael encountered the uncanny and this is because of his fear of the sandman’s act of gouging his eyes out. This in itself was impossible as illustrated by his mother in a spirited attempt to reassure him about his fear. No sooner had he believed this than he encountered what appeared to him as the actual sandman in his father’s room. This sandman came in the form of Copellius who not only resembled something out of this world but also demanded to have the young boy’s eyes. The rough treatment he experienced coupled with the fact that the stranger handled him roughly convinced him that this was indeed the sandman. The freak accident which took his father’s life through an explosion only served to fuel his conviction over this matter.

According to Freud, the influence of the uncanny on an individual becomes profound as the incidences repeat themselves at different instances in an individual’s life. While other analysts considered Olympia to be the only instance of the uncanny, Freud viewed the fear of being robbed off his eyes as being the main uncanny in the story. This is exactly what is seen in the life of Nathanael as depicted in the story. It is necessary to first of all analyze Olympia’s presence in the play as being an uncanny. She greatly captivated Nathanael and the other people who are present at the dance. When he dances with her he notices her cold hands as well as her perfection in dancing and playing the musical instrument. This is familiar as it is possible to find a lady who is a good dancer. The strange however occurs when he discovers that she was in fact an automaton doll made to near-perfection.

Other than this incident with Olympia, Nathanael experiences the uncanny over and over again and in all instances they involve the fear of the sandman robbing him or someone else off their eyes. The sandman takes on different forms throughout the life of Nathanael. The first instance in which Nathanael experiences the uncanny is when he internalizes the story about the sandman taking the eyes of people who do not sleep and feeding them to his children. This is the impossible element as it is told as a folk tale. This however becomes real when he keeps hearing footsteps at night when his mother is putting him together with his other siblings to sleep. The uncanny is manifested here as he experiences both the real and the strange (Rubin, 208).

The second instance of Nathanael experiencing the Uncanny is when he goes to hide in the father’s closet to get a closer look at the sinister figure who visits the household every night. This first experience he has falls into the category of the normal or familiar as all he sees are two alchemists experimenting in the room. These are his father and Copellius whose activities fall into the category of the normal for that point in time. Things however take a turn for the mundane when Copellius mentioned the words “eyes here, eyes” scaring him and exposing his cover. This infuriated the stranger who then demanded for the boy’s eyes and this led the boy to once again experience the strange as he was completely convinced that this was the much talked about sandman. This then becomes another manifestation of the uncanny as it is an instance where the character experiences the strange and the familiar concurrently, further exaggerating his fear of being robbed off his eyes (Rubin, 2008).

The last major incident in which he experiences the uncanny is where he discovers that his suspicions of the Italian merchant Coppola being the lost German lawyer Copellius were actually spot on. This is because by this time he had come to believe that Coppola was indeed a trader and was even using one of his telescopes to spy on Olympia. He then receives a rude awakening to the continued existence of the sandman as he finds the Copellius removing the eyes of Olympia and making off with the doll’s body. This is the final incident of the uncanny and the confirmation of this is seen in Nathanael’s resultant insanity which is tantamount to the cognitive discordance mentioned by Freud as being an effect of the uncanny (Freud, 75).



Works Cited

Rubin, Bernard. “Freud and Hoffmann:’The Sandman’.” Introducing psychoanalytic theory (1982): 205-17.

Hoffmann, E. T. A. “The Sandman,” 1817.” Trans. John Oxenford. 19th Century German Stories. Ed. Robert Godwin-Jones (1994).

Freud, Sigmund. “The “Uncanny”.” Fantastic literature: a critical reader (2004): 74-101.

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