The Sandman

Symbolism of Eyes in "The Sandman"

In “The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Nathanael composes a letter to his fiancée’s brother Lothar recalling the terror of the legendary Sandman who would steal the eyes of children who wouldn’t go to bed and feed them to his own children in the moon. From then on in the short story, any mention of eyes drives him to remember the terror of the Sandman. In a most terrifying experience, Nathanael sees Olimpia, the girl he is going to propose to who later turns out to be a robot, lying on the ground with her eyes removed. He becomes hysteric and in his state of insanity is taken to an asylum. Of central importance is the theme of “eyes”, which symbolizes narcissism and the struggles some have coping with stress, and in a more specific sense, Sigmund Freud interprets this theme as the fear of castration.

The climax of the short story is where Nathanael sees Olimpia, his muse, with her eyes removed, and Coppelius (which means “eye cavities” in Italian), the one who ripped them out. His childhood nightmares return as he realizes Olimpia was only a reflection of himself, that he had imposed his soul into her so that she was everything he ever wanted, even though she was not real. Nathanael’s struggles with reality and his obsession with...

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