Thursday, August 6, 2009

Comparison of “The Sandman,” by E.T.A. Hoffmann to “Dread” by Clive Barker

When comparing Clive Barker's “Dread” to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” the first stylistic element that strikes me is that the through-plot of “The Sandman” is not as direct as that of “Dread.” When I was reading “The Sandman,” at times I had to go back and figure out what had happened, because the time frame isn’t exactly linear. “The Sandman” begins with two letters written by the protagonist, Nathaniel. One is to his friend, Lothaire that details a series of dark forebodings he has had going back to his childhood when he was told of a horrible entity called the Sandman. The next one is from Clara, telling Nathaniel that he sent the letter to her by mistake. The last one is from Nathaniel to Lothaire apologizing for his mistake. This seems like clumsy construction to me. The letters were a stylistic device used at the time, but I think the plot would have been better served in being told in a linear fashion.

“Dread” is constructed with a dramatic structure that is more fulfilling to people in western society, because we’re used to our television shows, movies and plays being composed of the three-act structure with rising conflict, climax and resolution.

Both stories deal with the philosophy of fear. In “Dread” an omniscient narrator begins the story with a few paragraphs about how we relish our misery. Stephen, a philosophy student, gets a bad feeling from the enigmatic Quaid, but at the same, he is fascinated by the man’s obsession with “ the things we fear… the dark behind the door.” “There is no delight the equal of “Dread.” As long as it’s someone else’s,” the narrator tells us. In “The Sandman” Nathaniel goes into detail about his childhood fears of the mythical Sandman. As a child, he refused to believe his mother when she told him that there is no Sandman, it’s just a tale to make children go to bed. But he wants to torture himself, so he pursues the question until he gets the response he wants from the nanny, who tells him the Sandman is an evil man who throws sand in children’s eyes in order to make them bleed, then steals their eyes to feed his own children. At that point, he’s satisfied and is able to pursue that horror into adulthood.

Both have a shift in viewpoint. In “The Sandman,” the story starts out in Nathaniel’s viewpoint by way of the letters. It then shifts to his friend Lothaire’s viewpoint, and he becomes the narrator. The story goes from Lothair’s perspective to a third person point of view. The viewpoint then switches to Nathaniel when we experience his obsession for Olympia.

In “Dread,” we start out with the narrator, switch to Stephen’s third person point of view. When we find out that Stephen is imprisoned and stretched out on a rack, the point of view momentarily switches to that of Quaid, and we see the infared photos and experience Quaid’s reaction to them.

Everything that happens in “Dread” is realistic; there is nothing supernatural involved. In “The Sandman,” I think it’s questionable. Coppelius could have had Nathaniel mesmerized into believing in his evil sorcery. On the other hand, it could truly be black magic.

In “The Sandman,” Nathaniel is sure that Coppelius is evil. Everyone else is trying to convince him that he’s not, that the evil is in Nathaniel’s head, then we find out it isn’t. The evil is real. In “Dread,” Stephen has a gut feeling that Quaid is dangerous, but tries to convince himself otherwise.

The plot of “The Sandman” would have to be altered to be palatable to a 2009 audience. Even given the fact that the story is set in Germany in the 1800’s, it’s difficult for us to believe that anyone could be fooled into thinking that a wooden automaton is a real girl, even if we were hypnotized.

Both stories give us an immediate feeling of foreboding. We know that something creepy is going to happen from the first paragraph. They both end tragically. Nathaniel is dead and Stephen is out of his mind.


  1. Awesome contrasting of two very different stories, Sally. You really point to a lot of important issues. I felt the exact same way when I first read "The Sandman" -- the plotting is difficult to sort out at first, since it's told in its "epistolary" fashion (using letters and other documents by the characters to tell a story -- like Stoker does it in DRACULA).

    I agree about the unbelievability of the wooden dolly Olympia, yet there are so many stories nowadays that feature robots, computers, and other 'automatons' of this ilk that were likely influenced by Hoffman's tale.

    Thanks for getting the blogging off to a great start. Isn't it great to be back in the grad program? -- Mike A.

  2. Hi, Sally,

    I agree. I didn't feel that "The Sandman"'s letters aided the flow of the story.

    Good post!