The Sandman is a mythical character, popular in Central and Northern European folklore, who brings sleep by sprinkling magical sand onto the eyes of children. The tale of the “The Sandman” has been written numerous times from the perspective of many different cultures, and, as a result, each version of the story drastically differs. Some portray the Sandman as good and lovable while others focus on the morbidity of death. I will focus on the magical fairytale version written by Hans Christian Andersen and the inverse depiction of the Sandman as a sinister character in the version written by ETA Hoffmann.  Andersen and Hoffmann portray drastically different representations of the Sandman due to the different historical moments in which they were written. Furthermore, the influences of Biedermeier Romanticism and Gothic fiction, respectively, also significantly affected their writings. Andersen’s tale “The Sandman” was greatly influenced by the historical context of the year in which it was written and the prevalent literary movement at the time. The same can be said for Hoffmann’s tale “Der Sandmann”.

During the late 1600s, Denmark, Andersen’s birthplace, was emerging from the Thirty Years War.  Following the wars, the previous leaders of government, the nobility, had been significantly weakened allowing the absolute monarchy to strengthen its power. This led to the full establishment of the absolute monarchy in 1660 by Frederick III.1Jarka Chloupkova, Gunnar Lind Haase Svendsen, and Gert Tinggaard Svendsen, “Building and Destroying Social Capital: The Case of Cooperative Movements in Denmark and Poland,” Agricultural and Human Values 20, no. 3 (2003): 241-52, Many years later, beginning in the 1800s, there was a large growth in the modern system of public education and social welfare leading to the continued interest and increase in the development of literature and philosophy.2Anders Buch-Jepsen, “A Brief History of Denmark-Denmark in the 1800s,” My Danish Roots, Last modified 2013, This growth soon led to the widespread demand for a new liberal and centralized democracy. In 1841, the year “The Sandman” was written, Denmark was in the height of the Danish liberal and national movements.3Bo Lars Jensen and Jesper Brunholm Scharff, “Hans Christian Andersen Center,” Department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark, last modified October 11, 2013, Following the July Revolution in 1830, many wealthy Danish merchants and professionals demanded a more liberal constitution. The liberal movement grew in strength as many academics, along with the middle classes, joined in the fight against the conservative administration.4Jepsen, A Brief History of Denmark. The National Liberal Party was a Danish political party popular from the 1830s until the early 1880s, founded in opposition to the once popular Danish absolute monarchy. At this time, Denmark was bursting with a sense of prosperity because of the upturn in both the liberal and national movements. These movements were a driving force and the precursor to the demise of the absolute monarchy that was replaced by a constitutional monarchy in 1848. “The Sandman” was written at a time when the people of Denmark began to have a desire and need for empowerment. Merchants, industrialists, and especially those affiliated with academia helped found the National Liberal Movement and were the people who desired and saw the benefit of having a democracy.5Norman Berdichevsky, “Hans Christian Andersen,” in An Introduction to Danish Culture, (North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2011), 120–29. In 1841, the excitement of the possible abolishment of the absolute monarchy greatly influenced the popularity of the Biedermeier literary movement. 

The Biedermeier literary movement was very much a product of the tranquil time in history in which it was developed, as it was bookended by the Napoleonic Wars and European Revolutions.6Tom Lundsker Nielsen, “Andersen, Hans Christian,” in Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760–1850, Vol. 1, ed. Christopher John Murray (New York: Routledge, 2003), 19-21. Google e-book. Biedermeier became popular in the nineteenth century during the end of the Romantic and Realist movements. By definition, Biedermeier is seen as a simplified, more harmonious form of Romanticism that focuses on the development of the inner self.7Sven Hakon Rossel, “The Breakdown of the Biedermeier Culture,” in A History of Danish Literature, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 217–27. There is no evil or unhappiness represented in Biedermeier; furthermore, the genre eliminates all discussion of anything deemed to be taboo. Lastly, Biedermeier literature also features highly detailed descriptions of the natural world.

Literature classified as Biedermeier “continues on many of the themes addressed by Romanticism including the exploration of inner life.”8Nielsen, ”Andersen, Hans Christian,” 19. Highlighted throughout the works of Andersen, and many other Biedermeier authors, is the power of inner qualities that a person possesses. The movement emphasizes the importance of these qualities and stresses that what is on the inside greatly outweighs one’s outer qualities such as social class. Moreover, Biedermeier culture “was marked by retreat from the grand visionary pursuits of Romanticism.”9Ibid., 19–21. The movement led society away from valuing extravagant goods and toward spending time and energy on pursuing a humble existence in and around nature. Striving for the most flamboyant possessions was no longer necessary and instead humility took the place of what was valued by society.

Another identifying characteristic of Biedermeier is the lack of discussion of any negative subject matter. Melancholy and grief are not represented in Biedermeier; additionally, anything deemed to fall in these categories is portrayed in a positive manner and seen not as a remorseful event. Until 1849 there was a high degree of control on publication and the level of censorship within Denmark.10Buch-Jepsen, “A Brief History of Denmark.” Authors would be required to have their material approved by a censor prior to publication. Because they were not allowed to discuss all subject matter, Biedermeier authors focused their time on topics that would not be scrutinized by a censor. Topics typically avoided or portrayed from an idyllic perspective would be death, sex, public crimes, punishment, etc. These ‘taboo’ subjects were allowed only in discussions within the home and within the company of close friends and family. Public censorship, along with other factors, encouraged Biedermeier authors to avoid these saddening topics, and write material for their readers that was enlightening and described a serene setting.

Lastly, Biedermeier focused on a picturesque interpretation of the era. The movement continued the importance of an introspective connection to nature originally seen in the Romantic Movement. “In Denmark, the Biedermeier era coincided with the ‘Danish Golden Age.’”11“Biedermeier Style of Art,” Encyclopedia of Art History, last modified 2010, art/biedermeier.htm. The Danish Golden Age covered the creative period that took place during the first half of the nineteenth century. The period is most often associated with the exponential growth of Danish painting; at the time art teachers heavily encouraged their students to focus on landscape painting. During this period of the Danish Golden Age, which was directly correlated with the Biedermeier movement, many artists – painters along with writers – centralized their material around the beauty of nature and specifically the Danish countryside.

The importance of inner qualities, especially that of humility, the benign treatment of distressing topics, and the continuation of a connection with nature are all characteristics of the Biedermeier movement that are clearly displayed in Andersen’s tale “The Sandman.” 

In “The Sandman,” Andersen highlights the importance and benefit of being humble. Moreover, the quality of humility is contrasted against egocentrism. This is first illustrated in the text when a lonely spittoon complains that the other furniture is too self-absorbed: “They all talked about themselves except for the spittoon; it stood silently in its corner, it was so disgusted by the vanity and egocentricity of all the others, who only thought about themselves.”12Hans Christian Andersen, “The Sandman,” in Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, (New York: Anchor, 1983), 177–89. In this example, the characteristic of humility represented by the innocent and soft-spoken spittoon is portrayed as a positive trait because it is juxtaposed against the egocentrism and self-absorbency of the other furniture. As a reader, this comparison highlights that the ability to be humble is a desirable characteristic. The example of the spittoon also exemplifies that the label given to one by society does not determine one’s worth, but rather worth is determined by one’s inner character. The spittoon is described as the bottom of the social hierarchy because he merely stands in the corner and gets spit at. However, as a reader one sympathizes with him and value his character because he possesses humility in contrast to the disgusting characteristics of the others. By highlighting the importance of developing the inner self and reflecting on the importance of inner, as opposed to external qualities, Andersen is representing one prominent feature of the Biedermeier movement.

In the tale “The Sandman,” the dark and morbid topic of death is presented at the end of the story. However, following the Biedermeier genre, Andersen expresses death from a positive perspective, making the subject approachable and appropriate to discuss. In Andersen’s version of “The Sandman,” death is introduced as the Sandman’s brother. The reader already associates positive qualities with the Sandman because he has taken Hjalmar on many wonderful journeys. Because of this positive association, Death being introduced as the Sandman’s brother illustrates to the reader that Death is associated with the good characteristics of his brother. Additionally, the Sandman informs Hjalmar that his brother is not as bad as he is often depicted: “You can see that he doesn’t look nearly as bad as they make him out to be in the picture books…No his coat is embroidered with silver…a cloak of black velvet floats behind him…see how he gallops along.”13Andersen, “The Sandman,” 177-89. The representation of Death as someone majestic sitting upon a horse avoids any connotations of grief or sorrow and rather depicts the topic of death as intriguing to the young boy. “Why Death is the most beautiful Sandman. I’m not afraid of him,” Hjalmar exclaims after seeing Death take away both the good and bad citizens.14Ibid., 177–89. Andersen has the boy make this strong assertion that truly represents how a topic of utmost sadness is portrayed in a way that is deemed positive and exciting in Biedermeier literature. 

The story of “The Sandman” also demonstrates the importance of having an introspective connection to nature. As Hjalmar enters his dreams, he becomes closer to nature: “At once all the potted plants grew into huge trees that reached all the way to the ceiling… the room became the loveliest green arbor.”15Ibid. As Hjalmar becomes closer to nature through his dreams, he is able to explore his fantasy while leaving behind the shadow existence of civilization that is imprisoning his imagination. Nature is seen as the venue of escape that Hjalmar uses to explore his unconscious. In the text, nature is described in glorious and extended detail. The in-depth description of nature and limited details for other aspects of the story represent the importance and value of nature above man-made and artificial objects. Hjalmar views nature with amazement and therefore it is described in vivid detail. 

The happiness of Hjalmar is juxtaposed to the unhappiness of the man-made objects in his room. In the midst of the beauty of nature that is taking over the bedroom, two objects are left saddened: “The sound of sighing and whimpering came from the table drawer where Hjalmar kept his schoolbooks… It was the slate that was sighing.”16Ibid. In a bedroom full of beauty and happiness, the two things that were not overjoyed were the two man-made creations – the slate and the exercise book. The selection of these two items as representations of unhappiness symbolizes the distinction between culture and nature. Nature brings Hjalmar happiness while these two items, which symbolize man-made culture, deter his sense of joy and his ability to be creative.  The dualism of culture and nature signifies the desire for man to become closer with nature. Nature is what brings him pleasure while the corporeal society that surrounds him leads to displeasure. Nature encourages imagination and creativity whereas man-made objects seem to prevent it. The Biedermeier movement puts a strong emphasis on creating a connection between oneself and nature. Andersen was greatly influenced by the Biedermeier movement when writing “The Sandman.” The text centers around the beauty and goodness that arise from being close with nature. Because of his reflection on inner qualities, avoidance of evil topics, and emphasis put on having a connection with nature, Andersen utilizes many Biedermeier characteristics in his tale “The Sandman.” 

Contrary to Andersen’s Biedermeier tale, ETA Hoffmann wrote “Der Sandmann” from a drastically different perspective. The distinction between these stories can be attributed to Hoffmann’s historical moment and the literary movements that were prevalent at the time he wrote “Der Sandmann.” In 1816, the year “Der Sandmann” was written, Germany was confronting large amounts of emigration and citizens were dissatisfied with revolutionary changes the country was facing.17Mark Walker. “Germany and the Emigration 1816–1885,” Library of Congress Catalog 64–13431 (2003): 2–5, The French-German war fought at the Battle of Waterloo ended in June of the previous year, 1815. Following the war, citizens throughout the nation experienced feelings of instability and restlessness due to the loss of loved ones and the uncertainty that results from returning from war.18Ibid., 3. Moreover, wages for citizens were cut in half from what they were in 1815 due to the demobilization of troops.19Walker, “Germany and the Emigration,” 5. Not only were wages being reduced but the country was also facing a job shortage. England was flooding the country with inexpensive goods that displaced those in the textile industry and put many Germans out of work. The deterioration of wages and the level of uncertainty experienced by the citizens influenced many people to emigrate out of the country in hopes of finding work and more prosperous conditions. By late 1816 citizens – by the thousands – were fleeing for Russia and North America.20Ibid. Often times those that fled had no plan in mind but rather needed to escape the country before the level of deterioration increased. The conditions at the ports – overpopulated from the high level of emigration – were unbearable and further inhibited the citizens and the image of Germany. 

The instability faced by the nation is appropriately characterized through Gothic fiction. Often identified by taking place in a “fallen world,” Gothic fiction directly mimics the nation of Germany at the time. Gothic fiction is a literary movement that combines elements of fiction, romance, and horror. The Gothic movement originated with the identification of Gothic architecture. During the eighteenth century Europeans rediscovered Greek and Roman buildings that had been previously erected.21David De Vore, Anne Domenic, Alexandra Kwan, and Nicole Reidy, “The Gothic Novel,” However, in the current times the buildings were believed to be a disgrace and not in tune with the Classical style of buildings that were being built at the time. Because of this dissatisfaction and the physical deterioration that was present, these unfit buildings were deemed to be a part of the Gothic architecture genre. The connection between Gothic architecture and the literary movement resulted when the settings selected for these Gothic novels often took place in Gothic style architecture. Not only did the stories take place in Gothic style architecture such as old castles and manors, but the setting also played an integral role in the plot of the story.22De Vore, et al., “The Gothic Novel.” In Gothic fiction the setting not only provides background for the horror that is about to take place, but it also illustrates the deterioration of the world around the characters in the story. This deterioration references back to the architecture from which the literary movement originated. Literature that is classified as Gothic takes place in a world that is far from Biedermeier, but rather characterized by an atmosphere of terror and horror.

As previously mentioned, Gothic fiction is also influenced by Romantic characteristics. The literary Gothic embodies an appreciation of varying emotion, the thrill of fearfulness, and the need to accomplish a quest, characteristics also common in the Romantic Movement. However, the Gothic movement can also be identified by going against the correctness and rigidness customary in Romanticism.23Ibid. The story line is suspenseful and unpredictable, and stories do not always end ‘happily ever after.’ 

Lastly, the plot and characters typical of a Gothic story represent that of a fallen world. The gothic protagonist falls from his or her goodness as he or she succumbs to the villain in the story. This pattern is illustrated in most gothic stories and does not necessarily result in a blissful ending. Moreover, because of the fall of the protagonist, Gothic authors often spend time focusing on the evil, darkness, and temptation that symbolizes a fallen world. The underlying theme of the fallen hero also mimics real-world struggles. Although many elements of Gothic literature focus on the supernatural and unrealistic story lines, the recurring theme of falling for temptation is something relatable for all. 

The representation of a deteriorating world, use of Romantic attributes, and the selection of characters and plot to symbolize the fall are all characteristics of Gothic fiction that are clearly displayed in Hoffmann’s tale “Der Sandmann.”

In “Der Sandmann” Hoffmann illustrates that the once comforting home for Nathaniel turns into a world filled with obsession and rage in order to avenge the death of his father. Nathaniel loses his family, lover, and friends through the process of trying to find the man he believes is his father’s killer, Coppelius. Through Nathaniel’s loss of his friends and family, Hoffmann is illustrating one of the cornerstones of Gothic literature, the representation of the fallen world. The deterioration of Nathaniel’s world is also displayed through the loss of his mental stability. Nathaniel blamed the death of his father on Coppelius even after it was brought to his attention by Clara that his death was most likely a result of an alchemy explosion. From this point on, the reader sees the decomposition of Nathaniel’s mental stability: “Nathaniel had undergone a complete change in his whole being. He sank into a gloomy reverie, and behaved in a strange manner that had never been known in him before.”24E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Sandman,” last modified 1999, Hoffmann uses the downward spiraling of Nathaniel’s mentality to gradually illustrate the detrimental atmosphere he faced that ultimately led to his suicide, Nathaniel’s literal fall. 

Another characteristic of Gothic literature is the use of Romantic qualities. Hoffmann includes Romantic characteristics throughout his tale “Der Sandmann.” The literary Gothic, along with Romanticism, embodies an appreciation for varying emotion. Specifically, Nathaniel’s emotion in regards to who he believes the Sandman is fluctuates considerably throughout the story. As a young boy, the mystery of the Sandman frightens him: “he was a hideous, spectral monster, who brought with him grief, misery and destruction–temporal and eternal–wherever he appeared.”25Ibid. Nathaniel later believes that the Sandman was the reason for his father’s death, and his emotions radically change from fear to anger. The constant swings in emotion are a profound aspect of both the Gothic and Romantic movements. Another plot line common in both forms of literature is the need for a character to accomplish a quest. Nathaniel decides to go on a quest to find Coppelius in order to avenge the death of his father. This quest is ultimately never accomplished as Nathaniel develops such a corrupted mind that he is only able to kill himself when he eventually confronts Coppelius. Many Romantic and Gothic stories are framed around the premise of sending a protagonist on a quest in order to accomplish a task—this often encompasses extreme emotions and the thrills of fearfulness.

Conclusively, Hoffmann selects specific characters and an underlying theme customary to Gothic literature. There is a protagonist who becomes isolated from others, voluntarily or involuntarily. There is also a villain who is the epitome of all evil, and throughout the story the protagonist submits to the overwhelming wickedness of the villain. Lastly, there is the character of the wanderer who is completely exiled and isolated. In Hoffman’s “Der Sandmann,” Nathaniel is seen as both the protagonist and the wanderer who has become isolated from others: “…so that they [Clara and Nathaniel] became mentally more and more estranged without either of them perceiving it.”26Ibid. Hoffmann places the villain Coppelius in between the relationship of Clara and Nathaniel to begin the growing feeling of isolation that Nathaniel faces throughout the story. In the text, Coppelius is described as the epitome of all evil. As a child, Nathaniel and his siblings are unable to eat the food he touches because his “coarse brown hairy fists” are monstrous and so very repulsive.27Ibid. Furthermore, as the story develops and the fear of Coppelius is instilled in Nathaniel, the reader begins to notice the role of the villain character and how he begins to wedge himself between the protagonist and the rest of society: “Coppelius would destroy his happiness…occasionally [his happiness] was threatened by a black hand which appeared to dart into their lives, to snatch away some new joy as it was born.”28Ibid. Because of the creation of a deteriorating atmosphere, use of Romantic characteristics, and representation of a fallen world, Hoffmann wrote the tale “Der Sandmann” based on many Gothic fiction influences.

The drastically differing portrayals of “The Sandman” written by Hans Christian Andersen and ETA Hoffman were due to the different historical and literary movements that were taking place in Denmark and Germany, respectively. Andersen focused his portrayal on the upbeat positive features of the Biedermeier literary movement whereas Hoffmann filled his tale with darkness and death prevalent throughout the Gothic fiction literary movement. Although the two authors use radically different styles, they both offer legitimate portrayals of the mythical character the Sandman. 


Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Sandman.” In Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, 177–89. New York: Anchor, 1983.

Berdichevsky, Norman. “Hans Christian Andersen.” In An Introduction to Danish Culture, 120–29. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2011.

“Biedermeier Style of Art.” Encyclopedia of Art History. Last modified 2010.

Buch-Jepsen, Anders. “A Brief History of Denmark-Denmark in the 1800s.” My Danish Roots. Last modified 2013.

Chloupkova, Jarka, Gunnar Lind Haase Svendsen, and Gert Tinggaard Svendsen. “Building and Destroying Social Capital: The Case of Cooperative Movements in Denmark and Poland.” Agricultural and Human Values 20, no. 3 (2003) : 241–52.

De Vore, David, Anne DomenicAlexandra Kwan, and Nicole Reidy. “The Gothic Novel.”

Hoffmann, E.T.A.. “The Sandman.” Last modified 1999.

Jensen, Bo Lars, and Jesper Brunholm Scharff. “Hans Christian Andersen Center.” Department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark. Last modified October 11, 2013.

Nielsen, Tom Lundsker. “Andersen, Hans Christian.” In Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760–1850, Vol. 1, Edited by Christopher John Murray. New York: Routledge, 2003. Google e-book.

Rossel, Sven Hakon. “The Breakdown of the Biedermeier Culture.” In A History of Danish Literature, 217–27. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Walker, Mark. “Germany and the Emigration 1816-1885.” Library of Congress Catalog 64–13431 (2003): 2–5.

References   [ + ]

1. Jarka Chloupkova, Gunnar Lind Haase Svendsen, and Gert Tinggaard Svendsen, “Building and Destroying Social Capital: The Case of Cooperative Movements in Denmark and Poland,” Agricultural and Human Values 20, no. 3 (2003): 241-52,
2. Anders Buch-Jepsen, “A Brief History of Denmark-Denmark in the 1800s,” My Danish Roots, Last modified 2013,
3. Bo Lars Jensen and Jesper Brunholm Scharff, “Hans Christian Andersen Center,” Department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark, last modified October 11, 2013,
4. Jepsen, A Brief History of Denmark.
5. Norman Berdichevsky, “Hans Christian Andersen,” in An Introduction to Danish Culture, (North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2011), 120–29.
6. Tom Lundsker Nielsen, “Andersen, Hans Christian,” in Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760–1850, Vol. 1, ed. Christopher John Murray (New York: Routledge, 2003), 19-21. Google e-book.
7. Sven Hakon Rossel, “The Breakdown of the Biedermeier Culture,” in A History of Danish Literature, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 217–27.
8. Nielsen, ”Andersen, Hans Christian,” 19.
9. Ibid., 19–21.
10. Buch-Jepsen, “A Brief History of Denmark.”
11. “Biedermeier Style of Art,” Encyclopedia of Art History, last modified 2010, art/biedermeier.htm.
12. Hans Christian Andersen, “The Sandman,” in Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, (New York: Anchor, 1983), 177–89.
13. Andersen, “The Sandman,” 177-89.
14. Ibid., 177–89.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Mark Walker. “Germany and the Emigration 1816–1885,” Library of Congress Catalog 64–13431 (2003): 2–5,
18. Ibid., 3.
19. Walker, “Germany and the Emigration,” 5.
20. Ibid.
21. David De Vore, Anne Domenic, Alexandra Kwan, and Nicole Reidy, “The Gothic Novel,”
22. De Vore, et al., “The Gothic Novel.”
23. Ibid.
24. E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Sandman,” last modified 1999,
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.