In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and E.T.A. Hoffman’s Sandman, elements of science are portrayed in a negative light, warning the reader of the dangers of the unknown. Many aspects of science and technology are portrayed from alchemy and robotics in the Sandman to biology and chemistry in Frankenstein. The stories feature similar main characters that break the boundaries of conventional society in order to investigate their desires. Each story features a "living doll", or a creation of man that, while first made for good, results in evil. When we read The Sandman, we are left in doubt as to whether what is happening to Nathaniel is real or merely in his mind. For instance, when Hoffmann introduces Olympia, he does not mention whether she is a human being or a doll; and he does so in such a way the reader may not immediately realize this. We take for granted that Olympia is a real person, because we expect Nathaniel to know the difference. During the course of the story, the Sandman as Coppelius first deprives Nathaniel of his father, then in the guise of Coppola helps create and destroy Olympia (his second love). The creation of Olympia separates Nathaniel from Clara and from his best friend, her brother and leads to his suicide.
In Shelley's Frankenstein we see the same parallels in the character of Frankenstein. His “doll” figure too deprives him of his little brother, beloved Elizabeth, best friend Clerval, and ends in the main characters death. Frankenstein first falls into a complete oblivion due to his obsession of reanimating the dead. He does not notice the change of seasons, something he used to observe with utmost delight. Although he realizes the mistake and consequences of these horrifying acts, he does not do anything to correct them, and makes the situation far worse by destroying the female companion he was creating for the monster. In his later actions, Frankenstein again behaves obsessively, by pursuing his own creation, absolutely confident that only its revengeful death would provide a solution, no matter what the cost.
In the case of Nathaniel, we see the same type of obsession although, due to the shortness of The Sandman and its purposeful “fog”, we don’t have enough information to competently judge Nathaniel’s actions. The result, nevertheless, is strikingly similar. Nathaniel, incapable of recovering from his first obsession about the “Sandman” is only to fall into another extremity in his love towards the lifeless Olympia. How ironic are his own words, "O you glorious profound nature ... only you, you alone, understand me completely."
It should be noted that during the rest of the time, Frankenstein is rather inactive and passive, always providing a moral excuse for that. He does not realize the deceitful nature of his behavior when he undergoes one his regular spasms of desire to return to the virtues of domesticity, "the amiableness of domestic affection". Nathaniel, as well, exhibits the futileness of his passive response to his condition when he deceivingly thinks that a return to a normal, domestic life will erase all his nightmares.
It is the pursuit of the unknown that motivates Nathaniel and Frankenstein in their departure from the world of normality. Instead of becoming passive citizens in a dull society they act according to their unconscious drives to find an answer to the secrets that perplex them. In doing so they transgress the rules and norms of the community in which they are living. There is conflict between their unconscious wishes and the values of the community. Both men attempt in vain to simply forget their problems, but instead end up more fully involved than ever. The stories caution the reader against investigating or researching too closely into the unknown, as evidenced by the fateful deaths of both main characters. Both of the men are harassed by science, Nathaniel, by his father’s unfortunate death, the result of an alchemy experiment gone awry, and Frankenstein, obviously by his own creation.
Calvino, Italo, ed. Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday. New York: Random House, 1997.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. New York: Oxford, 1998.