“Sturm und Drang”:

How Freud, Faust and the Napoleonic Wars Gave Us the Great American Holiday Tradition

His works of fiction are widely credited by literary experts as the origins of the horror story.  Many of the greatest minds of the 19th century – from Freud and Jung to Poe and Hawthorne – credit him as an inspiration, yet the rumormongers of his time whispered that he was a philandering alcoholic, and American poet Sir Walter Scott thought he needed medical attention more than literary criticism.  Meet E.T.A. Hoffman, author of The Nutcracker and The Mouse King, a character as disturbing and memorable as any of those in his many dark tales. 

As described by his friends, Hoffmann was short of stature; he spoke quickly, in short sentences, and he gestured wildly when he was carried away by his enthusiasm. During the last years of his life, when he had lost some of his front teeth, he was difficult to understand. Possibly he was an alcoholic; he drank daily though his alcohol consumption varied. His favorite drink was rum . . . Once he was involved in a brawl with [his music student’s] fiancé.”

–Petri Liukkonen (Director of The Kuusankoski Library, Finland)

Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann was born in Prussia in 1776.  (He swapped the “Wilhelm” for “Amadeus” in his 30’s as an homage to his hero, Mozart.)  He was a complicated figure in his lifetime – some contemporaries praised his brilliance while others dismissed him as a rum-swilling hack – and accounts of his life vary widely depending on the source.  A few points are generally agreed upon.  His childhood was a mess, with a bitter divorce leaving Hoffman in the care of his mother’s family and estranged from his father at the age of two.  He wanted badly to be a composer, and enjoyed a few minor successes, but spent most of his life as a low-level government bureaucrat.  He was an unwilling vagabond; he spent the early years of his career clerking for his uncle, traveling with him wherever work could be found.  Even after he struck out on his own, it seemed that every time he found a place to settle down, circumstances would arise which forced him out of town, whether it was his own doing (a love affair with a young music student or getting caught drawing insubordinate caricatures of military officials) or politics (the Napoleonic Wars swept through Prussia and wreaked havoc on the lives of government employees, leaving them unemployed, closing their offices without warning and denying them immigration passports).  He was married once, and had a daughter who died at the age of two.  Twice he fell madly in love with married music students, whose families intervened to get him out of town before he could cause trouble.  He died young, at the age of only 46, of what was very likely syphilis.

This is not a man who wrote stories for children.

So how did The Nutcracker come to be?


“In fact, the inspirations of Hoffmann so often resemble the ideas produced by the immoderate use of opium, that we cannot help considering his case as one requiring the assistance of medicine rather than of criticism.”

–Sir Walter Scott, On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition (1827)

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was never actually intended to be a children’s story, even though several of the characters were children.  Instead, it was a dark, violent novella inspired by a philosophical concept which was making big waves at the time – the idea of the doppelganger, or mirror image.  Nearly every character in the story wears two faces, is magically transformed from ugly to beautiful (or vice versa) or has some kind of double identity.  The story blurs the lines between reality and make-believe, but in a way more sinister than dreamlike; when Marie recounts her adventures with the Nutcracker and the Mouse-King, her family doesn’t believe her, and they suspect she might be going mad.  It’s less Wizard of Oz (plucky young girl transported to a magical land of excitement and adventure) and more Return to Oz (plucky young girl transported to a magical land of excitement and adventure, then ostracized and feared by everyone around her when she returns).

French novelist Alexandre Dumas (of Three Musketeers fame) adapted the novella into a short story with the edges softened; it’s this version that Balanchine’s ballet, and most other ballet adaptations, use as their source material.  Dumas cut out a troubling side plot about the Princess Pirlipat, the Nutcracker’s first love, who was cursed by the Mouse Queen and turned ugly.  The Nutcracker, while he was a human prince, broke the spell by cracking a magical nut, but it turned him ugly instead, and the vain Pirlipat – beautiful once more – shunned him and refused to marry him.  Pirlipat’s role in the story lays the groundwork for how the evil mice and the Nutcracker came to be, but it adds a layer of darkness to the story, with its curses, broken promises, cruel parents and bloodthirsty vengeance.  Dumas removed it from his adaptation, which streamlines the narrative significantly but removes much of the depth of both the Nutcracker and Mouse King characters, who become iconic Hero and Villain instead of the more psychologically complex characters Hoffman wrote.

“I have been reading off and on a few things by the mad Hoffmann, mad, fantastic stuff, here and there a brilliant thought.”

–Sigmund Freud (letter to Martha Bernays, 1885)

Literary criticism by and large places Hoffman as one of the German Romantics.  Inspired by the German philosophers Goethe (especially Faust) and Schiller, as well as Anton Mesmer (founder of Mesmerism), Hoffman was fascinated by early psychoanalysis, dream analysis and the exploration of the subconscious.  They were all driven by a movement which titled itself Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”, or more literally, “turbulence and urgency”), a style of music and literature that broke free of the rationalism of the Enlightenment to let emotion run rampant.  Freud and Jung both cited Hoffman as inspirations, and Freud’s popular essay “The Uncanny” was largely based on Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman.”  Like most of Hoffman’s work, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was immersed in these themes.  The duality of Hoffman’s life – a low-income bureaucrat who longed to be a successful artist – led him to become obsessed with these ideas in his writing.  In his stories, everyone has a hidden identity or a secret face.  The Nutcracker is a prince who is turned into an ugly wooden toy.  Marie’s uncle Drosselmeyer is both a clever toymaker and a sinister magical force.  Ugly is beautiful.  Beautiful is ugly.  People you think you can trust will turn around and betray you.  Attractive appearances hide dark hearts.

It’s not a story for children.  But that doesn’t mean none of it’s true.

“It is nearly always the most improbable things that really come to pass.”

–E.T.A. Hoffman

0 thoughts on ““Sturm und Drang”: How Freud, Faust and the Napoleonic Wars Gave Us the Great American Holiday Tradition

  1. A neat and penetrating summary of Hoffmann’s extraordinary life and work. Thank you, Claire! I’ve just been reading “Nutcracker and Mouse King” (the 1892 Ascott R. Hope translation, never bettered) and am staggered by the numerous connections with children’s literature and cinema, from Alice to Oz – and on to Toy Story. Milne, Grahame – not to mention literary giants of the mid- to late 19th century – all owe a massive debt to shamefully neglected Hoffmann. His tale that kicks off on Christmas Eve haunts far more than Dickens’s more famous ‘carol’, clever, teasing, irresistible, like a friend or lover one never gets the measure of. The Christmas spirit – for adults!

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