Of Mice and Machines: Posthumanist Reading of E. T. A. Hoffmann's Nutcracker and the Mouse King

Colorado Springs, USA

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (“Nussknacker und Mausekönig”, 1816) is among the most read Romantic fairy tales. Despite, its automaton motif has not been discussed a lot. My paper provides a posthumanist reading of the text in comparison with “The Sandman” (“Der Sandman”, 1817) that includes the famous female automaton Olimpia. As the title suggests, “Nutcracker and the Mouse King” juxtaposes the machine with the organism. The story happens on the Christmas, when two children, Marie and Fritz, are waiting for their presents. The engineer Drosselmeyer gives them a mechanical castle, which is so immersive that Fritz tries to go inside its mechanism. However, children lose soon their interest in the castle, because it can only operate on the pregiven rules of the machinery. At the first glance, Hoffmann seems to juxtapose the mechanical castle with the free imagination of children.

Especially interesting are the similarities between Marie’s godfather Drosselmeier and Coppelius in “The Sandman”: both are engineers of automata. One of the most horrible scenes in “The Sandman” is Coppelius disassembling Nathanael’s body. Although “Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is a fairy tale, also Drosselmeier restructures Princess Pirlipat’s body like an automaton: “He took Princess Pirlipat very carefully to pieces, screwed off her hands and her feet, and examined her interior structure.” In a posthumanist way, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” questions any simple boundary between an animal and a machine.