Nathanael’s main problem, in his perception of reality and of people around him, is that he has remained a child. Nathanael, like every other child, starts to develop perceptions of reality and of people around him starting early childhood. These perceptions undergo major changes throughout the development phase of human life. Thus, as a teenager, a human being will start to realize that things are more complicated than they are, and that there are many perceptions that existed in childhood but that are not actually real or effective in life. Passing into adulthood, a human being then realizes the realities of life and starts to deal with them with more wisdom and logic.
In Nathanael’s case, this development process was interrupted at the beginning, that is, in his early childhood. The Sandman who was nothing but a horror story for a young inexperienced child was suddenly forced to become part of a distorted reality upon the violent and hideous death of Nathanael’s father. Nathanael had a vivid imagination and this helped in making Nathanael the child swing between the real and the fantastic, something which he himself admits as an adult, “The Sandman had aroused my interest in the marvellous and extraordinary, an interest that readily takes root in a child’s mind” (p. 87).
Nathanael’s emotional and social developments were actually impaired by the death of his father, particularly that it was closely associated the fictitious Sandman who had tormented his imagination. This impairment turns Nathanael into a grow-up child rather into a growing adult. Deep inside him, he remains a child in the sense that he is unable to visualize reality nor to distinguish between what is fiction and what is not. The love that he has for Clara is deep but it is childish, innocent and pure. Yet this is the very quality that makes this love frail and weak, particularly that it is not based on understanding. Clara’s unwillingness to accept Nathanael’s perceptions of reality makes him turn to the childish defensiveness that reveals his fears, that is when he calls her, “You accursed lifeless automation!” (p. 103).
Ironically, Nathanael then falls in love with a real lifeless automation, the doll Olimpia. Falling in love with a doll reflects Nathanael’s childishness, for only a child would love a doll the way Nathanael did. Nathanael was actually infatuated by Olimpia, just as he has always been infatuated by the unreal in his life as a never-growing child. Everyone around him realizes that Olimpia is a doll, but he does not because he cannot see beyond the spying glass Copolla has given him. While every grown up looks at reality through new perspectives that bring upon him a clear picture of the present and the future, the spying glass made Nathanael see the inside of himself as the reality. He only saw the past with all its images, distorted perceptions, fears, attractions and marvels, all of which contributed to his madness in the end.
Nathanael’s madness in the end is nothing but the result of the growth of the gap between his reality and fantasy. Every time he received a shock, Nathanael could not realize or draw sensible conclusions, but rather, drowned deeper into his fantasies while reality imposed more pressures upon him. The final blow was in realizing that his Olimpia was not real, just as every other fantasy he had lived. Instead of closing the gap between fantasy and reality, Nathanael ended in madness because the gap was big enough to swallow him and the reality which he was not able to assimilate. The last look Nathanael took through the spying glass was at Clara, the last reality around him, and it is at this point that he finally breaks up with the real world, once and forever.