Peter Schlemihl

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Peter Schlemihl
Chamisso Peter Schlemihl 1804.jpg
First edition frontispiece
Author Adelbert von Chamisso
Original title Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte
Translator Leopold von Loewenstein-Wertheim
Country Germany
Language German
Publication date
ISBN 978-1-84749-080-3
OCLC 246906885

Peter Schlemihl is the title character of an 1814 novella, Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (Peter Schlemihl's Miraculous Story),[1] written in German by exiled French aristocrat Adelbert von Chamisso.


In the story, Schlemihl sells his shadow to the Devil for a bottomless wallet (the gold sack of Fortunatus), only to find that a man without a shadow is shunned by human societies. The woman he loves rejects him, and he himself becomes involved in guilt. Yet when the devil wants to return his shadow to him in exchange for his soul, Schlemihl, as the friend of God, rejects the proposal and throws away the bottomless wallet besides. He seeks refuge in nature and travels about the world in scientific exploration, with the aid of seven-league boots. When overtaken with sickness, he is reconciled with his fellow men who take care of him, and in regard for his sickness do not look for his shadow. Finally, however, he returns to his studies of nature and finds his deepest satisfaction in communion with nature and his own better self.[2]

Reception and cultural influence[edit]

The story, intended for children, was widely read and the character became a common cultural reference in many countries. People generally remembered the element of the shadow better than how the story ended, simplifying Chamisso's lesson to the idiom "don't sell your shadow to the Devil."

The Yiddish word schlemiel—and its Hebrew cognate shlumi'el—mean a hopelessly incompetent person, a bungler. Consequently, the name is a synonym of one who makes a desperate or silly bargain. Originally the name meant friend of God, Theophilus.[2]

Later retellings[edit]

E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote Peter Schlemihl into his 1815 story A New Year's Eve Adventure, which is mostly about Erasmus Spikher, who gave away his reflection to the temptress Giuletta. Schlemihl and Spikher travel together and torment each other.

Peter Schlemihl and his lost shadow are mentioned in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories "The Intelligence Office" (1844) and "A Virtuoso's Collection" (1842) from Mosses from an Old Manse.

In Hans Christian Andersen's 1847 fairy tale The Shadow, the main character loses his shadow on a journey, and is afraid of being taken as an imitator if he tells his story.

Kuno Fischer foolishly compared Max Stirner to Peter Schlemihl in his 1847 essay, "The Modern Sophists", which led Stirner to point out in "The Philosophical Reactionaries" (1847) "How unfortunate, when someone chooses an image by which he is most clearly defeated."

The story is alluded to in Karl Marx's 1851 essay, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon".

The character is directly referenced in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella, Venus in Furs.

Ernest Gellner in Nations and Nationalism uses Chamisso's story as a metaphor of a man without a shadow.

In the third act of Jacques Offenbach's 1881 opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, the character Peter Schlémil has also given up his shadow. The third act is very loosely based on A New Year's Eve Adventure.

The 'tall man',[3] or the Devil, is referenced by Judge William in Kierkegaard's Either/Or.[4]

The story is referred to by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (Section 339), published posthumously in 1953.

The story was performed on American television, in a 1953 episode of Favorite Story, starring DeForest Kelley as the title character.[5]

In Robertson Davies' 1972 novel The Manticore, the story is referred to by the character Dr. Von Haller, in a discussion about the significance of losing one's shadow.

Oscar Wilde's "The Fisherman and his Soul" demonstrates a familiarity with the story. In the Wilde story, however, the fisherman does not sell his soul, but cuts it from him with a magic knife and leaves it to wander the world.

Illustration by George Cruikshank, 1827

The character Peter Schlemihl is referenced by Imre Kertész in his 2003 novel Liquidation (Felszámolás).

Alain Corneau's 1989 film Nocturne Indien features a character called Peter Schlemihl, a concentration camp survivor and expat living in India, played by Austrian actor Otto Tausig. The film is a loose adaptation of Antonio Tabucchi's novella Notturno Indiano, though Schlemihl's character, which doesn't appear in that novella, is the main subject of another of Tabucchi's stories, I treni che vanno a Madras, where the character, with the assumed name, an Israeli passport, a gift for intelligent conversation, and an encyclopedic knowledge of Indian culture, turns out to be an assassin.[6]

Georges Schwizgebel's 2004 paint-on-glass animation L'Homme sans ombre (The Man With No Shadow) portrays a slight variation on the original story: after being rejected by his lover and society, the main character returns to the devil. Rather than getting back his shadow, he trades his riches for a pair of Seven-league boots and travels the world in search of a place where he will be accepted without a shadow. In the end, he becomes a Wayang shadow puppeteer in Indonesia because he can manipulate the puppets directly without affecting their silhouettes.[7]


  • von Chamisso, Adelbert (2011), Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte, Franziska Walther illus, Mannheim: Kunstanstifter, ISBN 978-3-942795-00-5 , with 25 two-tone illustrations.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Price, Nigel (18 December 1998), "Reflections on a Shadowless Man", Moonmilk (archives), URTH, 22 (59), retrieved 25 March 2008 .
  2. ^ a b Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainEwald Eiserhardt (1920). "Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte". In Rines, George Edwin. Encyclopedia Americana. 
  3. ^ Peter Schlemihl's wundersame Geschichte by A. von Chamisso, Chap. 1. Werke, IV, p. 276
  4. ^ Either/Or vol. II by S. Kierkegaard, trans. Walter Lowrie, p. 10. Doubleday and Company Inc., Garden City, New York, 1959
  5. ^ Halliday, Karen (2003), "Your favorite story", DeForest Kelley – 1953 (annotated filmography), KL Halliday, retrieved 25 March 2008 .
  6. ^ Fountain, Clarke (1989), Nocturne Indien (1989), Rotten Tomatoes, retrieved 12 September 2014 
  7. ^ Schwizgebel, Georges (2004), "L'Homme Sans Ombre", Google YouTube (in French), Studio GDS, the National Film Board of Canada, and Télévision Suisse Romande, retrieved 8 October 2009 
  8. ^ Gerdes, Claudia (2011). "Illustrationen zu Chamisso". Page Online. Retrieved 8 June 2011. 

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWood, James, ed. (1907). "Chamisso, Adalbert von". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne. 

External links[edit]

Media related to Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte at Wikimedia Commons