This is the story of Peter Schlemihl, an impoverished, ineffectual young student whose misguided yearning for the finer things in life leads him into contact with a mysterious party guest who offers him fulfillment of his dreams in exchange for his shadow.
The outcome of the deal is pretty much a foregone conclusion, since Chamisso takes no pains concealing the satanic identity of his antagonist. As is usual in these cases, the Devil appears to get the better part of the bargain. Schlemihl, provided with a never-empty "purse of Fortunatus," has piles of gold, but no one to spend them on. The fraulein who is the object of his affection will have nothing to do with a shadowless man.
The story is one in a long line of cautionary tales that warn against dealing with the likes of Mephistopheles. The critic, Karl Miller, points out that Schlemihl is denied a comfortable existence, since "he begins and ends as an outcast: by hazarding his soul for gain, he is barred from family life, from the happiness of marriage." The idea of an outsider whose self-will bars him from middle class comforts can be traced in German Romantic literature from the late 18th century to the time of Hesse.
Chamisso's tale may strike the modern reader as little more than a literary curio, a moralistic fairy tale replete with enchanted moneybags and seven-league boots. In Chamisso's day, however, the work was highly esteemed and had enormous influence on writers such as E.T.A. Hoffman and Hans Christian Anderson, who wrote stories of their own in the "Schauerroman" genre.
One facet of the story that has bearing in terms of modern critical inquiry is Chamisso's adoption of a framing device that is in many respects self-reflexive. The central narrative is epistolary, which, in terms of the conventions of the day, was nothing out of the ordinary (Richardson being the most common example). What makes things more interesting about "The Man Who Lost His Shadow" is the author's including himself as a character in the story. At the tale's conclusion, Schlemihl signs off with the announcement: "So ends my story. On a cloudy day I will take these papers to you, my friend Chamisso, that you may do with them what you think right." We have here an attempt, however crude (especially when compared with the subtleties of Borges or Nabokov), on the part of an author investigating the boundaries between fictional and "real" worlds. Chamisso's depiction of the dissociated self also represents a departure from earlier German Romantic authors such as Kleist and Richter, who tended to represent Doubles more obliquely and figuratively. Peter Schlemihl's shadow will lead to the more concrete manifestations of the double motif found in the works of Hoffman, Hogg and Conrad.
This novella is short and well paced. It can definitely be read for pleasure as well as for an appreciation of its place in an important literary movement.