The story concerns a girl named Marie, who is given a nutcracker which looks like a soldier on Christmas Eve. That night, Marie witnesses a battle between her dolls, under the leadership of the Nutcracker, and mice whose king has seven heads. The following day, Marie finds out that the Nutcracker was once a young man who was cursed by the Mouse Queen. Further battles between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King take place before the rodents are defeated and the curse is finally broken.
In 1844, the novel was adapted by the French author Alexandre Dumas, best known in the English-speaking world as the writer of The Three Musketeers. It was Dumas' adaptation which formed the basis for the 1892 Russian ballet with music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Many subsequent adaptations have been based more closely on the ballet than on Hoffmann's original story.
The novel begins on Christmas Eve in the home of Marie Stahlbaum and her younger brother Fritz. Drosselmeyer, a friend of the family who is a clockmaker and inventor, arrives and gives the children a mechanical castle as a present. However, since the figures inside the castle keep repeating the same actions over and over again, the two children soon tire of it. Marie then notices a nutcracker in the form of a soldier. Her father says that the nutcracker belongs to the whole family but, since Marie is so fond of him, she can be his special keeper. Marie and Fritz both enjoy opening nuts with the Nutcracker, until Fritz places a nut whch is too large and too hard for the Nutcracker to open into the toy's mouth and breaks his jaw. Marie uses a ribbon from her dress to bandage the Nutcracker's jaw and tells him that Drosselmeyer will fix him the next day.
That night, Marie sees several mice emerge from behind the wall, including the seven-headed Mouse King. Marie's dolls come to life and start to fight the mice. The Nutcracker leads the dolls, proudly displaying the ribbon which Marie gave him. The mice are about to win the battle and the Nutcracker is about to be taken prisoner but Marie then throws a shoe at the Mouse King. As she does so, she faints and falls against a cabinet, cutting her arm on its glass door. In the morning, Marie tells her parents about the battle between the mice and the dolls but they think that it was just a feverish dream caused by the girl's injury.
Having repaired the Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer comes back to Marie's home. Marie tells him about the battle which she witnessed and Drosselmeyer tells her the origin of the Nutcracker.
According to Drosselmeyer's story, a princess named Pirlipat is tricked by the Mouse Queen into letting her and her mouse children eat some lard which was intended to be used to make sausages for the king's supper. The angry king orders the court inventor, a man named Drosselmeyer, to create traps to kill the mice. After her children are killed, the furious Mouse Queen puts a curse on Princess Pirlipat, magically transforming her into a nutcracker. Drosselmeyer and the court astrologer find out that there is only one way to cure the princess. a young man who has never shaved nor worn boots has to use his teeth to crack open the nut Krakatuk, hand the nut to the princess to eat and take seven steps backwards without stumbling. The king declares that whoever cures Princess Pirlipat can marry her.Many men try to crack open the nut, all of them breaking their teeth in the process, but Drosselmeyer's nephew succeeds. However, on the seventh step backwards, he treads on the Mouse Queen's tail. The curse passes to Drosselmeyer's nephew, who is transformed into a nutcracker. Pirlipat refuses to marry the young man because he has suddenly become very ugly.
At night, Marie hears the Mouse King order her to give him candy and all of her dolls, otherwise, he will bite the Nutcracker to pieces. Marie does what the rodent says but the Mouse King soon demands more. The Nutcracker tells her that he just needs a sword. Marie gives him the sword of one of Fritz's toy soldiers. The Nutcracker returns, carrying seven crowns as proof that he has killed the seven-headed Mouse King. He takes Marie away to the doll kingdom, where she sees many amazing sights. However, after she falls asleep in a palace in the doll kingdom, Marie wakes up in her own bed at home. Even though Marie is able to show her parents the Mouse King's seven crowns, they still insist that her visit to the doll kingdom was just a dream and forbid her to talk about it anymore.
Some time later, Marie is standing on a chair, looking at the Nutcracker in the toy cabinet and remembering the remarkable things which happened to her. She tells the Nutcracker that she would not be like Pirlipat and would love him no matter what he looked like. There is a loud bang and Marie falls off her chair. Her mother then tells her that Drosselmeyer and his nephew have arrived. Drosselmeyer's nephew tells Marie that he was the Nutcracker and that she broke the curse by saying that she woud love him regardless of his appearance. Marie and the young man later return to the kingdom of dolls and are eventually married.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 In many recent adaptations, the girl is called Clara, the name which she is given in Tchaikovsky's ballet.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 Decorative nutcrackers, which look like soldiers, kings or other people, have existed in Germany since the 17th century. Such nutcrackers have jaws into which nuts can be placed to be opened. The jaw is moved by a lever on the figure's back. In the 19th century, they were popular Christmas presents for children, who would play with them in the day and whose parents would use them as nutcrackers at night. They continue to be made but are now usually only used as decorations.
- Original German text of E.T.A Hoffman's Nußknacker und Mausekönig from Project Gutenberg.
- Free public domain audiobooks of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King in German and English from LibriVox.
- The Nutcracker on Christmas Specials Wiki.
- Films based on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King on Moviepedia.