The entire novel is comprised of letters, almost exclusively written by Edgar Huntley to his fiancée Mary.
Edgar begins this first letter by explaining he has finally grown calm enough after recent ordeals to fulfill her requests for information. He hopes that writing will continue to subdue his passionate emotions. Though he wishes they were together, he knows it is impossible.
He acknowledges their shared grief over the death of Waldegrave, Mary's brother and Edgar's close friend, who had died in a bloody and mysterious way. The story he writes to her begins on a day when he was walking towards his uncle's house, in deep thought about who might have killed his friend. He recollected how he had attempted to discourage Waldegrave from taking a journey on the night the man died, and how he had rushed after hearing a pistol shot to find the man's body stretched out on the earth with a mortal wound.
Believing revenge to be just, Edgar desired to avenge his friend. Though nothing had been found near the elm tree where Waldegrave had died, Edgar decided to re-investigate. The elm was located on a private road near the wilderness of Norwalk, near Inglefield's home and three miles from his uncle's home.
When Edgar arrived near the tree, he saw something peculiar. A tall, strong man was there, digging in the earth. (It was Clithero, though Edgar could not make out his features and has not introduced him yet). After digging a while, delivering heartrending cries of grief and despair in the process, Clithero sat down in the grave. Though initially shocked, Edgar eventually felt sympathetic and called out to the man. The latter did not reply as he began to fill the pit. Bewildered, Edgar realized that the man was asleep, and he decided to return to his uncle's house.
As he walked the grounds near his uncle's house, Edgar determined that the man he saw must be Waldegrave's murderer, returning to the scene of his crime from guilt. Assuming that the man must live nearby, Edgar considered two suspects. After ruling out the first, he thought about Clithero, an Irish immigrant and servant to Inglefield. Clithero was know to be intelligent, strong, cultivated, and not particularly religious. He was also, importantly, a stranger and not very well known.
Convinced that Clithero was the murderer, Edgar considered how to approach and interview the man. He admits that his vengeful feelings had subsided, but notes that "curiosity, like virtue, is its own reward. Knowledge is of value for its own sake" (13) Edgar's sleep that night was fitful, so he retired the next evening to a place called Chestnut Hill, where he hoped to think clearly. There, he decided he should be open and upfront in approaching Clithero.
That night, he returned to the elm. Clithero was not there, but Edgar watched from a distance until the man did arrive, seemingly asleep again – "he seemed like one, whom an effort of will, without the exercise of locomotion, had transported hither, or made visible" (14). After again digging and crying out in pain, Clithero prepared to leave.
Resolved to identify him, Edgar trailed the man through the wood for a long time. Even as he began to get tired, he followed Clithero along a narrow precipice past a vale, which Edgar vaguely recognized. Clithero finally arrived at a cavern, which he entered. Deciding it would be foolish to follow the man into a dark space, Edgar waited outside. After some time, he heard noises within, but before he could investigate, an animal leaped from the cave and out into the woods. Discouraged, Edgar returned home.
Edgar writes about how the following days were unsettling to him, as he wondered whether Clithero would ever return to the elm, and whether he himself should return to the cavern. Eventually, he decided to dig in the spot where Clithero had been digging, in case something was buried there.
However, he found Clithero already at the elm, and followed him again. The path was different this time, though equally arduous. With a new courage and strength, which he describes to Mary as irrational, he stayed committed to the chase until they reached an open field near Inglefield's house. It was only at this point that he felt confident that it was indeed Clithero whom he was following.
When Clithero entered the house, Edgar rested in a nearby shed, where he devised a plan to ask Clithero to come to his uncle's the following day, under the pretense of a work assignment.
The next day, Edgar confessed his suspicions to Inglefield, who in turn told Edgar of his own housekeeper's reservations about Clithero. She had always found him melancholy and secretive. The other man who resided there, Ambrose, has told of how Clithero frequently talked in his sleep. Further, Clithero had been visibly perturbed when he heard of Waldegrave's death, growing gloomier and frequently disappearing at night. Finally, the housekeeper had told Inglefield about how Clithero had once spoken to a visitor near the gate, and had seemed distressed afterwards.
After hearing these tales, Edgar was even more excited to talk to Clithero. Inglefield approved his plan, and sent Clithero to Edgar's uncle's house. After the work was finished, Edgar asked Clithero to spend the night, but the man refused, and Edgar had to accompany him home to continue his plan. On their walk, the Irishman was silent and mournful, and Edgar has to gather his strength for the accusations he planned to make.
As they approached the elm, Edgar grabbed hold of Clithero's arm, and the latter asked what was wrong. Edgar then asked the man to accompany him down a path, at the end of which Edgar stopped and told Clithero of what he had seen during the past two nights. He insinuated that Clithero was guilty of the "late disaster," and asked the man to confirm or deny the accusation, adding that he was not vengeful, but only compassionate and curious (22).
Clithero stood silent for a long while, during which time Edgar "was obliged to stand a silent and powerless spectator, and to suffer this paroxysm to subside of itself" (23). After being sympathetically prodded by Edgar, Clithero told him he would make his confession soon enough, but that he must first do something for himself.
The next day, Edgar waited for word from Clithero, feeling calm and expectant. Days passed, however, and he eventually set out for Inglefield's to find the man. When he arrived, he encountered an emaciated and pale Clithero, who was coming to find him in turn. His face was contorted, and he had to summon the power to speak before he began his confession.
Most of this chapter recounts Clithero's confession.
Clithero acknowledged Edgar's accusation, and implied that he was indeed an assassin whose life had come "to a miserable close" (25). He wanted only to accuse himself, noting that "the daemon that controuled [sic] me at first is still in the fruition of its power" (26).
He began his story at birth, explaining that he was born to a servant father who managed a rich man's estate. The master was cruel, but was married to a lovely woman whom he treated terribly. His death brought much relief to the woman - Mrs. Lorimer - who recognized Clithero's natural intelligence and ability, and hired him to act as companion for her son, who was Clithero's age.
She was as kind to Clithero as she was to her own son, and he profited from the education and society she granted. Clithero devoted his life to his companion, and traveled with him. However, his greatest affection was for Mrs. Lorimer, to whom he wrote letters honestly detailing the bad behavior that her son showed while traveling. The son eventually tired of this sanctimony, and kindly asked Clithero to leave his service.
Clithero then worked as steward for Mrs. Lorimer herself, in which position he had great autonomy and access to her wealth. He managed her estate competently, and admired her for her kindness, virtue, elegance, and benevolence. She came to treat him more as friend than as servant, trusting him as she did few others in her social circle. He loved his life, in which he had a lucrative job, was free from temptation, and enjoyed "an unsullied reputation" (31).
This chapter continues Clithero's confession.
He explained to Edgar that Mrs. Lorimer had a twin brother; although they looked exactly alike , they could not have been more different in term of personality. Arthur Wiatte, the brother, was evil, cruel and concerned only with money, though he was brilliant in terms of duplicity. His greed controlled him, so that he frequently mistreated his sister for his own gain.
Clithero gives an example. In her youth, Mrs. Lorimer loved a man named Sarsefield (though Clithero did not yet give his name). However, Sarsefield lacked a fortune, so her parents and brother intimidated him into fleeing. The man Mrs. Lorimer married instead was the cruel man whom Clithero described in the previous chapter, but one who possessed the type of fortune Arthur coveted.
But worst of all, Mrs. Lorimer was entirely blind to his failings. Eventually, she discovered his true nature, and refused to help him when he had a run-in with the law and needed money to avoid punishment. Arthur was sent as prisoner overseas, but word soon came back that he and others had attempted mutiny and were killed in the process. Clithero intimated, however, that he was not truly gone.
In the meantime, Mrs. Lorimer adopted Arthur's illegitimate daughter Clarice. Over time, Clithero fell in love with the girl, but knew that he had no chance because of their class distinctions. (She was being raised as Mrs. Lorimer's own daughter.) His feelings grew more extreme until he realized he needed to leave Mrs. Lorimer's service or endure the torture of unrequited love. However, he feared delivering the news: he would never admit his feelings (as they would be seen as inappropriate), but to resign without an explanation would reek of "the basest ingratitude" (36).
Finally, he gathered the courage to tell her, but she insisted to know his reason. When he refused to confess, she intimated she knew the reason, and then brought Clarice in. She acknowledged and blessed their love for one another, and looked forward to their marriage.
Clithero paused in his confession to Edgar, crying out, "Great God! deliver me from the torments of this remembrance" (40).
As Edgar relates, Clithero continued his confession. He and Clarice wished to marry immediately, but she felt obliged to visit a dying friend elsewhere in the country. Graciously, Clithero accompanied her there, and then returned home.
Clithero then provided some background for the terrible events he was yet to relate. He spoke more about Sarsefield, whom Mrs. Lorimer has supported financially for a while, during which time he worked for the Dutch East India Company. However, he vanished at one point, and she heard no other news of him for 20 years. One day, Clithero found Mrs. Lorimer talking to him; he had suddenly returned. Clithero described Sarsefield as intelligent, convivial and weather-beaten.
Sarsefield explained how he had lived a life of adventure since losing touch with Mrs. Lorimer, but had never forgotten her. Over the following months, he reentered Mrs. Lorimer's life, and Clithero and Sarsefield grew extremely close. Clithero could discern that he still loved her, and suspected they would rekindle their relationship.
From the first few paragraphs of Edgar Huntly, the reader is well aware of the novel’s dense and descriptive prose, and of the intense, melodramatic tone that he uses for his story. The rest of the novel, as evinced in these first six chapters, remains highly sentimental and action-packed; it is occasionally difficult to follow and incorporates a myriad of themes and issues, as though Brown is determining the story as it comes. These first six chapters already explore an impressively eclectic swath of themes, including: gender and class tensions, sleepwalking, problems with the narrator/narrative, and fear of the other.
The novel is often classified as belonging to the American Gothic tradition, since it adapts some of the conventions and iconography of the Gothic literary tradition that was popular in Europe. However, as Brown explains in his letter “To the Public,” which opens the novel, he does not need to use “puerile superstition and exploded manners”, or “gothic castles and chimeras” to achieve his effect. Instead, he prefers more thoroughly American elements, including “incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness”. He sees himself as part of a progressive literary tradition, one in which Europe's forms are no longer necessary. Instead, writers must find a new type of storytelling for a new age.
Indeed, the novel's exact genre is hard to define, since it veers so wildly throughout. The scholars Philip Barnard and Steven Shapiro classify the novel as post-gothic, writing “that [it seeks] to leave the premodern behind”; “the main plot points of sleep-walking, performances of exaggerated shame, or frontier confusion provide metaphors for the uncertainty of tumbling forward into a modern, post-feudal society that both requires and produces new modes of social consciousness and new forms of human interaction.” In other words, the novel is deliberately trying to both exploit and confound genre expectations, in effect to communicate an underlying sense of unease. This is notable since the novel was published in 1799, long before the modernist movement would attempt to achieve a similar effect.
Edgar is one of the most fascinating characters in American literature. He is writing a long letter to his fiancée narrating the events that befall him, but so much of what the reader will learn about him is not expressed in his own words but lurks underneath the surface. As he begins to sleepwalk and resemble the unfortunate Clithero, as well as deviate from the characteristics and he values he articulates comprise his being, he becomes a seething mass of unconscious and primal urges that manifest themselves in violent and unforeseen ways.
Edgar is a sensitive and moral young man, important to realize to better understand the adventure he undertakes later. He is established as a Quaker through his use of "thou" and "thee" while addressing Mary, something a contemporary reader would realize. Though plot eventually provides the novel's primary drive, Edgar's pensive, brooding attitude about his friend helps to establish a man defined by integrity and persistence. Quakers followed a strict moral code, and were characterized by a flagging persistence to that code. Edgar certainly fulfills these expectations, finding a way to feel sympathy for many characters during the novel's first half. However, the upstanding young man that Brown paints is especially interesting as a contrast to the man he becomes when he transitions into the darker recesses of his mind after Chapter XVI.
The elm has a historical, symbolic significance; it alludes to the famous treaty Elm where William Penn signed a treaty with the Delaware Indians and founded Pennsylvania, a Quaker settlement. The Elm in the novel also has a sinister, foreboding presence, symbolizing the tensions that remain present between white settlers and the Indians.
However, all of these elements are eclipsed by Clithero, a fascinating creation. In the novel, he represents the “other,” in that he is an Irish immigrant. The immediate post-revolutionary war period in which this novel is set (1787) was characterized by a number of prejudices including xenophobia; many citizens feared that the newly-arrived immigrants posed a threat of subversion. The clearest manifestations of this fear are the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed under President John Adams to make citizenship difficult and allow the government to detain or incarcerate immigrants with little due process.
Through Clithero, Brown expresses a concern over the counterrevolutionary anxiety and paranoia that he saw sweeping through Pennsylvania in the 1790s. Clithero is feared in this Quaker community because "he always rambled away" on Sundays (19). Clithero’s differences, violence and mania typify such fears, in both literal and symbolic ways. For instance, the panther that leaps from the cavern as Edgar waits for him is meant to suggest that Clithero is a savage, much like the Delaware Indians, which Edgar also compares the panther to. This is not to say that the novel is a deliberately xenophobic text, but rather that Brown's story reflects that level of paranoia. Further, Brown also shows great sympathy for Clithero in this section of the tale, certainly confounding a simplistic good/bad judgment for the immigrant.
Brown's intention is clearer on the subject of patriarchy. Clithero’s story, as well as some comments Edgar makes, evoke the extent of patriarchy in Brown's society. When discussing his town, Solebury, Edgar writes, “our scheme, was, for the most part, a patriarchal one” (12). Barnard and Shapiro explain that “Brown emphasizes the patriarchal, paternalistic norms and structures of his society, drawing attention to tensions and conflicts concerning patriarchal norms in the revolutionary period. Note the references to fathers and paternal authority throughout the narrative.” These problems are particularly manifested in the situation with Mrs. Lorimer. Her first husband is a cruel exemplar of the feudal system, and the gender structure which gives him total ownership of his wife and her fortune. Further, she is forced into that marriage for the sake of title and greed, not on a foundation of love and affection. When she finally stands up for herself and refuses to intercede on behalf of Arthur, she becomes, as Barnard and Shapiro write, “a modernizing master of the family’s property and her own destiny until she marries Sarsefield.” This explains why she is able to look past the class differences between Clithero and Clarice to encourage their union. It also makes her a unique reflection of America at the time, where one might have seen little reason to prefer an old-world (European) aristocratic mentality at the expense of individual freedom and opportunity.