Edgar Huntly: Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker

Edgar Huntly: Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does Edgar change throughout the novel?

    Edgar initially presents himself as a melancholy man who is guided by rationality and thoughtfulness. He evinces a great deal of benevolence and sympathy, although he is arguably overactive in his pursuits (consider how fully he integrates himself into Clithero's life simply on the assumption that the immigrant killed Waldegrave). Overall, he is an exemplar of the Quaker tradition from which he comes.

    However, as his story progresses, the narrative and Edgar both begin to spin out of control. Edgar loses himself to his unconscious, his dark motivations clouding his judgment and leading to sleepwalking and acts of violence. He himself is unnerved by the changes he discerns, and is unable to articulate their provenance. He appears at times obsessive, paranoid, irrational, and vengeful. It is suggested that he will return to the former mode of life once the novel ends, but the reader is left wondering whether Edgar can truly move past the glimpses into his psyche encouraged by his adventures.

  2. 2

    How does the novel evince Enlightenment thought?

    Brown’s novel evinces a great deal of Enlightenment thought. Brown read voraciously the writings of the Woldwinites (or, the Anglo-Jacobins) – Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Paine, among others. Their work represented the latest, most radical phase of the Enlightenment. Some of their ideas, filtered into Brown’s American writing, argued that the old feudal order needed to be destroyed in favor of a more rational social order. They believed that the demonstration of rational behavior would radiate outward to generate larger transformations in society. Their views also reflected a distrust of institutions and a belief that “the personal is political.” Edgar Huntly is addressed to a popular audience, and follows characters who are lower on the social ladder than would have been commonly found in literature of the time. Brown made his protagonist an ordinary man on the frontier, trying to grapple with large moral questions and the arc of history. Meanwhile, the themes are very much about the conflict between the rational mind and the uglier human impulses. His prose is thrilling and fast-paced, moving his reader to progressive action based on their exposure to these societal issues and ills. Overall, it is arguable that Brown hoped to entertain and thereby deliver messages of what society could be if we work harder to embrace our rational sides.

  3. 3

    What role does male friendship play in the novel?

    Some critics have investigated the male-male relations in the novel, writing about how the then-nascent models for male relationships could have proven problematic even though it was a patriarchal universe. In the eighteenth century, new spaces arose for middle class men to converse and debate. As Barnard and Shapiro write, "this long reconfiguration of male manners opened up a new spectrum of possibilities regarding the possible interrelations of emotion and sexuality." Homoerotic contact is well documented during the time, taking place in streets, pubs, and harbors. The novel frequently utilizes the gestures and tone men used to convey homoerotic inclinations. For example, Clithero's behavior when Arthur Wiatte returns suggests that he not only fears and loathes the man, but is magnetized by him. Clithero's half-naked appearance at the elm gives his encounter with Edgar an interesting erotic edge. Scholars also point to Edgar's dreams of the Indians as erotic, and Norwalk "as a space where homoeroticism becomes potentially empowered and contested." Interestingly, many of Edgar's male relationships prove problematic - Waldegrave's death haunts him, Clithero's troubles consume him, and Sarsefield's disapproval embarrasses him. It is not ultimately clear whether or not the novel presents sublimated homosexual desire or new patterns for male friendship, but it a questions readers should consider.

  4. 4

    How does Brown borrow from and "explode" the Gothic tradition?

    There is much that is Gothic about the novel: a dark and wild wilderness, savage beasts, a tormented psyche, nocturnal rambles, damsels in distress, etc. However, as Brown writes in his preface, he wants to eschew such tired conventions to create a new type of literature for a new time. The premodern is not to be emulated; rather, the modern is to be pursued. Brown does not want his characters to be consumed by the past or to be locked into feudal blood-feuds. History is to be looked at in order to inform the present, not for its own sake. Enlightenment ideas of benevolence and sympathy were most important for Brown. Trying to know oneself was better than ignoring one's impulses. The modern world was confusing and chaotic, but it was necessary to learn how to navigate it successfully in order to prosper socially, professionally, and personally. So overall, Brown uses gothic elements in order to transcend that genre's limitations through his story.

  5. 5

    What is the historical context of the novel?

    Edgar Huntly is a novel that is firmly a product of the time in which it was composed. The events of the tale are set mostly in 1787, the year that the Constitution was signed. The country was governed by the flimsy Articles of Confederation, and experienced a great deal of unrest and instability; in 1787, an angry ex-soldier and debtor named Daniel Shays led protesters in Massachusetts in a protest that revealed the limitations of the system. At the time that Brown was writing, the new nation was still wobbly, afraid of immigrants and slaves and Indians, and looking for ways to further legislate away their rights. Commerce and trade were halting, and social strata were largely hardened. Out on the frontier, settlers quaked from Indian raids and suffered from poverty. Religious divisions persisted. Overall, it was a period characterized by unease and contradictions, all of which are reflected in Edgar's tumultuous psyche. Many of the more sensational events in the novel can be better understood when looked at in light of the historical context.

  6. 6

    What role does Weymouth play in the novel?

    The Weymouth episode of the novel is a rather perplexing one. Weymouth enters the scene with little introduction and departs with little fanfare, never to be heard from again. His presence does not seem to fit with the rest of the novel, even considering its free-wheeling nature. However, the incident is important for several reasons. First, it is a way for Edgar to deal psychologically with the imminent second half of his narrative before delving back into it for Mary. He pauses and catches his breath, telling Mary in extreme detail about this visitor and his story. It demonstrates the fragility of his narrative, and the undercurrent of unrest in Edgar's psyche. Second, the incident alludes to the precariousness of the post-Revolutionary War economy and the tensions between social classes. Money is scarce for many out on the frontier, and the money Waldegrave supposedly leaves his sister is a boon, allowing Mary to perceive herself as more middle class, and to marry Edgar. Its sudden removal is a blow, and is one more cause for unrest and anger. Finally, it allows Edgar to reveal one final time the person he wants to be - upstanding and fair - before we see the person he truly is as he delves into the depths of his unconscious.

  7. 7

    What is the significance of Edgar's uncle?

    Edgar’s uncle, Mr. Huntly, is not a major character in the novel, but there are some important lessons to be gleaned from considering his character. First of all, Edgar’s uncle is an example of the patriarchal system that pervades the 18th century American frontier. He is Edgar’s superior, as well as his source of wealth and sustenance. He steps in for Edgar’s parents when they are killed, taking care of Edgar and his sisters. The reader learns that Mr. Huntly was wounded in General Braddock’s disastrous defeat in 1754, at the beginning of the French and Indian War. After Braddock’s defeat, which is what the battle between the British/colonists and the French/Indians is mostly deemed, Indian attacks on the frontier accelerated. The colonists’ loss of faith in the British military after this loss paved the way for American independence some years later. Mr. Huntly goes along in Sarsefield’s expedition to find Edgar, and is fatally wounded here; his death is a commentary on the danger of pursuing revenge. He reenacts Braddock’s own defeat and exemplifies irrationality and arrogance.

  8. 8

    How is one to interpret the end of the novel?

    The novel ends rather strangely. The letter to Mary ends abruptly, with a bit of resolution in terms of Waldegrave's murder and the duplicity of Old Deb. Then, curiously, there are three more letters that speak of Clithero's attempt to contact Mrs. Lorimer and his subsequent death by sea. The inclusion of these letters indicates how difficult closure is for Edgar; it can never be truly attained. The ramifications of his actions cannot be contained in his narrative, and certainly cannot be organized or structured. In other words, he has not learned how to impose order on the world through his story, as he had implicitly hoped. Brown also suggests just how misguided Edgar's benevolence can be; his desire to absolve Clithero of his guilt leads only to despair and chaos. Brown wants his readers to be aware that they must exercise reason and rationality, and to acknowledge their impulses if they are to have any chance of ordering them.

  9. 9

    What is the role of religion in the novel?

    Considering that the novel takes place in the 18th century, it does not deal very much with religion. Edgar and Sarsefield are both freethinking nonbelievers, not Christians (although Edgar had a Quaker upbringing). Despite their claims to reason and rationality, though, both jump to conclusions and make erroneous claims. Waldegrave also toyed with deism, but eventually returned to his Christian roots. Clithero was a Protestant Scots-Irish, and did not attend the Quaker church in his Pennsylvania town. There is little mention of God or prayer or spirituality or the afterlife. Characters seem completely unmotivated by their faith, fear of hell or desire to please God. The novel seems much more of a study in the Freudian unconscious rather than in traditional Protestant morality. This is yet another way in which it is atypical for its time.

  10. 10

    How does Brown depict the Indians and the Irish?

    Both the Indians and the Irish are depicted as 'the other.' The Indians are mute savages who ravage the frontier indiscriminately, murdering settlers and creating a climate of fear. They are not given voices or personalities. Edgar himself cannot quite decide if they are noble creatures or beasts, providing descriptions that range from lauding their nobility to excoriating their sanguinary impulses. The Irish are similarly derided. Brown's depiction of Clithero reveals the paranoia that Americans felt about these poor, often Catholic, Scots-Irish immigrants. The Irish immigrants during the French and Indian War often sided with the French and Indians, angering the colonists and leading to further tensions. Of course, Brown is savvy in pointing out that Quakers, such as Edgar, are not immune from violent impulses and savagery. It is not simply 'the other' that acts in incomprehensible ways, but rather that each of us has 'the other' within us.