Edgar Huntly: Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker

Edgar Huntly: Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker Quotes and Analysis

"You know the situation of the Elm, in the midst of a private road, on the verge of Norwalk, near the habitation of Inglefield, but three miles from my uncle's house. It was now my intention to visit it."

Edgar Huntly, 8

The Elm is the place where Waldegrave was found dead, and it serves as a symbol of the problematic relations between the Indians and the settlers on the frontier. The elm here alludes to the famous Elm where William Penn signed a treaty with the Delaware Indians so that he could found Pennsylvania. Thus, it reminds the reader of the difference between 'civilized' and 'savage' folk. However, it also has a psychological dimension that parallels this social one. In this story, the elm draws Clithero and Edgar together, and thus begins a process where Edgar's life begins to resemble Clithero's, in terms of sleepwalking and then in terms of descending into unconscious desires. Thus, the symbol denotes a sinister place, a boundary between settlement and the wilderness which is increasingly revealed to be porous and quite easy for even a seemingly upstanding fellow like Edgar to cross.

“Every sentiment, at length, yielded to my sympathy.”

Edgar Huntly, 9

Here, Edgar writes about how Clithero's nocturnal rambles and fervent guilt moved him.

He uses the term “sympathy”, but the word does not mean exactly the same thing in this context as it does today. “Sympathy,” “sentiment,” and “benevolence” were firmly entrenched concepts in 18th century culture and literature; they refer to a connection with or response to other people that places a premium on egalitarianism, as opposed to the traditional feudal/class structure. The idea of sympathy was hotly debated during Brown’s era. As scholars Barnard and Shapiro write, “Edgar’s insistence here on benevolent and emotionalized states of sympathy with Clithero and others continues throughout the narrative.” In other words, Edgar feels compelled to deconstruct some of the boundaries that his society enforces.

Unfortunately, this sympathy sometimes gets Edgar into difficult situations; he is so concerned with meting out kindness and redemption to Clithero that he follows him into the wilderness and becomes consumed with acts of violence, revenge, and survival. He descends into his own unconscious in trying to save Clithero from his own. In many cases, Edgar’s intentions are noble but misplaced, and he makes Clithero’s life worse. Brown's suggestion seems to be that we are all capable of crossing boundaries, whether we mean to or not, and yet have less control over that crossing than we might believe.

"But it was only for him, who dwelt constantly under the same roof, to mark the inviolable consistency of her actions and opinions, the ceaseless flow of her candour, her cheerfulness, and her benevolence."

Clithero, 29

Clithero waxes poetic about his mistress, Mrs. Lorimer, and in doing so lays out the qualities most valued in women during the 18th and 19th centuries. Women were expected to be generous, kind, virtuous, sympathetic, cheerful, and charming. They were supposed to occupy the spheres delineated for them, which included the home, church, and limited professions (teaching, midwifery, etc.). Mrs. Lorimer certainly embodies the personal characteristics of desirable women, but, for the first part of the novel, she also has a notable degree of freedom not normally reserved for women. Her fortune is her own; she is not tied to a man and can do what she pleases. However, like is the case with Old Deb, her gains are stripped from her by the end of the novel. Mrs. Lorimer thus embodies Brown's conception of the ideal woman, one who is capable of autonomy but who gives it up willingly for a man.

“I was scarcely conscious of any transition. The interval was fraught with stupor, and amazement. It seemed as if my senses had been hushed in sleep, while the powers of locomotion were unconsciously exerted to bear me to my chamber.”

Clithero, 54-55

This passage describes the first time Clithero became aware of his sleepwalking. It also provides a glimpse into how Brown interprets this condition. Here, Clithero is ruminating on his murder of Wiatte, and what might happen to Mrs. Lorimer because of it. His mental perturbation is so great that his conscious mind can no longer handle it, and he slips into a somnambulistic sleep. Clearly, sleepwalking indicates a descent into unconscious, less-defined impulses.

And yet it is important to note that this descent does not end with consciousness. Even after Clithero 'awakes,' his mind still vacillates between a state of dreamy sleep characterized by fancy and a state of agency. Clithero’s sleepwalking is a manifestation of his deep drives of lust, jealousy, guilt, and anxiety; Edgar’s engagement in the same activity is motivated by more or less the same unconscious desires. Sleepwalking allows Brown’s characters to enact their wishes without having to fully account for them.

“How imperfect are the grounds of all our decisions!”

Edgar Huntly, 64

In this quote, Edgar articulates one of the novel's primary conflicts: the difficulty of keeping control of oneself. Even when conscious (i.e., not sleepwalking), Edgar's decision-making process is marred by complications. He often has scanty or ambiguous grounds or evidence on which to base these decisions, and is tortured when the results of his choice do not go the way he expected them to. Edgar often makes the wrong choice, or jumps to conclusions, or is swayed by his impulses and passions rather than reason. A product of the Enlightenment age, Brown’s novel makes the case that an individual must have an understanding of the larger environment and context before making decisions, especially decisions prompted by impulse. The exercise of reason and rationality could help prevent some of the bloodshed and turmoil Edgar finds himself a part of. And yet the only way to truly employ our reason is to first admit how difficult it is to maintain an unswayed reason. We must admit how affected we are by our unconscious desires if we have any hope of transcending them.

“Thou knowest my devotion to the spirit that breathes its inspiration in the gloom of forests and on the verge of streams. I love to immerse myself in shades and dells, and hold converse with the solemnities and secrecies of nature in the rude retreats of Norwalk.”

Edgar Huntly, 66

Edgar claims to love Nature, and he does spend a great deal of time in it during the novel. However, the peaceful rambles which he describes here (which he shared as a younger man with Sarsefield), do not quite jibe with the experiences he has during the novel. In his forays into the wilderness to find Clithero, Edgar confronts jagged cliffs, splintered trees, raging waters, steep peaks, dark caves, and howling panthers. The landscape mirrors the savagery of the humans who navigate it; Edgar, Clithero, and the Delaware Indians reflect the uncivilized and violent world around them. The natural world, where the characters enact their primitive impulses, is crying out to be tamed and subjected to order and rationality. The pastoral innocence of Edgar's youth has been corrupted by the darker impulses of adulthood, and he now must learn to reconcile those two potentials both within himself and with the greater world.

“I desire to restore him to peace; but a thorough knowledge of his actions is necessary, both to show that he is worthy of compassion, and to suggest the best means of extirpating his errors. It was possible that this box contained the means of this knowledge…There were likewise other motives, which, as they possessed some influence, however small, deserve to be mentioned. Thou knowest that I also am a mechanist...I looked upon this, therefore, with the eye of an artist, and was solicitous to know the principles on which it was formed. I determined to examine, and, if possible, to open it.”

Edgar Huntly, 79

Here, Edgar provides his rationalization for opening Clithero's private box. The extent of his protestations - it will help him, he is curious about the workmanship - reveal his unconfessed awareness that he is acting against propriety by rifling through another man's property. The reader can certainly sense his desperation and greedy excitement. Obviously, this is behavior not befitting the upstanding Quaker gentleman he believes himself to be, which connects to Brown's larger themes about the contradictions within every person. This is one of many instances that reveal how our unconscious impulses act upon us even when we are not in the full grips of a condition like sleepwalking.

“No alternative was offered, and hunger was capable to be appeased, even by a banquet so detestable."

Edgar Huntly, 112

After chapter XVI, the tenor of the novel changes. The calm and sensible Edgar, who likes to wander about in the idyllic woods, is replaced by a fierce and obsessive Edgar whose desire to survive at all costs leads him into perilous and morally questionable situations. This passage is from one of the novel's most grotesque, when Edgar eats the raw panther's flesh. Following the instinctive killing of the panther, this moment indicates how fully Edgar has descended into the darkness of his aggressive impulses. It is a gateway into the savagery that guides him for much of the proceeding adventure. Edgar may politely decry such behavior to his fiancee on the surface of the narrative, but the reader can glimpse his dark depths below throughout his fantastical account.

"It was a hut in the wilderness, occupied by an old Indian woman, known among her neighbors by the name of Old Deb. Some people called her Queen Mab."

Edgar Huntly, 136

Although a minor character who only indirectly influences the events of the story, Old Deb is a fascinating character. Her nickname suggests affiliation with the Celtic warrior queen who presided over childbirth and dreams (dreams being related to sleepwalking in this novel). She is indeed a strange and almost otherworldly presence as she remains among the white settlers who are taking her land. She is duplicitous, having one face she shows to them and another she shows to her fierce Delaware warriors. She has a degree of power, but as the novel concludes, she has lost all of it, including her land. Her individual situation calls attention to the plight of all Native Americas being inexorably pushed from their land in the face of white immigration and settlement. Their small raids on houses, such as that of Selby or Edgar's parents, are devastating, but are no match for the white push into the frontier. It is possible to see Queen Mab as a symbol of both Edgar and the contradictions he navigates within himself.

"Her only companions were three dogs, of Indians or wolf species...She governed them with absolute sway: they were her servants and protectors, and attended her person or guarded her threshold, agreeable to her directions."

Edgar Huntly, 137

The description of Deb's dogs reinforces the theme already established in the novel - that animals are often manifestations of humans, or, to put it a bit differently, are transmutations of humans. Deb's dogs are like Deb's Delaware warriors; they are fiercely loyal and do her bidding. Elsewhere in the novel, the panther that leaps from the cavern where Clithero disappears is likened to Clithero himself, who has embraced madness and despair. The panthers later in the novel are similar to the Indians that navigate the wilderness and ravage the frontier settlements. The humans in this novel often behave like animals; in the grips of his descent into his unconscious, Edgar often describes himself as beastial, thereby admitting the potential every human has for dropping the civilized veneer and revealing a darker person beneath.