Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 225

Charles Brockden Brown’s “Sonambulism: A Fragment” can be viewed as a study in contrasts—in large part, contrasts that highlight life in transition, reflective of a time in US history when people began to embrace individualist ideals. The setting of the story is the American frontier, a place which represents a...

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Charles Brockden Brown’s “Sonambulism: A Fragment” can be viewed as a study in contrasts—in large part, contrasts that highlight life in transition, reflective of a time in US history when people began to embrace individualist ideals. The setting of the story is the American frontier, a place which represents a union of contrasts: of safety and danger, of known and unknown, of civilization and wilderness. In a sense, the setting of the story is also Althorpe’s mind, however—a contradictory place much like the frontier, and one that reveals the struggle between order and chaos, imagination and reason.

The story’s narrator, Richard Althorpe, must live by the rules of society, and at the time, the rules of society revolved around reason and order. Although Althorpe lives by reason and order while awake, however, his unconscious mind takes over when he sleeps. His actions while he is asleep reveal that he is passionate, intellectual, and imaginative. Althorpe restrains these tendencies while awake because he feels forced to conform to social conventions and expectations. Thus, the rift between sleeping and waking represents the clash in society at the time. In the story, Althorpe’s actions in sleep represent an abandonment of the rationalism of the eighteenth century in favor of individual thinking and exploration, which arose at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

Brown’s most striking technical accomplishment in “Somnambulism” is his narrative mode, which experiments with unreliable narrator and interior monologue decades before such techniques were supposed to have been invented. Brown’s first-person narrative in this story includes a lengthy and inconclusive detailed decision-making process, in which the narrator, Althorpe, alternately decides for and against pursuing Constantia’s affections. The name “Constantia” serves as an ironic contrast to Althorpe’s inconstant thought pattern. Althorpe’s inconstant thought is reinforced stylistically in alternations between direct and indirect discourse in the dialogue. Because the first-person format means that all dialogue is ultimately reported by the narrator, Althorpe, direct quotations often merge with indirect. Other characters’ references to themselves sometimes say “I” and sometimes “he,” though both ultimately derive from Althorpe. Conversely, interior monologues—Althorpe’s mental conversation with himself—at times are almost as argumentative and discursive as real conversation, with Althorpe often arguing with himself.

Brown’s presentation of a man oblivious to his own deepest thoughts and feelings is ahead of his time not only in narrative technique but also in terms of psychological understanding. In characters such as Althorpe, Brown explored in great detail what Sigmund Freud a century later would call the unconscious. Brown was not doing so in a vacuum, however; many of his friends, such as Benjamin Rush and Elihu Hubbard Smith, were physicians and pioneers in psychology. Nevertheless, no fiction writers in Europe or the United States were recording the phenomenon in the short story quite the way Brown did in “Somnambulism.” Althorpe is mortally afraid of the oak in the forest of Norwood yet cannot provide a reason for the fear. However, when Davis and Constantia find out about a very real and concrete danger in the person of Nick Handyside, they marvel that Althorpe never mentioned him.

Finally, the stylistic element most significant to the story may be its very form, the fragment. “Somnambulism” is subtitled “A Fragment” and may in fact have been a portion of a novel Brown never completed. However, its fragmentary state as published in the Monthly Magazine in 1805 is functional. Because Althorpe, as unreliable narrator, is incapable of recognizing his own role in the death of Constantia, the reader must piece together the clues to make the story complete. Some of the clues are given in the narrative—Davis’s recognition of Althorpe at the oak tree, for example—but the clincher is the parallel story affixed to the story at the beginning, a newspaper account of a similar murder that occurred in Europe. By connecting the newspaper account with Althorpe’s fragmentary narrative, the reader can easily conclude that Althorpe himself murdered his own beloved unconsciously, while walking in his sleep.

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