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Last Reviewed 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 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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 679 words.)

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