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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

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One theme of the story is the power of repressed desire: The narrative gives many hints that Althorpe has habitually repressed his desires and aggressions under a veneer of good behavior. He is the nephew, not the son, of the family, suggesting he might be a poor relation. He seems to fear upsetting his uncle. He states,

My age and situation, in this family, rendered silence and submission my peculiar province.

Yet despite his detachment in talking about his feelings, he has openly declared his love for Constantia and is extremely agitated that she is leaving so suddenly. His "sleepwalking" out at night to murder her is plausible, given the psychological portrait Brown has painted of him. It is not hard to imagine a young man, having had to stifle all of his anger and ill-feelings, bursting out at night to howl in the woods and then murder a woman he has overheard speaking dismissively about him. The repressed feelings, as Freud might say, resurface.

Another theme is the vulnerability of women. Constantia is depicted as a strong, forthright woman. As she says when Althorpe expresses his fears for her departing at night:

I am not so much a girl as to be scared merely because it is dark.

As Althorpe notes:

Few possessed a firmer mind than Miss Davis.

Nevertheless, even the strongest woman, the story implies, is vulnerable once she is left out of the protection of the man. As soon as Mr. Davis separates from her, she is murdered. Althorpe, though acknowledging her as as strong woman, also seems to regard her as an object that can be fought for like a trophy and possessed by the best man—and he seems willing to kill her to assert his control.

A third theme is that of the doppleganger or twin, a common device of the gothic genre. The doppleganger is a physical manifestation or expression of the repressed self, the side of ourselves we hide from because we can't bear to consciously face it. Althorpe seems to have two "twins" of himself: the "sleepwalking" murderer and the "idiot" Nick Handyside, who enjoys scaring people with his monstrous presence and his howls.

That Althorpe shuts off parts of himself from conscious understanding is indicatied by the image of a gate—in this case, the mental gate into his unconscious desires:

I shut the gate at which I had been standing.

As he thinks about Constantia and her journey:

my soul seemed to have passed into a new form

He also says,

In my dreams, the design which I could not bring myself to execute while awake I embraced without hesitation. I was summoned, methought, to defend this lady from the attacks of an assassin.

Althorpe seems quite ready to allow his "twin" self, his uncontrolled id, to do what his super-ego cannot be aware of perpetrating. Even in his "dream," he can't allow himself to see that he has become the assassin—that is the design he could not face when awake.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

In the character of Constantia Davis, Charles Brockden Brown presents another of the strong women for which his fiction was famous. His first book, Alcuin (1798), was a feminist dialogue following Mary Wollstonecraft’s arguments for equality of the sexes. Many critics have maintained that Brown abandoned his feminist leanings in his later fiction, though this story shows that Brown’s ideal of strong and able women was still alive in 1805. Constantia objects to Althorpe’s overprotective concern for her. Later she scorns her father’s apprehension over the mysterious figure in the dark, observing that if he attacked them, it would be one against two, in their favor. Very few writers in 1805 would allow mere numbers to carry more value than gender in a fight or present a young woman as bolder in a pinch than her father.

The second theme common in Brown’s fiction and manifest in this story is the motif of the double. Brown’s protagonists are often found to have surprising symbolic or circumstantial connections with other characters who at first seem totally alien, and Althorpe is no exception. Althorpe is initially measured against his rival, Constantia’s fiancé, though he never appears in the story. More significantly, Althorpe seems mysteriously linked with the local prankster, Nick Handyside. The mysteriously figure seen at the oak is assumed by the local farmer to be Nick, but Davis is sure it is Althorpe. The stranger on the road tells Constantia and her father that Nick knows the dark woods intimately, yet earlier Althorpe had told them that he himself knew the woods as well as his own chamber. Althorpe’s affinity to Nick Handyside is an early clue to his unconscious role in Constantia’s murder.

Related to the theme of the double are Brown’s philosophical doubts about the limits of self-knowledge. As narrator, Althorpe gives readers a glimpse of his metal process, and instead of the rational, linear picture of human reason that might be expected from a writer of Brown’s generation, there is a jumble of contradictions and rationalizations. In one paragraph, Althorpe very reasonably argues for the propriety of his pursuing Constantia’s affections despite her betrothal to another man. In the very next paragraph, he inexplicably reverses himself, praising his rival. This flip-flopping continues for several paragraphs with no resolution.

Brown’s critique of reason, in the character of Althorpe, produces the power of imagination as reason’s rival. Even before he dreams of it, Althorpe imagines in great visual detail the journey of Mr. Davis and his daughter. His overwhelming powers of imagination are not altogether positive in effect; Althorpe likens his mental processes to superstition and, in another unconscious connection to Nick Handyside, pronounces his apprehensions of the fearful unknown inferior to those of “idiots and children.”