In Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, by Charles Brockden Brown, sleep-walking is used metaphorically as a figure of speech; applied to the action to which it is not literally applicable. Browns language is drawn from the medical writings of Erasmus Darwin and other eighteenth century medical and biological scientists. In late eighteenth century, from French Somnambulismus, which means to ‘sleep walk,’ and in Latin–somnus means ‘sleep,’ and ambulare means ‘to walk:’ sleep-walking is an action regarded as representing or symbolizing how little cognizance that men have over their actions and motives: how total blindness with regard to our own performance that we actually control. Sleep-walking denotes a wounded soul, it may be the onset of madness, and is connected to sleep disturbances.
The onset of Clithero’s somnambulism is described in quasi-clinical terms from Erasmus Darwin’s “Zoonamia.” As Edgar observes after Clithero’s sleepwalking: “The incapacity of sound sleep denotes a mind sorely wounded” (11). In this malady of sleep-walking, Clithero has the general appearance of being asleep in respect to their inattention to the stimulus of external objects, but, consists in voluntary physical exertions to relieve pain.
An indication of Clithero’s somnambulism include; “Now [Clithero’s] liberty in, his mind was gone. His attention was seized, respect, was at an end. [Clithero] was fettered confounded, smitten with excess of thought, and laid prostrate with wonder” (52). Note the term “wonder” has a clinical sense here, echoing Brown’s language in the preface, “To the Public,” when he writes that the novel will feature “one of the most wonderful diseases of the human frame” (page 3). The disease of sleep-walking metaphorical value’ our destiny is blind to our consciousness; our unconscious actions are greater than our conscious actions when our soul is wounded. Our unconsciousness determines our destiny.
Sleep-walking expresses itself through the senses, which are asleep, to external objects, yet it includes the physical power of movement. “It seemed as if [Clithero’s] senses had been hushed in sleep, while the powers of locomotion were unconsciously exerted to bear [him] to [his] chamber” (54-55). In this malady of sleep-walking, Clithero has the general appearance of being asleep in respect to his inattention to the stimulus of external objects, but consists of physical involuntary exertions to relieve pain.
Edgar exclamation about the difficulties of understanding complex situations and making decisions about them. “How imperfect are the grounds of all our decisions?” (64) This difficulty underlines the novel’s sleep-walking metaphor by pointing out the pressures and limits on individual action. And given how often Edgar and the novel’s other characters are mistaken, how often they make hasty judgments and jump to mistaken conclusions, the statement may also imply that enlightened action requires a rational grasp of the larger context of action rather than automatic responses based on the passions or backward-looking codes of behavior.
Sleep-walking has the general appearance of a person being asleep in respect to their inattention to the stimulus of external objects, but it consists in voluntary physical exertions to relieve pain. Sleep-walking is distinguished from madness. In madness the person possess the sensibility of the stimuli of external objects and physical action. The difference between sleep-walking and madness is presented when Edgar “was still asleep, and [either the situation] was a tormenting vision, or madness had seized [him], and the darkness that environed and the hunger that afflicted [him], existed only in [his] own distempered imagination” (110). Either the situation was that of his imagination or madness, involuntary or voluntary, unreal or real respectively. In the metaphorical sense, sleep-walking and madness are forms of blindness. “How little cognizances have men over the actions and motives of each other. How total is our blindness with regard to our own performances!” (185) The metaphorical value of blindness is presented in the form of a character as being sleep-walking or mad, in the form of imagery as being tormenting, and in the form of voice as being mad or that of having a distempered imagination.
Brown, Charles Brockden. Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2006.