Abortographism and the weapon of sympathy in Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of A Sleepwalker.
Conceived at a moment in time when the United States was in its infancy, facing an unknown future with dangers on all sides, Edgar Huntly has traditionally been read as a disjointed gothic novel reflecting the dire issues and chaos facing the new nation, one that in spite of its flaws gave birth to and defined the literary character of the American frontiersman. The protagonist--a young man orphaned in the Indian wars--finds his own way in the world, surmounting daunting physical and mental challenges to rise to a social level unimaginable in almost any other context. Combining the physical prowess of a "savage" with the ingenuity and superiority of a European, speaking the tongue of the working class, the educated elite, and the Delaware Indian, Edgar Huntly is a unique amalgamation that will become a dominant cultural prototype for American masculinity, evidenced from Cooper's "Deerslayer," to Davy Crocket, to George W. Bush.
This essay focuses on the novel's darker side, exploring Edgar Huntly's critically unacknowledged Machiavellian ambition and how the character uses an unusual rhetorical gift to secure his own future at all costs. Edgar Huntly seduces a woman (Mary) for social and economic gain and then writes to her in a style that causes a dangerous sympathetic response (beginning with compassion but quickly turning into terror) in the attempt to cause her to miscarry. This is done to "uncomplicate" his later established connection to Clarice, potential heir to the Lorimer estate. His supernatural ability to induce a miscarriage through an epistolary rhetorical abortofacient is confirmed by a successful second attempt on another obstacle threatening his eventual acquisition of the estate--the product of Mrs. Lorimer's recent marriage to Edgar's own teacher, Sarsefield. Unified by abortion imagery, violently effected through the vehicle of sympathy, this novel is a masculine colonization of the novel of feeling, a psychological cautionary tale.
Recent scholarship acknowledges this novel's psychological focus, but Brown critics have traditionally not known what to do with this oddly circuitous, often frenzied epistolary tale, written to the title character's betrothed, that charts the young man's covert investigation of her brother's death, his (Edgar's) spontaneous sleepwalking into the wilderness, and subsequent crazed adventures fighting panthers and Indians. Noting the gothic nature of the tale, the doubling of characters, the melodramatic writing style, the seemingly disconnected series of events, the mixing of several literary genres, Brown's cumbersome language and overindulgence in multi-syllabic vocabulary, critics generally agree that this novel is psychologically indicative or socially representative of the turbulence of the times. (1) The criticism reveals excellent forays into symbolic deaths and rebirths, themes of doubling, ghosts, guilt, psychological interiority, the realism and the rendering of the American landscape, the construction of the archetype of the American frontiersman, the conflict between civilization and the frontier, nationalism, and, of course, madness, madness, madness. But in the end, when it's time to discuss the relationship of the critical subject of the moment to the whole text, to the "pacquet" of four letters that make up the grand narrative Edgar bluntly, critics are typically at a loss. In the words of Steven Watts, the novel ultimately leads into a "wilderness of social, cultural, and psychological confusion" (128).
Relating the studied feature of the novel to its larger form historically has been a difficult task, and critics have tended to ascribe the problem of incoherence to Brown as a novelist. "Admittedly, there are flaws," claims Brown scholar Donald Ringe. A" number of loose ends are left at the end of the book; ... including the mishandled subplot" (85; 87). Norman Grabo notes Brown's "exasperating fuzziness of meaning keeps one from being entirely sure about his intention" (57), but he has the graces to state, "Now, I frankly do not understand all this" (72). William Hedges simply calls the novel as a whole, "botched" (122).
I believe, however, that Edgar Hunt& has thematic cohesiveness, and once the narrative pieces are put together, they reveal Brown staged his narrative thematically, with a terrifying twist at the end. Writing a long suspenseful tale as a letter to his betrothed, Mary, who has removed herself to the country following her brother's murder, Edgar relates his attempts to solve the crime that lead him on a torturous journey of bizarre and seemingly random subplots. After catching a form of sympathetic sleepwalking disease, Edgar noctambulates unarmed into the American wilderness where he battles panthers, Indians, and lunatics. The story itself is told in a style meant to depict the contortions of his "frenzied brain"--it stops and starts, jumps from fantastic scene to fantastic scene, with most of the characters indistinguishable in voice or description from one another. The action is outrageous, and the language is melodramatic and as overwrought as the lead character, himself.
The mistake that most critics make in approaching this work, however, and why it has remained confounding for so long, is that to see this text as a coming of age novel--where the protagonist is, well, the protagonist, one who relates his actions in chronological and causational form--is to mistake the stated interests of Edgar Huntly as the interests of Brown. In his preface to the novel, the author suggests that, "One merit the writer may at least claim; that of calling forth the passions and engaging the sympathy of the reader ..." (3), but [ believe once the reader sympathizes with Edgar, he or she fails to observe the clues that give this text its overall coherence. To take Edgar Huntly at face value is simply to be seduced by Edgar; in short, it is to play Mary to the narrator's Edgar, which is clearly not in one's best interest.
A century before Freud articulated the workings of the uncanny, the return of repressed, the timelessness of the unconscious, repetition compulsions, and the Darwinian nature of psychological survival, Brown, like a number of gothic writers, articulated the themes that psychotherapy would later define and systematize. That this is a psychological narrative isn't critically disputed. There is the uncanny doubling of characters (the two sleepwalkers, Clithero and Edgar, who both become involved with Sarsefield, Euphemia, and Clarice, who both speak similar words, and disappear into caves, who in their wild states wear only "something" about their waists; Euphemia and her actual twin Wiatte; Euphemia and her apparent twin in features, Clarice; etc); there are numerous themes of secrets (what's in Clithero's and Edgar's respective boxes? What needs to be excised from Waldegrave's letters that Mary couldn't stand to read? Who killed Waldegrave, and how did he get $8,000 dollars as a teacher in a "free negro school," and, of course, what has Edgar been doing that's kept him away from Mary for so long?). There's the many dramatic repeating of tableaus; the constant calling for the reader's sympathy; the implied dream states; the transference; the projection, displacement, and condensation; and the "oh so much" mental anguish. All of this is put into motion by the sleepwalking (and what is the implication of Freud's later named, ever present, and ever effectual Unconscious but that we are always "psychologically sleepwalking" through our waking environments). (2) And what do we do with Edgar's remorse, which is evident in almost every action he does, whether it's killing his "enemy" of the moment, devouring a wild cat, or always just showing up a little too late. Indeed, if there's one thing commented on more than anything by critics, it's this profound psychological hand-wringing--an unascribable remorse articulated literally on every page of Edgar's epistle. He is a very guilty man. (3)
And that may be one reason why he tries so hard to elicit sympathy. From the get-go, this narrative desperately seeks to evoke Mary's (and by extension the reader's) compassion. Edgar doesn't want understanding; he wants sympathy. He begins:
I sit down, my friend, to comply with thy request. At length does the impetuosity of my fears, the transports of my wonder permit me to recollect my promise and to perform it. At length am I somewhat delivered from suspense and tremors. At length the drama is brought to an imperfect close, and the series of events, that absorbed my faculties, that hurried away my attention, has terminated in repose. Till now, to hold a steadfast pen was impossible; to disengage my senses from the scene that was passing or approaching; to forbear to grasp at futurity; to suffer so much thought to wander from the purpose which engrossed my fears and my hopes, could not be. (5)
Edgar's clearly troubled, and yet he's also trying to convey his state of mind to the reader of his letter (as Clithero does to Edgar through tears and a contagious sleepwalking, as Wiatte, via fatal sympathy with Mrs. Lorimer, could his very death). (4) Very early in the novel, when seeing the weeping Clithero, Edgar remarks the effects of sympathy on himself. He starts out intending vengeance, but Clithero's tears have a curious effect on our narrator: "Every sentiment, at length, yielded to my sympathy" (10). He claims, "My caution had forsaken me, and instead of one whom it was duty to persecute, I beheld, in this man, nothing but an object of compassion.... I was prompted to advance nearer and hold his hand" (11). Edgar is, within a dozen pages, one with whom the compassionate and moral reader can sympathize. Thus Brown makes sympathy both the subject and object of his narrative, the modus operandi of his narrative style. (5) What isn't revealed explicitly though is that if he can forge a strong enough bond through compassion, Edgar can then pull his vulnerable reader (Mary) into a sympathetic terror that causes a miscarriage.
I'm not the first critic to see the importance of sympathy to this novel. In her Cato 's Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion, Julie Ellison places this novel squarely in a tradition of novels of sentiment, and Paul Lewis argues this novel should be read in relation to a tradition of women's fiction, noting Brown's depiction of intellectual women in works such as Wieland; but we should be cautious and stress the "in relation to," for unlike both critics, I believe this novel reveals a particularly misogynist appropriation of the novel of feeling.
In the opening of his letter, Edgar brutally recalls to Mary his feelings on her brother's enigmatic death, "The first intimation I received of this misfortune, the insanity of vengeance and grief into which I hurried, my fruitless searches for the author of this guilt, my midnight wanderings and reveries ... were revived and reenacted.... I beheld my friend, stretched out upon the earth, ghastly with a mortal wound, alone, with no traces of the slayer visible, no tokens by which his place of refuge might be sought, the motives of his enmity or his instruments of mischief might be detected" (7). This he follows with a ghostly description of seeing Clithero at "the fatal spot": "This apparition was human, it was connected to Waldegrave, it led to a disclosure of the author of that fate" (13, 10). His telling is, in what has become high gothic style, dramatic and suspenseful, enigmatic and laden with tension: "The Shape of a man, tall and robust, was now distinguished .... something like flannel was wrapt around his waist and covered his lower limbs. The rest of his frame was naked. I did not recognize in him anyone whom I knew" (10). It, rather anticlimactically, only turns out to be Clithero, sleepwalking.
Such melodramatic writing is calculated to evoke a sympathetic response from the reader, and Brown's novel--in effect--becomes a novel of feeling. But the sympathy evoked from the reader (Mary, you) is also explicitly modeled in Edgar (for Clithero becomes in language and deed Edgar's double); like Edgar in his opening lines, when confronted by our protagonist Clithero too struggles to speak his tale of horror and dread: "Now his countenance betokened of some violent internal struggle, it was a considerable time before he could command his speech. When he had so far effected the conquest of his feelings, he began" (33). Clithero claims:
You call for me a confession of my offenses. What a strange fortune is mine! That an human being, in the present circumstances, should make this demand, and that I should be driven, by an irresistible necessity to comply with it! That here should terminate my calamatous series! That my destiny should call upon me to lie down and die, in a region so remote from my crimes; at a distance, so great, from all that witnessed and endured their consequences! You believe me to be an assassin. You require me to explain the motives that induced me to murder the innocent. (34)
But if Clithero, as Edgar's double, can sympathetically speak for Edgar, then we need to look explicitly at the words Clithero uses. And this quote, especially the phrasing of the last six words, is particularly telling. They bring us to the paragraph and the point around which the entire novel revolves, the key as it were, given innocuously later in the novel as an aside to Edgar's chaotic, brutal adventure tale, that unlocks the mystery of this entire text.
Long after the initial salutation to Mary and the brief excuses for the lateness of his letter, during the time Edgar is stalking Clithero around the wild Norwalk countryside, Edgar mentions a stranger by the name of Weymouth has visited him, claiming that the deceased Waldegrave was a close traveling companion, on intimate financial terms. Weymouth asks Edgar how much money Waldegrave had in his possession, Edgar states a surprising and unlooked for $8,000, and Weymouth immediately claims $7,500 of it is his, given to Waldegrave to hold for him. He has no proof of this, but he makes an argument that Edgar says to Mary he believes. Weymouth also relates to Edgar how he found him by questioning the servants who lived with Mary and Waldegrave before the murder:
They told me [Weymouth claims] that Waldegrave's sister had gone to live in the country, but whither and for how long, she did not condescend to inform them, and they did not care to ask. She was a topping dame whose notions were much too high for her station. Who was more nice than wise, and yet was one who could stoop, when it most became her to stand upright. It was not business of theirs, but they could not but mention their suspicions that she had good reason for leaving the city, and for concealing the place of her retreat. Some things were hard to be disguised. They spoke for themselves, and the only way to hinder disagreeable discoveries, was to keep out of sight.... After much discourse they, at length, let fall an intimation that if any one knew of her place of retreat, it was probably a country lad, by name Huntly, who lived near the Forks of Delaware. After Waldegrave's death, this lad had paid the sister a visit, and seemed to be admitted on a very confidential footing ... (141)
This seemingly "random" paragraph, buried in the middle of Edgar's heroic exploits killing Indians and panthers, reveals that his betrothed is not only in mourning, she's pregnant. The servants antipathy for Mary is clear, but they also let slip that she was "a topping dame," one who had pretensions (if not ambition), and was "more nice than wise ... who could stoop when it became her to stand upright." Her coquetry does not fail to land her in trouble, for they suggest "she had good reason for leaving the city, and for concealing the place of her retreat. Some things were hard to be disguised ...," and in case it's not clear enough, they add, "the only way to hinder disagreeable discoveries, was to keep out of sight." Of course they also finger Edgar as the young man who was visiting her, who would know where she was hiding.
The source of Edgar's guilt, his sense of desperation, the frenzied thoughts, the tension, the sense of pressure, and the constant running, running, running through a bleak and hostile wilderness--what Huntly critics recognize but fail to acknowledge the reason for--is that Edgar has impregnated Mary and has promised to marry her. Like Sanford in Hannah Foster's The Coquette, he's hidden her in the country, and she's waiting for his long overdue return. Time is passing, and a decisive moment in this bachelor's fate, for good or ill, draws near.
If our first and only description of Mary in the entire novel raises an eyebrow, the fact that Edgar includes this description of Mary in a letter to her should lift the other brow. He articulates, albeit through several mediators, to his "friend" (the nomenclature of the addressee of the letter, is itself sadly revealing of his current feelings for Mary) that "people" are calling her, in effect, "sluttish." A rather brutal inclusion in a letter to one's expecting "betrothed." No matter the initial source of the utterance that Edgar includes in his letter--the servants, Weymouth (if he even exists), or Edgar--one can be confident in assuming that Mary herself would not gloss over the passage. It would burn.
Edgar quickly relates Weymouth's claim on her money, and arrives at the conclusion that we (Mary) should pay up. He also quickly mentions, that their marriage is, unfortunately, now off:
Thou hast honoured me with thy affect)on, but that union, on which we rely for happiness, could not take place while both of us were poor.... This obstacle was unexpectedly removed by the death of your brother. However justly to be deplored was this catastrophe, yet like every other event, some of its consequences were good. By giving you the possession of the means of independence and leisure, by enabling us to complete a contract which poverty alone had thus long delayed, this event has been, at the same time, the most disastrous and propitious which could have happened. (148)
He also says that not only must they (Mary) return the money (Mary must accept she's both pregnant and henceforth destitute), but that she owes a debt to Weymouth: "Our flattering projects are now shut in. You must return to your original poverty, and once more depend for precarious subsistence on your needle. You cannot restore the whole, for unavoidable expenses and the change of your mode of living, has consumed part of it" (149). If Edgar's tale thus far hasn't struck fury, terror, or despair into Mary, his abandonment of her into poverty will.
And this also marks where our sympathy for Edgar and how we choose to read on in this text becomes decisive. For while Edgar is subsequently gallivanting about the wilderness, begging for the reader's indulgence in his own travails, relating the dread and terror, and suspense that the reader should feel reading of them, Mary is actually the one in desperate trouble. The greater text is thus concerned with Edgar's immature, narcissistic egoism. (6) Edgar's advice to Mary--pregnant, unmarried, orphaned, and friendless, facing poverty in the late eighteenth century--is that she start sewing. "Wedlock," he claims, "is now more distant than ever. My heart bleeds to think of the sufferings which my beloved Mary is again fated to endure, but regrets only aggravate the calamity. They are pernicious and it is our duty to shake them off" (149). Enough about this he decides, quickly returning to his own story; his adventure narrative must continue, and it does so, uninterrupted, to the end of his letter.
It is with this knowledge of Edgar's "situation" (relative to Mary's) that we must look anew at Edgar's narrative, reading it through the lens of his psychological state. Take for example, the wording of Clithero's quote--Clithero who as a double for Edgar speaks lines with which Mary--in her state--cannot help but with which to sympathize, consciously or unconsciously.
You call for me a confession of my offenses. What a strange fortune is mine! That an human being, in the present circumstances, should make this demand, and that I should be driven, by an irresistible necessity to comply with it! That here should terminate my calamatous series! That my destiny should call upon me to lie down and die, in a region so remote from my crimes; at a distance, so great, from all that witnessed and endured their consequences! You believe me to be an assassin. You require me to explain the motives that induced me to murder the innocent. (emphasis mine, 34)
If Edgar is eliciting sympathy from the reader in his language (we must remember, he is the author of this letter, is writing Clithero's part), the sympathetic effect he's looking for in Mary is also a wishful one. Edgar's language throughout, whether it's relating what other people tell him or describing his own adventures--in this letter to an abandoned pregnant woman, becomes brutally loaded with terms of pregnancy and abortion.
From the beginning Edgar's language reveals he projects the theme of his situation upon Clithero. When thinking of Clithero's condition, he announces, "It could not fail to terminate in one conjecture" (12). That Clithero is sleepwalking is the answer to that riddle, but the solution doesn't result in a resolution of Edgar's stress. Indeed, it intensifies it. "I incessantly ruminated on the incidents of the last night.., should I resolve to undertake a new pursuit, which might terminate abortively, or in some signal disaster?" (22) At the same time that Edgar's level of anxiety rises (although he often insists otherwise), a language of obstetrics, metaphors of pregnancy and of abortion, begin to saturate the text, and the language spoken by all the characters in it. "My condition," Clithero tells Edgar once our protagonist comers him, "was not destitute of enjoyment. My stormy passions had subsided into a calm, portentous and awful. My soul was big with expectation. I seemed as if I were on the eve of being ushered into a world, whose scenes were tremendous, but sublime" (32).
Although Clithero's tale now comes to the forefront of the text, we must remember Edgar is writing Clithero's part in this letter to Mary. Thus when Clithero claims, "Till consciousness itself be extinct, the worm that gnaws me will never perish. Fain would I be relieved from this task. Gladly would I bury in oblivion the transactions of my life" (35), we see thematically Edgar's plight. And when Clithero awkwardly articulates his story regarding his Mistress's daily behavior--"I can scarcely believe her attempts miscarried" (45)--he does so with words more significant than the actions denoted. When Clithero describes Euphemia's brother Wiatte, we must see some importance to Edgar's inclusion of this description in his letter to Mary, an importance Mary would not miss: "Among the nefarious deeds which he perpetrated was to be numbered the seduction of a young lady, whose heart was broken by the detection of his perfidy. The fruit of this unhappy union was a daughter. Her mother died shortly after her birth. Her father was careless of her destiny" (46).
In Edgar's inclusion of Euphemia's asking Clithero, whom she's adopted, "to explain the cause of dejection that was too visible" (51), it is Edgar who stresses the dependant clause in his letter--four words that Mary in her condition would certainly notice. We readers should be as attuned to this theme as Mary would be. When Clithero considers Wiatte, his thoughts are laden with meaning:
He by whose cruelty her mother was torn from the injoyment of untarnished honour, and consigned to infamy and an untimely grave: He by whom herself was abandoned in the helplessness of infancy, and left to be the prey of obdurate avarice, and the victim of wretches who traffic in virgin innocence: Who had done all that in him lay to devote her youth to guilt and misery. What were the limits of his power? How may he exert the parental perogatives? (64)
And thus Edgar's doppleganger seems not such an unimportant character after all, and the subplots &this tale may not be random or mishandled but thematically contructed to convey Edgar's anxieties, desires, and even threats. Yes, it is Clithero who claims, "To terminate a state of intolerable suspense, I resolved to proceed forthwith to her chamber. I took the light and paced, with no interruption, along the galleries. I used no precaution" (75), but the language is more appropriately Edgar's.
The theme isn't all carried by proxy. When Edgar stops and reflects on his life, he notes his own "thoughts were pregnant with dejection and reverie" (132). And when he realizes he's trapped--literally in a cave--his language underscores the metaphorical import of the episode: "The scene was pregnant with astonishment and horror" (151).
These are just a few of the myriad samples of the language Edgar uses to describe his or Clithero's situation; and whether Clithero be principle or agent does not really matter, for his language is a vehicle for Edgar's articulation of the mental state that grips him. Terminology of pregnancy, horror, loathing, guilt, abortion, violence, and miscarriage appear on almost every page of this text and to a desperate pregnant girl convey a harsh subtext--all under a frenzied, gripping, "series of events" that, as he claims in his first paragraph, "absorbed his faculties, that hurried away [his] attention, [and only now] terminated in repose."
In light of Mary's pregnancy, and reinforcing the language of fatal obstetrics, we see the "critically inexplicable curiosites" of this novel are included for metaphorically obvious reasons. Take, for instance, all the curious boxes that keep appearing. Following Clithero's first disappearance, Edgar searches his apartment and finds Clithero's unusual box:
I surveyed it with the utmost attention. All its parts appeared equally solid and smooth. It could not be doubted that one of its sides served the purpose of a lid, and was possible to be raised. Mere strength could not be applied to raise it, because there was no projecture which might firmly he held in the hand. and by which force could he exerted. Some spring. therefore secretly existed which might forever elude the senses, but on which the hand, by being moved over it, in all directions, might accidentally light. (112)
Edgar admits that the box cannot be entered, "by the uninitiated," but he knows the secret, and by dexterous digital maneuvers he opens it (112). This first box reveals nothing of any value to Edgar, but he finds that it comes with a catch: "I attempted to close the lid; but the spring which had raised it refused to bend.... Clithero had provided not only against the opening of his cabinet, but likewise against the possibility of concealing that it had been opened" (113). Given Mary's situation, it's not hard to conjecture what "this box that can be opened but never closed" crudely serves as metaphor for. Neither is it a big step to see Edgar's current feelings associated with the feminine metaphor, for when he finds a second box that Clithero buries, he breaks that one, too--this time violently: "I was somewhat desperate, as my curiosity was more impetuous, with regard to the smaller than to the larger cabinet. I placed it on the ground and crushed it to pieces with my heel" (115). (7)
And the landscape that Edgar explores, whether realistically or psychologically depicted, is an oddly procreative one. (8) Upon emerging from an exploration of the cave (we'll get to that, too), Edgar finds himself on an unusual hill that he circumscribes:
As I kept along the verge, I perceived that it tended in a circular direction, and brought me back, at last, to the spot from which I had set out.... I now turned my attention to the interior space. If you imagine a cylindrical mass, with a cavity dug in the center, whose edge conforms to the exterior edge; and, you place in this cavity another cylinder, higher than that which surrounds it, but so small as to leave between its sides and those of the cavity, an hollow space, you will gain as distinct an image of this hill as words can convey.... A stream, rushing from above, fell into the cavity, which of its own force seemed gradually to have made. (98-99)
This wild, copulatory landscape of one cylindrical taller hill--capped with a gushing stream--thrusting out of a low circular hill impresses Edgar greatly. "A sort of sanctity and awe environed it, owing to the consciousness of absolute and utter loneliness." (9) It was probable, "he claims, "that human feet had never before gained this recess, that human eyes had never been fixed upon these gushing waters ..." (99).
Of course with a land as fecund as this, one can't help but generate connections to Edgar's and Mary's sexual relationship and respective plights. When chasing his double into the wilderness, Edgar notes, "We, at last, arrived at the verge of a considerable precipice [and the] scene reminded me of my situation" (19). Written with all the botanical sexual delicacy of an Adrienne Rich poem, the landscape Clithero and Edgar explore suggests much. "The stranger [Clithero] kept along the verge of the cliff, which gradually declined until it terminated in the valley. He then plunged into its deepest thickets. In a quarter of an hour he stopped under the projecture of a rock, [and] proceeded to remove the stalks, which, as I immediately perceived, concealed the mouth of a cavern. He then plunged into the darkness, and in a few moments, his steps were heard no more!
Edgar's dread of the cave and what it may hold proves too much. "Hitherto my courage had supported me, but here it failed.... I seated myself at the mouth of the cave, determined patiently to wait till he should think proper to emerge.... My attention was at length excited by a sound that seemed to issue from the cave ....I blamed myself for neglecting the opportunities that had already been afforded, and was determined that another should not escape.... The rustling increased, and presently an animal leapt forth, of what kind I was unable to discover ... Thus unsatisfactorily terminated this night's adventures" (19-21). This encounter signals Edgar's sexual curiosity and trepidation, and both climax as a panther leaps from the cave. Clithero--Edgar's double--went in, but something else came out. Worth noting, too, is Edgar's determination to arrest whatever would issue from the cave and the "unsatisfactory termination" of his nocturnal adventure.
The very next chapter begins with Edgar sleeping in, exhausted by his nocturnal doings. "The ensuing day was spent, partly in sleep, and partly in languor and disquietude. I incessantly ruminated on the incidents of the last night ... should I resolve to undertake a new pursuit, which might terminate abortively, or in some signal disaster?" (22) Indeed the landscape itself, becomes "pregnant with meaning," and Edgar mentions, "My attention has often been excited by the hollow sound which was produced by my casual footsteps which shewed me that I trod upon the roof of caverns" (22). (10) Although the narrative appears disjointed, from a psychoanalytical standpoint it is thematically unified. (11)
Clithero's confession of his own nocturnal "exploration" of Euphemia Lorimer's private chambers on the night he tries to kill her are also psychologically telling--"This was the a sacred recess, with whose situation, relative to other apartments of the building, I was well acquainted, but of which I knew nothing from my own examination, having never been admitted into it." The violence he attempts there is sexualized as well:
I lifted the weapon. Its point was aimed at the bosom of the sleeper. The impulse was given.... At the instant a piercing shriek was uttered behind me, and a stretched out hand, grasping the blade, made it swerve widely from its aim. It descended, but without inflicting a wound. Its force was spent upon the bed. O! for words to paint that stormy transition! I loosed my hold of the dagger. I started back and fixed eyes of frantic curiosity on the author of my rescue ... (79)
Clithero's attack is written in the language of the pornography of the time, even his violent "possession narrative" ends prematurely in a form of coitus interruptus. (12) Edgar claims frustration that Clithero closes his narrative abruptly: "The secret, which I imagined was about to be disclosed, was as inscrutable as ever" (86), but Clithero suggestes to the reader that his and Edgar's situation is one and the same, for just as Edgar spends much of his time in a cave, Clithero too claims: "Often have I brooded over my sorrows in the recesses of that cavern" (84).
Of course, Edgar's description of the cave that marks the perilous portion his tale furthers the morbidly rendered gynaecological themes.
The entrance was low, and compelled me to resort to hands as well as feet. At a few yards from the mouth the light disappeared, and I found myself immersed in the dunnest obscurity. Had I not been persuaded that another had gone before me, I should have relinquished the attempt. I proceeded with the utmost caution, always ascertaining, by outstretched arms the height and breadth of the cavity before me. In a short time the dimensions expanded upon all sides, and permitted me to resume my feet. (95)
The cave he explores is full of dangers, and he expresses feelings of dread within its turnings: "... here it seemed as if I was surrounded by barriers that would forever cut off my return to air and to light" (94).
Soon after his initial exploration of the cave, which of course begins narrow before widening into a large dark room, the forward momentum of the novel dramatically changes. The shift is significant, signaled within the text with Edgar collecting himself before a second, and even more frenzied narrative dash. Edgar tells his reader, "Here, my friend, thou must permit me to pause" (151). (13) Then he begins again: "Now that I am able to hold a pen, I will hasten to terminate that uncertainty with regard to my fate, in which my silence has involved thee. I will recall that series of unheard of and disastrous vicissitudes which has constitute the latest portion of my life" (151). Edgar claims he was sympathetically infected by Clithero's sleepwalking disease, retraced his footsteps to the cave, entered and fell into a circular pit deep in the recesses of the wider cavern, knocking himself into a deeper unconscious state. His slow reawakening begins the second half of the book. Of course the image is of rebirth, and a journey into the unconscious (this is where he begins his own transformation into a "savage" and embarks upon a series of violent adventures). (14)
I emerged from oblivion in degrees so slow and so faint, that their succession cannot be marked. When enabled at length to attend to the information which my senses afforded, I was conscious, for a time, of nothing but existence.... I perceived that my posture was supine, and that I lay upon my back. I attempted to open my eyes ... the darkness that environed me was as intense as before.... I was neither naked nor clothed. (152-53)
Upon first understanding his predicament, he notably remarks, "The scene was pregnant with astonishment and horror" (151); and after numerous attempts, he slowly gains control of motor functions.
After various efforts I stood upon my feet. At first I trailered and staggered, I stretched out my hands on all sides but met only with vacuity. I advanced forward. At the third step my foot moved something which lay upon the ground: I stooped and took it up and found, on examination, that it was an Indian Tom-hawk. (154)
In addition to the scene being one in which Edgar is morbidly trapped by a womb ("Sometimes I imagined myself buried alive"), his crawling and tottering attempts to walk are also the images of psychological regression, signaling Edgar's desires both to return to his own mother's womb and to a state of relative innocence (if not presexual then at least presexual with Mary) (155).
Starving, Edgar eats his shirt, and clothed only about the waist becomes the spitting image of the sleepwalking Clithero he first discovered weeping over the buried box (156). It's important to note how this image functions as both the articulation of his fear of his "situation" and of his own narcissism. The psychological condensation is intense:
I now recollected the Tom-hawk was at hand, and rejoiced in the possession of an instrument by which I could so effectually terminate my sufferings. I took it in my hand, moved its edge over my fingers, and reflected on the force that was required to make it reach my heart. I investigated the spot where it should enter, and strove to fortify myself with resolution to repeat the stroke a second or third time, if the first should prove inefficient. (157)
Not only does he articulate his own desire to flee his situation by returning to the womb, overlaid with a narcissistic yearning for suicide, but this conflates his own retroactively wished for abortion (a kind of desperate, "I wish I had never been born" plea) with the abortion wished upon Mary (his gynaecological "instrument" for accomplishing this impressive feat is notably a "savage's tom-hawk"). Further, in this overdetermined utterance he denies his love for Mary--in that he claims he will end his suffering by literally cutting out his heart. Before he acts, however, he notices the pit itself is not barren of life:
... I cast my eyes wildly and languidly about. The darkness was no less intense than in the pit below, and yet two objects were distinctly seen. They resembled a fixed and obscure flame. They were motionless. Though lustrous themselves, they created no illumination around them. This circumstance, added to others, which reminded me of similar objects, noted on former occasions, immediately explained the nature of what I beheld. These were the eyes of a panther.... The first impulse was to arm myself against this enemy.... There was not time for deliberation and delay.... All the force that remained was mustered up and exerted in a throw.... I aimed at the middle space between those glowing orbs. It penetrated the scull and the animal fell, struggling and shrieking on the ground. (159)
If this cave is a metaphorical womb, then the womb certainly functions as Mary's, as well as Edgar's mother's. Edgar's unconscious foray into the cave (which as we've seen was already highly sexualized) leads him to a direct confrontation with a pair of eyes waiting for him, which turn out to be his "enemy." Reinforcing the reading of the panther in the cave as a double for his own child in Mary's womb is his previous description of the panther's mate, which he also referred to as "my enemy": "His grey coat, extended claws, fiery eyes, and a cry which he at that moment uttered and which, by its resemblance to the human voice, is peculiarly terrific, denoted him to be the most ferocious and untamable of that detested race" (118; emphasis mine). And what does Edgar do when he encounters the human sounding creature in the cave? His first instinct upon seeing a pair of eyes in the darkness of the pit that entraps him is to kill it. Not only does he do so, but then he afterwards describes feasting on its blood. Again, note the similarities in language to the earlier pit description: "the scene pregnant with astonishment and horror."
My hunger had arrived at that pitch where all fastidiousness and scruples are at an end. I crept to that spot.... I will not shock you by relating the extremes to which dire necessities had driven me. I review the scene with loathing and horror. (160)
Edgar conjectures this panther was the same animal that "issued from the mouth of the cave" while Edgar awaited Clithero's reappearance on the first night. The entire scene--from Edgar's unconscious adventure into the cave that traps him, his own narcissistic "birthing within the womb" (which we assume is his mother's but also Mary's, and thus which speaks of a compounded desire to supplant his own child physically and emotionally), his narcissistic morbidity and dread, and finally the graphic killing of the terrifying panther/baby (condensing a fear and hatred of encountering female sexuality--it is, after all a big cat--and of the resulting child), an enemy he violently destroys and voraciously consumes--all this beautifully articulates the forces and desires traversing Edgar's desperate psychological "state." The narrative, Edgar Huntly, may be "flawed" if we read it for its manifest content only or as a chronological series of events, but its conveyance of condensed latent psychological content is incredibly well done.
All of these psychological forces are carried into the subsequent scenes as well. For upon vomiting up his terrible meal (he claims, he "regrets his rash decision" (160)), he is able to climb out of the pit; but once again his path is blocked. This time there are five Indians (with a captive girl) resting just inside the exit to the cave. He succeeds in killing one of his enemies (again with a Tom-hawk), picking up a gun, and escaping with the girl, who we will see becomes a double for Mary. He notes, "I was obliged, in these arduous circumstances, to support not only myself, but my companion. Her strength was overpowered by her evening journey, and the terror of being overtaken, incessantly harassed her (175).
They find a hut in the forest and rest, only to be overtaken by three of the four remaining Indians. Edgar unfortunately tries to hide himself in the ash pit (another morbid vaginal metaphor) to fire on the Indians as they come one by one through the door:
Into this it was possible to thrust my body. A sort of screen might be formed of brushwood, and more deliberate and effectual execution done upon the enemy. I weighed not the disadvantages of this scheme, but precipitously threw myself into this cavity. I discovered, in an instant, that it was totally unlit for my purpose but it was too late to repair my miscarriage. (181)
He falls out the back of the hut, but unobserved by the Indians he runs around the side of the cabin as they enter the house and from this new position outside awaits for them to issue from the door. Mary's double, however, doesn't fare so well. "Presently I heard an heavy stroke descend ... followed by a loud shriek. The continuance of these shrieks proved that the stroke had not been instantly fatal. I waited to hear it repeated, but the sounds that now arose were like those produced by dragging somewhat along the ground. The shrieks, meanwhile, were incessant and piteous" (182).
Edgar succeeds in killing each "enemy" (repeatedly described also as belonging to a "savage" and "detested race," associating them linguistically with the panther/ baby) as he appears in the door, with one of the Indians grazing his head with a bullet in the process; and once again the phrases are psychologically telling: "I was the instrument of their destruction. This scene of carnage and blood was laid by me. To this havoc and horror was I led by such rapid foot-steps!" (186). The girl, of course--in this extended metaphorical scene of infanticide in which Edgar kills each Indian as he "issued from the door"--has been sorely wounded in the process: "I went to her and endeavored to console her. I found that while lying in the bed, she had received a blow upon the side, which was still productive of acute pain" (186). The girl's father arrives with a search party and the two are happily reunited, reflecting one could say a desperate and preposterous wish fantasy of Edgar's: "This delight was succeeded by solicitude respecting her condition. She could only answer his inquiries by complaining that her side was bruised to pieces. ... I derived new joy from reflecting that I had not abandoned her, and that she owed her preservation to my efforts" (187-88). Fortunately, the ordeal has been too much for Edgar; he faints into the pile of Indians, and assuming he's dead, the father and daughter leave.
If the panther scene, followed immediately by the scene of killing four other "enemies"--one at the mouth of the cave and three as they came out of the door of the hut owned by one "Old Deb" (and a "Deb," by the way, is an eighteenth century term for a single, eligible bachelor)--if these are metaphorical scenes of abortion, then it's no surprise that upon again waking, Edgar's repelled by what he sees:
My head had reposed upon the breast of him who I had shot in this part of his body. The blood had ceased to ooze from that wound, but my disheveled rocks were matted and steeped in that gore which had overflowed and choaked up the orifice. I started from this detested pillow, and regained my feet. (189)
The repulsion and hostility Edgar exhibits for the many metaphorical female reproductive organs and the images of reproductivity are evident throughout this text (from the slaying of the terrifying cat to metaphorical birthing scenes such as the one above), they are countered by phantastically invested, if narratively tangential, descriptions of the triply phallic gun he picked up from the Indians, which it turns out "was his own" (previously stolen) weapon (179). "This piece was of extraordinary workmanship ... constructed for the purposes not of sport but of war. The artist had made it a congeries of tubes and springs, [and a] dagger's blade was attached to it, capable of being fixed at the end, and of answering the destructive purpose of a bayonet" (179-180).
He shoulders his weapon and starts again on his adventure, only to run into the fifth Indian, which he describes in language that explicitly ties the panther/baby to the Indians by making him a crawling "human adversary," Edgar's last "surviving enemy" (91). "My eye was now caught by movements which appeared like those of a beast. In different circumstances, I should have instantly supposed it to be a wolf, a panther, or bear. Now my suspicions were alive on a different account, and my startled fancy figured to itself nothing but an human adversary.... He moved upon all fours, and presently came near enough to be distinguished.... This was my surviving enemy" (191).
Edgar voices regret at "what must be done," to his crawling enemy, but he pulls the trigger anyway. "I saw that forbearance was no longer in my power; but my heart shrunk while I complied with what may surely be deemed an indispensable necessity. This faltering, perhaps it was, that made me swerve somewhat from the fatal line. He was disabled by the wound, but not killed" (192).
Edgar now embarks on a horrifying description--the worst in the book: "He rolled upon the ground, uttering doleful shrieks, and throwing his limbs in those contorsions which bespeak the keenest agonies to which ill-fated man is subject. Horror, and compassion, and remorse, were mingled into one sentiment, and took possession of my heart" In emotional turmoil, Edgar flees. "To shut out the spectacle I withdrew from the spot, but I stopped before ! had moved beyond hearing of his cries" (192-93). Unfortunately for the readers (both Mary and us), the narrator, however, decides to return and spares no detail of what he sees, and the graphic description of Edgar's dying enemy goes on at length. We are, through that sympathetic rhetorical bond, forced to endure his tale, which I believe is an intentional act on Edgar's part. Further down the page, he realizes,
There was but one way to end them. To kill him outright, was the dictate of compassion and of duty. I hastily returned and once more leveled my piece at his head. It was a loathsome obligation, and was performed with unconquerable reluctance. Thus to assault and to mangle the body of an enemy, already prostrate and powerless, was an act worthy of abhorrence; yet it was, in this case, prescribed by pity.... My faltering hand rendered the second bullet ineffectual. One expedient, still more detestable, remained. Having gone thus far, it would have been inhuman to stop short. His heart might easily be pierced by the bayonet, and his struggles would cease. This task of cruel lenity was at length finished. I dropped my weapon and threw myself on the ground, overpowered by the horrors of the scene. (193)
Afterwards, he shows no regret, "I left the savage where he lay, but made prize of his tom-hawk. I had left my own in the cavern; and this weapon added little to my burden. Prompted by some freak of fancy, I stuck his musquet in the ground, and left it standing upright in the middle of the road" (194).
What are critically understood as "tangential" and overly wrought subplots are in fact thematically coherent and reinforce the overarching situation behind Edgar's tale. Even the most minor plots fall under this imagery of abortion or the psychological desperation of Edgar's paternal plight. Edgar, for example comes across a disheveled house with drunken father who is unable to stand, and he notes, "The miseries which a debauched husband or father inflicts upon all whom their evil destiny allies to him were pictured by my fancy, and wrung from me tears of anguish. These images, however, quickly yielded to reflections on my own state." He finds in his barn a woman and a baby:
The cries of the babe continued, but were accompanied by intreaties of a nurse or a mother to be quiet. These intreaties were mingled with heartbreaking sobs and exclamations of ... Ah! Me, my babe! Canst thou not sleep and afford thy unhappy mother some peace? Thou art cold. and I have not sufficient warmth to cherish thee! What will become of us? Thy deluded father cares not if we both perish. (219)
These are further utterances to alarm Mary. And when Edgar details unexpectedly coming upon the chopped-up body of a woman, the psychological implications are clear. "It was the corse [corpse] of a girl, mangled by an hatchet [tomahawk]. Her head gory and deprived of its looks, easily explained the kind of enemies by whom she had been assailed" (220). With what we know of Edgar's skill with a tomahawk, of Mary's condition, and of Edgar's feelings on it, scenes such as these make sense, replaying over and over again, a scene of psychological violence directed at Edgar's unborn child and at Mary herself, saturated with feelings of guilt, loathing, narcissistic morbidity, entrapment, despair, dread, and loneliness--all masked by a veneer of a peculiarly American masculine heroism. Through the description of the killing of his "surviving enemy" and of the girl above, one can see Edgar's own violent resentment towards Mary and what he is, at least psychologically, capable of.
Now, Brown could have ended his novel with this desperate psychological state uncannily described, but he doesn't. We also have yet to deal with the hyperbolic evocation of sympathy, for if Edgar wants compassion, or if Brown wants to simply describe a state of mind, either could have been accomplished without the excessive, anxious insistence on sympathy. And, of course, there are the three brief letters included at the end of the overall "pacquet" of the novel, letters which although again seemingly afterthoughts of the author, have tremendous bearing on our understanding of Edgar and the larger narrative. In this case a study of the latter reveals the motive behind the former. For just before closing the larger narrative, Edgar is reunited with his long lost friend and teacher, Sarsefield, who tells him Edgar's uncle is dead, which leaves Edgar and his sisters without home or support. Edgar tells Mary, "My uncle's death will transfer this property to his son, who is a stranger and an enemy to us, and the first act of whose authority will unquestionably be to turn us forth from these doors" (149). Of course Edgar already knows this when he writes to Mary much earlier in the same letter that she must return the money to Weymouth, and that he can't marry her (indicating Edgar is either incredibly honest or he has another, better opportunity in the works).
Indeed, the moment he sees Sarsefield, and his old friend is startled at his being alive, Edgar asserts his existence and suggests both his past and a new relationship to his pedagogue. "Can you need any proof, I answered, that it is Edgar Huntly, your pupil, your child that speaks to you?" (233). Edgar's articulated wish for adoption is agreeable to Sarsefield, himself, who has recently married the wealthy Euphemia Lorimer, the mother of the very Clarice to whom Clithero was betrothed and tried to kill. Sarsefield states:
Some days since, I arrived, in company with a lady who is my wife, in America. You have never been forgotten by me. I knew your situation to be little in agreement with your wishes, and one of the benefits which has lately conferred upon me, is the power of snatching you from a life of labour and obscurity; whose goods, scanty as they are, were transient and precarious; and affording you the suitable leisure and means of intellectual gratification and improvement. (237)
Not only that. but Sarsefield offers an additional prize as well--Clarice, herself: "I came with fortune and a better gift than fortune in my hand. I intended to bestow both upon you, not only to give you competence, but one who would endear to you that competence, who would enhance, by participating, every gratification" (250). Edgar's letter to Mary, at the end of which he includes this, is nothing if not audacious. The Indian fighting adventures are terrifying, to be sure, but the nature of the letter to Mary becomes immediately clear. Sarsefield continues:
Yes, Huntly, I am wedded to the most excellent of women. To her I am indebted for happiness and wealth and dignity and honour. To her do I owe the power of being benefactor and protector of you and your sisters. She longs to embrace you as a son. To become truly her son, will depend upon your own choice and that of one, who was the companion of our voyage. (252)
It is incredible--if he is the protagonist with whom we are asked to sympathize--that Edgar includes this in his letter to the lonesome pregnant woman who has been anxiously awaiting word from him. But it is not difficult to understand if instead we accept Edgar is also the novel's antagonist.
And here in this essay we too must pause and recollect. Yes, Edgar's letter reveals his psychological state in relation to his "situation" with Mary, and his preoccupation with abortion. But Edgar is not simply a passive character. As the antagonist of this novel, and an extremely dangerous one, he possesses a strange power to cause ill, a power of which he is acutely aware and which he often uses. This is where Edgar's meta-epistolary motivations become clear, and the novel moves from melodramatic to sinister. After his adventures in the wilderness--but before he writes the long letter to Mary--he tells Sarsefield of his adventures and of Clithero, and as he does so, he watches the effects of his language:
During this recital, I fixed my eyes upon the countenance of Sarsefield, and watched every emotion as it rose or declined. With the progress of my tale, his indignation and fury grew less, and at length gave place to horror and compassion. His seat became uneasy, his pulse throbbed with new vehemence. When I came to the motives which prompted the unhappy man to visit the chamber of his mistress, he started from his seat. and sometimes strode across the floor in a troubled mood, and sometimes stood before me, with his breath almost suspended in the eagerness of his attention. When I mentioned the lifted dagger, the shriek from behind, and the apparition that interposed, he shuddered and drew back as if a dagger had been aimed at his breast. (264)
Edgar reveals he flatly watches his tale's effects, and sees he can forge "that sympathetic reaction" productive of an intensely physical, emotional response. Through language he effects the very responses he describes.
After quickly closing his letter to Mary, he moves on to the first of three alarming, post-script missives that together reveal the full extent of his rhetorical power.
To Mr Sarsefield:
I came hither but ten minutes ago, and write this letter in the bar of the Stagehouse. I wish not to lose a moment in informing you of what has happened. I cannot do justice to my own feelings when I reflect upon the rashness of which I have been guilty. At present, I shall only say that Clithero is alive, is apprised of your wife's arrival and abode in New York, and has set out, with mysterious intentions to visit her. May heaven avert the consequences of such a design. May you be enabled of some means to prevent their meeting. If you cannot prevent it--but I must not reason on such an event, nor lengthen out this letter. (273)
In the hands of a second carrier he sends a second note to Sarsefield in which he details his conversation with Clithero, who he says he tracked down and accidentally informed of Euphemia's health, and of her address. He notes, again with detachment, the strange power of his words on Clithero, "These words produced a visible shock in my companion ... Euphemia Lorimer is alive; that I have seen her with these eyes; have talked with her; have inhabited the same house for months," and arguably his words produce their desired effect (279). Clithero rejoins, "Thou hast once more let loose my steps, and sent me on a fearful journey.... I will fly to the spot thou describest.... If she be alive then I am reserved for the performance of a new crime. My evil destiny will have it so ..." (280).
All this he relates in the second letter to Sarsefield, and his words are calculated to produce alarm. He warns his "new father" of Clithero's
resolution to seek the presence of your wife. l had furnished a clue, which could not fail to conduct him to her presence. What might not be dreaded from an interview? Clithero is a maniac.... He talked of a deed, for the performance of which, his malignant fate had reserved him.... Heaven grant that some means may suggest themselves to you of intercepting his approach. Yet I know not what means can be conceived. (280)
Edgar confesses he's made a mistake, but he is strangely confident he will be forgiven for it. "I shall not escape your censure," he claims, "but I shall, likewise, gain your compassion. I have erred, not through sinister or malignant intentions, but from the impulse of a misguided, indeed, but powerful benevolence" (281). What follows is a last, strange letter from Sarselield back to Edgar:
To Edgar Huntly:
After the fatigues of the day, I returned home. As I entered, my wife was breaking the seal of a letter, but, on seeing me, she forbore and presented the letter to me.... It required all my efforts to hide my perturbations from her, and excuse myself from shewing her the letter. I know better than you the character of Clithero, and the consequences of a meeting between him and my wife. You may be sure that I would exert myself to prevent a meeting. The method for me to pursue was extremely obvious.... I hastened to the chief Magistrate, who is my friend, and by proper representations, obtained from him authority to seize Clithero ... fortunately there was a packet for Philadelphia ... Not many hours after the receipt of your intelligence, this unfortunate man applied for a passage at Elizabeth-town, was seized the moment he set foot onshore, and forthwith was conveyed to the packet ... (283-84)
Sarsefield himself notes that his response to Edgar's alarming first letter would be predicted by Edgar, that he'd immediately leave to intercept Clithero. Edgar, having lived with the family for some time already (!) would also know that Euphemia is in the habit of opening Sarsefield's letters. And thus it is likely that the second letter--the letter that includes Edgar's intense descriptions of Clithero's maniacal intentions--would make it into Euphemia's hands, and would through "that strange sympathetic bond," produce the desired effect upon her. Sarsefield claims this letter indeed
was delivered to my wife in my absence and opened immediately by her. You know what is, at present, her personal condition. You know what strong reasons I had to prevent any danger or alarm from approaching her. Terror could not assume a shape, more ghastly than this. The effects have been what might have been easily predicted. Her own life has been imminently endangered and an untimely birth, has blasted my fondest hope. Her infant, with whose future existence so many pleasures were entwined, is dead. (284)
Edgar has thus caused his adoptive, wealthy mother to miscarry through a sympathetic reaction to his description of the threat of Clithero. Sarsefield blames Edgar, and acknowledges he should have known better--"You knew the liberty that would be taken of opening my letters; you knew of my absence from home, during the greatest part of the day, and the likelihood therefore that your letters would fall into my wife's hands before they came into mine"--but he ascribes no maliciousness to Edgar's actions, leaving his "son" with a firm chastising to "be more circumspect in the future" (284). Sarsefield ends his letter on a hopeful note: "I persuade myself that my wife's indisposition will be temporary. It was impossible to hide from her the death of Clithero, and its circumstances. May this be the last arrow in the quiver of adversity! Farewell" (285). It not however, the final arrow in Edgar's quiver. (15)
For if Edgar has succeeded in destroying the direct descendant of Sarsefield and Euphemia, and the threat of its displacing Edgar as potential heir to the Lorimer estate, he still has Mary and a bastard of his own to do away with, a potential threat to cementing his union with Clarice. And now we can return to the question of why Edgar is writing the long torturous letter to Mary in the first place. The answer is simply that what one can do with one letter (raise the specter of sympathetic terror to the point that it induces a miscarriage), one can do with another--especially if it's as long and terrifying as the letter to Mary is. (16) By the time Euphemia miscarries Edgar is fully aware of the power of his "gift" with language. Thus the ubiquitous terror-invoking descriptions to Mary are not necessarily melodramatic failures of Brown. Quite the contrary; Edgar fashions a rhetorical instrument designed to induce a specific reaction. He claims from the beginning that in this tale that begins with the suspicious death of Mary's brother and her inheritance Mary will be put under a sympathetic spell:
His bloody and mysterious catastrophe equally awakened thy grief, thy revenge, and thy curiosity. Thou wilt catch from my story every horror and every sympathy which it paints. Thou wilt shudder with my foreboding and dissolve with my tears. As the sister of my friend, and as one who honours me with her affection, thou wilt share in all my tasks and all my dangers. (6)
Clithero, then, becomes the specter used by Edgar--"I was fashioning an implement, I told him, with respect to which I could not wholly depend upon my own skill. I was acquainted with the dexterity of his contrivances, and the neatness of his workmanship. He readily consented to assist me on this occasion" (28)--but it's Edgar's own language that, forging a sympathetic reaction, serves as the vehicle. The tale itself is thus a rhetorical abortifacient. For Edgar knows through his alarming letter to Euphemia that the letter that evokes sympathetic terror can be deadly. And this explains the graphic depictions of killing the panther, and each of the emerging Indians, especially, the last of his enemies to crawl into his path.
Freud remarked that the secrets one wishes to keep hidden are in fact worn on the sleeve--that it does not matter chronologically when or in what specific order material is uttered; indeed narrative, he claimed, often serves to disguise or throw one off the chase. (17) Thus repressed material makes its appearance, even if it's uttered in what appears on the surface to be narratively unrelated contexts. Although I believe Edgar is conscious of his supernatural sympathetic powers of language, the argument for thematically approaching this text makes sense, even if one sees the logic of his psychosexual desires as partially, or even wholly, unconscious. Edgar (through his double Clithero) repeatedly exposes his desires to Mary (and to the reader). Of Clithero, Edgar notes, "He rejoiced in proportion to the depth of that distress of which he was the author" (44). Of Mrs. Lorimer, Edgar tells of Clithero's decision to go to her sacred chambers to kill her mercifully in her sleep in order to save her from sympathetically dying in pain when she hears Clithero has killed her twin brother. "A fatal sympathy will seize her. She will shrink, and swoon, and perish at the news!" (73). And thus Clithero's rantings accurately portray Edgar's psychological situation in regards to Mary:
I am the author of thy calamaties. Whatever misery is reserved for thee, I am the source from whence it flows. Can I not set bounds to the stream? Cannot I prevent thee from returning to a consciousness which, till it ceases to exist, will not cease to be rent and mangled? (78)
If such thematic revelations are damning, they are not recognized as such by their fictional author, for we do have self-deceiving assertions of virtue as well. Edgar asserts Clithero must be seen with gentle sympathy: "It was the fruit of a dreadful mistake. His intentions were noble and compassionate" (88), which in a grand condensation of effect accomplishes the triple task of eliciting concern for the protagonist's double, portraying Edgar the man of feeling as morally good, and providing a vehicle for the sympathetic rhetorical contagion.
And finally putting the seal on our argument that abortion unifies this novel, Brown uses the term "pacquet," conspicuously throughout his text. Arguably we have at least two letters in this "pacquet" of four capable of inducing a miscarriage, both carrying the specter of Clithero. This is important, for when Edgar warns Sarsefield of the direction from which the danger comes, Sarsefield rushes to intercept the "packet" (boat) conveying Clithero; when he is captured, Sarsefield uses the term again, "I determined to accompany the packet myself and see the madman safely delivered to the care of the hospital" (285). Edgar refuses to let Mary read Waldegrave's unedited missives for he was afraid they (the "pacquet of letters") would infect her mind, corrupt her with impure ideas. He "dreaded lest these manuscripts might fall into other hands, and thus produce mischiefs which it would not be in his power to repair. With regard to me the poison had been followed with the antidote; but with respect to others, these letters would communicate the poison when the antidote could not be administered" (126). And when the letters disappear from his cabinet, he claims, "Thou canst not imagine my confusion and astonishment, when, on opening the drawer, I perceived that the pacquet was gone" (128). Although he's happy at finding them again, he does describe them in rather odd terms: "The paper which I now seized were those letters. The parchment cover, the string that tied, and the wax that sealed them, appeared not to have been opened or violated" (230).
In any case, Edgar's aware of the power of language, and the pacquets/ packets he sends conveying the phantastic specter of Clithero--epistolary and nautical--also have pharmaceutical power; they are as effective and dangerous as eighteenth-century abortifacients, which were measured out and often distributed wrapped in folded paper pacquets. (18) The idea that Brown is constructing a weird abortographism transmitted through sympathy is not as far-fetched as it sounds, given that his other gothic literary endeavors include the exploits of a shyster ventriloquist with a talking dog (Carwin the Biloquist), contagious diseases, including traditional epidemics in addition to sleepwalking (Arthur Mervyn), and mesmerism and spontaneous human combustion (Wieland). (19) In Edgar Huntly, the genius rhetorician of evoking sympathetic reactions of terror knows only too well that his "letters would communicate the poison when the antidote could not be administered" (126). If one follows the logic that Edgar is a killer with ambition, then logic suggests he is the author of Waldegrave's fate, for not only does he, like Clithero, return to the scenes of the crime (as he remarks only the killer would do), but he also claims, "Waldegrave was the only being, beside myself, acquainted with the secrets of my cabinet" (131); either Waldegrave knows Mary's pregnant ("the box is no longer empty"), or he's aware of Edgar's power and/or crimes.
Edgar Huntly may be the archetype and progenitor of Natty Bumpo, Davy Crockett, John Wayne, or Ronald Reagan, but he's also an old-world rake, a confidence man, a predecessor of Willie Stark. Psychologically, Edgar offers us the tableau of the son desiring and killing the loved and yet resented mother, at the same time he narcissistically is killing his own offspring and "sibling rival" (and thus the protagonist secures forever the status of an only, favored child): the novel is thus a complex performance of an attempt to maintain an impossible and strangely masculine limbo state: a cultural neurosis in and of itself, that privileges, at once, both boyish charm and infantile violence. But what Edgar Huntly underscores in the process is that sympathy or empathy is not in and of itself a guarantee of ethical behavior. Indeed, and unfortunately, the evocation of sympathetic feeling can be productive of great harm. While Edgar the hero perseveres through what have since become mythical American rites of passage, what Edgar the rake has discovered is that he can command the rhetorical power of the sentimental tale and pervert the discourse of feeling to his own ends.
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--. "The Creative Writer and Daydreaming" in The Uncanny. Penguin: New York, 2003. 23-34.
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Mark Edeiman Boren
University of North Carolina Wilmington
(1) For discussions of the history of Edgar Huntly scholarship see Larson; Rosenthal.
(2) And while we're on Freud, what would the analyst make of the name "Clithero Edny"--an odd phonological rebus of "clitoris" and "deny"?
(3) Luciano convincingly reads this novel in terms of perversion and Edgar Huntly's stunted psychosexual development.
(4) Samuels addresses contagion in this novel, but like Dowries reads it and the novel in terms of constructing nationality. Contagion in Samuels is seen as revolutionary contagion, not a sinister manifestation of sympathy.
(5) For comparisons to the works of worn en writing at the Tim e and the construction of American identity, see Smith-Rosenberg.
(6) My belief that Edgar actually is not the earnest protagonist of this novel is supported by Brown's use of unreliable narrators in other works, notably Wieland and Arthur Mervyn; see Brancaccio.
(7) Edgar, too, has a strangely wrought cabinet, which is just as curiously rifled, and out of which a pacquet of letters from Waldegrave is stolen--this just before he sleepwalks into the second half of his narrative.
(8) On the realism of Brown's landscapes, see Witherington; Marshall.
(9) Luciano explores the carnality of this novel's descriptions in depth, but for Luciano the carnality is never fait acomplis; that is, he stays on the immature psychosexual Edgar Huntly, and does not see the calculating, ambitious Edgar, nor the abortofacient aspects of his rhetoric.
(10) This reading of Brown--which acknowledges the bawdy, ironic dark humor in his metaphorical constructions places his work more in the vein of Melville, rather than, say, the earnestly gothic styles of Poe or Lovecraft.
(11) Williams argues convincingly that to appreciate the psychological complexity of gothic texts, to understand their idiosyncratic logics, one has to read them thematically.
(12) On the language and development of written pornography of the eighteenth century, see Foster; Peakman.
(13) Toles compares the pit symbolism in this novel to Poe's pit, but he doesn't explore it in relation to Mary's pregnancy.
(14) On Edgar's transformation into a savage, see Newman; Gardner. On rebirth imagery in the novel, see Fleck.
(15) Of course Clithero's death is not witnessed, only that he jumps into the water and doesn't rise to the surface; this keeps the specter of Clithero alive, potentially reserved for other deeds--not unlike contemporary horror film series.
(16) The idea of contagious, supernatural or sympathetic influences on pregnant women is a mainstay of "popular obstetric knowledge" from the seventeenth century until well into the nineteenth. It repeatedly appears from time to time in American texts from Increase Mather on.
(17) Freud argues in The Interpretation of Dreams that a chronology of events may be important as an associative chain, but in terms of "temporal cause and effect, their importance is often to be reversed ... and may even be, at times, disregarded" (350-51). For a discussion of primary and secondary processes of revision of repressed material, see Interpretation of Dreams, 626-47. On thematic representation in creative writing, see Freud's "The Creative Writer and Daydreaming": 29-30.
(18) On abortion in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, particularly as it relates to literature, see King; Stormer; Dash.
(19) Although unusual, the idea of a contagiously fatal "exposure" to media (letters, books, or visual media) continues to be explored today. The film, The Ring (dir. Gore Verbinski 2002), in which anyone watching a certain videotape dies within a week, is probably the best known current example in popular culture in the U.S., though it is itself a remake of an earlier film, adapted from a book, and a progenitor of several sequels.
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|Author:||Boren, Mark Edelman|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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