Between Madness and Sanity: Gothic Elements in Charles Brockden Brown’s “Somnambulism”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

18 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Publishing History

3. Short Story about the Short Story

4. Definition of Gothic Fiction

5. Analysis of Gothic Elements in Somnambulism 8
5.1 The Double Mental Existence in Richard Althorpe
5.2 Nick Handyside: The Incorporation of Human Evil?

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Considered as one of the first American writers to produce American national literature, Charles Brockden Brown belongs to the forefathers of the American Gothic Fiction and embodies the pioneer spirit of the American Short Story. Although throughout the last decades, intense and prolific research has been conducted about his life and works, respectively Wieland and Edgar Huntly, Brown’s Somnambulism yet remains a relatively obscure and unexplored narrative. The goal of this paper is to bring fourth its literary relevance within the context of the American Gothic Fiction by analyzing the occurrence, narrative usage and effect of Gothic elements in Brown’s fragment Somnambulism. By doing so, I will firstly give a short overview about its publishing history, followed by a brief excursion to the definition of short story to underline that Brown’s account is both short and Gothic story. The definition of the Gothic Fiction describes the historical development of the Gothic story, explaining its relevance in the American context and broaching Brown’s political use of the Gothic mode. Finally, the main body of this paper will demonstrate the comprised gothic elements of the story, exemplifying the constantly rising construction of horror through the lovelorn protagonist’s[1] sick double mental existence and the sinister description of his counterpart Nick Handyside.

2. Publishing history

Published anonymously in The Literary Magazine and American Register in May, 1805[2], Charles Brockden Brown tried to establish “a viable relationship between reader and story” (Scheiding 69). Within the context of the recently undergone American Revolution and the emergence of the New Nation [3], Brown challenges with his narratives subtly (and openly[4] ) its political body, conveying his idiosyncrasy of the dominating ideologies of the time[5] to the reader. As editor-in-chief, “often receiving insufficient original contributions from other authors” (Weber 249), Brown was frequently “forced to fill the gaps with his own work” (249). In doing so, he embedded Somnambulism. A Fragment., in which he explores the human disease of somnambulism[6]. Probably “written [around 1797] either as part of ‘Sky-Walk’ or Edgar Huntly […] the fragment of a novel became a story, complete in itself, especially by combining it with the excerpt from a report in the ‘Vienna Gazette” of June 14, 1784” (250).

3. Short Story about the Short Story

Counting as one of the first writers to produce American Gothic Fiction, one should keep in mind that with his works, Brown laid the fundament for the later so-called “short story genre”. Although this paper will not focus on a thorough elucidation in how far Brown’s works represent the pioneer of the American short story, it is nevertheless vital to tackle the question whether Brown’s Somnambulism would already qualify as one. As results will show, this story can indeed be read as the pioneer of both the American Gothic Fiction and American first short story. Many critics[7] ignored the early American short narrative, including Brown’s works, denominating it as “’pathological symptom’ rather than a proper literary movement” (Zajac 1) which had no crucial “influenc[e] [on] the evolution of the short story” (Weber ix). However, as Alfred Weber stresses, this contention “is definitely false” (x). “In fact, early American narratives from the 17th and 18th centuries entail much of the formal conventions and subject matter that became the stock of the later short story” (Scheiding 68). As it turns out, Brown’s Somnambulism. and his other works shall serve as source of inspiration for succeeding (short story) writers[8], laying the basis for the American Short Story which Alfred Weber defines as

[A] story which is nothing more than a relatively short narrative and offers a self-contained and meaningful representation of an event or series of events. The narrative can be fictional, it can be documentary and be founded on authentic facts, or it can be a story from the story-teller’s own personal experience (Weber x),

whereby the fragment is “a term which was frequently applied to short narratives, and which implies both the notion of brevity as well as a comparison with the long narrative form of the novel” (x), stopping “at the climax of emotional or atmospheric tension” (Scheiding 74). Applying this criterion to our story in question, indeed, “shortness is a virtue of” (74) Brown’s narrative[9], “caused by the restrictions of magazine publication” (74). As Weber approves, Somnambulism is a meaningful and “self-contained short story” ( Weber xiii) as well, accounting a dramatic event of a somnambulistic young man who, while asleep, kills the object of his passion. Moreover, given the “extract of the Vienna Gazette, serving as introduction and offering an authentic murder case of a young man who became a murder in his sleep” (xiv), the account is consequently based upon “authentic facts” (x) and ending with the death of Mrs. Davis, “stops with the climax of emotional or atmospheric tension” (Scheiding 74). Thus, Brown’s Somnambulism matches all above mentioned criteria and therefore is entitled to call itself “the best American short story of this early period[10] ” (Weber xiii).

4. Definition of Gothic Fiction

The term “gothic story” was first coined by English writer Horace Walpole in the 18th century, who subtitled his novel The Castle of Otranto with “A Gothic Story”, laying the foundation for all subsequent Gothic novels. The gothic story often comprises elements of both horror and romance. At this time, the European, respectively English Gothic Fiction, was strongly influenced by the French Revolution. Being obsessed with and simultaneously inspired by “th[is] concept of violent and inclusive change in the human condition” (Romantic Period), English novelists and their Gothic novels frequently dealt with “nightmarish terror, violence, and sexual rapacity” (Romantic Period). As Peter Kafer states, “[t]he Gothic formula requires hero/villains, innocent victims, places of haunting, historical past weighing upon the present, and an author’s willingness to write to excess” (Kafer xv). However, within the American context, Rosen elicits that “[t]he conventions of the genre – the haunted castle, the ruined mansion, the faded aristocrats, and ghostly apparitions – did not easily translate to the new world” (Rosen 42). Kafer makes clear:

In the America of Charles Brockden Brown, however – or more precisely, in the America before Brown- such types and concerns were not part of a cultural terrain where corrupt castellated nobles like Otranto’s Manfred and Udolpho’s Montoni and libertine cloistered monks like Ambrosia simply didn’t exist. Nor were archbishops’ rakish sons or world-class scandalous demagogue politicians to be found (Kafer xv).


[1] Richard Althorpe.

[2] “Identified and reprinted by Alfred Weber in ‘Eine neu entdeckte Kurzgeschichte C.B. Browns‘” (Weber 249).

[3] Referring to the period directly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, suddenly transforming the US into a self-governing and autonomous new nation.

[4] He even sent one copy of his novel Wieland to Thomas Jefferson (cf. Kafer xi).

[5] The Early Republic was denoted by Enlightenment and Free-Individualism ideas, both notions will be further illuminated on the following pages.

[6] Brown was well acquainted with Erasmus Darwin’s “Zoomonia“, in which he treats contemporary scientific ideas about sleep and dreams, inter alia somnambulism.

[7] Notably Fred Lewis Pattee and William Wordsworth.

[8] It is no secret that writers such as Poe Hawthorne, Walter Scott or Mary Shelley contemplated Brown’s works.

[9] Embracing in Weber’s edition 19 pages only.

[10] Early period is referring here to the period directly after the American Revolution.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Between Madness and Sanity: Gothic Elements in Charles Brockden Brown’s “Somnambulism”
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Department of English and Linguistics)
Early American Short Narratives
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
560 KB
Charles Brockden Brown, Gothic Fiction, American Gothic, Gothic Short Story, Somnabulism, Gothic Literature, Gothic USA
Quote paper
Mario Nsonga (Author), 2012, Between Madness and Sanity: Gothic Elements in Charles Brockden Brown’s “Somnambulism”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Between Madness and Sanity: Gothic Elements in Charles Brockden Brown’s “Somnambulism”

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free