"Somnambulism. A Fragment"

by Steven Hamelman

September 7, 2001


Charles Brockden Brown`s short story "Somnambulism. A Fragment" (1805) invites us to explore the nature of fragmentation in a tale that, formally at least, appears to be a triumph of cohesion. Before analyzing fragmentation as a psychological issue in "Somnambulism. A Fragment," I contextualize its bearing on the tale in two important ways. First, I relate Brown`s story, arguably his best, to the romantic fragment genre originating in Germany. Second, I consider signs of the fragmentation of individuality that affected citizens of the marketplace in the Early National Period. This preliminary discussion leads to a psychological analysis of a love-lorn protagonist. Brown has created a classic character, a prototypical neurotic, who attempts to protect his ego, battered by unrequited love, through a number of defense mechanisms. These mechanisms highlight the existence of psychic fragmentation despite the veneer of self-control the protagonist tries to cast over his repressed hostility.


If someone does not show anger after humiliation, do not take that at face value. Ask where the anger has gone.

– Nico H. Frijda, The Emotions

    Readers familiar with the work of Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) know that, like his long, often convoluted novels, some of his short fiction raises a number of bibliographical questions, provokes a multitude of theoretical responses, and offers insight, one hundred years before the advent of psychoanalysis, into psychological issues that intrigue lay people and professionals alike. “Somnambulism. A Fragment” certainly does all three, featuring in the process a fine example of how one early American author creates a psychological profile of a man desperate to protect his ego, which has been battered by unhappy love, via a number of defense mechanisms.

    “Somnambulism. A Fragment” was published anonymously in The Literary Magazine and American Register in 1805 but was most likely written in 1797 either as a draft (or part) of an unpublished novel called “Sky-Walk; or, The Man Unknown to Himself,” or as “a false start” (Weber 249) on 1799’s Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, Brown’s full-scale thriller concerning sleep disorder. For good reasons, experts do not doubt Brown’s authorship of “Somnambulism.” Added to the internal evidence just cited is the fact that as editor of and chief contributor to The Literary Magazine and American Register during its lifespan (1803-1807), Brown, when short of outside material, was often “forced to fill the gaps with his own work” (Weber 249). Apparently there were plenty of unpublished manuscripts from which to choose in a pinch: Brown’s voluminous output, much of it not appearing in print during his lifetime, has been well-documented.

    The plot of “Somnambulism” lacks the digressiveness found in much of Brown’s fiction, even his best. For instance, readers have long balked at the Weymouth sub-plot in Edgar Huntly, at the intrusions of Martynne and Ridgeley late in Ormond; or, The Secret Witness, and at any number of broken narrative strands and stranded characters in Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793. In “Somnambulism,” Brown maintains, to his aesthetic advantage, his focus on “young” Althorpe, the narrator, who is hopelessly in love with Constantia Davis. That Miss Davis is engaged to a man whom Althorpe has neither seen nor met causes him much anxiety, which he tries to channel into his gallant (desperate?) offer to accompany Miss Davis and her father on a nocturnal journey upon which they, guests at his uncle’s house, must suddenly embark. (The reasons for this departure are vague, summed up as “certain concerns of great importance” [5].) Mr. Davis and Constantia decline the young man’s offers, probably because he voices them in “eloquent remonstrances” that “over-leap the bounds of rigid decorum” (9) and thus intimidate the father and daughter. Frustrated but submissive—being a marginal member of his uncle’s household, he is in no position to bargain, cajole, or dictate matters—Althorpe accepts their decision, retires to bed, ruminates tearfully on his failed romance, finally falls into a “profound slumber” (12), dreams that Constantia is murdered by an assassin “in an artful disguise” (12), and dreams too that he shoots and kills her murderer. After waking to discover that Miss Davis has been murdered, Althorpe pieces together “the circumstances of this mournful event, as I was able to collect them at different times, from the witnesses” (13). Like a demented detective who has no idea that the miscreant he pursues is himself, Althorpe spins a surreal, quasi-omniscient account of the disaster, which implicates Nick Handyside, a rural “monster” who “wore looks and practised gesticulations that were, in an inconceivable degree, uncouth and hideous” (18). A mysterious oak tree, ancient and vast, which is planted at the center of impenetrable night and seems to carry symbolic import for Althorpe, is the scene of the crime.

    This is “Somnambulism. A Fragment”—but in what way and to what extent does it convey the notion of psychic fragmentation? The following essay answers this question by examining one guise of many that the concept of fragment assumes in the tale, showing how the narrator’s ego defense mechanisms labor to disguise his splintered mind and homicidal impulses. Althorpe’s various methods of defense actually highlight, rather than conceal, his psychic fragmentation despite the veneer of self-control this grief-stricken character tries to cast over his latent hostility.


    In “Fragmented Modalities,” the first chapter in Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin, Thomas McFarland conceptualizes the aesthetic fragment—the mutilated statue, the aborted novel, the discarded symphony—in terms of psychology and emotion. The literary fragment, for instance, is the natural medium of the anguished romantic. Longing for unattainable fulfillment; a sense of incompleteness and decay; a disintegrated ego and a melancholy born of diasparactive existence—for McFarland, these are quintessential features of romantic literature and biography. As commonplaces of romantic criticism, they offer ways to interpret romantic texts and the tortured artists (e.g., Edgar Allan Poe, George Lippard, Herman Melville, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley) who all but killed themselves in the feverish process of creative writing. Many readers consider Charles Brockden Brown, at least during the first six or seven years of his career (he died of tuberculosis at thirty-nine), as the best early American embodiment of this stereotype. One scholar, Steven Watts, goes so far to claim that Brown—a native of Philadelphia coming to maturity during an epoch in which Americans felt intense pressure to adapt to a rapidly changing “liberal” society that literally put personal identity at risk—suffered “internal fragmentation resulting from a struggle with career choice, marriage, and a coherent sense of self” (39-40). Moreover, Watts believes a “dissonant dialogue among Brown’s internal voices—male and female, libidinous and repressive, willful and genteel”—reveals a “fluid, fragmented self” (43).1 According to this theory, Brown had something in common with his protagonist in “Somnambulism.” In kind, if not quite in degree, Brown too was falling apart.

    Rather than elaborating these ideas in terms of Brown, which Watts does effectively in The Romance of Real Life, a study of Brown as the Representative Man of an emerging liberal culture, I wish instead to apply them to Brown’s narrator in “Somnambulism”—to young Althorpe, who after all “authors” the tale, even assuming an omniscient point-of-view in the latter half in his quest (or compulsion) to achieve some closure (but without acknowledging his agency) regarding Miss Davis’s death. In the process of this tangled authorship, Althorpe effects, or attempts to effect, completion of and control over an episode—an episode styled a “fragment” by the real author—whose meaning either eludes him or embroils him in massive denial. In so doing, Althorpe seeks to achieve in his fragment what Anne Janowitz terms, in the general context of artistic fragments, a “unity somehow prematurely stopped” (26-27). Psychologically and emotionally, it is as if Althorpe is compelled to use the recital of a catastrophe that he unconsciously causes and then consciously chronicles as a means of reaching what romantics constantly yearn to reach: “a reconciliation which . . . is both impossible and striven for” (Janowitz 26-27).2 He does this while at the same time admitting early on that once Miss Davis leaves, he will be left with nothing but to ponder “the bliss that has eluded my grasp.” Hope and despair battle for supremacy as his mind tightens its grip on his infatuation: “If scope were allowed to my exertions, I might hope that they would ultimately be crowned with success; but, as it is, I am manacled and powerless. The good would easily be reached, if my hands were at freedom: now that they are fettered,” he confesses in despair, “the attainment is impossible” (all quotes 7). Althorpe is a psychologically disturbed romantic waiting for a disaster to happen.

    Like any true romantic, Althorpe suffers. His circumstances dictate that he grieves for a consummation he will never enjoy, being traumatized to the point of committing homicide because of what is after all a commonplace event: romantic rejection. (One must emphasize that Constantia was a “new friend” [6], not someone with whom Althorpe, dangerously overreacting to her departure, had known familiarity, much less confidence or intimacy.) Judging from his obsessive mental state and dysfunctional behavior in “Somnambulism,” it is obvious that Althorpe possesses in excess the neurotic personality, as well as the necessary emotional delicacy and instability, to qualify for the role of Cursed Romantic. In short, this protagonist suffers McFarland’s triad of diasparactive woes, “incompletion, fragmentation, and ruin” (5), and his psychological makeup is not enough to handle the pain. He becomes overstimulated while pressing (inappropriately pressing) his suit; he imagines horrible afflictions for the departing travelers; he weeps for what he cannot have and for what has abandoned him to melancholy solitude; he sleepwalks; he kills; and finally he protects himself by denying his role in the disaster.

    Tragically, Althorpe’s mind is beset by such intense anxiety that the defense mechanisms he deploys as coping devices—mainly rationalization, repression, denial, projection, and altruism—fail to work even when he sleeps, if by “fail” we mean that they do not prevent him from acting out his aggression. These mechanisms are the outstanding symptoms of Althorpe’s diasparactive agony. Examining them one by one helps readers comprehend what that agony ultimately drives him to do in the vain attempt to assuage it.


    There is no shortage of pithy definitions for a phenomenon—ego defense or ego regulation— in a psychological domain whose intricacy belies the taxonomy that a century of research has yielded to therapists seeking to understand the various ways in which patients try to deal with the emotions that assail them daily. A brief review of the terms of ego defense and their definitions will ground us in our analysis of them in “Somnambulism.”

    The American Psychiatric Association defines “defense mechanism” as “[u]nconscious intrapsychic processes that are employed to seek relief from emotional conflict and freedom from anxiety. . . . [T]rue defense mechanisms are out of awareness (unconscious)” (Glossary). Nico H. Frijda writes that regulation “refers to all processes [most of them involuntary] that have the function of modifying other processes—actions, experiences—instigated by a given stimulus situation” (402). In Empirical Studies of Ego Mechanisms of Defense, edited by George E. Vaillant, several definitions are offered. Defense mechanisms describe “not only an unconscious intrapsychic process but also behavior that is either consciously or unconsciously designed to reconcile internal drive with external demands” (5). They are “intrapsychic coping mechanisms that have the function of keeping anxiety within manageable limits” (63), and they are “inferred unconscious processes—processes that mediate between the individual’s impulses, wishes, and affects on the one hand, and internalized prohibitions or external reality on the other” (91). Robert Plutchik et al. define ego defenses as “mental processes that attempt to resolve conflicts among drive states, affects, and external reality” (229). These and similar definitions inform the clinical literature on ego defensiveness.

    Vaillant acknowledges two serious obstacles to a conclusive understanding of the psychic strategies that human beings use to cope with negative emotions. One is semantics. Naming and then defining any one mechanism depends upon the discoveries and conclusions of a given namer and definer. Overlap, repetition, inconsistency in data, the obscurity of words, subjectivity, the fact that many defenses are unconscious, and the unreliability of interpretation necessarily make such a task an inexact science, even though empirical science is precisely what analysts must depend upon in the search for their definitions. (Frijda, however, credits “anecdotal evidence and intuition” [407] as reliable indicators of regulatory phenomena.) Second, problems multiply in light of the sheer number of mechanisms available to human beings in general or active at any given moment in any one person. “Clearly, there are as many defenses as there are colors in the spectrum” (xvii), Vaillant concedes, and to offset this formidable obstacle to classification (for colors are literally countless) he relegates this vast psychological “spectrum” to listings in five glossaries of defense devised by sundry think tanks.

    The first glossary identifies twenty-one defenses; the second one cites thirty and groups them in the sub-categories of narcissistic, immature, neurotic, and mature defenses. In the third glossary Vaillant replaces “narcissistic” with “psychotic,” while retaining the other headings. Perry’s glossary, the fourth, brings the total back to thirty, but despite the anticipated overlap with previous glossaries, Perry’s terminology often departs from them. The compilers of the fifth glossary are content with just twelve broadly defined types of defense.

    The semantic and taxonomic difficulties inherent in these glossaries lose some import in the real world, where the condition of a patient’s mental and emotional health supersedes the abstractions facing analysts devoted to making rational sense out of a welter of dysfunctional behavioral patterns.3 In his creation of Althorpe, Charles Brockden Brown seems to have understood this given about the complexity of the neurotic’s psychological makeup. In this “case study” Brown creates a protagonist so besieged by anxiety and grief that he must rely on a battery of ego defense mechanisms to save himself from himself. That he fails (and that others suffer because of his failure)—or that the defenses fail him insofar as they do not restrain him from committing the crime that the initial stimulus (jealous love) goads him to undertake as the most satisfactory release of aggression— imparts tragic force to the tale. To study “Somnambulism” is to access information about ego defensiveness that technical glossaries can only outline or suggest but whose terms are needed for psychoanalysis.


    In her monograph on ego defenses, Anna Freud points out that “the same ego can have at its disposal only a limited number of possible means of defense. At particular periods in life and according to its own specific structure, the individual ego selects now one defensive method, now another” (32). She elaborates: “For the part played by the ego in the formation of those compromises which we call symptoms consists in the unvarying use of a special method of defense, when confronted with a specific instinctual demand, and the repetition of exactly the same procedure every time that demand recurs in its stereotyped form” (34).

    That young Althorpe resorts to several defenses, rather than the one or two favored by most individuals in a crisis, underlines the poignancy of his struggle with two unwelcome external stimuli—Miss Davis’s engagement to an absent rival and her immediate departure:

    The shock that it produced in me was, to my own apprehension, a subject of surprise. I could not help perceiving that it was greater than the occasion would justify. The pleasures of this intercourse were, in a moment, to be ravished from me. I was to part from my new friend, and . . . [i]f I saw her again, it would probably be as a wife. The claims of friendship, as well as those of love, would then be swallowed up by a superior and hateful obligation (6).

    The rest of the tale immerses us in Althorpe’s verbiage of survival, which does not succeed in masking the mechanisms upon which he depends.

    Althorpe’s obsessively analytical mind is on display from the start as he fixates on the double calamity looming before him: again, Constantia’s leaving and her betrothal. Revealing a man given to relentless self-absorption, Althorpe’s internal monologue reflects his first attempt at intrapsychic coping with imminent, heart-breaking loss. Rationalization (also known as intellectualization) is Althorpe’s most obvious means of defense, and he exploits it for all it is worth, often sacrificing clarity to pronomial ambiguity and deeply passive syntax. At the same time he seems painfully aware of this method’s limitations. He probes his wounds in passages like this one early in the story, a brilliant summation of fixation:

    All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments. Ideas haunt them in spite of all their efforts to discard them. Prepossessions are entertained, for which their reason is unable to discover any adequate cause. The strength of a belief, when it is destitute of any rational foundation, seems, of itself, to furnish a new ground for credulity. We first admit a powerful persuasion, and then, from reflecting on the insufficiency of the ground on which it is built, instead of being prompted to dismiss it, we become more forcibly attached to it (8).

    This concession to the ultimate failure of rationalization, even as Althorpe prepares to accelerate its usage in what follows, and even as he uses it to exculpate himself from what, after all, has already happened (naturally, his narrative is a remembered effort), is preceded by mental activity full of fits, starts, questions, self-rebuttals, and at last a confession of rising terror. In the opening paragraph Althorpe’s use of pronouns alone demonstrates the extremity of his solipsism, as an objective listener (i.e., the reader) cannot trace with certainty the cumulative pronouns to any specific antecedent(s). Althorpe’s referentiality is a private affair unto himself. An unidentified friend has written a letter to Mr. Davis, “but knowing that he intended to set out from _______ four days previous to his writing, he was hindered from setting out by the apprehension of missing him upon the way. Meanwhile, he had deemed it best to send a special message to quicken his motions, should he be able to find him” (5).

    Concerned about neither the abundance nor the ambiguity of his third-person singular pronouns, Althorpe begins his vain descent into “reason” to ward off the effects of the shock contingent upon Mr. Davis’s decision to leave at once, with Constantia “readily” consenting “to brave the perils and discomforts of a nocturnal journey” (6). Althorpe does not matter; he is dispensable; they will leave without delay. Hyperanalysis commences. A flood of questions and an obsessive, but futile, dependence on words for security are unleashed. “But, though betrothed, she was not wedded. That was yet to come; but why should it be considered as inevitable?” (6) he inquires, then launches into more unanswered questions about Constantia’s romance, of which the following thoughts are just a portion:

    Who was he that Constantia Davis had chosen? Was he born to outstrip all competitors in ardour and fidelity? . . . Why, said I, do I cavil at her present choice? I will maintain that it does honour to her discernment . . . It would be sacrilege to question the rectitude of her conduct. The object of her choice was worthy. The engagement of her heart in his favour was unavoidable, because her experience had not hitherto produced one deserving to be placed in competition with him. . . . Her vows are binding on condition that the present situation continues, and that another does not arise, previously to marriage, by whose claims those of the present lover will be justly superseded. . . . But how shall I contend with this unknown admirer? She is going whither it will not be possible for me to follow her. An interview of a few hours is not sufficient to accomplish the important purpose that I meditate; but even this is now at an end. I shall speedily be forgotten by her. I have done nothing that entitles me to a place in her remembrance. While my rival will be left at liberty to prosecute his suit, I shall be abandoned to solitude. . . . (6-7)

    Having acknowledged his impending abandonment and despair, Althorpe, amazingly, forges ahead in the rationalization of relief: “But is it true that such is my forlorn condition? . . . The lady has intimated, that the sight of me, an any future period, will give her pleasure. This will furnish ample apology for visiting their house. . . . Why not immediately attend them on their way?” (7). He is incapable of turning off his intellectual defenses.

    Where does all this rationalization lead? Back to two problems: “I was conscious of my inability to show any sufficient grounds for my fears [regarding the Davises’ safety]”; and “No doubt part of my despondency flowed from the idea of separation, which . . . portended unspeakable discomforts to me. But this was not all. I was breathless with fear of some unknown and terrible disaster that awaited them” (10). Instinctively, Althorpe fears what he himself, the passionate admirer and would-be guide, may do to them; he fears himself above and beyond any external danger lurking in the dark woods. Earlier, in an extraordinary passage that illuminates the inner battle between his reason and emotion, Althorpe contradicts his rational/izing nature by confiding, “My passions, when I allowed them sway, were incontroulable. My conduct, as my feelings, was characterised by precipitation and headlong energy” (8). Althorpe focuses so fixedly on the fine points of his personality that he is unable to step back, contextualize, and link the passions with the fear or the thinking with the fixation. Consequently, he cannot stop himself from killing, apparently when somnambulistic (this condition is never substantiated), the woman he consciously and seemingly wishes to protect.

    In “Somnambulism,” where rationalization is more than just mental acuity; where, as a defense mechanism, it strains “to justify actions caused by repressed, unacceptable feelings” (Plutchik 238), unflagging self-analysis helps to keep Althorpe the killer from answering to Althorpe the lover. Everything he does and feels is just words after all. Yet as the ensuing calamity shows, these words are not nearly enough to shield his ego from the agony of being forsaken. He must summon forth other defenses from the depths of personality.

    Althorpe’s importunities to accompany the Davises on their journey are unavailing. Soon after they depart, a fit of sensibility overwhelms him: “I mused upon the image of Miss Davis till my whole soul was dissolved in tenderness, and my eyes overflowed with tears. There insensibly arose a sort of persuasion that destiny had irreversably [sic] decreed that I should never see her more” (12). In this mood he retires and eventually succumbs to the “profound slumber” mentioned earlier, during which he dreams what may be the first classic dream of the Double in American literature.

    Althorpe’s dream is the evidence of a second defense mechanism, repression, that backfires in textbook fashion:

    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. My ideas were full of confusion and inaccuracy. All that I can recollect is, that my efforts had been unsuccessful to avert the stroke of the murderer. . . . I imagined myself engaged, for a long time, in pursuit of the guilty, and, at last, to have detected him in an artful disguise. . . . [S]timulated by rage, [I] attacked him with a pistol, and terminated his career by a mortal wound (12).

    The Freudian gloss is irresistible: “In psychoses . . . reality has become so intolerably distressing that the threatened ego throws itself into the arms of the unconscious instinctual forces in a desperate result” (New Introductory 20). These forces find safe statement in dreams. The correlation among dream, wish-fulfillment, and repression comprises, to a platitudinous degree, a recurrent theme in Freud: “In every dream an instinctual wish [which has been repressed] has to be represented as fulfilled” (New Introductory 23).4 Here Althorpe satisfies not one but two wish-fulfillments. He murders his beloved and himself. An infatuation of his intensity can brook no survivors. Killing his alter ego in the dream serves to mollify the guilt Althorpe suffers not only for wishing (because of disappointment and abandonment) to punish Constantia, but also for actually doing it during what appears to be a somnambulistic trance.

    But Brown, never predictable, renders Althorpe’s psychology even more labyrinthine. “Somnambulism” harbors two psychological twists. First, granting that it is he and no one else who destroys the woman whom he hungers to possess, Althorpe sleepwalks his way to the beckoning oak tree, whose irreducible symbolism makes it the locus of both Althorpe’s terror and aggression. (Because the tree’s extensive boughs “seemed disposed by nature in that way in which they would produce the most ample circumference of shade” [11], he simultaneously fears it and gravitates toward it.) Second, having stalked the travelers to the tree, he avenges Constantia’s rejection of his request to accompany her as well as her rejection of his love-suit by killing rather than preserving her. Althorpe embodies precisely what he had warned Miss Davis about. His dream encodes the ambivalence that fuels his psychomachia. Constantia’s double rejection of Althorpe drives him on the conscious plane of grief to tender tears. Unconsciously, however, these rejections—no love from Miss Davis, and no need for his protection on her trip—trigger homicidal anger. At some point in the rejection process, Althorpe’s jealous love metamorphoses into vindictive hatred. He then aches to murder Constantia, not to protect her; aches to nullify her union with another man, no matter what the price. Killing her is the main part of the “design” he could not execute, could not even acknowledge, while awake. Frustration, which according to some theorists increases aggressive tendencies (Strongman 153), is inextricable from the mental confusion that assails the lovelorn Althorpe, and it wreaks havoc on his ego’s defense system. Sleep, dream, reality: for the beleaguered lover, which is which?

    Whereas evidence of Althorpe’s repression is most striking in his dream, his denial operates most dangerously while he is wide awake, especially when he learns about the calamity that has befallen the Davises. Plutchik defines denial as a “lack of awareness of certain events, experiences, or feelings that would be painful to acknowledge” (238). Frijda calls it “a blanket term used to denote defensive distortions of reality” (421); it “corresponds to nongeneration of implications, nonconsideration of facts, and to selective pursuance of favorable implications” (435). Shredded by conflicting desires, motivations, fears, guilt, and crushed self-esteem—all of which are played out in both physiological abnormality (somnambulism) and physical violence (murder)—Althorpe’s mind labors to maintain composure by whatever means necessary.

    Thus denial, an ego defense mechanism allowing him to declare in the penultimate paragraph with chilling detachment (itself a form of “defensive exclusion” closely related to denial and repression [Frijda 435]): “Who was the author of this distress; by whom the pistol was discharged; whether through some untoward chance or with design, [the physician] was as yet uninformed, nor could he gain any information from the incoherent despair of Mr. Davis” (23). Significantly, this passive-voiced, awkwardly phrased, and prolix report is uttered by the same man who earlier had admitted this: “he [meaning a man like himself] that would resign this prize [Constantia, whose objectification as a prize reveals the superficiality of Althorpe’s professed love for her], without an arduous struggle, would, indeed, be of all wretches the most pusillanimous and feeble” (6). Having considered himself in such a disreputable light, Althorpe’s only two alternatives to losing Miss Davis are either to dwell on lost happiness and personal inadequacy (an unsatisfactory option) or to kill her and let the ego defenses alleviate guilt, misery, responsibility, and other negative emotions and states of mind. Detachment (“numbness and depersonalization-like responses”) and, once again, intellectualization (“a name for detachment when it cod[es] the event in an impersonal, factual, or harmless manner” [Frijda 423]) permeate Althorpe’s rhetoric, which in the dénouement lacks the fretfulness of the language used to describe the incidents before he falls asleep.5

    Yet another defense mechanism implicates Nick Handyside, the “Village Idiot,” who serves as a convenient pretext for Althorpe’s projective strategy. “In repression,” writes Anna Freud, “the objectionable idea is thrust back into the id, while in projection it is displaced into the outside world” (122). For Althorpe this world includes Nick, who, according to a local farmer whom the Davises meet on the dark road, “loves to frighten folks, but he’s shocking apt to be frightened himself” (18). A reader might be excused for thinking that Brown introduces Nick as a form of macabre comic relief. In fact, his significance as a sign of Althorpe’s psychological state cannot be overlooked; his cameo appearance is one of the great achievements in all of Brown’s fiction. Through projection Althorpe transforms the harmless imbecile into a terrible figure of night, claiming that Nick “merited the name of monster, if a projecting breast, a mis-shapen head, features horrid and distorted, and a voice that resembled nothing that was ever before heard, could entitle him to that appellation” (18). “Projection disturbs our human relations,” writes Anna Freud, “when we project our own jealousy and attribute to other people our own aggressive acts” (123), an insight that elucidates Althorpe’s caricature of Nick.

    Althorpe pictures Nick as a gothic pariah: “This being, besides the natural deformity of his frame, . . . took pleasure in the effects which the sight of his own deformity produced, and betokened his satisfaction by a laugh, which might have served as a model to the poet who has depicted the ghastly risibilities of Death” (18, 19). Projection permits Althorpe to shift anger, fear, jealousy, envy, frustration, injured pride, thwarted desire, and murderous thoughts onto Nick, the Other whose bestiality represents the evil whose existence Althorpe tries to deny in himself. There is no evidence that Nick harasses the Davises during the blackest leg of their journey. In his reconstruction of the night’s events, Althorpe exploits the hearsay of Nick’s nocturnal wanderings and antics as an alibi for his own pursuit of the Davises’ carriage. To divert suspicion onto Nick for his own misdeeds, Althorpe relies on past incidents involving “this antic being” (19) who often roved the countryside at night, playing childish pranks on travelers.

    In Totem and Taboo Sigmund Freud writes,

    In almost every case where there is an intense emotional attachment to a particular person we find that behind the tender love there is a concealed hostility in the unconscious. This is the classical example, the prototype, of the ambivalence of human emotions. . . . It must be supposed that the presence of a particularly large amount of this original emotional ambivalence is characteristic of the disposition of obsessional neurotics. . . . (60)

    Freud’s concern here is with projection, the “defensive procedure [against this hostility], which is a common one both in normal and in pathological mental life” (61). It is also a procedure numbered among the “very primitive defenses” (Plutchik 243). Or, in Anna Freud’s words, it is employed frequently by children “as a means of repudiating their own activities and wishes when these become dangerous” (123). One clue to the confusion reigning in Althorpe’s mind is that to cope with grief he will rummage the gamut of defense mechanisms, from high to low. He just as readily depends upon “mature” as “immature” defenses in his appraisal and mitigation of his trauma. Rationalization is one of these mature defenses; and whereas Althorpe does not deploy (is tempermentally incapable of deploying) sublimation, humor, or other mature modes of ego defense, his initial impulse to guide the Davises exemplifies his altruism, defined in Vaillant’s first glossary as such: “The individual deals with emotional conflicts, or internal or external stressors, by dedication to fulfilling the needs of others, in part as a way of fulfilling his or her own needs” (103).

    In terms of Althorpe, Anna Freud’s commentary on altruism in general is final:

    On the one hand it enables the subject to take a friendly interest in the gratification of other people’s instincts and so, indirectly and in spite of the superego’s prohibition, to gratify his own, while, on the other, it liberates the inhibited activity and aggression primarily designed to secure the fulfillment of the instinctual wishes in their original relation to himself (129).

    Ironically, of all the potential perils confronting the Davises, perils that Althorpe lists and magnifies (Mr. Davis assures Althorpe that the young man “ha[s] over-rated the inconveniences and perils of the journey” [9]), the most perilous object or condition is he, the insistent altruist, himself. And so, his instincts liberated by virtue of the very altruism that has gratified his conscience, Althorpe shadows the father and daughter as they trek through the night. As they approach the oak tree, Althorpe, not Nick, lets loose a “dismally loud, and piercingly shrill” scream (21). Luckily, at this point the Davises are afoot, so that when their terrified horse pulls the carriage past them and slams it into the oak, they escape injury. During Mr. Davis’s ensuing search for the horse, however, Althorpe achieves wish-fulfillment. At the tree’s base, where the daughter awaits her father in darkness, the somnambulist shoots Constantia in the head. Mr Davis rushes back to the oak to find Constantia

stretched at the foot of the tree, senseless, and weltering in her blood. . . . Overwhelmed with a catastrophe so dreadful and unexpected, he was divested of all presence of mind. The author of his calamity had vanished. No human being was at hand to succour him in his uttermost distress. He beat his head against the ground, tore away his venerable locks, and rent the air with his cries. (23)

    Althorpe can gloat over two victims: the woman for rejecting his suit; and her father, who earlier had “regarded [Althorpe’s] vehemence with suspicion” (9), for whisking her away from him. Surrounding Althorpe and his victims are the remains of the carriage, which had been “shocked against the trunk, overturned, and dashed into a thousand fragments” (22).

    What is miraculous about Brown’s story is how well the narrator’s manifest demeanor of self-control and unity masks a latent consciousness overwhelmed by diverse forms of fragmentation. Evidence of this abounds beyond Althorpe’s arsenal of defense mechanisms, primarily in the tale’s thick syntax, its imprecise use of pronouns, its exaggerated terrors, its hyperbole (“a thousand fragments,” etc.), its incongruous point of view. (For instance, how does Althorpe know that deep in the woods the Davises “pictured to themselves many combinations of circumstances in which Handyside might be the agent, and in which the most momentous effects might flow from his agency” [20]? What witness could have provided that information to him?) This evidence reveals a mind that, all appearances aside, has crossed the brink of chaos and dissolution. It is in Althorpe’s romantic striving for unity, healing, perfection—his striving for Constantia Davis and the plenitude she represents to him—that his emotional breakdown occurs and that, as a result, a group of ego defenses is deployed. Formally, “Somnambulism,” like so many other romantic fragments, contains within itself its own psychological premise of desire and dismay, of yearning and yielding to harsh reality. The fragment invites closure at any cost, and closure is what Althorpe is compelled to seek when faced with the double disasters of Constantia’s fragmented journey and her fragmented life.

    Young Althorpe is a case study in psychic mayhem, in diasparactive anguish, in ego defense mechanisms aligned to ward off deep guilt and and perhaps deeper grief. In “Somnambulism. A Fragment,” Charles Brockden Brown exposes pieces of a fractured mind laboring through the illusion of self-serving words to keep accountability, self-awareness, and the pain of unrequited love at bay.


1. Watts examines the disintegration of republican values as unfettered capitalism began to overtake American life. He argues that “beneath the confident, assertive individualism of the spreading liberal legend there often existed an isolated, fragmented creature for whom liberation often meant insecurity and fear. . . . [P]ressures generated by the frantic search for identity and the demands for continuous social performance produced . . . a psychological tendency toward fragmentation within the liberal individual” (20, 24). The novels, tales, and fragments that Brown wrote during the late 1790s depict the civic and personal instability that Watts describes.(Back to Main Text)

2. In “Somnambulism. A Fragment,” the medium has never better shown itself to be the message. Here, Brown makes the fragment genre mirror the theme of psychic fragmentation. Not incidentally, the literary fragment as self-conscious genre was invented during Brown’s most productive years as a writer of fiction. The fragment, revolutionized by Schlegel during the years 1797-1800, became a staple of the era. Janowitz states that “the fragment offer[ed] itself as the single, or dominant, mode of romanticism” (22). In her commentary on Percy Shelley (curiously, Brown’s most celebrated European reader), Marjorie Levinson relates the fundamental attraction behind the fragment as genre. For Shelley, “the imperfections of the ancient fragments signif[ied] a lost and anticipated perfection—spiritual, social, and intellectual. Irresolution—a valorizing sign—confers upon the fragmentary work the character of the infinite, inexhaustible semiotic event” (33); “the reader imaginatively completes the fragment[, which] yields an experience of closure to the reader who can revise the poem into a unity” (49). This, for Levinson, allows the reader to “heal the breach”—a psychological as much as an aesthetic need—that the fragment represents. Similarly, for Maurice Blanchot the fragment “provokes the reader to a consciousness of its possible completion, thus positing ‘unity’ as the teleological goal of reading” (Clark 235). (Back to Main Text)

3. One such problem hinges on the discrepancies among definitions of regulation, inhibition, and “intrapsychic coping” (Frijda 408), points of contention that linger to this day. Furthermore, some defense strategies remain unconscious and involuntary (consequently making it harder to pinpoint and evaluate them), while others are chosen deliberately (e.g., “Jealousy can be fought by breaking contact with the unfaithful or suspected partner, disappointment can be prevented by not running risks” [Frijda 419]). Some clinicians resist the urge to place defense mechanisms in a hierarchal grid. Not the least of the problems is discussed by Anna Freud: “The ego becomes active in the analysis whenever it desires by means of a counteraction to prevent an inroad by the id. Since it is the aim of the analytic method to enable ideational representatives of repressed instincts to enter consciousness . . . the ego’s defensive operations against such representatives automatically assume the character of active resistance to analysis” (30). What results is a circular, no-win situation for the psychoanalyst seeking to “cure” the neurotic who unconsciously fights him for that very reason.(Back to Main Text)

4. In addition to the New Introductory Lectures cited here, see The Interpretation of Dreams, On Dreams, and Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, passim, for more on this theme.(Back to Main Text)

5. Late in the tale, Althorpe’s passivity is shown in his inclination to collect the reports of witnesses without taking, without even imagining, an active role in the crisis or its solution. He is as inactive as his syntax.(Back to Main Text)

    Works Cited

Brown, Charles Brockden. “Somnambulism. A Fragment.” “Somnambulism” and Other Stories. Ed. Alfred Weber. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1987. 5-24.

Clark, Timothy. “Modern Transformations of German Romanticism: Blanchot and Derrida on the Fragment, the Aphorism, and the Architectural.” Paragraph: A Journal of Modern Critical Theory 15: 232-47.

Freud, Anna. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. The Writings of Anna Freud. Rev. ed. Vol. 2. New York: International Universities P, 1966.

Freud, Sigmund. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1965.

-----. Totem and Taboo 1913. Std. Edn. 13.

Frijda, Nico H. The Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Janowitz, Anne. “Coleridge’s 1816 Volume: Fragment as Rubric.” Studies in Romanticism 24.1 (1985): 21-39.

Levinson, Marjorie. The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.

McFarland, Thomas. Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Modalities of Fragmentation. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Plutchik, Robert, et al. “A Structural Theory of the Ego Defenses and Emotions.” Emotions in Personality and Psychopathology. Ed. Carroll E. Izzard. New York: Plenum, 1979. 229-57.

American Psychiatric Association, A Psychiatric Glossary: The Meaning of Terms Frequently Used in Psychiatry. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1969.

Strongman, K. T. The Psychology of Emotion. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley, 1978.

Vaillant, George E., ed. Empirical Studies of Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians & Researchers. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric P, 1992.

Watts, Steven. The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Weber, Alfred, ed. “Somnambulism” and Other Stories. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1987.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Steven Hamelman ""Somnambulism. A Fragment"". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/hamelman-somnambulism_a_fragment. June 18, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 7, 2001, Published: September 7, 2001. Copyright © 2001 Steven Hamelman