45 pages 1 hour read

Charles Brockden Brown

Edgar Huntly: Or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1799

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Summary and Study Guide


Edgar Huntly: Or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker by Charles Brockden Brown is an early American gothic novel originally published in 1799. Like other novels in the gothic genre, Edgar Huntly is an epistolary work, told mostly in a letter from the eponymous narrator to his fiancée, Mary Waldegrave, with three short letters between Edgar and Mr. Sarsefield at the end. Edgar’s letters includes the embedded narrative of Clithero Edny (another sleepwalker). Edgar confronts Native Americans who have taken a girl hostage, making the novel one of the earliest works of fiction that utilizes the first white literary movement in America: the captivity narrative. The novel takes place in 1787 in rural Pennsylvania.


Plot Summary


Edgar Huntly writes to his fiancée, Mary Waldegrave, whose brother was recently murdered. Walking past the elm tree where Waldegrave died, Edgar discovers Clithero Edny digging and crying in his sleep. Edgar suspects Clithero is Waldegrave’s murderer and begins to investigate him. He follows Clithero, sees his cave hideout, and confronts him. Clithero says he will confess, and the storytelling is handed over to him.


Clithero is not Waldegrave’s murderer, but he recounts how he came to America. Back in Ireland, Clithero worked for an English widow named Mrs. Euphemia Lorimer. Mrs. Lorimer’s twin, Arthur Wiatte, was a criminal who was presumed to have died on a felon ship during a mutiny. Mrs. Lorimer took in Arthur’s daughter, Clarice, who fell in love with Clithero. Mrs. Lorimer pursued her own love interest, Sarsefield, who is Edgar’s former tutor. Arthur, however, wasn’t dead, and he reappeared and attacked Clithero. Clithero killed Arthur in self-defense. Consumed with guilt, Clithero planned to kill Mrs. Lorimer rather than confess. He attempted to strike her with a dagger while she was sleeping, but it was Clarice in her bed. After Mrs. Lorimer saved her foster daughter, Clithero told her about Arthur, and she fainted, causing Clithero to believe he killed her. He fled to America.


After this confession, Clithero flees. Edgar tracks Clithero back to his cave and leaves food for him.


Mary has asked Edgar to transcribe Waldegrave’s letters, but Edgar has unwittingly hidden them while sleepwalking. A man named Weymouth arrives and claims that Waldegrave was holding his money and that Mary’s inheritance belongs to him. This halts Edgar and Mary’s marriage.


That night, Edgar sleepwalks to a cave 30 miles away but, upon awakening, believes it is Clithero’s cave. There, a panther threatens Edgar, but he kills it. Native Americans are also in the cave and are holding a farmer’s daughter captive. Edgar perpetuates violence against this group, saves the girl, and steals a musket, which turns out to be his own. Finding his musket in the cave leads him to believe the Natives killed his uncle and sisters, as they had his parents when he was young. He kills more Natives who find him hiding in a hut.


Edgar faints. After a group of Edgar’s white neighbors recover the farmer’s daughter and leave Edgar among the dead, he awakes and tries to find his way home. In his confused state, he gets into a gunfight with his own search party. Eventually, he finds a mansion and discovers Waldegrave’s letters, which Sarsefield (due to Edgar’s sleepwalking) has moved there. The two men reunite, and Sarsefield reveals that Edgar’s musket was taken by the Natives after they killed his uncle during the search for Edgar. His sisters and home are unharmed.


Sarsefield has returned to America with Euphemia Lorimer as his wife, and they consider financially supporting Edgar like a son, as they did Clithero. Sarsefield and Edgar disagree on how to handle the sensitive, perhaps insane, Clithero. Edgar ends up helping Clithero, while Sarsefield moves to New York.


Edgar reveals that a Native American killed Waldegrave. The three short letters that end the novel are between Edgar and Sarsefield. Edgar reveals that he found Clithero in Old Deb’s (a Native American woman) hut, told him of Mrs. Lorimer’s whereabouts in New York, and warns Sarsefield that Clithero is pursuing her. Sarsefield’s reply condemns Edgar’s actions and letters; reading the letters caused Mrs. Lorimer to have a miscarriage, and Clithero commits suicide after Sarsefield has him arrested.