Analysis

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Biblical, prophetic, and violent, Wieland is also about language, authorship, revolutionary and postrevolutionary America, and an American literature coming into existence. Charles Brockden Brown makes the disruption of a single family a model from which to sketch the conditions of a nation. As narrator Clara exclaims, “My ideas are vivid, but my language is faint; now know I what it is to entertain incommunicable sentiments.” She is cheerful, sensitive, reasonable, and thoughtful, mixing many temperaments and moods, and thus is symbolic of the American character. In contrast, Theodore delves into religious doctrines and contemplates them. Clara says, “Moral necessity and Calvinistic inspiration were the props on which my brother thought proper to repose.”

Henry, a rationalist, is the champion of intellectual liberty. A disciple of William Godwin, he rejects all guidance but that of his reason. Duplicitous and canny, Carwin suggests the advent of the new American literature. Clara notes, “The voice was not only mellifluent and clear, but the emphasis was so just, and the modulation so impassioned, that it seemed as if an heart of stone could not fail of being moved by it.” Carwin, being both muse and devil, disrupts the religious, social, and even literary order, and his progression moves from regrettable action to equal part horror and contempt. Clara later recognizes his deceptions as the root cause of the family’s problems.

Clara’s portrayal has been a locus of persistent critical contention. Various critics have viewed her as marginal, conditional, and expendable. Symbolic of an eighteenth century female character who is perceived as a passive rather than a dynamic human being, Clara is full of outright contradictions and disturbing paradoxes. She claims to be a modern, independent woman, yet she depends on Theodore and Henry for approval and protection. She affirms to trust the intellect and the evidences of the senses, yet she is willing to subscribe to an absurd, superstitious interpretation of incidents. Readers are reminded that she is a child of rationalism and political self-determination and that her identity is contingent on the support and corroboration of authoritarian, masculine-centered institutions of power: the patriarchal family, the life of the intellect, and the religion of her ancestors. Even though she aspires toward full participation in the life of the intellect and in the history of her culture and family, she is barred by her womanhood from fully achieving such an identification. Thus, Clara’s problematic identity affects the language and structure of the narration.

“The Transformation” is the alternate title of the novel. The text posits many transformations. First, after her father’s death, Clara describes the transformation of the status of the entire family. Later, Clara explains her own transformation from rational and human into a “creature of nameless and fearless attributes.” Theodore is transformed into a “man of sorrows and griefs.” Henry relates Carwin’s alteration from an Englishman into a Spaniard. Before the machinations of Carwin, what Henry sees in Clara is an angelic creature, one who is pure and modest. Deducing falsely from inaccurate sensory sensations, Henry errs when he overhears what he believes to be a romantic tryst between Clara and Carwin. As a revisionist text, Wieland suggests the transformation from colonial matters to national affairs.

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Critical Evaluation