Critical Evaluation

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Wieland was the first gothic novel written and published in America. Gothic fiction, a genre popular in Europe (especially England and Germany), had its inception in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765). In the tradition of the romance, the gothic novel offers an outlet for its readers’ emotions—particularly fear. Characterized by ghosts, goblins, and supernatural occurrences, gothic tales take place in such places as ruined cathedrals and crumbling mansions. Their usual theme is the restoration of a usurped inheritance to its rightful heir. Although the earlier gothic authors presented supernatural phenomena as objective realities, later writers tended to present the supernatural as perhaps the result of imagination or of sensory delusion.

In Wieland, Charles Brown develops and Americanizes the gothic novel by adapting its theme, setting, and purpose. Unlike its predecessors, the work does not center on acquiring a European patrimony. Although Theodore Wieland, Jr., falls heir to lands in Lusatia, he has no desire to claim his holdings in the old country. He prefers to stay in America, where life is stable and familiar.

Rather than setting his novel in an archaic building, Brown has the story take place in a rural region in eastern Pennsylvania. Clara’s house is situated on a rugged river bank; the temple sits atop a cliff; and the summer house rests in a rocky crevice near a waterfall. These places are beautiful, and their wild isolation lends them an eeriness suggesting the presence of sprites. In selecting a natural site, Brown began a trend for other American writers, such as Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant, who emphasized the appeal of nature.

Earlier gothic writers supplied rational explanations for mysterious phenomena, but Brown went a step further in Wieland by suggesting that the degree of one’s belief in the supernatural derives from one’s psychological makeup. That is, some people are predisposed toward the paranormal as a result of childhood memories, their innate psychic status, and their religion. When the elder Wieland undergoes his horrendous experience in the temple, Clara is six. Clara later admits that her father’s tragedy left an indelible impression, causing her to ponder the existence of divine intervention. Consequently, she is open to the possibility of supernatural machination when she hears the mysterious voices.

In addition to early experience, one’s inherent mental and emotional balance may account for one’s receptivity to the supernatural. Clara describes her brother as a brilliant but somber man who never laughs. This signals the reader that he is imbalanced and on the verge of disaster. Since Wieland’s temperament is so dark and attuned to gloom, it is not surprising that he should hear a voice telling him to destroy his family, the source of his joy. Clara, on the other hand, is more carefree. It seems significant that although both brother and sister hear voices, Clara’s injunctions (“Hold, hold!”) are protective while Wieland’s voice is destructive.

Brown begins his story with Clara’s account of her father’s fanaticism. The author thus foreshadows Wieland’s insanity. It is possible that the younger Wieland’s madness is augmented by religion as well as heredity. Although he and Clara are raised without religion, they seem not to have escaped the traces of Puritanism and Calvinism permeating their culture. The emphasis that these faiths place on the sinfulness of earthly happiness may have convinced Wieland—already predisposed to gloom and tragedy—that his family afforded him too much joy and must therefore be annihilated.

As well as presenting the issue of psychological predisposition, Brown treats the issue of moral responsibility. In Wieland , responsibility for the most part is assigned to the individual...

(This entire section contains 890 words.)

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level. For example, Carwin uses his ventriloquism only to remove himself from embarrassing situations. Nevertheless, he is indirectly and partially responsible for Wieland’s tragic act. Had Wieland not been accustomed to hearing inexplicable voices, he might not have heard the command to sacrifice his family.

Brown also uses his novel to portray eccentricities of human nature. Unlike earlier gothic characters—simplistic figures representing shades of vice and virtue—Clara and Carwin are complex and real. Although Clara is a learned and independent woman, she seems to have no life of her own. She centers her activities entirely on her brother and his wife. Her fascination with Carwin appears to be her first attraction to the opposite sex. Despite her outward contentment, it seems possible that inwardly she aches for a love of her own and easily mistakes Henry’s friendship for romantic attachment. Her lonely life removed her from reality.

Carwin exemplifies those persons who set out to test and to undo one whose integrity they envy. In counterfeiting a dialogue between two murderers, for example, he intends to test Clara’s alleged courage, to see whether she will run or stay to protect her servant. Carwin also simulates Clara’s voice to delude Henry regarding her virtue. Confounding Henry, in Carwin’s words, is the “sweetest triumph” over this man of “cold reserves and exquisite sagacity.”

Brown’s style is erudite and his dialogue stilted. Nevertheless, his story sustains readers’ curiosity. Creating a gothic thriller, however, does not seem to have been Brown’s sole purpose. In addition to presenting the intrigue of the voices, he subtly introduces themes of psychology, morality, and society.

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Wieland, Charles Brockden Brown