(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Wieland Charles Brockden Brown

The following entry presents criticism of Brown's novel Wieland; or, The Transformation (1798). See also, Charles Brockden Brown Criticism.

Charles Brockden Brown's most highly-regarded novel, Wieland, is widely considered the first gothic novel produced by an American. Written in epistolary form, the work draws on the traditions of both Gothic and sentimental novels, and includes such narrative elements as murder, suicide, seduction, and insanity. Although Wieland has often been interpreted as an indictment of Puritanism, some scholars maintain that the novel is an historical parable or even a self-referential allegory of the writing process itself.

Plot and Major Characters

The title character of the novel is Theodore Wieland, whose sister Clara narrates the family's story, beginning with the arrival of their father from England. Believing it his duty to spread Christianity among the Indians, Theodore and Clara's father is at first distracted by worldly pursuits, and later, when he has achieved sufficient wealth to pursue his calling, his efforts are thwarted by the Indians themselves. Believing he has failed, he retreats to his temple at midnight for private worship and dies following a flash of light and an explosion. The event is described as a case of spontaneous combustion. The children's mother dies soon after, but Theodore and Clara are raised in material comfort with enlightened attitudes on religion and human nature.

When the children reach adulthood, Theodore marries Catherine Pleyel, a family friend, and the couple settles into a life of privilege on the family estate, where Clara lives in her own house on the grounds. Catherine's brother Henry visits from Europe, and the two men affably debate about philosophy and religion, with Pleyel's rationalism in opposition to Wieland's belief in religion and the supernatural. Their contentment is soon disturbed, however, by a mysterious disembodied voice and by the appearance of a stranger named Carwin, who joins their intellectual circle although he is not their social equal. The voice claims that Pleyel's betrothed has died in Europe, and when this is later confirmed, Wieland becomes convinced the voice is divine in nature.

In time, Clara falls in love with Pleyel, but he has overheard a conversation between Clara and Carwin that suggests her virtue has been compromised and he rejects her. Wieland, meanwhile, determines that the voice is God's, and that God is commanding him to murder his wife and children. He obeys but then believes he must also murder his sister and Pleyel as further proof of his devotion and obedience. Clara is saved by the intervention of neighbors and her brother is taken to prison. Carwin confesses that he is a ventriloquist and is responsible for the mysterious voices the family has heard. Because of his own attraction to Clara, he was determined to turn Pleyel against her—he orchestrated the conversation Pleyel overheard that implicated Clara. Carwin denies, however, any involvement with the voice Wieland heard commanding him to murder his family. When Wieland escapes from prison and returns to kill his sister, Carwin saves her by speaking to Wieland as God—this time telling Theodore that he has been deceived. Wieland realizes the enormity of his crimes and commits suicide.

The novel concludes three years later, when Clara has fled to Europe and has married Pleyel. At this time Clara feels that she has recovered from the effects of the events and is able to begin writing her account of the family's tragedy. Carwin has retreated to the countryside and has become a farmer.

Major Themes

Most critics and scholars interpret Wieland as a cautionary tale on the dangers of religious fervor or as an indictment of patriarchal institutions. The actions of the two Wieland men, father and son, represent for some critics a study in madness; others read the pair as embodiments of the Faustian theme, or more specifically, as American versions of Faust. Issues of interpretation and the dangers of reaching conclusions based on insufficient knowledge are also prominent themes. Since the novel leaves questions unanswered and problems unresolved, some have argued that Brown may have been pointing out the inability of humans to know the truth with any degree of certainty.

Critical Reception

Many early critics assessed Wieland as a flawed novel filled with inconsistencies and ambiguities caused by Brown's lack of skill as a writer. The work was considered unsophisticated and too dependent on the conventions of the Gothic novel and the sentimental novel of seduction. More recently, however, Wieland has been reevaluated and its ambiguities are now often regarded as deliberate strategies by the author. James R. Russo refutes the common notion that Brown was an inferior writer and suggests that readers must separate the author from his narrator: “Wieland is told by a confessed madwoman, Clara Wieland, and her narrative seems incoherent at times because she is confused, not because Brown is.”

Joseph A. Soldati maintains that the work is highly complex: “Innovatively employing the myths of Icarus and Narcissus in its exploration of the Faustian hero's dark psyche, Wieland is the precursor of the psychological tales of Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and others.” But Soldati points out that there is a difference between the American Faust and his European predecessors; the level of violence and destruction associated with Theodore Wieland is much more extreme and “reflects the New World's violent temper.” Other critics have also considered Wieland's tragic events as an indictment of American ideology. Roberta F. Weldon claims that the family's isolation and self-involvement led to a “dangerous myopia,” and she suggests that Brown was predicting a similar fate for the emerging nation as a whole if its ideals were allowed to promote the rights of the individual to the detriment of the common good. According to Weldon: “By focusing on the error of the Wieland family, the novel examines the flawed design underlying the American ideal. The Wielands believe with Emerson that ‘the individual is the world’ but experience the danger of self-absorption and are destroyed by it.” Edwin Sill Fussell suggests that Wieland is concerned with its author's struggle to break with the literary conventions of the past and to create a new, uniquely American, literature. According to Fussell, “in Wieland Charles Brockden Brown was writing about writing … about that American literature not yet in existence but coming into existence as he confronted and incorporated the stiffest resistance imaginable, his own impossibility.”

Much scholarly interest has centered around possible source material for Wieland. Critics have suggested the Old Testament story of Abraham as an obvious inspiration for the slaying of Wieland's family by God's command. Other critics suggestions for possible sources include Milton's Paradise Lost, several of Shakespeare's plays—among them Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Much Ado about Nothing—and most commonly, two contemporary accounts of New England men who murdered their families claiming they had been ordered by God to do so.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Alcuin: A Dialogue (fictional dialogue) 1798

Wieland; or, The Transformation. An American Tale (novel) 1798

Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (novel) 1799

Ormond; or, The Secret Witness (novel) 1799

Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793. 2 vols. (novel) 1800

Clara Howard (novel) 1801; revised as Philip Stanley; or, The Enthusiasm of Love (novel) 1807

Jane Talbot, a Novel (novel) 1801

A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States [translator] (nonfiction) 1804

*Carwin, the Biloquist, and Other American Tales and Pieces. 3 vols. (unfinished novel and short stories) 1822

The Novels of Charles Brockden Brown. 7 vols. (novels) 1827

The Rhapsodist, and Other Uncollected Writings (essays and novel fragment) 1943

The Novels and Related Works of Charles Brockden Brown. 6 vols. (novels and unfinished novels) 1977-87

*Memoirs of Stephen Calvert (unfinished novel) 1978

*Carwin, the Biloquist and Memoirs of Stephen Calvert were published earlier in William Dunlap's The Life of Charles Brockden Brown: Together with Selections from the Rarest of His Printed Works, from His Original Letters, and from His Manuscripts Before Unpublished, 1815.

William M. Manly (essay date 1963)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Manly, William M. “The Importance of Point of View in Brockden Brown's Wieland.American Literature 35, no. 3 (November 1963): 311-21.

[In the following essay, Manly suggests that Wieland has more in common with the darker works of Poe and Hawthorne than with the sentimental tradition with which it is often associated.]

Students of Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland have often noted its relationship to the Richardsonian sentimental novel. Fred Lewis Pattee was the first to suggest similarities when he wrote in his early Introduction: “The book is to be classed with the seduction novels so popular at the close of the 18th Century—a...

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Joseph A. Soldati (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Soldati, Joseph A. “The Americanization of Faust: A Study of Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland.ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 74, no. 1 (1974): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Soldati discusses the blending of the Icarus and Narcissus myths achieved by Brown in the characterization of Theodore Wieland and his sister Clara.]

In Western literature, especially during the Romantic Period, man has often been represented by two heroic figures—Prometheus and Faust. Peter L. Thorslev has correctly claimed that since Prometheus “is the Romantic hero apotheosized, he is pure allegory; there is nothing in him of the Gothic, nothing of the dark...

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Wayne Franklin (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Franklin, Wayne. “Tragedy and Comedy in Brown's Wieland.Novel: A Forum on Fiction 8, no. 2 (winter 1975): 147-63.

[In the following essay, Franklin suggests that the primary sources for Wieland were Shakespeare's Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing.]

Many critics and scholars have written extensively about the various sources of Charles Brockden Brown's novel, Wieland; or The Transformation (1798), yet what may be the most pervasive general influence—that of Shakespeare—has been overlooked entirely so far. The sources enumerated certainly are important for an understanding of Brown's immediate use of other writers, as well as...

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J. V. Ridgely (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ridgely, J. V. “The Empty World of Wieland.” In Individual and Community: Variations on a Theme in American Fiction, edited by Kenneth H. Baldwin and David K. Kirby, pp. 3-16. Durham: Duke University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Ridgely studies the various transformations of Brown's characters in Wieland.]

Wieland is a nocturnal tale, a nervous melodrama played out in the uncertain illumination of candle, lamp, fire, moon, stars. To a degree, of course, Brown's darkened stage set is a literary convention; in folk tale as well as in the contemporary Gothic novel of terror, night is the time when creatures of mystery and danger are...

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Michael T. Gilmore (essay date 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gilmore, Michael T. “Calvinism and Gothicism: The Example of Brown's Wieland.Studies in the Novel 9, no. 2 (summer 1977): 107-18.

[In the following essay, Gilmore claims that Milton's Paradise Lost provided the inspiration for Brown's Wieland.]

Charles Brockden Brown's “Gothic” novel Wieland; or The Transformation (1798) was long read as an expression of Enlightenment rationality. The author's purpose, according to this view, was to caution readers “against credulity and religious fanaticism.”1 But the rationalist interpretation has come under spirited attack in recent years, partly as a result of a reassessment of...

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James R. Russo (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Russo, James R. “‘The Chimeras of the Brain’: Clara's Narrative in Wieland.Early American Literature 16, no. 1 (spring 1981): 60-88.

[In the following essay, Russo disputes common theories that attribute the perceived incoherence of Wieland's plot to Brown's incompetence as a writer, claiming that it is not Brown, but his narrator, who is responsible for the incoherence.]

Modern criticism has found one major fault with Wieland: its loose and unbalanced structure.1 The alleged incoherence of its plot is attributed to Charles Brockden Brown's carelessness as a writer, a notion so firmly entrenched in Brown criticism that...

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Cynthia S. Jordan (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jordan, Cynthia S. “On Rereading Wieland: ‘The Folly of Precipitate Conclusions.’” Early American Literature 16, no. 2 (fall 1981): 154-74.

[In the following essay, Jordan suggests that Wieland's ending, often considered flawed, represents a deliberate strategy of the author to caution readers about hastily-drawn conclusions.]

Starting with William Dunlap, author of the first critical biography of Charles Brockden Brown, critics of Brown's novels have persistently resorted to external data—especially Brown's “headlong rapidity of composition”—to account for apparent inconsistencies in the texts, the most prominent of these being...

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Michael Kreyling (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kreyling, Michael. “Construing Brown's Wieland: Ambiguity and Derridean ‘Freeplay.’” Studies in the Novel 14, no. 1 (spring 1982): 43-54.

[In the following essay, Kreyling explores Wieland's decentered universe by means of the Derridean theory of endless freeplay.]

Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed.

Emerson wrote in the hortative mode. This...

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Edwin Sill Fussell (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fussell, Edwin Sill. “Wieland: A Literary and Historical Reading.” Early American Literature 18, no. 2 (fall 1983): 171-86.

[In the following essay, Fussell suggests that Clara Wieland's struggle to produce the narrative of her family story parallels Brown's struggle to produce a new American literature.]

I entreated him to tell me … what progress had been made in detecting or punishing the author of this unheard-of devastation.

“The author!” said he; “Do you know the author?”

“Alas!” I answered, “I am too...

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Alan Axelrod (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Axelrod, Alan. “New World Genesis, or the Old Transformed.” In Charles Brockden Brown: An American Tale, pp. 53-96. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Axelrod examines possible old world and new world sources for several of the characters and narrative elements in Wieland.]

James Yates, known to the community of Tomhannock, New York, as a naturally gentle man, industrious, sober, and kind, threw his Bible into the fireplace, deliberately demolished his own sleigh, killed his wife, his four children, and his horse shortly after nine on a December evening in 1781. That afternoon, a Sunday, there being no church nearby, several...

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Roberta F. Weldon (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weldon, Roberta F. “Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland: A Family Tragedy.” Studies in American Fiction 12, no. 1 (spring 1984): 1-11.

[In the following essay, Weldon explores Wieland as the tragedy of an entire family and an entire society, rather than of one man.]

In Wieland Charles Brockden Brown creates a family and shows how its flaws lead to its tragic fall. The elements of the novel direct the reader away from a concentration on any one character and towards a consideration of the basic unit of society, the family. Although the title character of the novel may be Wieland, his tragedy and fall affect Clara, Catherine, and Pleyel and...

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Marietta Stafford Patrick (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Patrick, Marietta Stafford. “Romantic Iconography in Wieland.South Atlantic Review 49, no. 4 (November 1984): 65-74.

[In the following essay, Patrick argues against critics who claim that Wieland is an unsophisticated novel dependent on the conventions of Gothic and sentimental novels. According to Patrick, the novel questions the process of transformation, perception, and personal identity, suggesting that it has far more in common with the later works of American literature than with earlier ones.]

Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland has been treated by older critics as a derivative novel. Pattee in an early introduction considers the...

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Thomas Pribek (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pribek, Thomas. “A Note on ‘Depravity’ in Wieland.Philological Quarterly 64, no. 2 (spring 1985): 273-79.

[In the following essay, Pribek refutes the notion that the characters of Wieland are inherently evil, suggesting instead that they should be read as rational characters who are undone by the villainy of an outsider.]

The reading of Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland as a rationalist tract has been questioned thoroughly by recent critics. For example, the narrator Clara Wieland's capacity for accurate perception, judgment, and narration has been called into doubt so far as to accuse her of unknowingly murdering her...

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Bill Christophersen (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Christophersen, Bill. “Picking Up the Knife: A Psycho-Historical Reading of Wieland.American Studies 27, no. 1 (spring 1986): 115-26.

[In the following essay, Christophersen focuses on Clara's transformation as a metaphor for the transformation of America from British colony to young nation.]

Literature … has a relationship to social and intellectual history, not as documentation, but as symbolic illumination.1

Edwin S. Fussell, in his essay “Wieland: A Literary and Historical Reading,” goes far toward establishing a political/historical context for Charles Brockden Brown's...

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Shirley Samuels (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Samuels, Shirley. “Wieland: Alien and Infidel.” Early American Literature 25, no. 1 (1990): 46-66.

[In the following essay, Samuels explores the connections between family and nation and the threat to both from outsiders as a prominent theme of Wieland.]

An eighteenth-century New England minister who wrote a history of the American Revolution once described the need to “dress” his history modestly: “laboured elegance and extravagant colouring only brings her into suspicion, hides her beauty, and makes the cautious reader afraid lest he is in company with a painted harlot” (Gordon 393). While it seems understandable that a minister would not...

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Toni O'Shaughnessy (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Shaughnessy, Toni. “‘An Imperfect Tale’: Interpretive Accountability in Wieland.Studies in American Fiction 18, no. 1 (spring 1990): 41-54.

[In the following essay, O'Shaughnessy examines the deliberate manipulation of readers' interpretive responses to events in the plot of Wieland.]

In the “Epistle to the Reader,” which prefaces his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke describes his own authorship in ambiguous and suggestive language. Authors, he says, are those “who let loose their own Thoughts,” as hunters release hounds or hawks, “and follow them in writing.”1 The understanding searches...

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Andrew J. Scheiber (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scheiber, Andrew J. “‘The Arm Lifted Against Me’: Love, Terror, and the Construction of Gender in Wieland.Early American Literature 26, no. 2 (1991): 173-94.

[In the following essay, Scheiber explores the ambiguity of Clara's characterization, attributing that ambiguity to her status within masculine and patriarchal institutions of the time.]

A persistent locus of critical contention in Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland has been the character of Clara, the novel's narrator. Nina Baym has argued that “Clara is not a character in any traditional sense,” but rather “serves only as a vantage point from which events are misapprehended...

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Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hinds, Elizabeth Jane Wall. “Wieland: Accounting for the Past.” In Private Property: Charles Brockden Brown's Gendered Economics of Virtue, pp. 99-131. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Hinds discusses issues of class and inheritance in Wieland.]

Within the unfolding drama of international capitalism, Wieland, or The Transformation: An American Tale appears less than interested in a growing market economy or in any private world modeled on the contingencies of exchange in the public sphere, in part because Wieland, Brown's first novel, is set in the country, far away from the immediate pressures of...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bauer, Ralph. “Between Repression and Transgression: Rousseau's Confessions and Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland.American Transcendental Quarterly 10, no. 4 (December 1996): 311-29.

Examines the influence of Rousseau on Brown's construction of Wieland.

Budick, Emily Miller. “Literalism and the New England Mind: Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland as American History.” In Fiction and Historical Consciousness: The American Romance Tradition, pp. 18-35. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Examines the use of the akedah, or the sacrifice of the son by the patriarchal father,...

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