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.
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.
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.