The Plot

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Wieland: Or, The Transformation is the terror story of Clara Wieland (the narrator) and her brother, Theodore (the Wieland of the title). They are the only children of a German-born religious fanatic and missionary who foretold his death (by spontaneous combustion) for supposed lax service to God. Clara and Theodore become orphans at the ages of seven and ten years, respectively. Reared by a maiden aunt under “enlightened” principles and in circumstances of affluence, Clara and Theodore grow up with Catherine and Henry Pleyel. These four young people are caught in the crosscurrents of eighteenth century thought.

Theodore, who decides to pursue agriculture as his occupation, marries Catherine, and they become the parents of four children. Clara secretly nourishes affection for Henry, who is engaged to German baroness Theresa von Stolberg. A stranger named Frances Carwin, an escaped convict from Ireland who has eyes and a voice suggesting powers of witchcraft and who has a talent for impersonation, joins the Wieland and Pleyel circle.

Seven times in the course of the narration, a mysterious voice is heard, under varying and increasingly mystifying circumstances. Theodore is certain of the supernatural origin of the voice. Clara thinks that the voice is supernatural but not malevolent. Henry, who is told of the death of his sweetheart in one of the statements of the voice, prefers a rationalistic inquiry.

After witnessing Carwin’s departure from Clara’s chamber, Henry becomes angry and accuses her of lascivious conduct. His deportment upsets Clara. Like his father, Theodore is a religious enthusiast who imagines that he can have direct communication with God. Because he thinks he hears a divine command, Theodore strangles his wife and children, bashes in the head of Louisa Stewart, a young girl living in the Wieland mansion, makes attempts on Henry’s life, and threatens to destroy Clara. After escaping from prison twice and menacing Clara, Theodore offers an explanation for the murders. Aware of his error, he grasps her penknife and plunges the blade into his own neck.

The machinations of Carwin, impersonating the voices of others, has nearly destroyed the entire band. Confessing that he meant no real harm to anyone and insisting that he “had set in motion a machine over which he did not have full control,” Carwin explains his ventriloquial powers. Meanwhile, Henry marries Theresa, but three years later, she dies in childbirth. Having learned the truth about Clara’s innocence, Henry marries her, and they start life anew in Europe.

Places Discussed

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Mettingen (MEHT-ihn-jehn). Fictional name of the Wieland’s eastern Pennsylvania farm and later of Clara’s house located on her share of the farm. Mettingen is also the name of a real city in Germany that is the Wielands’ ancestral home. Charles Brockden Brown uses this site as part of an overview of American history, starting with the arrival of the Puritans and proceeding to the Revolutionary War. In the Wieland family history, Brown creates parallels with American history including the escape from religious persecution in England, the resolve to spread the gospel in the new world, the material success of the settlers, and the subsequent abandonment of the religious mission and its replacement by private worship. Significantly, he locates the principal characters near Philadelphia (where the institutions of American democracy were born), in the late eighteenth century, and on a farm, suggesting the founding fathers’ belief in agrarianism as the cornerstone of American society. Additionally, in the Wieland family history, Brown explores developments in intellectual history, as seventeenth century Puritan lives based entirely on faith clash with eighteenth century lives based on reason.

The life of Clara...

(This entire section contains 646 words.)

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and Theodore’s father is grounded in faith in God’s plan. After he dies, the Wielands convert their father’s temple from a place for the exercise of religious faith to a place wherein the rationalistic precepts of the Enlightenment are largely practiced, although Theodore retains some of his father’s reliance on faith. Close to Philadelphia but isolated from its direct influences, the Wielands and Pleyels establish an eighteenth century utopian, pastoral society—an Enlightenment Garden of Eden safe from the sounds of war which echo in the background and safe from having their ideas tested until an outsider, Carwin, enters the garden. Whereas before Carwin’s entrance, the isolation of Mettingen served as protection, after Carwin’s appearance it serves to exacerbate the effects of his deception because the Wielands and Pleyels have no resources other than their own minds with which to respond to the addition to their society and to the events which occur after his arrival. The issues are whether the voice the characters hear has a supernatural source beyond the ken of humans or can be explained rationally, and whether Carwin is the embodiment of evil or is an innocent trickster. Neither faith nor reason serve the members of the utopian society well because, in either case, the minds of the individuals create “reality.” The result is that the Garden of Eden is transformed into a scene of horror.

Clara’s house

Clara’s house. Scene of the events that transform Clara’s life. The house is located by the river which flows through the land and is not quite a mile from Theodore’s house. Furthermore, Clara names her house Mettingen. Living in separate houses, Clara and Theodore are even further isolated, with disastrous results. While they still enjoy the company of others, they both have time alone, time in which to allow their minds to shape the worlds in which they live. Like his father, Theodore builds his reality upon his faith that God works through him, causing him to kill his family. Clara wavers between a belief in the supernatural and a belief in rational explanations of events, causing her to interpret events in such a way as to blame Carwin for the deaths of her loved ones and the fate of Theodore.


*Montpellier (mont-peh-LEEAY). French town in which Clara reunites with Pleyel and plans to spend the rest of her days. While Clara does not find complete peace here, she does find the stability that was absent in America, suggesting that Europe, with its traditions, provides more security than America with its emphasis on individualism. Both faith and reason as ways of knowing can lead to disaster in a political system which privileges the individual.


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Jones, Howard Mumford. Belief and Disbelief in American Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. Discusses the religious ideologies characterizing American thought from the colonial era to the twentieth century. Cites specific writers. Explains eighteenth century rationalism and its coexistence with Calvinistic guilt.

MacAndrew, Elizabeth. The Gothic Tradition in Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. Maintains that from the inception of the gothic novel, authors consciously employed symbolic elements and sought to educate their readers in the workings of the mind. Claims that the infusion of psychology into literature derived from the interest generated by the studies of eighteenth century thinker John Locke.

Punter, David. The Literature of Terror. New York: Longman, 1980. Treats the relationship between the eighteenth century novel and the philosophy of rationalism. The chapter on early American Gothic fiction discusses Brown’s contribution regarding the effects of heredity and Puritanism on one’s psychological composition.

Ringe, Donald A. American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth Century Fiction. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982. Recounts the characteristics of Gothic fiction, and discusses the psychological and moral insight Brown brings to his writing.

Thompson, G. R., ed. The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1974. Argues that gothic literature is directly descended from the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages. A chapter on religious terror in the gothic novel offers enlightenment regarding Wieland’s perception of grace.


Critical Essays