Wieland (full title: Wieland: or, The Transformation: An American Tale) was the first major work of Charles Brockden Brown as well as the first American gothic novel. It’s written in a (loose) epistolary format from the perspective of Clara, Wieland’s sister.
Clara, her brother, Wieland, and her sister-in-law, Catherine happily live together on the same property, though in different neighboring houses, which they inherited from their ill-fated father, a German immigrant and religious fanatic who died of mysterious circumstances (spontaneous combustion) in the temple he built on the property. These two homes are isolated, and indeed, Clara and Wieland were brought up fairly isolated from all others: they were educated at home and never belonged to any sort of church. The only family that they were connected to were the Pleyels: Catherine (who married Wieland) and Henry Pleyel.
Their happy life, which consisted largely in enjoying each other’s company, walks in nature, classical debates, and knitting, is destroyed when Carwin begins to toy with them. Different members of the group hear voices in odd places at odd times. For example, when Wieland left the group in his home to go to the temple in order to retrieve a letter, he hears the voice of his wife near the temple.
After Clara admits to the reader that she loves Henry Pleyel and decides to tell him her feelings, she finds Carwin hiding in her closet. Carwin tells Clara that he was planning to rape her, but that he believes she is under protection of a supernatural force, so he leaves her (at this point, Clara has heard voices which appear to protect her from harm and seem to be supernatural or godly). Unfortunately, Carwin’s machinations lead Pleyel to believe that Carwin and Clara are having an affair. Clara goes to Pleyel to explain the situation to him but is unsuccessful. Clara returns home to find her brother’s house nearly empty. Upon further investigation, Clara discovers the horrible truth: Catherine and all her children are dead. Wieland is the murderer.
Wieland killed his family because he believed that God ordered him to do so as proof of his faith. Carwin reveals to Clara that he is a “biloquist” who can mimic the voices of others and throw his voice. He also tells Clara that he was the cause of most of the voices heard by her family, but he also insists that he did not create the voices which told Wieland to murder.
Wieland escapes from prison and tries to kill Clara in order to finish what he believes was an order from God. Carwin throws his voice, telling Wieland to stop. Wieland finally comes to his senses and realizes that he had murdered his family. He commits suicide.
Clara’s house burns down, she travels to Europe with her uncle, and finally marries Pleyel. Once Clara feels sufficiently distanced from these horrible events, she sits down and writes them. Carwin becomes a farmer in a different American town.
The novel ends with a moral for the reader: if the victims of Carwin’s crimes had used their reason rather than their passions, then they might have stopped the evil occurrences from taking place.
Notes and Quotes
- This novel definitely fits with Allan Lloyd-Smith’s reading of the American gothic. According to Lloyd-Smith, one of the major foci of the American gothic included the anxieties surrounding the new democracy: Can we trust society to the undisciplined rule of the majority? Does the American experiment even work? The Wieland property and its inhabitants can be read as a miniature version of the American experiment. They are isolated from the more established civilizations and must rely on each other for their survival and happiness. This mini-civilization is destroyed by the chaos and religious fanaticism brought to it by the mischievous Carwin. Carwin and the servant who allows him into Clara’s home are both lower class. Although they have not had the education that the Wieland’s and the Pleyel’s have enjoyed, they have just as much ability to influence and control the plot of this story. Carwin describes the differences in education between Clara and her servant:
Your servant is not destitute of feminine and virtuous qualities; but she was taught that the best use of her charms consists in the sale of them. (230)
With people like this melding into the American society as equals to the wealthier and better educated citizens, how could American society and culture remain pure, rational, and moral?
- The distrust of one’s own senses is very characteristic of the American gothic and is very present within this novel. Carwin can mimic the voices of others and the characters of Wieland to believe in the testimony of their ears. He is therefore able to bring Wieland to murder his whole family and to make Pleyel fall out of love with Clara and view her as a fallen woman. There is also a great focus on faces throughout the text.
Through this aperture was an head thrust and drawn back with so much swiftness, that the immediate conviction was, that thus much of a form, ordinarily invisible, had been unshrowded. The face was turned towards me. Every muscle was tense; the forehead and brows were drawn into vehement expression; the lips were stretched as ni the act of shrieking, and the eyes emitted sparks, which, no doubt, if I had been unattended by a light, would have illuminated like the coruscations of a meteor… This face was well suited to a being whose performances exceeded the standard of humanity, and yet its features were akin to those I had before seen…This visage was, perhaps, pourtrayed by my fancy. (168)
These had vanished with life; but I hoped for liberty to print a last kiss upon her lips. This was denied me; for such had been the merciless blow that destroyed her, that not a lineament remained! (179)
That his station was at some distance, that his attitude was not menacing, that his ominous visage was concealed, may account for my now escaping a shock, violent as those which were past. (222)
In particular, Carwin is able to make his exterior however he pleases in order to best achieve his present desires. However, this makes it difficult for those around him to know how to define his interior self or his true self. He behaves throughout the novel like a sort of chameleon, and his final refusal to admit to causing Wieland’s murder spree is like a final mask he wears to confront the reader. The information which Clara receives from Pleyel regarding Carwin’s past gives the reader a good idea of the different exterior masks which Carwin can wear:
His garb, aspect, and deportment, were wholly Spanish… He had embraced the catholic religion, and adopted a Spanish name instead of his own, which was CARWIN, and devoted himself to the literature and religion of his new country. He pursued no profession, but subsisted on remittances from England. (77)
On topics pf his religion, and of his own history, previous to his transformation into a Spaniard, he was invariably silent. (78)
Carwin was an adherent to the Romish faith, yet was an Englishman by birth, and, perhaps, a protestant by education. He had adopted Spain for his country, and had intimated a design to spend his days there, yet new was an inhabitant of this district, and disguised by the habiliments of a clown! (79)
Notwithstanding the uncouthness of his garb, his manners were not unpolished… He uttered no sentiment calculated to produce a disadvantageous impression. (80)
This final quote is most interesting to me because it reminds me a lot of Benjamin Franklin and the American dream. In Brown’s representation, however, it’s uncanny and unsettling to find someone with an intellectual and polished mind to appear poor and rustic. The inside and outside don’t match, therefore immediately notifying Clara and the reader that something is not quite right here.
- Throughout the novel, there is a continued focus on air and the atmosphere. Sometimes, Clara is able to find herself in fresh, clear air. However, at other times, the atmosphere is cloudy and unclean. I think this is a great example both of ecogothic description, as well as of contagion within gothic texts. This is especially interesting coming from Brown, as he had written Arthur Melvyn about the yellow fever. The description of a gothic and unhealthy yet pervasive atmosphere is also interesting given the impact of the characters’ senses upon their own interior feelings, passions, and beliefs. The exterior atmosphere invades their inner selves, causing them to behave differently (Wieland murdering his family) and be viewed differently by others (Pleyel viewing Clara as a fallen woman).
No scene can be imagined less enticing to a lover of the picturesque than this. The shore is deformed with mud, and encumbered with a forest of reeds. The fields, in most seasons, are mire; but when they afford a firm footing, the ditches by which they are bounded and intersected, are mantled with stagnating green, and emit the most noxious exhalations. Health is no less a stranger to those seats than pleasure. Spring and autumn are sure to be accompanied with agues and bilious remittence. (53)
To screen him from the unwholesome airs of his own residence, it had been proposed to Pleyel to spend the months of spring with us. (54)
The inclemency of the air would not allow me to walk out. (61)
Cloudy as was the atmosphere, and curtained as my bed was, nothing was visible. (64)
I will not enumerate the various inquiries and conjectures which these incidents occasioned. After all our offers, we came no nearer to dispelling the mist in which they were involved… (70)
…for the space of sixty feet, produced a freshness in the air, and murmur, the most delicious and soothing imaginable. (71)
My first panics were succeeded by the perturbations of surprize, to find myself alone in the open air, and immersed in so deep a gloom. (72)
I was now visited by dread if unknown dangers, and the future was a scene over which clouds rolled, and thunders muttered. (79)
The airy expanse is without a speck. This breeze is usually stedfast, and its promise of a bland and cloudless evening, may be trusted. (90)
The atmosphere, though illuminated only by the starlight, was remarkably serene. (163)