Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, March 18, 2021


 Wieland; or, The Transformation:  An American Tale by Charles Brockden Brown (1798)

The narrator is Clara Wieland, a beautiful, intelligent, and strong-willed woman, the sister of Thomas Wieland.  Sara and Thomas have jointly inherited their father's property -- Mettingen, a large and somewhat isolated outside of Philadelphia -- where they were raised.  Their father had emigrated to America sometime in the late middle 18th century to found spread the word of his personal religion to the Indians.  He failed in this endeavor and eventually died following an unexplained incident of spontaneous combustion.  With their father gone, Thomas -- referred to as Wieland in the novel -- remained in their father's house, and Clara moved to a smaller house on the estate.  Both Clara and Wieland have inherited their father's religious streak, Wieland more so than his sister.  Wieland marries Catherine Playel, a childhood friend, and they have four children to whom Clara is devoted.

Their life is both idyllic and Edenic.  Mettingen is, in Clara's mind, paradise.  There is not a more beautiful or more peaceful place in the world.  They pass their days reading poetry and literature, performing little plays, and in intelligent conversation.  Soon they are joined by a fourth, Henry Playel, Catherine's brother, who had just returned from a long sojourn Europe.  The four are close and have no need of others.

Soon their little world becomes strange.  First, Wieland, then Playel, begin to hear voices...commands.  Eventually Clara hears them, too.  Playel, who had fallen in love with a married German woman while in Europe, had recently determined to return to Europe after learning that she was now a widow, becomes disheartened when the mysterious voice tells him that she has died.   He elects to stay at Mettingen. remaining close to his friends.  Clara soon finds herself in love with him but, as a respectable woman, gives him no hint of her feelings.

The voices continue.  The four are joined by Carwin, a mysterious man with whom Playel had been acquainted in Europe.  Carwin's background is hazy and we later learn that he had fled to America after being sought for some unspecified crime.  One evening Carwin lies hidden in Clara's closet and plans to rape her.  When Carwin confronts Clara, however, he does not "dishonor' her, believing her nder some sort of supernatural protection.  We learn that Carwin is a biloquist (a ventriloquist who can speak in several voices, copying each exactly), explaining the mysterious voices.  Carwin leaves. and soon Playel arrives and accuses Clara of being all sorts of bad things -- he had just overheard Carwin and Clara in the garden where the voice of Clara describes their carnal love in explicit terms.  Playel wants nothing to do with Clara, and -- since he conveniently has learned the his European love was actually alive and had travelled to America to find him -- vows to go to her.

Clara the receives a note from Carwin, asking her to meet him at her house.  She goes and finds the savagely murdered corpse of her sister-in-law in her bedroom.  In shock, she goes downstairs as Wieland storms into the house, accusing Clara of all sorts of bad things.  (Playel had told him what he had heard, you see.)  Then he rushes out.

A group of townspeople come.  Clara faints.  When she wakes up she learns that all four of Wieland's children have been slaughtered, and that Wieland has been arrested for the murder of his family.  Not only arrest, but he has also confessed.  According to Wieland, Jehovah had spoken to him demanding first the sacrifice of his wife to prove his devotion, then the murders of his children.  Wieland felt he was doing the bidding of God, and as a most religious man, he had no choice.  Wieland is deemed insane and is sent to an asylum.  Carwin strongly denies he had used his powers to trick Wieland into musrder.  There, he reveals that Jehovah has told him he must also kill Clara and Playel.  He escapes several times to attempt to murder Clara, but was caught before he could reach here.  He escapes one final time and confronts Clara, determined to kill her.  Needless to say, Clara is saved.  Playel goes off and marries his German love.

Clara is left alone, isolated.  Everything she has loved has been torn from her.  Her personal Edan has been denied her.  She accepts her fate and vows to live on in misery.

But, wait!  There's a coda written three years later.  Playel's wife has died and he marries Clara, who realized that, although she likes Playel, she does not love him.  Slowly she is picking up the pieces of her life and is finding some sort of happiness,

The religious overtones of the novel are obvious.  Brown, himself did not like extreme religiosity.  The sacrifice of Isaac theme is used to display this.  We are left to wonder if Wieland's psychosis was the result of Carwin's interference or was due to the religious fanaticism of Wieland, although the letter is strongly hinted.  (Carwin, by the way, goes of to a remote part of America and turns to farming.)  The Eden-like setting suggests that religious fanaticism is what destroyed paradise.  Clara's independence streak is countered by her acceptance of puritanism. 

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) was the most important early American novelist before James Fenimore Cooper, and Wieland -- the first of seven novels extant -- was his most popular work.  It followed in the Gothic-like tradition of Thomas Godwin's Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), although far less mundane and politically charged.  Wieland is certainly not everyone's cup of tea; it is as overblown and wordy as any 19th century novel.  The sexual content is neatly sidestepped through obfuscation.  Motives and segues can seem inexplicable.  Through it all, however, there is a narrative pace that propels one through the novel.  It was a much better reading experience that I had thought it would be.

It should be noted that Brown based his book on a real-life murder story.  In 1781, in Tomhannock, New York, James Yates killed his wife and four children and then attempted to murder his sister.  Yates, evidently influenced by religious delusion, expressed no remorse at his trial.

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