What makes Clara Wieland an unreliable narrator?
Clara is an unreliable narrator for several reasons. First, she has inherited the family curse of madness. This limits her ability to perceive and process events in a rational way. Second, she does not actually know the truth. Carwin's confession is contradictory and confusing; he may be lying about some or all of it and Clara simply does not know the reality of the situation. Third, Clara's own character traits limit her ability to dispassionately and objectively interpret events and information. She is prone to obsessiveness, hysteria, depression, and morbidity. Her repressed sexual feelings for Carwin color her surface feelings for him. She does not have an accurate understanding of her own mind; she believes herself rational, reasonable, and courageous, but she demonstrates time and time again that she is actually a victim of superstition.
Why is Clara's reaction to Carwin so intense?
Clara experiences Carwin through two of her senses - hearing and vision. She is first utterly entranced by his voice, which she found "mellifluent and clear" with an emphasis that was "so just" and a modulation "so impassioned" that it would move a heart of stone. When she saw his face, her reaction was incredibly powerful. She was simultaneously repulsed and aroused; her description of him is thorough, impassioned, and indicative of intense feelings. She is so captivated that she draws a portrait of him and spends that night and the next contemplating his features. While it is clear that she had romantic feelings for Pleyel, her response to Carwin is purely sexual. Her repressed sexuality and guilt manifest themselves throughout the novel in her hysteria, dark thoughts, and fragmented narrative.
How does Clara transcend and embody the 18th century conceptions of gender?
For being a woman in 18th century America, Clara has a great deal of autonomy. She is raised by a female relative in a very relaxed, flexible environment. Her education emphasizes Enlightenment thinking; it is not particularly religious and is tailored to her own interests. Her intellect and freedom to order her life as she chooses surpass those of other contemporary women. She inherits her father's property just like her brother does, and lives in her own home on its outskirts. Her character is described as courageous, rational, and reasonable. However, she also embodies many of the traits that commonly define 18th century women. She is prone to hysteria, obsessiveness, extremities of emotion, and histrionics. While she has her own home, it is on her brother's property, and most of the claims she makes about her own coolheadedness prove to be false. The patriarchal institutions of the novel, such as the family and the church, have ultimate power over Clara, despite the fact that they are intrinsically flawed. Clara may have some advantages over other women, but she is still basically a second-class citizen.
Why does Wieland murder his family?
This is one of the crucial questions of the novel and one that Brown deliberately avoids answering conclusively. It is left up to the readers to decide why Theodore Wieland, a man of God and the community, murders six people. There is evidence that he is insane; madness runs in his family and he is prone to mild depression. His extreme religiosity coupled with his feelings of inadequacy and his profound desire to be an instrument of divine will contribute to his mental instability. Thus, one explanation of why he committed the murders is that he was truly insane and imagined the voices in his head. Another explanation is that Carwin perpetrated the voices and pushed Wieland into insanity. He may have been lingering on the precipice of his own accord, but Carwin is to blame for his descent into the abyss. Another unlikely (because of Brown's own intellectual beliefs and proclivities) explanation but one worth offering is that Wieland actually did hear the voice of God. The novel is purposefully ambiguous and its message is multifaceted.
Why does Carwin have as much control as he does over the Wieland and Pleyel families?
The Wieland family is incredibly insulated from the outside world. Living on a rural estate outside of Philadelphia, their idyllic, utopian lifestyle represents an unnatural distinction between family and society. The French and Indian war is only mentioned in passing and none of the characters seem to engage with the community at large. The institutions that facilitate the healthy growth of a community - schools, prisons, political bodies, hospitals, asylums - are completely external and alien to the Wielands. Carwin's arrival is unconsciously and consciously frightening because he represents the "other," a strange visitor from the outside world whose presence is threatening to the hermetic circle he invades. His intellectual pedigree, religion, language, clothing, and special gift of biloquism are both compelling and repulsive. His powers work easily upon this family that is unprepared for him. Without experience with or awareness of duplicity and deception they are unable to discern his menace to their lifestyle. The superstition and religious fanaticism of Wieland are easily manipulated, while Clara's general lack of composure and strong sexual response to Carwin prompts him to provoke her further.
How does Brown set the tone of the novel and create suspense in the reader?
By structuring the novel as a first-person narrative, Brown lets his readers view the horrifying events through the eyes of the woman who is experiencing them. The readers can appreciate Clara's fear, hysteria, trepidation, anxiety, and horror as she tries to come to terms with what is happening around her. Suspense is built through her continuous questioning and pondering; the use of rhetorical questions heightens the instability of the text. Clara's tone is at time even-keeled and rational, other times hysterical and perplexed. The reader is kept in suspense while Clara tries to puzzle out the mysterious voices and decipher the identity of the murderer. Brown is skillful at creating a spooky, strange atmosphere - there are inexplicable lights, weird voices, remote settings, spectral faces, dark rooms, and plenty of secrets.
What is the lesson the reader is to learn from this novel?
Most works of fiction in the 18th century, particularly sentimental novels, tried to impart a moral lesson to their readers. For young women, these lessons included remaining chaste and pure, and not marrying the wrong sort of man. While not a sentimental novel, Wieland also tries to impart certain lessons to its readers. In Clara's introduction to her narrative, she writes, "I do not disdain to contribute what little I can to the benefit of mankind" (7); she intends for her tale to "inculcate the duty of avoiding deceit. It will exemplify the force of early impressions, and show the immeasurable evils that flow from an erroneous and imperfect discipline" (7). By the time she draws her narrative to a close with the story of Maxwell and Major Stuart, she has reflected enough to be more specific in how the tragedy could have been avoided. While Carwin and Maxwell were the authors of respective evils, "if Wieland had framed juster notions of moral duty, and of the divine attributes; or if I had been gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight" (181) then perhaps Carwin's impact would have been lessened or negated. Clara's narrative serves as a lesson she never received.
How does the novel illustrate some of the tensions present in late 18th century America?
Wieland is admired by critics for its engagement with several significant historical tensions. First, it demonstrates the construction of gender roles and the problems inherent in patriarchal institutions. Secondly, it offers a compelling portrait of the centrality of religion in American life and the accompanying dangers. Thirdly, it simultaneously upholds and critiques the Enlightenment's reliance upon the senses. Fourthly, it reveals the struggle of maintaining a healthy and appropriate distance of society and the family. And finally, the fear of the alien is manifest; the new republic was highly and irrationally afraid of immigrants, dissidents, and anyone who deviated from the commonly-assumed standard of morality based upon a Judeo-Christian ethic.
How does the death of the elder Wieland permeate the novel?
The death of the elder Wieland casts a shadow over the lives of his two children. When beginning her narrative, Clara starts with her father's history and gives a detailed account of the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. The question of whether or not his death was human or supernatural haunts Clara and Theodore. Clara vacillates between these two poles. Reflection on her father's death comes upon her when she is distressed or melancholy about something else. She thinks about this while her mind is in a tumult after hearing and seeing Carwin for the first time. The evening Pleyel does not show and she fears the loss of his affection or his death, she writes that "by no violent transition was I led to ponder on the turbulent life and mysterious end of my father" (67). While Theodore Wieland embodies his father's character and religious fanaticism, both children inherit the legacy of madness that their father embodied. His violent death is mirrored in the violent deaths of the Wieland family. One interesting insight is that both the elder Wieland's death and the deaths of the Wieland family are ambiguous in terms of who is to blame. Was the elder Wieland struck down by God or a human attacker? Were Catharine and the children murdered by a divine order or an insane man prompted by either his own insanity or Carwin's biloquism? All of these questions reveal the complexity of Brown's novel.
Why is the novel subtitled "The Transformation"?
There are many different theories about why Brown subtitled his novel "The Transformation." Some critics who view the novel on a more meta scale believe it has to do with Brown's involvement in the creation of a purely American literature distinct from that of Europe. It may also allude to the transformation of the thirteen disparate colonies into one united republic. Other critics look to individual characters to embody the title. It may refer to Theodore Wieland's move from a rational, kind, and sensibly religious man to the frenzied fanatic who believed he was commanded to murder his family. It may refer to Clara's move from a rational and educated young woman to one consumed by hysteria and madness. Finally, it may also refer to Carwin and his "magical" ability to transform the people around him into his veritable puppets, as Carwin had earlier transformed himself from an Englishman to a Spaniard.