Wieland is an American gothic novel set in the years after the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and before the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). It is structured as a first person narrative in the form of two letters by Clara Wieland.
In the first letter, Clara begins her narrative by informing her readers that her tale concerns the horrors that befell her family and she hopes that its telling will impart a moral lesson. Her father was an extremely religious man whose Calvinist beliefs were filtered through the lens of an apocalyptic French Protestant sect, the Camissards. His character was inclined to sobriety, melancholy, and religious ecstasy. Believing he had a missionary calling, he moved to the rural outskirts of Philadelphia from Saxony to proselytize the Indians; he soon married and had two children, Clara and Theodore (referred to later in the novel as Wieland). One evening when his children were young, he suffered an inexplicable death at the temple overlooking the river that he had built to worship his God. A strange cloud, bright light, and loud boom augured his death. Clara and her brother never truly knew what happened to their father, but Clara believed its cause was either spontaneous human combustion or the work of a divine, supernatural force.
The main events of the novel occurred many years later. Wieland and Clara’s mother died not long after their father, and the two of them inherited his property. Clara lived in a small house on the edge of the Wieland estate. Wieland married Catharine Pleyel, Clara’s closest friend, and had four children. Their circle was complete when Catharine’s brother Henry (referred to as Pleyel) returned from years abroad to live in America. Clara’s education was secular, and while she was not irreligious, she was more inclined to find fundamental truths in nature. Her brother, by contrast, inherited his father’s reserved and melancholy demeanor as well as his heightened religiosity, although it was tempered with the study of science and literature.
The Wielands and Pleyels enjoyed a close-knit, insular intimacy filled with happiness and ease. The first sign of something unexplainable and disconcerting was when Wieland returned to the temple one evening to retrieve a letter he left there; on his return he thought he heard his wife’s voice but it turned out she had never left the house. Wieland was apt to believe in more supernatural explanations, but Pleyel encouraged him to conclude that his senses had deceived him. Some time later both Pleyel and Wieland heard Catharine’s voice and another that communicated information about the death of Pleyel’s beloved who lived in Europe. Clara herself began hearing voices; she heard two men within her closet plotting her death and another warning her away from her summer-house, a secluded outdoor spot she particularly enjoyed.
At this time another individual was introduced into the Wieland circle - Francis Carwin, an intelligent and well-mannered but mysterious man recently returned from traveling throughout Spain. Clara found herself strongly enthralled by his voice and physiognomy. Carwin became a regular fixture in Wieland’s home, although the four never could quite decide whether or not he was good or evil.
One evening Clara returned to her abode from her brother’s home, where she, Wieland, and Catharine were waiting for Pleyel to arrive. Pleyel never came and Clara was overcome with depression and anxiety. She had recently discovered that she was in love with Pleyel and had hoped to inform him of her feelings that evening. When she was alone in her chamber, consumed by morose thoughts, she suddenly felt that there was someone within her closet. To her surprise, a voice warned her not to open it, but when she persisted and finally flung the doors wide, Carwin was hiding inside. He told her the divine voice protected her from his designs upon her purity. Upon relaying this information, he fled.
The next day Clara was shocked when Pleyel, returned after his absence, accused her being in love with Carwin and relinquishing her virginity to him. His evidence was that he saw Clara writing in her diary one evening about Carwin, and that he heard her voice and Carwin’s voice in the woods near her house discussing their lascivious and immoral deeds. Clara was heartbroken at these false allegations but Pleyel persisted, claiming his senses could not be deceived. In his travels in town Pleyel also discovered that Carwin was wanted abroad for murder and robbery. He refused to listen to Clara’s explanation and claimed that he was going to embark upon a long journey.
Clara, profoundly depressed, was shocked to receive a letter from Carwin that afternoon asking her to meet him at her house at eleven o’clock that evening so he could repair his misconduct from the previous evening. After meditating on the wisdom of accepting this invitation, she decided she would hear what he had to say. When she got to her house at the appointed hour she was surprised to see a light in her chamber. As she headed up the stairs she heard a shrill voice warning her away and saw a strange, frightening face in the hallway. When she finally made it upstairs to her room she discovered Catharine’s dead body upon her bed; Carwin was not there but had left a note, wondering why she did not come and warning her that she was about to see a horrible sight. Her brother appeared, discombobulated and frenzied, but ran out when a crowd of neighbors and townspeople rushed in. Clara was then told her brother and Catharine’s four children and ward Louisa Conway were also murdered. This information was so distressing to Clara that she fainted and became ill.
When Clara’s health was restored, her maternal uncle Thomas Cambridge, arrived from Ireland and presented her with a written account of the trial of the man who was convicted of the murders - Wieland! In his testimony, he states he committed the murders because he was absolutely convinced that he was commanded to do so by God as a test of faith. Clara was horrified, especially as she believed Carwin must have played a role in the crimes. She agreed to leave America and travel throughout Europe with her uncle at his request. When she asked permission to visit her brother - who received a life sentence and not execution on the basis of insanity - her uncle warned her that her brother had tried to escape and murder her as well, believing it God’s will.
Before she left for Europe, Clara returned to her house to retrieve her diary that she had left there. To her astonishment, Carwin appeared in her room and confessed that he was responsible for almost all of the voices she and the family heard, although he did not explicitly admit to perpetrating the voices encouraging Wieland to murder his family. He had the gift of biloquism, which meant he could mimic the voices of others and project them from whatever distance he chose. He admitted to using this gift in the past for personal gain and amusement, but expressed extreme regret at the events that befell the Wielands. He also explained that he was not a murderer and a thief but was framed by an enemy. Clara found his confession unsatisfactory and blamed him for her family’s deaths.
At the close of Carwin’s confession Wieland appeared, escaped from prison. He attempted to murder Clara but Carwin, who fled the room, used his voice to stop Wieland. When Wieland heard the voice telling him that he had murdered his family in error, he became profoundly anguished and fatally stabbed himself in the neck. Following this tragedy, Clara descended into madness and could barely go on. This torpor finally broke when her house, which she refused to leave and wanted to die in, caught fire and burned down. She was restored to sanity and finally agreed to accompany her uncle to Europe as they had planned earlier.
The final chapter of the novel consists of a second letter written by Clara three years after the events surrounding Wieland's death. She explained how she finally married Pleyel, who learned she did not lose her purity. Carwin was never heard from again, and she assumed he was retired to some farm, eluding his enemy. The lesson she wished to impart was that she and her brother could possibly have avoided the tragedy that befell their family if he had “framed juster notions of moral duty, and of the divine attributes” (181) or if she had “been gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight” (181).