Clara’s sleep did not last long, for she was awakened by sounds in the next room. She cried out for the person to identify themselves; Pleyel responded, asking if she would meet him in the parlor for a few moments’ conversation. Surprised by the distress she heard in his voice, she immediately complied and went downstairs. He appeared sorrowful and fatigued, and could barely speak. When he finally did speak, he burst out with a claim that her purity was sullied, that she had fallen far from grace, that she was disgraced by a murderer and a thief. In short, he told her he knew that her virginity was lost to Carwin and that she must disappear forever and Carwin must flee as well because his crimes were now known. In a frenzy, Pleyel ran out the door and hurried to Wieland’s house.
Clara was utterly flabbergasted at the accusations. She wondered by what “fatal, incomprehensible mistake” he had come to this erroneous conclusion. How could Pleyel, having known her for years and having observed her purity and high moral character, believe these things of her? How could he have “loaded me with all outrageous epithets,” and “ranked me with prostitutes and thieves?” She wondered if maybe his own love for her caused him to harbor these strange and false thoughts. While sitting and contemplating these events, she knew she was innocent but feared what Carwin might do to her in the future and how to elude them. Finally, she decided to go to her brother’s house.
When she arrived, Catharine noticed her countenance and asked what was wrong, but as she was in delicate health, Clara chose not to alarm her. Catharine told her that Pleyel had arrived, anguished and frazzled, and spent the morning walking with Wieland. She did not know what they talked of, other than that it concerned Clara. Clara was upset that her brother no doubt now believed these lies that Pleyel was convinced of, and earnestly desired a meeting with him to set the story right. Before she met with him, however, she told Catharine that she wished to reside with them, but chose not to tell her why.
Theodore returned and Clara was finally able to speak with him. She told him that she knew Pleyel had told him many disastrous untruths and that she was afraid “he has prejudiced my brother against me.” Her brother conceded that he listened to Pleyel’s tales and hoped his sister, if she could, would vindicate herself from those sordid accusations. She told him that Pleyel based his conclusions from some false foundation of truth and told her entire tale of the previous night’s events to Wieland. Wieland agreed that there were certain fantastical elements to her story but that he trusted her character and word and believed her.
Extraordinarily grateful, she inquired of Wieland what Pleyel used as his evidence for her downfall. He recounted that Pleyel told him as he approached Clara’s house, he heard two voices – one Carwin, one Clara – speaking of things that could not be repeated but most assuredly were of an inappropriate sexual nature. Clara was shocked; she could not believe that Carwin had tempted some poor woman into mimicking her own voice. What was even more distressing to her was that she could not think of how to convince Pleyel that she was virtuous and not guilty of the crimes he accused her of; clearly her assertions of her character were not enough and she could not prove that Carwin had a woman mimic her voice. Wieland tried to comfort her, but informed her that Pleyel was planning a journey on the following day. Clara was distressed at this news, for now all the romantic aspirations she had for Pleyel would be destroyed and he still believed that she “coveted pollution, and wedded infamy, when, on the contrary, my heart was the shrine of all purity.” She decided, with the assistance of her brother’s chaise and servant, to go to Pleyel’s farm and talk to him.
Clara began her journey but immediately felt faint. After a short rest at Mrs. Baynton’s in the city, she resumed her journey to Pleyel’s farm. As she traveled she ruminated on whether or not Pleyel would believe her and if she would be able to cast off these “atrocious imputations,” for “the gulf that separates man from insects is not wider than that which severs the polluted from the chaste among women.” She meditated on Carwin’s power and talents and wondered how she would ever be able to avoid the doom he had planned for her.
When she arrived, her nerves began to fail her and she collapsed into the arms of one of Pleyel’s servants, fearing that he had already departed and her case was to receive no hearing. When she heard he was still within, she gained her strength, knocked on his door, and entered. When Pleyel noticed her, he appeared astonished but his countenance softened into an expression of pity. Clara realized that he was still under the delusion of her depravity but that he now decided to forgive her of her vast crimes. She now knew that her task would be even more difficult.
He spoke to her, calling her “friend” and acknowledging that “the image that I once adored existed only in my fancy.” He expressed that he once believed her a perfect example of womanhood but that he was wrong and perhaps her education was defective. Finally, Clara could not stand it and cried out that he was laboring under false perceptions and was destroying her peace and honor. She sobbed that she could not bear having to defend herself against such horrid accusations that were not true in the slightest, and that she was disconsolate that he chose to believe voices in the night and not her hitherto unsullied word. Should not her character be enough?
Pleyel was unmoved by her words, and stated his plan to leave for his journey immediately and that he had hoped she came to ask for forgiveness. He could not believe she stood before him and claimed he was deceived, and lashed out at her that “an inscrutable providence has fashioned thee for some end.” At the end of his invective, he told her she was welcome to stay there but he could not bear to be near her. As he left, Clara screamed out, “Pleyel! Art thou gone? Gone forever?”
She fainted, and when she awoke she was reclining on a bed, still in Pleyel’s house. To her great surprise, Pleyel no longer looked enraged or frenzied, but cried out that he was glad she was still alive and that indeed his “senses must have been the victims of some inexplicable and momentary phrenzy.” With that, he left the room.
In these two chapters Clara experiences new types of horror - the loss of Pleyel’s affection, which is difficult enough for her, and the even more disastrous accusation that her virginity has been compromised. Clara experienced an actual physical threat to her virginity when she discovered Carwin in her closet, reflecting after he left that his murderous intentions were preferred to his lascivious ones: “Then death was the scope of his thoughts; now an injury unspeakably more dreadful” (74). Her virginity is safe from Carwin, but not from Pleyel’s assumptions. When Pleyel excoriates her for her supposed loss of her purity, she is utterly and thoroughly devastated. These charges, while false, are of such magnitude in this society that her entire life would change; indeed, Pleyel encourages her to exile herself to avoid the shame she would bring upon herself and her family. For 18th century women, as Clara notes in despair, “the gulf that separates man from insects is not wider than that which severs the polluted from the chaste among women” (88).
Brown’s Wieland is not only a novel about mysterious personages and strange, unexplainable events; it is also a novel that provides a window into some of the tensions present in the construction of gender in 18th century America. Pleyel offers perhaps one of the best depictions in fiction (or even non-fiction) of what the ideal woman is supposed to be like. His perception of Clara before her putative fall from grace is laughably unrealistic. He views her as one “after whom the sages may model their transcendent intelligence, and painters, their ideal beauty” (94). Her voice is enchanting, her manners refined, her principles sound, her relationships with others harmonious, her knowledge abundant. Pleyel had to keep a journal of “every particular of [her] conduct” (94), noting her actions, utterances, even the colors of her clothing. He found her utterly “devoid of imperfection” (95). It is no wonder, with this portrayal of Clara as the ideal woman, that Pleyel was overwhelmed and disgusted by her moral downfall.
Catharine, who is barely a character, is similar to Clara in that she is the perfect example of what historians refer to as “Republican motherhood.” In brief, this is the idea that modesty and purity were inherent parts of women’s nature, and that this gave them the unique ability to instill Christian and republican values in their children. The home was a refuge, a place where mothers inculcated these values in their children, who would then (if they were male) become participating citizens in the republic. Catharine has no other purpose in the novel than to be a sweet, supportive, and docile wife to Theodore Wieland. Clara could not even bring herself to unload her burden on Catharine because she was deemed too fragile to withstand the tragic tale; femininity and weakness are linked.
Returning to Clara, the more complicated female character, it is clear she considers herself a modern, independent woman. After all, she received half of her father’s property, lives in her own home, and orders her small life as she sees fit. She is educated, rational, and free-thinking. However, it is important to remember that this 18th century America was strictly stratified by gender. Clara will always be a second-class citizen, whose identity, as scholar Andrew Scheiber writes, “is contingent on the support and corroboration of authoritarian, masculine-centered institutions of power: the patriarchal family, the life of the intellect, and the religion of her ancestors.” Even the name “Wieland” is not really hers; it is her father’s and her brother’s, and she will relinquish it once she marries. She may have her own home, but it is a small one on Wieland’s property. Her education seems to be indistinguishable from that of her brother’s, but she is consistently a victim to those sentiments that were attributed to women. She continually apologizes for those weaknesses; Scheiber finds that she describes her feelings of love as “hateful and degrading impulses,” her sexual awakening makes her “a victim of imbecility” (66) due to “a fatal passion – a passion that…was alone sufficient to the extermination of my peace” (66) and her musings on her response to Carwin would obviously lead the reader to “suspect that such were the first inroads of a passion incident to every female heart” (45).
Clara turns to the men in her life for guidance and support; her fate (revealed at the end of the novel) places her squarely in a sphere of dependence upon men. Her intelligence and rationality do nothing to prevent her descent into sentimentality and madness. She appears a victim of her womanhood. Critics disagree as to whether Brown is upholding this idea of women as prone to irrationality and histrionics, or whether he is finely and intuitively depicting the perception of women in his era. Perhaps Wieland’s disastrous actions later in the novel actually demonstrate the insignificance of gender when it comes to being misled by one’s senses or religion.