This chapter makes it clear that the narrator is a woman, although her name is not yet given. For the purposes of this study guide, however, her name – Clara – will be used from now on.
Clara’s mother died of disease not long after her father's death. She and her brother Theodore (his name is also not yet provided, but he will be referred to as "Wieland" from now on) were orphaned but were placed under the care of their caring maiden aunt. The children were not poor; a trust would be bequeathed to them when they got older. Despite the traumatizing events of their earlier years, the children had a happy and placid childhood. Clara befriended a young woman named Catharine Pleyel; the two of them became inseparable and it was clear that romantic affection existed between Catharine and Clara’s brother as well.
The three spent nearly all their time together. Wieland's profession was to be agriculture, although his fortune made it possible for his role to be one of supervision and not labor. He still had copious amounts of time to spend with his sister and Catharine, the latter whom he eventually married. The two moved into his father’s house while Clara took up residence in another dwelling, Mettingen, on the family property. She relished her alone time as well as the frequent interactions with her brother and sister-in-law.
Clara explains that her and Catharine’s education was not particularly religious. They did not avoid religion, but theirs was “the product of lively feelings, excited by reflection on our own happiness, and by the grandeur of external nature.” Their devotions were casual, their reflection on creeds and proofs relaxed. Clara believed religion to be necessary in calamity but her life at this time required no such aid – all was peaceful and pleasant.
Wieland, however, revealed himself to be his father’s son in certain ways. He seldom laughed and was predisposed to be thoughtful, sober, and very much concerned with pondering religious truths and examining their validity. Despite the similarities in character, Wieland supplemented his interest in religion with science and literature. His particular favorite was Cicero, of whom he had a marble bust. This bust, its pedestal, and a harpsichord were placed in the temple where the siblings’ father had died. It was not a place of sadness, however; many pleasant evenings were spent there playing music or delivering lessons to Wieland and Catharine’s children.
Wieland was very devoted to his study of Cicero and took up Latin in order to read the author in his native tongue. He intently studied all the texts he could find and delighted upon discovering discrepancies in translations. His intellectual equal was found in Catharine’s brother, Henry Pleyel, who returned from years abroad in Europe. Pleyel and Wieland shared their interest in Roman writers and thinkers. Clara admired Pleyel’s character, for he was capable of great mirth but could also be serious and sober when the situation required. Pleyel lived below the city but visited nearly every day. He was also interested in religion, but unlike Wieland, his studies only produced doubt. Pleyel “rejected all guidance but that of his reason.”
Clara reasserted how happy and serene the lives of the four young people were at this time.
Six years passed, during which the French and Indian War came and went. This war did not take a physical toll on the Wielands or their families, but served to merely agitate political excitement and discussion. Wieland and Catharine had four children, the youngest of which was still an infant. There was also a young woman of fourteen years who was residing with the Wielands. This young woman’s mother brought her to their town from England when she was an infant. Her mother took up residence with the Wielands' aunt and died not long after, full of unspoken anguish and woe. The daughter remained with the aunt until Wieland married Catharine, upon which she moved into their house. She was exceedingly pensive, but intelligent and charming and adored by the family.
One day, Clara and the young Wieland ward went to visit of friend of theirs, Mrs. Baynton, in Philadelphia. A military officer, Major Stuart, was also visiting her, and as soon as he espied the young woman he displayed a fervor of emotion and shock. He asked her name, which proved to be Louisa Conway, and surprised the whole party by proclaiming himself to be her father. He explained that he had married the lovely young daughter of a London banker. Their marriage was extremely happy and he had no doubt of her affection for him. They lived with her father, and three years after they married and had a child together, the major was sent to Germany. They exchanged letters until he received word he could see them on his way to Canada. When he arrived, the Conway house was in an uproar - his wife and child had vanished and no information existed as to their whereabouts.
The Wielands recalled their interaction with the girl's mother, but could not find any clue to why she might have left England. Major Stuart begged Louisa to return with him to England, but this decision was put off for some time while he traveled the colonies.
One evening Wieland, Catharine, Pleyel, and Clara were in the temple. The women practiced needlepoint while the men argued a particular point of Cicero. A servant interrupted with a letter from Major Stuart, but the group had to retire to the house when a storm arose. It was discovered that the letter was accidentally left in the temple, and Wieland offered to retrieve it. When he returned, his entire countenance was changed - his eyes were full of wonder and anxiety and as soon as he glimpsed his wife reclining on the sofa, he became even more perplexed and disturbed.
He inquired whether or not she had left the room to follow him to the temple, and when this was denied, he explained that he had heard her voice at the bottom of the hill. Pleyel responded that his senses deceived him, but Wieland was not convinced. He told them that as he approached the temple he glimpsed a faint glimmering light between the columns. As he got closer his apprehension increased. He then heard his wife’s voice clearly and loudly warning, “Stop, go no further. There is danger in your path.” He asked the voice if it was his wife and she assented and then warned him back to the house. He obeyed, and returned without hearing or seeing anything else unusual.
Pleyel still believed this to be a deception of the senses, but Wieland’s mind could not easily accept this explanation. Clara pondered the incident, and narrated that she had been disturbed by the similarities between this event and her father’s death. She believed the latter to be miraculous but could not accept the solution for it. Her doubts persisted. She did not want to believe that her brother could be duped by his senses because it might mean there was a larger problem present. She reasserted that his character was melancholy and somber and that things could have a hold on his mind that caused much perturbation. He did not doubt that his father’s death was supernatural, and this new event made him even more grave and withdrawn.
The chapter concludes with Clara relating a conversation the two siblings had in the temple after the incident with Catharine’s voice. She asked her brother how he interpreted that strange night’s events, and he admitted that there were many causes he was pondering. It was useless to think over them until time made one possibility more certain than the others.
Several important elements are proffered by the narrator in these two chapters - the time period that it the story set in; the fact that the narrator is a female; and the introduction of the second Wieland - the narrator’s brother Theodore. The first element, the setting, is in the years before the American Revolution; more specifically, the beginning of the strange occurrences for brother and sister Wieland occur right after the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The America that the Wielands live in is composed of thirteen colonies that are beginning to feel restless under the yoke of England. The French and Indian War was a significant step on the road towards revolution. In brief, the British and the French were at odds over the Ohio territory, both claiming large swathes of land and establishing forts. Minor fighting soon escalated into a larger conflict. The Indians largely assisted the French in their desire to rout the British from their lands. The colonists, of course, fought alongside the British, but what marks this war as a turning point for the colonial cause was the antipathy they often felt for the British officers and Crown. After the war ended the colonists had a new sense of identity and chafed under the high taxes levied upon them to pay for Britain’s expensive conflict - of which they cared little about.
The setting for this novel is interesting because it represents a time of unrest and growing strife for the colonists. External stability will become more and more tenuous, especially in a (relatively speaking) cosmopolitan area like Philadelphia. Clara’s narration suggests this; she writes that these “revolutions and battles” contribute to their amusement by “agitating our minds with curiosity and furnishing causes of patriotic exultation” (23). As the strange events of the novel unravel, it will be important to look into just how much the political and economic instability of tension with Britain manifest themselves in the internal lives of the Wielands.
The character of Wieland, Clara’s brother, bears some striking resemblances to the elder Wieland. He is prone to gloominess and quietude and rarely laughs. He was not as fanatical about religion as his father was (and saw fit to temper his faith with literature and science), but was very concerned with ascertaining the veracity of religious opinions and found it necessary to “examine the ground of his belief, to settle the relation between motives and actions, the criterion of merit, and the kinds and properties of evidence” (21). His experience at the temple in chapter four is also similar to that of his father’s, and it sets Clara ruminating on the “shadowy resemblance between it and my father’s death.” This is strong foreshadowing on the part of Brown; the horrible events that happen later in the novel necessitate a comparison between elder and younger Wieland and suggest that extreme religious devotion can lead to mental perturbation.
Clara is described as far more rational and level-headed than her brother. She is not antagonistic toward religion, but does not use it to draw her conclusions about the world. She prefers the observation of nature. However, even at this early stage in the novel her uncertainty and vacillation between scientific and supernatural explanations for events like her father’s death are present. This tension makes it just as difficult for the reader to ascertain why the events like her father’s death and Catharine’s strange disembodied voice at the temple occur.
The scholar William Manly writes that the “indulgence of Clara's imagination sets up an emotional rhythm in the novel which is constantly tugging at the factual foundations on which the tale seems to be based, and injects a hint of instability into the whole.” He explains that even though Clara’s narration of the events surrounding her father’s death seem to be laid out rationally and even include a scientific possibility for their cause, she cannot help but “[dwell] intermittently on her father's feeling that he might be doomed by some supernatural agency, and on her mother's thoughts that fatal night…[and] the episode when seen from the eyes of her mother is bathed in emotionalism.” Clara’s unreliability as a narrator serves as a central point in much of the criticism of Wieland; this will be discussed multiple times in later analyses as the events of the novel become more and more complicated and ambiguous.