Wieland Themes

The dangers of religious fanaticism

Both Wieland men are prone to a fanatical devotion to Calvinist religion. The elder Wieland discovered the writings of an apocalyptic Protestant sect (the Camissards) when he was young and filtered his beliefs through this lens. His devotion was steadfast and unrelenting, but it exacerbated his natural melancholy and feelings of inadequacy. He died under mysterious circumstances; the cause of his death was most likely murder or spontaneous combustion, but both of his children were under the impression that his death was of a supernatural cause. The younger Wieland was also extremely religious, although his religion was tempered by the study of science, literature, and political philosophy. Like his father, his temperment was gloomy, reserved, and stoic. He yearned for a direct connection with his God; it was this fervent desire which caused him to heed the voice that told him to murder his family. He was unable to accept human explanations for the strange events that assaulted his family. Brown suggests that this extremism leads to irrationality and even danger.

Sensory perception

In the Age of Reason, intellectuals like John Locke articulated the theory that one's senses were the conduits to receiving and accumulating knowledge. An individual should trust their senses rather than place their faith in religion. In Wieland, however, the senses are as faulty as misplaced religious faith. Pleyel is the most emphatic advocate of the truth of sensory perception; all of the voices he hears he accepts without questioning. When he hears Clara's voice talking with Carwin outside, he is convinced that it is her because of what he hears. Clara knows it is near impossible to convince him it may have been someone else mimicking her. Pleyel, of course, is wrong - it is Carwin using his gift of biloquism (ventriloquism). Pleyel's senses cannot wholly be trusted. Wieland, too, believes he hears the voice of God command him to murder his family. However, his madness is the true cause of the voice; the mind can complicate sensory perception. As Wieland says in Chapter 25, "'If I erred, it was not my judgment that deceived me, but my senses.'"

The fear of the alien

Wieland was written and published in 1798, a year when tensions over immigration reached their apotheosis in the Alien and Sedition Acts. Late 18th century America was reeling from the changes wrought by the Revolutionary War and feared cultural, political, and religious differences in the populace. Such differences could shake the unity that was so ardently desired as the young nation moved forward. Thus, in this novel Brown articulates these tensions through the Wieland and Pleyel families' uneasy reaction to Carwin. Carwin is an alien; he was an Englishman who abandoned his birth country's faith, culture and identity to essentially become Spanish. He learned the Spanish language, identified with its cultural norms, and converted to Roman Catholicism. His past is ambiguous and fragmented, and his clothing is at odds with his manners. These strange characteristics make him an alien to the Philadelphia society he inserts himself into. Wieland, Clara, Catharine, and Pleyel are simultaneously enticed and repulsed by this "other."


Writing (and listening) is a major component of the novel. The entire novel is structured as a narrative in two parts written by Clara Wieland. She includes other characters' lengthy narrations, such as Pleyel's account of the evidence he has concerning her putative impurity; Carwin's confession; and Wieland's testimony. Nearly all of the characters have their opportunity to narrate, and nearly all of them are captive audiences at one or multiple points in the novel. Clara's narrative is such an intrinsic part of her being that she believes she will expire at the close of her tale. Her point of view also dictates the rhythm of the story. Indeed, her breathless recounting of tragic events help to create a sense of tension in the novel.

The power of writing is also apparent in Carwin's ability to use his authorial voice to manipulate his "characters." He uses his power to mold and shape the lives of Wieland, Clara, and Pleyel in particular. He is a veritable ventriloquist, pulling the strings and watching his puppets dance about and let tragedy into their lives. His influence is irresistible. In essence, he is playing God with his "writing."


The Wieland family has three generations of insanity. Clara and Theodore's maternal grandfather heard voices commanding him to throw himself off a cliff. Their father was obsessed with the writings of a strange Protestant sect and let that obsession take over his mind. Wieland either allowed Carwin's voices to lead him to murder his family in the name of God or imagined the voices within his head. Clara is a victim of hysteria and irrationality; she considers suicide multiple times, cannot distinguish between dreams and reality, goes mad after her brother commits suicide, and uses supernatural explanations for everything she does not understand. This insanity is handed down from generation to generation. The Wieland children think they have escaped it but are fated to play out the same scenes as their forebearers.

The law

The law plays an important role in this novel. Brown had experience as a lawyer and legal themes and language permeate his text. Clara situates her narrative as a testimony; she presents her evidence, uses other witnesses, and tries to render a verdict. She is not entirely successful on that last count, however, and it is up to the readers to sift through the information about Carwin and the mysterious events to discern whether or not he is guilty. The law is specifically alluded to with Wieland's trial. Its shortcomings are revealed in Wieland's inability to be kept in prison and the fact that Carwin, who was guilty of at least something, never had to account for his role and remained totally free.

The gothic

Brown's tale is the first work of American literature with gothic influences. This type of Romantic literature was done most notably by the British writers Ann Radcliffe, William Godwin, Matthew, Lewis, and Horace Walpole. It included such literary devices and tropes as the Byronic hero, religious fanatics, ghosts, curses, etc. The major themes included darkness, decay, repressed sexuality, the supernatural, and the uncanny. Brown's novel takes up these tenets of the gothic and adds to them religious fanaticism, ventriloquism, and spontaneous combustion. His characters inhabit a world that is torn between Enlightenment rationality and religious superstition. Their secluded location outside the bounds of the city lends itself to fancy and ambiguity. The lack of engagement with the outside world and social institutions exacerbate the tensions already present within the Wieland household.


Clara Wieland, the narrator and main character of the story, can easily be contrasted with her sister-in-law Catharine. Catharine, though a slight character, is revered by both the men and women of the tale for her femininity and role of mother. After Carwin's thwarted attack, Clara shields Catharine from the story because of her assumed fragility. But unlike her sister-in-law, Clara is both strong-willed an educated, and seeks to run a household and understand events like her male counterparts. However, as a woman in the 18th century, Clara cannot help but fall prey to the patriarchal actions of the men in her life; (she believes) Carwin tries to rape her; Pleyel, believing her seduced by Carwin, rails against her; Wieland remains the authority in her life despite her education and his emotional problems. Clara also assumes by her own accord her status as a woman - after Pleyel's accusations, Clara seeks council and approval from her brother; she lives on the outskirts of the family property despite sharing the land equally with Wieland; she ultimately marries a man who objectifies her qualities "accomplished and wise beyond the rest of women." (116)