Was this the penalty of disobedience? This the stroke of a vindictive and invisible hand? Is it a fresh proof that the Divine Ruler interferes in human affairs, meditates an end, selects, and commissions his agents, and enforces, by unequivocal sanctions, submission to his will? Or, was it merely the irregular expansion of the fluid that imparts warmth to our heart and our blood, caused by the fatigue of the preceding day, or flowing, by established laws, from the condition of his thoughts?
Clara’s musings on her father’s death demonstrate the significance of that event to the novel. First, it sets the tone of novel by introducing a violent, inexplicable event that foreshadows the later horrors that befall the Wieland family. The elder Wieland’s personality is reborn in his son; both Wieland men are gloomy, sober, aloof, and extremely devoted to religion. Clara cannot fully accept an explanation that includes a human murderer or the scientific answer of spontaneous combustion. She includes the suggestion that perhaps a divine force intervenes in human affairs to punish those who violate its laws. Clara’s vacillation between supernatural and human explanations for the mysterious events occurs continuously throughout the novel and demonstrates her superstitious mentality despite her claims to rational thought.
Pleyel did not scruple to regard the whole as a deception of the senses. Perhaps a voice had been heard; but Wieland's imagination had misled him in supposing a resemblance to that of his wife, and giving such a signification to the sounds. According to his custom he spoke what he thought. Sometimes, he made it the theme of grave discussion, but more frequently treated it with ridicule. He did not believe that sober reasoning would convince his friend, and gaiety, he thought, was useful to take away the solemnities which, in a mind like Wieland's, an accident of this kind was calculated to produce.
Pleyel and Wieland have certain similarities, such as their dedication to the writings of Cicero. However, even though Wieland has an interest in science and literature, his religious devotion is an integral part of his character. Pleyel is an avowed skeptic and bases his beliefs on the knowledge that comes from the senses and the study of nature. This Lockean mentality causes Pleyel to doubt supernatural explanations for the voices the family hears, while Wieland is much more apt to entertain those thoughts. Wieland’s character and religious devotion incline him to feelings of inadequacy and depression and make him much more questioning.
The tales of apparitions and enchantments did not possess that power over my belief which could even render them interesting. I saw nothing in them but ignorance and folly, and was a stranger even to that terror which is pleasing. But this incident was different from any that I had ever before known. Here were proofs of a sensible and intelligent existence, which could not be denied. Here was information obtained and imparted by means unquestionably super-human.
Pleyel informs Clara about the voice he heard imparting the information that his beloved was dead, and her response is to decide that it is incontrovertibly from a supernatural source. She initially says she does not believe in apparitions and enchantments, nor does she even find them interesting. Unlike other silly people who may delight in the fear they experience in regards to ghosts and inexplicable events, Clara is too rational and mature to find any pleasure there. However, despite these protestations Clara is quick to conclude that there can be no other explanation for the voices than a super-human one. She entertains no thoughts that human machinations could cause the voice or even that Pleyel and Wieland’s senses may have deceived them. This quote demonstrates the disparity between the person Clara believes she is and the person Clara actually is. A secular education aside, Clara is just as prone to beliefs in the spirit world as her brother Wieland is prone to extreme religiosity. As the novel proceeds, Clara’s vacillation between the poles of thought – rationalism and superstition – turns into a near-hysteria.
This, in the effects which immediately flowed from it, I count among the most extraordinary incidents of my life. This face, seen for a moment, continued for hours to occupy my fancy, to the exclusion of almost every other image.
Clara experiences intense auditory and visual reactions to Carwin’s voice and visage. When she first hears him ask her maid for a cup of water, she is nearly overcome by his dulcet tones that blended “force and sweetness” (43). When she finally espies his face, she can barely retain her composure. She is struck by his brow and his eyes, the unattractive but sensuous features, and the appearance of a mind of great genius. She is so overcome by her reaction to him that she dashes off a portrait and spends the remainder of the evening and the next day contemplating his likeness. Her description suggests her fascination and revulsion with him; it is unmistakably indicative of a sexual awakening. Pleyel is the one she is in love with but warrants no description of his person, while Carwin, whom she professes to abhor, is so provocative that her obsessive fixation manifests itself symbolically in the tempest that rages outside her house.
In my dream, he that tempted me to my destruction, was my brother. Death was ambushed in my path. From what evil was I now rescued? What minister or implement of ill was shut up in this recess? Who was it whose suffocating grasp I was to feel, should I dare to enter it? What monstrous conception is this? My brother!
While reposing outdoors near the summer-house, Clara experiences a dream where she is walking along a path to her brother who is beckoning her; little does she know that her brother wishes her to proceed and fall into a yawning pit that she does not observe in the middle of the pathway. A few nights later when her mind is in a frenzy over the disappearance of Pleyel, she begins to meditate on the dream’s message that her brother had a perverse desire to lead her to her destruction. She tortures herself with these thoughts until she finally convinces herself that her brother is within her closet and means her harm. There is no real reason for Clara to assume her brother intends her ill; critics have taken these fears as evidence that there is perhaps a hint of incest between the siblings. Clara’s unconscious discomfort and fears regarding said incest is manifesting itself in a dream that her brother harbors malicious intentions against her. This also foreshadows Wieland's ultimate crimes of murdering his wife and children and, after incarceration, attempting to murder Pleyel and Clara.
The gulf that separates man from insects is not wider than that which severs the polluted from the chaste among women.
Carwin’s attempt at raping Clara does not come to fruition because of the voice she believes is there to protect her, but Pleyel is definitively under the impression that Carwin has taken Clara’s virginity due to multiple sensory pieces of evidence. This is such a damning accusation for a woman in the 18th century that the only option is exile. Clara knows she is innocent but is in despair of how she will convince Pleyel that his evidence is erroneous. In this quote, she eloquently observes just how unacceptable a female’s sexual impurity was in 18th century America. Women were supposed to embody the traits of chastity, purity, generosity, charitableness, and domesticity. A “Republican mother,” like Catharine, had the job of instilling religious and civic virtues and values in their children and maintaining the home as a place of refuge and education. The construction of gender was rigid and impermeable; Clara may have more education and freedom than many colonial women, but she is still bound by the codes of morality erected by her society - even when she is innocent of the charges against her.
Yet I will persist to the end. My narrative may be invaded by inaccuracy and confusion; but if I live no longer, I will, at least, live to complete it. What but ambiguities, abruptnesses, and dark transitions, can be expected from the historian who is, at the same time, the sufferer of these disasters?
Clara is the quintessential unreliable narrator. Most first-person narratives are suspicious merely by the nature of that sort of storytelling, as accurately relating facts and impressions is difficult for even the most discerning, objective individual. However, Clara’s narrative is problematic on a whole other level. Firstly, insanity runs in her family, as evidenced by her grandfather, father, and brother. Secondly, she suffered extreme psychological duress because of the events that befell her family; this may make her retrospective account, as this quote says, privy to certain inaccuracies or confusions. Thirdly, she is very much mistaken about her own character. She claims to be rational and reasonable, but her responses to situations belie these assertions. Hysteria, obsession, and sexual repression characterize her person. She is prone to believing in a world of benevolent and malevolent supernatural forces. She confuses her dreams with waking. She works herself into a frenzy and loses the ability to order her thoughts. She considers suicide multiple times. What makes this novel so fascinating is that the reader must maintain a constant vigilance and skepticism when reading Clara’s account.
"As it spoke, the accents thrilled to my heart. "Thy prayers are heard. In proof of thy faith, render me thy wife. This is the victim I chuse. Call her hither, and here let her fall."—The sound, and visage, and light vanished at once.
The climax of the novel occurs when Clara discovers her brother is the murderer of his wife and children. By reading an observer’s transcript of his testimony she becomes aware that her brother believed he heard the voice of God commanding him to sacrifice his family in order to prove his faith. Wieland is completely assured of the legitimacy of the voice; he does not believe that he should be judged by men because he was executing a divine sentence. The sound and light mirror the circumstances surrounding the elder Wieland’s death. Sound and light are two things perceived by the senses but in both Wieland cases, they are misinterpreted. The senses prove themselves to be inadequate conduits to perception and knowledge.
Presently, I considered, that whether Wieland was a maniac, a faithful servant of his God, the victim of hellish illusions, or the dupe of human imposture, was by no means certain.
In a rare moment of clarity, Clara muses on the fact that she, as well as everyone else, will never truly know what caused Wieland to murder his family. Did he really hear God’s voice? Is he insane and did he imagine the voices? Did Carwin push him over the edge of sanity by faking the voice? This is Charles Brockden Brown’s message of the novel - the senses cannot be trusted fully and religious fanaticism should be decried as it creates a mental state of instability. Clara introduces and concludes her narrative by remarking that she hopes the telling of her tale will impart a moral lesson. It is clear that the evil which the Wielands suffered “owed their existence to the errors of the sufferers” (181).
"I am not this villain; I have slain no one; I have prompted none to slay; I have handled a tool of wonderful efficacy without malignant intentions, but without caution; ample will be the punishment of my temerity, if my conduct has contributed to this evil."
Carwin’s confession is a mass of contradictions. He never explicitly admits to causing the voices that commanded Wieland to slay his family. He does, however, demonstrate extreme guilt and admits to using his gift of biloquism to fake the voices Wieland, Pleyel, and Clara hear up until the murders. He explains to Clara that in the past he used this gift for personal gain and because it gave him a perverse pleasure; multiple attempts to stop employing it failed for a variety of reasons, mostly because the temptation was too great. Carwin clearly has a mischievous, wicked mind that also benefits from heightened intelligence and intuitiveness. Scholarly work on Wieland is divided over Carwin’s guilt. There is good evidence to exculpate him, and good evidence to convict him. while some readers decry the lack of an easy, clear solution to the mysterious events of the novel, Brown’s ambiguity provides not only more fodder for discussion but elevates the novel to a higher level of literary achievement.
Wieland Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Wieland is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.