The first-person narrator, whose identity we do not yet know, explains that she is complying with a request to tell her story about her family. She explains that she does not seek sympathy or consolation but hopes that the telling of the tale will be beneficial to others in preventing deceit and showcasing the problems that arise from being undisciplined. The narrator’s own mental state is indifferent and decidedly unhopeful; she has been so beset by Fate already that nothing life throws at her can distress her. She does not wish to address God. The events that befell her family were so complete, so ravaging, that all good was completely destroyed. The story to be told will be one of such horror that it is a wonder she is still alive.
The narrator begins the tale by first relating the history of her paternal grandparents. Her grandfather was of noble Saxon birth. While attending college in Germany, he made the acquaintance of a merchant named Leonard Weise who had a beautiful daughter; the narrator's grandfather married her and, in doing so, lost the approval of his family due to his new wife’s low birth. The couple lived in the merchant’s house and the narrator's grandfather began to devote himself to literature and theater. Both he and his wife died in early middle age and were survived by one son.
This son, the narrator’s father, was apprenticed to a London trader. His duties were difficult and unceasing, and he was allowed no recreation. He gradually became depressed, even though he was not prone to compare his life to that of his peers or to believe his situation unfair. Amidst this boredom and toil he came across a book he had previously ignored written by the French Protestants. As he began to read he lighted upon the phrase “Seek and ye shall find,” which excited his curiosity. He zealously read the entire book, which concerned the Camissards, an apocalyptic Protestant sect active in France in the early 18th century. This led him to the Bible, which he read in a narrow, disconnected way that was filtered through the lens of his book on the Camissards. He became prone to fear and ecstasy and began to be rigidly moral and abstemious. His devotion was all-encompassing and lasted for two years. His depression mostly subsided in the face of this new mental discipline.
When his apprenticeship expired he believed he had a missionary calling and decided to take his small sum and move to the Americas, where the Indians required his proselytizing. This feeling of duty led him to Philadelphia, where he purchased a farm and began cultivating it. He married a quiet and meek woman after fourteen years of labor. His religious faith slackened as he became caught up in work and amusement, but he returned to his theological studies and took up the missionary mantle once more. This did not turn out as he desired, and he suffered much hunger, fear, and exhaustion. When he finally returned to his family, he once more took up a tranquil life of frugality, strictness, and solitude.
He built himself a veritable temple on a cliff that overlooked a river. It was a simple, unadorned circle twelve feet wide with an earthen floor. He went there twice a day, always alone. His wife was also pious, and while she had no social or community involvement, she was punctual and steadfast in her devotions. While mild and generous without cruelty or sternness, the narrator’s father was still sad and gloomy. He may have had a fantastical tinge but was known and esteemed for his morality and discipline.
Unfortunately, his sadness deepened. He believed this was due to some “deviation from his duty,” although he did not say what this might be. As time passed his mental condition began to worsen and anyone who saw him could not help but be filled with compassion. He felt that death was near and that this death would be “strange and terrible.”
One hot summer day the narrator’s father left the house to take care of a few “urgent engagements” and returned later without explanation of his activities. His wife’s brother, a surgeon, was spending the evening at their home and the narrator explains that through this man’s account comes her knowledge of the events of that evening, as she herself was only six years old at the time. As the hours of the evening passed, her father’s behavior became more and more strange. He became inwardly absorbed and suffered several fits. His uncle took his pulse and found nothing irregular, but his inquietude persisted.
He finally went to bed, but when his wife spoke to him of her concerns he stopped her and told her to be quiet. He claimed that peace was at hand, but offered no more information. His wife was worried and sorrowful because she had never seen him like this before. His attention was now fixed on the small clock that alerted him to his need to go to the temple and practice his devotions. His anxiety visibly increased as it got closer to twelve o’clock. Finally, at twelve, he rose, dressed himself shakily, and left the house. His wife watched from the window with mounting apprehension and terror, for his behavior was so uncommon.
As she observed the temple from afar, she suddenly noticed a bright light filling the temple space and heard a tremendous explosive noise followed by piercing screams. She thought it might be a pistol discharging and immediately roused her brother. The brother left the house and ran to the temple, noticing that the screams had subsided but that the light still filled the temple. When he reached the structure he observed what resembled “a cloud impregnated with light” that had something like flames without the upward movement. As he moved closer the light disappeared and he saw his brother-in-law; he was naked, his skin scorched and bruised, his hair and slippers untouched.
The narrator's uncle brought her father back to the house where a wound on his arm revealed itself to be quite serious. He feebly explained what happened to him, although the uncle and his sister did not believe his account to be complete. He explained that while in the act of praying, a light appeared. This light seemed to be from a person carrying a lantern, but when he turned he received a blow to his arm and a spark lit his clothes and they began to burn.
Not long after this account, the narrator’s father died. It was completely mysterious, but there was no doubt as to the truth of the uncle’s story. The gleam, the blow to the arm, the spark, the explosion, and the cloud suggested spontaneous combustion. The narrator was only six, but as she grew older she meditated on these events more and more but could not decide whether this was the work of a divine Ruler who intervened in human affairs and punished sinners, or merely “the irregular expansion of the fluid that imparts warmth to our heart and our blood caused by the fatigue of the preceding day.”
Brown begins his tale by establishing a first-person narration. The reader does not know the exact name of the narrator, but soon ascertains that it is a young woman telling her story of the terrible events that befell her family. The tale is culled together from her own experiences as well as information recounted to her by others who observed the strange events (in the second chapter this includes her uncle). Brown immediately generates interest in the plot by having his narrator explicitly allude to the overwhelmingly horrifying events that are to come; this authorial tactic cleverly creates suspense. The telling of this tale has a didactic purpose; that is, it is supposed to warn listeners about the evils of lax discipline and deceit. The reading of novels in 18th century Britain and America was not supposed to be a purely entertaining exercise; novels were supposed to impart moral lessons to their readers. The sentimental literature of the time, which included novels like Charlotte Temple and The Coquette, was particularly intended to inculcate positive virtues. Brown’s work, while much more serious in tone, had a similar purpose.
Brown’s narrative technique is also purely diegetic. This is a style of representation in fiction that is characterized by telling as opposed to showing (called mimesis). The narrator recounts the events of the story, including the actions and thoughts of the characters. The distinction between diegesis and mimesis was first explicated by Plato in his Republic. Narratologists, or scholars of narrative, narrative structure, and the ways in which narrative influences readers’ perceptions of the story, even distinguish between the different levels of diegesis. The first level is the extradiegetic level, which is the level at which the narrative exists. In Wieland this is where the narrator – the young woman whose familial drama makes up the content of the tale – exists. The second level is the diegetic level, which is the level of the characters and their thoughts and actions. In Wieland this can be seen in the recounting of the lives of the narrator’s grandfather, grandmother, father, and mother. And finally, the third level is the metadiegetic or hypodiegetic level where there is a story within a story. Wieland fits all three of these levels simultaneously.
Wieland represents the birth of the American gothic novel. The rise of the Gothic in fiction can be attributed to the British author Horace Walpole in his work The Castle of Otranto. (1764). The Gothic is characterized by extremes of emotion and terror; an eschewing of the rationalism and reason attributed to Enlightenment writing; a focus on the sublime, madness, darkness, the supernatural, secrets, decay, etc.; and the inclusion of typical characters such as religious fanatics, madwomen, demons, ghosts, and Byronic heroes. Early works of Gothic fiction included Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), and William Beckford’s The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786). The American Gothic included emphases on Puritanism, guilt, and the uncanny; it began with Brown’s Wieland and can also be found in the 19th century writing of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe.
Wieland immediately establishes itself as a gothic novel. The narrator speaks of her immense despair and how her story will excite and amaze her readers. She speaks of fear and terror and how she is lucky to be alive. Her father is a perfect gothic character - he is prone to depression, anxious fits, and gloom; he is extremely religious, even to the point of fanaticism; he is narrow-minded and rigorous in his devotion; he becomes oppressed by heavy feelings of guilt and worthlessness; and, eventually, he dies from mysterious and dramatic causes.
This cause of death is spontaneous human combustion, a fantastical occurrence. The narrator is undecided as to whether it was caused by a powerful divine Ruler or the failings of the human body itself. It is not important for the purposes of this novel to decide whether or not it is scientifically possible; clearly the paranormal and spiritual foundations of such a death are more pressing. Brown was not the only 19th century novelist to take up this topic - both Nikolai Gogol and Charles Dickens penned gruesome deaths through spontaneous combustion. This method of death well within the parameters of gothic storytelling.