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Wieland; or, The Transformation: An American Tale

Novel by Charles Brockden Brown, published in September, 1798. One of the earliest examples of gothic fiction in America, Wieland engages anxieties surrounding European cultural norms transplanted onto an alien landscape. The instability of character and personality is another of the novel's concerns. Wieland is the most famous of Brockden Brown's novels, influencing Hawthorne and Poe, among others. The prequel, "The Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist," was published serially between 1803 and 1805 in Brockden Brown's Literary Magazine and American Register.


This writeup contains:

  1. Characters
  2. Summary
  3. Themes and ideas


Characters:

  • Theodore Wieland
  • his sister Clara Wieland
  • his wife Catharine Pleyel Wieland
  • Catharine' brother Henry Pleyel
  • lovely teenaged orphan Louisa Conway
  • Louisa's absent father Major Stuart
  • Maxwell, Mrs. Stuart's near-seducer
  • his upright wife Mrs. Maxwell
  • Clara's servant Judith
  • Mr. Hallet (random worthy older guy who lives in town)
  • Thomas Cambridge (Clara's maternal uncle)
  • Mrs. Baynton (friend in town)
  • Wieland and Catharine's four children
  • Carwin "the biloquist"
  • Carwin's shadowy persecutor Ludloe
  • Pleyel's fiancée Baroness Theresa de Stolberg
  • Pleyel's servant Bertrand


Summary

Spoilers.

Uncultured German religious fanatic Wieland Sr. comes to Pennsylvania seeking to convert the Indians and fails. Late in life he is afflicted with anxiety about his failure to fulfill the heavenly mandate until one night he is struck by a sourceless, mysterious flame in his solitary temple and subsequently rots to death. His daughter Clara is then six years old. His wife dies soon after, partially from shock.
Clara and her brother Theodore are sent to live with an ideal aunt who conveniently lives nearby (who never surfaces again), and they enjoy an enlightened Deist liberal education. When they come of age they each get a house on their father's property, which is divided equally between them. Theodore marries their mutual childhood friend Catharine Pleyel, and they have four children, as well as taking in orphaned teenaged paragon Louisa Conway, whose mysterious mother dies in grief. Louisa's father is later coincidentally located, but he has business in the south and leaves her temporarily with the Wielands.
Members of their circle start to hear strange voices; first Wieland thinks he hears Catharine's voice and then Catharine's brother Henry Pleyel and Theodore Wieland both hear a voice tell them that Theresa de Stolberg, Pleyel's fiancée, is dead. Clara hears voices in her closet plotting to murder her and, later, next to a waterfall, falls asleep and dreams that a voice is warning her away from her brother. When she wakes she hears a voice warning her to stay away from this idyllic spot and threatening her to keep the warning a secret. A stranger named Carwin, who, it turns out, was an acquaintance of Pleyel's in Spain, appears and joins the group. Clara is at first fascinated by Carwin's voice and face. He reveals little about his past, but is told about the voices. Carwin suggests that human mimicry is responsible, but the others do not think it possible.
Clara decides that she is in love with Pleyel and believes the affection is returned; she decides discreetly to make her feelings known to Pleyel at an upcoming play rehearsal, but he does not appear, and she returns home disappointed. Seeking her father's memoirs, she moves to open her closet, but a voice tells her to "Hold, Hold!" Clara opens the door anyway and finds Carwin therein. Carwin says that he had intended to rape Clara, but sees that she is under the protection of some supernatural element, and leaves.
Clara worries that Carwin will return to rape or murder her, and also worries that Pleyel has met with a grisly death. She hears footsteps in her house and bolts her door and keeps silent, in fear. In the morning it turns out that Pleyel was in the other room. He accuses her of having a sexual liaison with Carwin and berates her thoroughly. He leaves before Clara can counter his accusation. She goes to her brother, who advises her to talk to Pleyel. Clara also makes arrangements to live with her brother's family. Clara passes through the city to Pleyel's estate, where he treats her very coldly. She faints a few times, and Pleyel leaves. On her way home, she stops at family friend Mrs. Baynton's house, where there is a letter waiting for her from Carwin, desiring an interview. She returns to Wieland's house, where no one appears to be awake. Louisa Conway does not know where Wieland and Catharine are. Clara goes to her own house, where she is to meet Carwin. where she is greeted by strange noises and lights and sees a glimpse of Carwin's face. She goes to her room, where there is an incoherent letter from Carwin on her table and a murdered Catharine in her bed. Shocked, she sits there until Wieland enters, apparently deranged. He seems to threaten Clara, but voices from outside cause him to flee.
It is revealed that, since Clara's departure from her brother's house, the children and Louisa have also been killed, and of Louisa, "not a lineament remained!" Clara falls ill. Her uncle later lets her read the murderer's testimony, and she realizes that the murderer is her brother, who believed himself to be acting under orders from God. Clara falls ill again, and when she recovers she is convinced that Carwin is the source of Wieland's madness. She also fears for her own sanity.
Resolving to move to Europe with her uncle, she visits her house one more time, where Carwin appears and confesses that he is a "biloquist" and was the source of most of the voices; he also reveals that what Pleyel overheard was a tryst between Carwin and Clara's maid Judith. However, he denies having ordered Wieland to commit the murders. Wieland suddenly appears, having escaped from prison, planning to kill Clara. Clara accuses Carwin, but Wieland remains deranged and dismisses Carwin. Wieland tries to kill Clara, and Carwin from another room tells Wieland to stop via a disembodied voice. He tells Wieland he has been insane to believe the voices he's heard, and Wieland, coming to his senses and realizing what he has done, kills himself with a convenient penknife. Falling ill once again, Clara refuses to leave the house, believing her life at an end, until one day it burns down. Finally she consents to go to Europe with her uncle, and eventually marries Pleyel after his not-really-dead fiancée Theresa de Stolberg dies for real. In the end she learns the end to the mystery of Louisa's mother; a scoundrel named Maxwell brought her the grief that caused her to flee to America and ultimately also kills Louisa's father, Major Stuart, in a duel.
The novel ends with the voice of Clara unsatisfactorily moralizing on the tragedies, laying the blame for both ultimately on the frailties of the sufferers. "If Wieland had framed juster notions of moral duty, and of divine attributes; or if I had been gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight, the double-tongued deceiver would have been baffled and repelled."


Themes and Ideas

The Gothic

This novel is concerned with the stability of identity (or absence thereof). Carwin's biloquism, the ability to sound like another, is a literal "double-tongued"-ness that allies him with the forked-tongued deceit of Satan. Indeed, since he is introduced as a former acquaintance of Pleyel's who, though of English birth, had become an entirely naturalized Spaniard, he is suspect almost from the beginning for his ability to become, though born an Englishman, virtually totally Spanish and Catholic, and then to revert to Englishness and Protestantism again.

Through his machinations, others are also able to change identities in an instant. Clara becomes, to Wieland and Pleyel, a wanton, and Pleyel in turn becomes instantly cold and harsh. Of course, the supreme example is that, by coming to believe in the validity of the words of disembodied voices (never a good plan), Theodore Wieland turns from a loving and liberal family man into a religious fanatic and a murderer. The three main characters are able to undergo transformations as drastic as Carwin's switch from Protestant to Catholic, through none of their own volition. Carwin himself turns into an unwitting Iago figure, as the situation quickly wheels out of his control, an unstoppable "machine." The gothic horror lies in the possibility that one's identity may be switched into something horrifying without one's awareness or consent, and without even the purposeful agency of a malevolent force.

Representations

To complicate things further, the novel constantly worries about the relationship between representation and identity. For Carwin, appearing to be a villain is as good as being a villain. Clara has an "innocent" portrait of Carwin that she draws before she knows who he is; Pleyel has an "innocent" portrait of Clara before her supposed fall. These portraits serve as chilling reminders of the abruptness with which representations can change, and the extent to which representation can determine identity (in Carwin, at least).

Nature and Landscape

Brown is known for having imbued the (supposedly) blank American landscape with a sense of gothic horror that dispensed with Europe's ghosts, castles, secret passageways, and ruins. Indeed, the landscape seems purposefully demystified; there are no secret passageways -- we are told exactly where everything is, down to the exact layout of Clara's house. Yet the landscape that is infinitely permeable to the reader is also infinitely permeable to evil forces, be they a wrathful God, who apparently consumes Wieland, Sr. in flames in a place of extremely high visibility (on a hill, viewable from the house, and lacking walls), or the bodily Carwin, who seems to end up in Clara's closet an awful lot.

In the demystified landscape, there is no demarcation between public and private, no boundary that can keep out threats. Ultimately, the clear and demystified landscape are not comforting, but rather monstrous. Clara and Pleyel's final, sorrowful escape is to Europe, where they are safe.


Source:

Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. Jay Fliegelman, Ed. and Introduction. 1798; New York: Penguin, 1991.

I noded (part of) my orals notes.