If There Is Nothing Lurking in the Darkness, Then Illumination and Exposure Are Pointless
Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland is famous as the first American Gothic novel. It was published in 1798, at the very end of the Eighteenth Century and just fifteen years after the end of the American Revolution. While the novel was written in a time still dominated by Enlightenment-era thinking, the novel questions many of the assumptions of the Enlightenment.
The realizations of the limits of the Enlightenment become apparent as the book progresses.
The novel offers the characters Wieland and Pleyel as opposites in the novel, the former representing religion and the latter representing rationalism. Wieland is a novel that interacts with epistemology, that is, the study of knowledge; and the two characters are prime examples to focus on. The Enlightenment was characterized by the belief that the universe is a logical and orderly place and the hope that humanity would uncover the laws that govern it.
Multiple scientific discoveries led to achievements in politics, the arts, and religion; but as the work proceeded, the importance of religion seemed to decline. As the years went on and questions remained unanswered after the American Revolution, it became assumed that not everything was as logical as it seemed at the spark of the Enlightenment. Another factor that added to the “burning out” of the Enlightenment was the French Revolution. Americans saw what a bloodbath the revolution in Europe had been and realized that the American Revolution could have just as easily been as bad.
The combination of the limits of the Enlightenment with the near-missed massacre led writers to adopt a dark and opposite side of the reasonable thinking of the Enlightenment: the Gothic. This movement became the exploration of the extremes of emotions and limits of human understanding, so it included many mysterious happenings. Gothic literature typically contains old ruins, inexplicable occurrences, and overall dark environments. The main purpose of Gothic work was to respond to the shortcomings of the Enlightenment.
In Brown’s Wieland, the characters Wieland and Pleyel are colleagues who share different views on life. Wieland, the brother of Clara the narrator, is a man of religion and emotion while Pleyel, the beloved of Clara, is a man of reason. The novel begins with the story of Wieland’s grandfather, which is disgustingly Gothic. The son of an esteemed family, Grandfather Wieland eventually marries the daughter of a merchant, which is the first conflict for the Wieland family line. The next Wieland (father to Clara) is a very religious man who develops an obsession for his temple.
His constant brooding over the need to be in his church leads him to “spontaneously combust” one evening at his beloved establishment. Grandfather Wieland seems to curse the family by betraying his noble line, and his son is the victim of an unexplainable, possibly divine occurrence; Brown is using the most blatant Gothic references he can. At the end of this stained family tree is Wieland, Clara’s brother. He is a man of religion just like his father, however his character is not a true Calvinist like his father was.
Wieland hears voices from an unknown source, and due to his outstanding faith, he attributes them to God. His connection with this formless voice leads Wieland to trust in his own religious mysticism. Positive that he hears, knows, and properly understands God’s will; Wieland accepts the divine orders given to him and murders his wife and children. Carwin tells Wieland that it has been him the whole time throwing his voice and playing with Wieland’s head, but Wieland does not let himself be deterred from his heavenly task to kill Clara by the “demon” Carwin.
It is not until Carwin throws his voice again that Wieland is persuaded into believing that he has acted out of madness. Only by hearing the shapeless voice does Wieland accept that he has done wrong and believe that he is insane; he does not believe Carwin when he reveals the truth because he is so certain that God has been speaking to him, but when he truly understands (because “God”/Carwin speaks to Wieland), he decides to kill himself. Pleyel is Wieland’s closest friend, even though he has no connection with religion.
His opposition provided Wieland and him with an extensive amount of room to discuss their personal beliefs. Having spent his youth abroad, Pleyel is a man of reason who allows his knowledge of the world to rule his decisions. Clara even states that Pleyel rejects “all guidance but his reasons,” confirming his Enlightenment-ness even further. Even though he and Wieland are unlike each other, they both offer views on the Enlightenment. A moment in the novel in which Pleyel parallels with Wieland’s character is when the former hears Carwin throwing his voice to give the illusion that
Clara and Carwin are together and have been intimate with each other. Being the man of reason that he is, Pleyel decides that since he heard Clara and Carwin speaking it is only logical to conclude that what he hears is reality. He then takes it upon himself to court another woman since Clara “evidently” is not the virtuous woman he thought she was. Pleyel does not trust Clara after hearing Carwin’s biloquism, but if he truly loved her then he would take her word over what he heard.
Unfortunately, Pleyel trusts that his own mind is able to discern the truth over Clara’s heart and runs away from the reality he cannot handle. He trusts that his reasoning is greater than his emotions and ignores his own feelings for Clara, which leads him to marry another woman before he finally ends up with Clara years later. Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland is a Gothic novel of epistemology. It is unlike anything else that has been read this semester as it is one of the earliest Gothic novels written.
The ancestral curse that befalls the Wieland family when Grandfather Wieland taints the noble bloodline is first carried to his son, whose only gratification is in his temple, who spontaneously combusts; and is then carried to his grandson who believes and trusts so firmly in his faith that he cannot differentiate between a biloquist and God’s actual orders and kills his family and himself. These “supernatural” occurrences are key in Gothic novels, even though Wieland and Clara are the only two characters who fall for them.
Pleyel, on the other hand, relies on his senses and instead of trusting what seems to be true (like Wieland), he trusts (what he concludes) has to be true. The ongoing tug-of-war of knowledge throughout the story between Wieland’s faith and Pleyel’s reason comes to an end when Wieland, the man of religion, murders his entire family because of his mistake of certainty. Brown is offering his take on the post-Enlightenment stance on religion through the tragic flaw and downfall of Wieland; while at the same time showing how the limits of human understanding in Pleyel cause him to not believe Clara and marry another woman first.
Even though both men lose their (first) wives, Pleyel manages to repair his relationship with Clara and marry her. This must be the victory of reason over religion. By embracing the dark side of the Enlightenment that was virtually untouched before and during the Eighteenth Century, Brown’s Wieland attributes religious mysticism to madness and shows the flaw of the Enlightenment to be the power of human emotions.