Wieland: Autonomy and The American Gothic

The American Gothic has a distinctly nationalistic undercurrent that reflects and challenges the precepts of the burgeoning nation in which it was formed. This genre emerged in direct conversation with the United States’ attempts to discover what exactly freedom meant in the fledgling republic. Eric Savoy, American critic, writes that “the specificity of American Gothic, what makes it distinctly American, does not come just from formulaic plots and situations of an aristocratic genre being adapted to the democratic situation of the new world” but rather that it troubles “the locus of cultural and political authority after the revolution and the perfectibility of human beings in a democracy” (Savoy 168). Freedom in the new nation meant, and still does mean, the freedom to work within and obey the established power structure. Fears explored in the early American Gothic are still relevant in modern day society because the United States has yet to reach a unified consensus on what it means to be a truly free society.

Charles Brockden Brown
Charles Brockden Brown

In Charles Brockden Brown’s colonial novel Wieland, published in 1798, this controversial rhetoric of autonomy is interrogated through the family structure of the Wielands. Clara and Theodore Wieland grow up without one religious sect to set their worship and moral codes; this excess of freedom is ultimately what ends up tearing their life apart. Because Theodore Wieland’s commitment to his own ideas of God is unchecked, he easily falls prey to the influence of voices and outside influences on his psyche. Theodore kills his own family when he hears what he believes is God calling on him to fulfill his duty of sacrifice. Brockden Brown’s novel utilizes the power of the American gothic to destabilize the American conception of freedom as liberty to put faith in institutions. By removing all sense of structured liberty from the novel, Brockden Brown shows that individual space is easily corruptible and that the new nation might not be as stable as hoped if it continues to be defined by individualistic desires.

Establishing Authority

According to Eric Foner, a well-known American historian, the definitions of liberty that flourished in the colonies were predicated on the idea of being subordinate to a higher power. Religious liberty rested on one’s obedience to a god, often framed around the Christian notions of God. Civil liberty was dependent on one’s obedience to the rule of law (Foner 5). In this sense being free meant being able to make the choice to listen and obey the rules and regulations set in place by an authority, be it in a secular or a sacred frame. Wieland noticeably lacks that foundation to set its moral codes, and the novel operates within a very isolated and narrow space within their home. Authority is given by an unstable patriarch who creates rules and codes that do not fit any one established societal paradigm outside of the Wieland home.

Their father teaches himself religion and formulates his own beliefs based on his own unique understanding of the Christian Bible. Clara says that her father refuses to align himself with any particular established faith tradition “because he perfectly agreed with none” (Brockden Brown 12). To Clara’s father, devotion is a silent and solitary practice that he alone dictates. She says that he “rigidly interpreted that precept that enjoins us, when we worship, [is] to retire into solitude, and shut out every species of society” (Brockden Brown 12). The elder Wieland creates an isolationist rule of thumb that is very easily destroyed by outside forces.

He is tragically and inexplicably struck down after a period of growing depression and anxiety resulting from his self-imposed belief system. Because the elder Wieland had failed to carry through on a command from his conception of God he finds himself unable to continue living as he once was. “The duty assigned to him was transferred, in consequence of his direct disobedience, to another, and all that remained was to endure the penalty” (Brockden Brown 14). Neither the ‘other’ that receives the father’s shirked duty nor the penalty is explicitly identified at this moment, but the father’s tragic end seems to be the direct result of his self-dictated conceptions of duty to his faith.

Crime and Punishment

The elder Wieland’s worldview undermines him when he fails to live up to the standards that he has set for himself. Ostensibly this higher sense of destiny and duty is passed to his son upon the death of the father. This self-actualizing cycle creates a destructive loop for the Wieland family. Wieland’s father undermines himself and in turn his family with this isolated, limited social contract. It is almost easier and less destructive to fail to live up to the duty of a huge collective (laws of faith sects or communities) than it is to fail to live up to the rules that one creates for themselves to follow. Their commitment to law and faith happens on an individual level is not checked or regulated by anyone outside of the Wielands themselves. Because the family is so isolated, it is much easier for self-destruction within this kind of self-created system of law. Their entire family rests on these duties and strictures, and it is ultimately their undoing. When the elder Wieland passes away, his wife soon follows him in grief, and the children are left orphaned. Eric Savoy extrapolates this point, saying that “the Gothic turn of narrative in Wieland is predicated on the repression of [this] past historical gloom” when Theodore Wieland fulfills the destiny “required by ‘divine command’ that the father had left unfinished” (Savoy 173).

Without their parents to impose the rules set in place by their father, Theodore and Clara have even more freedom than their father to set their own moral codes and strictures. This unchecked autonomy leaves the path for self-destruction open even further to the younger Wielands. Clara says that their “education had been modelled by no religious standard” and that they “were left to the guidance of our own understanding and the casual impressions which society might make on us” (Brockden Brown 24). The problem though is that Clara and Wieland really seem to have no society bigger than their small interactions within their houses and with Pleyel and Carwin, their only acquaintances.

Carwin is an outsider to their little bubble and with his biloquism throws their entire world upside down. Clara sees her brother as a virtuous genius, despite his apparent melancholy compared to her pleasured outlook on the world. Wieland looks for answers in all sorts of places in science and literature to quantify and qualify his religious views, but finds root in none much like his father before him. Clara and Wieland do not seek a basis for their faith and creeds in any sort of foundations beyond their own thoughts, impulses, and desires. This unregulated and isolated interaction with the world around them leaves Clara and Wieland vulnerable to the wide spectrum of human influences. They have no truth to base their judgements off of beyond their own institution of domestic life and are limited by the minuscule scope of their worldview.

It is his unregulated search for truth and higher meaning that strips Theodore Wieland of agency in his own life. Theodore is left vulnerable to being guided by voices into murdering his wife and children to prove his worth to his idea of God. Wieland’s transformation from slightly misguided husband and father to a killer illustrates how vulnerable his person is to outside influences. Security requires knowing that which one rejects and grounding oneself in greater truths to combat vulnerability. Wieland has not grounded himself in anything apart from his own ideas and is very easily led astray.

The Dangers of Unchecked Power

Theodore Wieland in his testimony of the murder of his family exhibits patriarchal power gone wild. He recounts with frenzy how he overcame his own weak resolve to kill his wife. It is terrifying to hear him speak of how he looked upon his wife’s corpse with “elation” and “delight” for having finally enacted his sacred duty. In telling of how his god then tells Theodore to also sacrifice his children, Wieland says that he thanks his “God that this degeneracy was transient, that he deigned once more to raise me aloft” (Brockden Brown 196). Killing his family and submitting to this greater authority seems to give Wieland more fulfillment than ever seen in the course of his self-dictated path of living. Wieland finds intense joy in the satisfaction that he knows he has pleased this god. He is a man with true power given by God to give life and take it away, to make the rules and enforce them. It takes Carwin, another outside influence, to trick Wieland into changing his destructive path of choices and save Clara from being murdered by her frenzied brother. Wieland’s only true agency lies in the choices he makes based off of the commands from outside sources – the god-voice or Carwin’s voice – and without them he is a well-meaning, but horridly aimless man.

By destabilizing Wieland’s sense of authority over himself, Wieland the novel calls into question the sense of the freedom of the individual within the fledgling American society. Brockden Brown creates a character in Theodore Wieland that has no agency or direction without an outside influence to govern his path in life. Wieland finds joy in submitting to the authority of the voice of his god, despite having questioned and searched for his own perceptions of truth in science, literature, and religion his entire life. Charles Brockden Brown shows the point that Foner writes in “The Birth of American Freedom” that true freedom in American society is to submit to and be governed by the laws of the collective. Without that greater sense of authority, the individual can be easily manipulated and lead astray if his or her world view is inherently self-centered like Wieland’s.

It is in this regard that Wieland makes a case for the patriarchy: having a greater sense of authority to govern actions and moral codes is a beneficial paradigm for the greater good of the self and more specifically the nation. It gives the self guidelines with which to operate in and be managed by. The nation is given a hierarchy that functions with the hope of the mutual benefit of all its citizens. The novel uses Wieland’s insanity and vulnerabilities to question the agency of the individual in determining those codes of living, however, because the individual is vulnerable, flawed, and very fallible in nature when it comes to morality. What constitutes true balance between authority and the autonomy of the individual is left for the reader to consider.

Works Cited

Brown, Charles Brockden, Jay Fliegelman, and Charles Brockden Brown. Wieland ; and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin, 1991. Print.

Foner, Eric. “The Birth of American Freedom.” The Story of American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 3-43. Print.

Savoy, Eric. “The Rise of American Gothic.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. By Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 167-88. Print.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Jocelyn

    The character of Wieland, the farcical characteristics of the work, and also the language of the piece made it a difficult read in the beginning.

    • Helen Parshall

      I agree with you; it was very hard for me to get into during my American Gothic class. I think once you delve into the meat of the story, the characters are haunting and the real power of the tale shines through.

  2. LadyFix

    This as a novel that will forever leave you comparing others to it. This gothic tale will haunt you. I am serious. Best read.

    • Helen Parshall

      I agree wholeheartedly! I found the language a bit off-putting at first, but once into the core of the book I found it haunting. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  3. Dave Russell

    I had to read this one for my Engligh 290 class. At the beginning I was thinking to myself, “this book is going to be bad.” I was basing this on a preconceived notion that a book written in that time frame of late 1800’s would just be on the usual things in that era. I was very gladly surprised that it wasn’t.

    • Helen Parshall

      That was pretty much the same way I approached it at first in my American Gothic class, but it’s stuck with me since then. It’s the kind of book that gets under your skin, I think.

  4. Linda Atkinson

    The book has a message, not easily seen without help—for me at least.

    • Helen Parshall

      It is definitely a story worth diving into! It’s stuck with me since class discussions on it during a course I took in college.

  5. I thought it got a little bit boring at times, but is a good read.

  6. Jemarc Axinto

    I clearly should have taken American Gothic because it seems like I missed out on a ton. Splendid article one again

  7. Whitney

    Good article. It is indeed a very odd and intriguing book.

  8. Jesse Munoz

    Thanks for a fantastic, insightful look at a supremely anxious novel. Your assertion of the novel’s advocacy for patriarchy is an interesting one, especially in light of the assumed autonomy of a young nation. Melville had similar issues with a new nation he felt was still too indebted to its European heritage to really be its own entity. His novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities, is not a fun read, but it does engage in some interesting critique of an America trying to figure out exactly what it was. Safe to say that, in some instances, we’re still having that debate.

    Have you read King’s The Shining? I think an interesting correlation can be made between the motives of the elder Wieland and Jack Torrance, both of whom seem tragically haunted by patriarchal tradition.

    Jesse Munoz

  9. K. A. Wisniewski

    Thanks Helen and Jesse. A great read of the novel. I might second the idea of reading Brockden Brown alongside Melville’s Pierre or James’ Portrait of a Lady. I like bringing in The Shining as well–it also has the psychological element that many scholars interrogate in Brown’s work. I might argue that while Torrance is trapped in his predicament, Brown offers some solution through his interest in his ventriloquists’ impersonations and counterfeit voices. Much enjoyed reading this!

  10. H. M. Bradford
    H. M. Bradford

    What a terrific article! Thanks so much for this thorough reading. I read Wieland twice; once for a class in post-structuralist analysis, once for a class in early American literature. Until I appreciated Brown’s intentionality with the double and triple layers of thematic ‘voices’ in commentary, I found the book deeply awful, and your article’s socio-political perspective helps me appreciate it all the more. Down to minutiae in the hugely overbearing way that Clara functions (or doesn’t) as a narrator, the book seems to be about personal deferral of control and responsibility in the face of “influence.” The novel’s attempt to pass as epistolary is so absurd that I almost expect Brown meant to call his own reliability into question — this way the book is practically a ventriloquist’s dummy. Clara, on the other hand, needs no help being doubtable. At any rate, thanks again!

  11. This sounds like a very underrated work that has a lucid, piercing understanding of the American psyche.

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