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Individual and Community: Variations on a Theme in American Fiction

Individual and Community: Variations on a Theme in American Fiction

by Kenneth H. Baldwin

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The contributors to Individual and Community attempt to illuminate aspects of the individual-community relationship. Though different in focus and approach, the essays themselves express a "community" of concern, a concern which includes not just the situations of characters in fictional worlds, but one which touches the relationship of both novelists and


The contributors to Individual and Community attempt to illuminate aspects of the individual-community relationship. Though different in focus and approach, the essays themselves express a "community" of concern, a concern which includes not just the situations of characters in fictional worlds, but one which touches the relationship of both novelists and reader to a world of words.
The essays are intended to point to the continuity of an important theme in American fiction and to offer insight into the variety of philosophical and literary strategies utilized in significant works of significant authors in dealing with the question of the individual and the community.

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Individual and Community

Variations on a Theme in American Fiction

By Kenneth H. Baldwin, David K. Kirby

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1975 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-0319-0



Wieland is a nocturnal tale, a nervous melodrama played out in the uncertain illumination of candle, lamp, fire, moon, stars. To a degree, of course, Brown's darkened stage set is a literary convention; in folk tale as well as in the contemporary Gothic novel of terror, night is the time when creatures of mystery and danger are expected to walk abroad. But Charles Brockden Brown was a self-proclaimed novelist of purpose, and the titillating shudder, though he employed it as a time-tested lure for readership, he condemned as an end in itself. In his preface he announced that he aimed at no less than the "illustration of some important branches of the moral constitution of man," and he attached a didactic tag to the end of the novel to assure that no one could underestimate his fundamental seriousness. Unfortunately, this conclusion can too lazily be taken as a sufficient summation of the tale's entire import. Certainly, as recent criticism has made us aware, Wieland is far more complex in structure and in meaning than its narrator, Clara Wieland, intimates by moralizing in her final sentences only on the "errors" of the Stuarts, of Wieland, and of herself. For, as Brown himself proclaims, Man is the protagonist; and the theme is conceived as universal: when the light of reason becomes dimmed or is extinguished by superstition, by trickery, or by unusual experience which is misconstrued as preternatural, horror is loosed in the world. This horror is that of man's darkened mind; and its state may be externalized, as here, by false appearance, by the urge to destroy reason in others, by murder, by self-destruction. Wieland is a warning to beware of the quality of sense perceptions, an appeal to cultivate and protect the light of reason; for, once benighted, some men may not find their way back out of the blackness.

This is Brown's manifest message; but, as several recent commentators have argued, Brown's apparent dedication to Lockean sensationalist psychology is compromised by other ramifications of the tale. Thus Larzer Ziff sees Brown as the first American novelist "to face the confusion of sentiment and an optimistic psychology, both of which flowed through the chink in the Puritan dike, and to represent American progress away from a doctrine of depravity as a very mixed blessing indeed." William M. Manley, disputing Ziff's focus on sentimental-seduction materials in the novel, still finds that the "astonishing intensity which Brown generates ... reflects his ability to convey through a first-person narrator the shifting instability of a mind swayed between objective logic and subjective terror, creating thereby a tension which is not resolved until the final pages." And Donald A. Ringe summarizes: "To show that Brown made use of sensationalist psychology in his book does not necessarily mean that he accepted it uncritically, for the developing action of the novel calls its validity into serious question." Despite their different emphases, all three critics reach what is certainly a valid conclusion: the manifest and the latent content of Wieland appear to be at odds. Yet all, in arriving at this point, overlook an aspect that is an even more fundamental peculiarity of the tale. For the world of Wieland is not only nocturnal; it is also a remarkably empty one. Confined to a few characters and some set locales, it is curiously without a wider social reference: state, city, church—even other families—remain mere shadows lurking in the general gloom. It is this world devoid of those authoritative institutions by which sense impressions could be weighed and judged which I wish later to emphasize. But I would like, first, to demonstrate just how Brown brings each of his principal characters—Clara, Pleyel, and Wieland—to the ultimate state of dangerous illusion, to that "transformation" to which the subtitle refers.


As several critics have correctly emphasized, an early comment of Clara's furnishes the key to Brown's method of putting his leading players to the test. "The will," writes Clara, "is the tool of the understanding, which must fashion its conclusions on the notices of sense." And, she continues sententiously, "If the senses be depraved it is impossible to calculate the evils which may flow from the consequent deductions of the understanding" (39). These maxim-like statements provide the philosophical basis for Brown's employment of light and dark patterns. For if "depravity" of the senses is crucial it is but a step to positing that the light of full day may be linked with the light of unclouded reason; or, to formulate the principle in the reverse manner, that if the senses are required to function in natural gloom, in artificial (hence "false") light, or in darkness, mental perception is correspondingly obscured. The degree and the quality of illumination, then, are all-important. It is this point which Wieland, Pleyel, and finally Clara spectacularly fail to comprehend.

Brown's narrative ultimately depends for force upon the cumulative effect of misapprehended experience; but, for purposes of discussion, it may be divided into four main parts: (1) a prolog, dealing with the elder Wieland's background in Europe and with his death in Pennsylvania; (2) a central action, constructed around the eight voices produced by the ventriloquist Carwin and reaching a climax in Clara's discovery of the body of Wieland's wife; (3) a denouement, in which Clara learns that Wieland has murdered his family and that Carwin is the agent of the voices; and in which Carwin's confession, Wieland's threat of death to her and his suicide bring on her mental collapse; (4) an epilog, written in France three years after these last events, in which Clara tells of her restoration to rationality and of her union with Pleyel. What now follows is a synoptic analysis of Wieland in accordance with this structure, with particular reference to Brown's schematic employment of light-dark contrasts.

1. The Prolog (chs. I–II). The elder Wieland, convinced that his religion has been "expressly prescribed to him" (14), builds a classical temple to his deity and retires there for worship each noon and midnight (the midpoints of light and darkness). His religion has the appearance of the light of reason (the classical temple and midday), but it is also associated with the darkness of unreason (revelation and midnight). On the final evening of his life he goes alone to his shrine. There his "fancy" pictures a "person bearing a lamp" and at the same moment a "spark" lights upon and consumes his clothes. Watching from a window, his wife and her brother (Clara's uncle) see "gleams" and "rays." Running to the temple, the uncle discovers that the elder Wieland's body is scorched; before his death he describes the fiery doom that had overtaken him. This harrowing event, occurring during Clara's childhood, becomes obsessively the subject of her thoughts. Two explanations are presented to her: either the "Divine Ruler interferes in human affairs" or "the [dangerous] condition of [her father's] thoughts" caused a natural physical reaction—i.e., spontaneous combustion, a "scientific" theory supported by her uncle (a surgeon) and by Brown himself in a footnote. The circumstances of the death (fire, night) set up the light-dark structure for the whole book and underscore Brown's use of the temple as a locale for misapprehended experience.

2. The Central Action (chs. III–XVII). Left orphans, Clara and Wieland grow up on isolated properties outside Philadelphia. Since her education was modeled on "no religious standard" but rather left to the guidance of her own "understanding," Clara leans to the deistic. Her brother, though, scholarly, speculative, and moody like his father, pursues "the history of religious opinions" (26). These views are scoffed at by his friend Pleyel, "the champion of intellectual liberty, and [one who] rejected all guidance but that of his reason" (28). Upon Wieland's marriage to Pleyel's sister Catharine, Clara moves to a house nearby, but all meet regularly in the temple for intellectual amusements.

First voice: Wieland goes at night to the temple to retrieve a letter. The moon is for a moment hidden by a cloud (his senses are darkened) and he sees a "glimmering" (false light) that reminds him of the fate of his father (36). It is then that he hears a voice, which he takes to be that of his wife, warning him of danger ahead and urging him to return to the house. The voice, as we learn later, is projected by Carwin; but as the bright moon comes out again Wieland sees no one. Back in the house, he is told that his wife has not stirred, and Pleyel attributes hearing of the voice to a "deception of the senses" (38).

Second voice: Some time later, Clara and Catharine are sitting at home awaiting the return of Wieland and Pleyel. As the clock strikes midnight, the men enter and relate that while talking in the temple they have heard Catharine's voice informing them that Pleyel's intended bride is dead. The experience shakes Pleyel's rationalism; it only confirms Wieland's belief in revelation.

Third voice: Carwin now makes his first open appearance. Dressed as a rustic but speaking with a musical and educated voice he is initially seen by Clara in afternoon sunlight. But next day arises in "darkness and storm" (61), a signal that though Carwin is outwardly a man of reason (his arrival in daylight) he is dark and perverted within. As night returns, the storm ceases; Clara spends "the darksome hours" (62) musing on death. Retiring to bed, she listens to the clock (which her father had owned) striking twelve; then she hears voices at her bed's head whispering threats of murder. In panic she flees to Wieland's house, where she faints.

Fourth voice: A voice of "piercing shrillness" (68) calls the occupants to Clara's aid. As she recovers, Clara reflects on the occurrences of the voice; she can no longer doubt its reality. But she fails to realize that it has always been heard in semidarkness and that the understanding may thus have been duped.

Fifth voice: Clara goes at sundown to her summerhouse near the river and falls asleep. She dreams that as she is walking to her brother's house in twilight she comes upon a deep pit; beyond it her brother beckons her forward. As she is about to step into the abyss, someone catches her from behind and a voice cries "Hold! hold!" She awakens in "deepest darkness," with her "faculties still too confused" for her to find her way up the bank. Then comes a voice, which she recognizes as one of those which whispered near her bed. It promises her safety if she will avoid the summerhouse and not reveal what has happened. Without "the faintest gleam" to guide her steps, she remains motionless till she sees a "ray" (71–72). The "first visitings of this light [call] up a train of horrors," as she thinks of her father's end and of the warning voice (flickering light is associated with superstition). But now a "new and stronger illumination" (73) bursts upon her; it is Pleyel bearing a lantern. Confused, she tells him nothing of her experience.

Next evening Clara meets Carwin at Wieland's and learns that Pleyel had known him in Europe. The "voices" become a main topic for their discourse and three conflicting theories emerge: (1) Carwin holds for a "ready and plausible solution" (natural causes), but conceals his own role (reason deceiving by partial truth); (2) Wieland again maintains "the probability of celestial interference"; (3) Pleyel still accepts no testimony but that of his senses (83–85).

Sixth voice: In her bedroom, Clara goes to a closet; inexplicably a voice again cries "Hold! hold!" Terrified, she searches for its source, but in the faint moonlight from the windows she can discover no one. "Dark is less fertile of images than the feeble lustre of the moon," she muses (96–97). Suddenly recalling her dream, she now first consciously associates danger with her brother; and in a "phrenzy" she calls for him to come forth. But it is of course Carwin who emerges from the closet; and, dissembling for his own purposes, he says that he had come to ravish her but that the voice of warning had saved her. Actually, he has been prowling through her effects and has no intention of sexual attack. Carwin leaves in moonlight, and Clara is left to her "bewildering ideas" (105).

Seventh voice: Pleyel tells Wieland that he has heard voices which have convinced him that Clara has given herself to Carwin; later, in his own home, he relates to Clara his experience while denouncing her supposed fall from virtue. He had been on his way to tell her that Carwin was a fugitive from justice; as he passed her summerhouse in moonlight he became aware of voices he took to be Clara's and Carwin's. "My sight was of no use to me. Beneath so thick an umbrage, the darkness was intense," he recalls—not comprehending that he should have mistrusted his other senses. Sadly he tells her, "I yielded not but to evidence which took away the power to withhold my faith" (154). Clara protests vainly; as Pleyel stalks out of the room, she notices that "the light was declining" (155). The light of reason has now been dimmed in Pleyel too.

Eighth voice: Carwin writes asking for an 11 P.M. interview at Clara's house to explain his threat of rape. Though Clara thinks, with justice, that "the writer had surely been bereft of his reason" (156), she decides to return home. Arriving, she arms herself with a penknife and starts up the stairs. But again there is a cry of "hold! hold!" and she is confronted by a mysterious face, which then vanishes. Remarkably continuing up the stairs anyway, she enters her room. She discovers not Carwin but a note from him warning of a horrible sight to come. Carrying a light "in order to dispel any illusive mists that might have hovered" before her eyes (170), she comes upon the body of Catharine. Her death Clara immediately attributes to Carwin; and when Wieland enters in a distracted state she mourns the "extinction of a mind the most luminous and penetrating that ever dignified the human form" (174)—supposing that grief has driven him mad. With these two erroneous conclusions of Claras the pattern of mystification in the novel ends.

3. The Denouement (chs. XVIII–XXVI). Clara, discovering next that Wieland's entire family has been murdered, sinks into delirium. As she recovers, she puts the blame upon Carwin, but her uncle gives her some documents to read, informing her that the "execution was another's" (182). The death-dealing hand was Wieland's own, she learns. In his confession, light and dark are again given their schematic roles. Before the court Wieland recalls his moment of "illumination." Having gone to Clara's house in search of her, he had entered her darkened room. Satisfied of her absence, he turned to leave; but on the stairs he was "dazzled" by a "lustre" which burst upon his vision: "I opened my eyes and found all about me luminous and glowing. It was the element of heaven that flowed around. Nothing but a fiery stream was at first visible; but, anon, a shrill voice from behind me called upon me to attend" (188). A visage, he continues, now beamed upon his sight and he was enjoined to kill his wife and (later) his children as sacrifices. The intensity and quality of this false light are important; they signify the force of his delusion.

Reading through this account, Clara cannot at first realize that the voice which Wieland heard was not that which had addressed herself and the others on previous occasions. Told by her uncle that Wieland was a victim of religious mania, she counters that "this madness, if madness it were, had affected Pleyel and myself as well as Wieland" (202).

Clara is not long left in doubt. Returning to her bedroom in order to destroy her journal, she sits in the twilight of her closed house, the darkness "suiting the colour of [her] thoughts" (218). As she contemplates suicide, Carwin enters and confesses to being the source of the eight voices through his power of "biloquism" (225–241). His hidden motivation (which Brown reveals more fully in Memoirs of Carwin, the Biloquist) derives from his association with a secret anarchistic order like the Illuminati; what he tells Clara is: "I cannot justify my conduct, yet my only crime was curiosity" (231). Emphatically he denies any responsibility for the "voice of God" heard by Wieland or for the murders. While Clara is pondering these explanations, Wieland, having escaped from prison, rushes in and tells her she is the predestined final victim demanded by his "angel." But Clara points at Carwin and charges him with being the source of the "angel" voice. Wieland challenges him, but Carwin will admit only to some deception. Wieland orders him out and is able for a moment to see part of the truth: "If I erred, it was not my judgment that deceived me, but my senses" (251–252). He thanks God for this last "illumination"—i.e., knowledge of Carwin's power to defraud. However, suddenly irrational again, he argues that though the messenger was evil the commissions must have come from God, and he will carry out the final order. Carwin reenters, unseen by Wieland, and for the ninth and last time in the novel he employs his feigned voice. Crying "hold!" he stays Wieland's hand; then he orders him to "ascend into rational and human": "not heaven or hell, but thy senses have misled thee to commit these acts." Wieland is shaken: "A beam appeared to be darted into his mind." This beam is the emblem of right reason, for he is "restored to perception of truth" (257–259). But his recovered rationality brings immediate awareness that he cannot live in the world of daylight, and he commits suicide.


Excerpted from Individual and Community by Kenneth H. Baldwin, David K. Kirby. Copyright © 1975 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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