Charles Brockden Brown’s “Wieland”

Topics: Novels

The following sample essay on Charles Brockden Brown’s “Wieland” tells the story of a Gothic novel of the 16th century and the main character Clara.

Charles Brockden Brown’s, Wieland, remains an esteemed gothic novel set in the late 16th century. Throughout the novel, Brown introduces many themes of authorship, narration, mental illness, truth and narrative reliability, religion, family, and gender. Brown writes this novel from the perspective of Clara, a woman in the Gothic era, allowing her to unravel her own narrative in the form of letters.

This power of narration describes a captivating story of she characterized as an independent, educated, and liberated woman, who may have also suffered from mental illness, a trope which, typically, was an unconventional representation of a woman in that time.

As the novel progresses, these preconceptions unfold in rather perplexing manners, and especially effect the narration of the story. Clara’s status as a liberated yet disturbed woman, profoundly shapes the narrative and helps instigate the murder of the Wieland family, and yet, through the mental illness, insures her innocence in the eyes of the court.

Beyond Wieland, it is clear from her inconsistent narration, her anger and frustration due to conflicts between her mental illness and the trauma she has experienced, that Clara is also culpable in the murder of the Wieland family.

Brown is explicit in describing Clara life, especially her background that reveals her family’s tragic history that befallen them, which sets the tone for the novel and narration.

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First, Clara’s maternal grandfather, who suffered from illusions that were maniacal (PG 164 her grandfather) that convinced him to throw himself off a cliff. In addition, her father falls ill to melancholy, finding religion as an outlet that eventually emerges as a religious fanatic that also hears a call to a cliff that leads to his mysterious death of spontaneous combustion (Wieland, 16). Only then, her mother passed soon thereafter, leaving Clara and Theodore as the remaining family members. These events occurred in Clara’s childhood, which for a child is a substantial amount of trauma and pain to endure.

From the beginning, there is already an emerging theme of some reluctant questioning, they ponder into their adulthood, however, Theodore appears to have made little thought or concern to their father’s death (Brown, 33). This observation and Clara’s realization of her brothers eerily similar persona of her brother and her father, leaves her feeling a horrific realization of her brother’s narrative as a shadowy resemblance between it and my father’s death (Brown, 32). This situation highlights the greater observation of premonition of the events that would unfold, and reveals the hereditary connection of mental health illness. The theme of mental illness is important to note here as it is one other contributing factor to how her authorship is altered in recognition of the downfall it possessed for both her father and later, her brother.

Later in the Novel, Clara appears to receive a moment of enlightenment that clears her mind of negative thoughts when Carwin introduces himself. Clara, as the narrator is able to express her innermost thoughts as it is seen when she, dropped the cloth that I held in my hand, my heart overflowed with sympathy, and my eyes with unbidden tears (Brown, 43). She is overwhelmed by these feelings that she cannot describe, then her thoughts quickly shift to ominous and dreary when observing the painting of Carwin that Clara made. While she feels this physical attraction to Carwin, she possesses a deep affection for Pleyel, a childhood and close friend to Clara to whom she is hesitant to confess her love to. For all of these perplexing emotions Clara is feeling, she continues to alternate between her burdening questions and negative thoughts, her passionate feelings for Carwin, and love for Pleyel. In many ways, she struggles with her own emotions, presenting the reader with the first fault in Clara’s authorship, her proneness to emotional instability (Brown).

Later on, these emotions quickly turn sour as Pleyel, the one she loves, he accuses Clara of having her virginity sullied by a criminal, Carwin, and recommends she exile herself before her sins become publicly known (Brown, 97). This (false) claimant left Clara horrified as the man she loves and who understood her high moral would judge her without hearing and placed her on the level of prostitutes and thieves (Brown, 97). Not only did she lose the affection of the man she loves, but the shame and social stratification for such a deed was something that separates man from insects is not wider than that which severs the polluted from the chaste women (Brown, 88).

A culmination of these events, the loss of her beloved, unanswered questions and frustrated at the mysterious death of her father, emotional instability, and finally her mental illness in all of this confusion, possibly enraged Clara and caused her to lash out and reflect her anger out on Carwin. At this moment, it is possible that she begins to plot a plan to punish Carwin for his crimes and instigating in losing her beloved, as this now meant the family would now have to endure shame for a claim that was in all utterances, a fabrication.

Moreover, her experience with various life adversities, and the voices she associates with her possible exhibited behavior of a mental health issues remains similar if not a replica of father’s and brother’s encountered. These experiences caused her thoughts about torment from the phantoms of my own creation prone to the irrational behavior in an already occupied mind with additional thoughts of revenge on Carwin. The phantoms became manifestations of trauma, pain, and anger that increased Clara susceptibility as a catalyst to the development of extremist tendencies. This proclivity generates a need to transform beyond her past, but to do this, she must quell her lost chastity and reclaim her morality through transformation.

To elucidate this principle, Clara sticks to this notion of a cathartic conversion that signified an emerging of symbolism within her family members, using her brother’s family as the denotations of her past trauma and pain and thus needed to use the family members as an atonement. Clara herself describes how many of her cataclysmic visions that demonstrate this sacrifice bring her a terror that which is pleasing (Brown, 40). These familiar visions of people close to Clara clearly explains that if any of these events were to commence, she would feel more comfortable rather than remorse. This premise would imply that the long-term relationship Clara has with Theodore’s family may represent her past, she wishes to escape, and in part, could sketch out their deaths without hesitation.

Clara is cunning with her authorship, so much so, that for many of the characters, they consider her delirious, however, there is a hidden agenda that materializes her situation and position as both a woman in the late 16th century and as someone with a mental illness. She forcefully places herself in the position of being an inconsistent narrator to appear capricious and convey herself in a way that diverts the attention of any missing fragments to her story as another trait of her authorship. For example, she clearly states that my narrative may be invaded by inaccuracy and confusion Brown clearly wishes to present the theme of mental illness that occurs in the Wieland family, and, yet, Clara gives full acknowledgement that the mental illness plays a role in her life, what with the voices in her head, the multiple attempted suicides, the shifting between the imagined and reality of her life, and mentioning how she is tormented by phantoms of my own creation, which was not previously the case, recognizing that it is something of her own cognition that she has this torment, allowing Clara to further validate any of her suspicious behavior.

In essence, her dictation of this narrative is also undermined by these men like Pleyel by claiming that she possesses a sensibility somewhat too vivid or judging Clara without giving her an active role to fight for innocence (Brown, 97). This deprivation of roles is, in part, because of the gender norms that viewed women as incompetent to represent herself, leaving the power in the hands of the man. Problematic as it may sound, Clara is resourceful in using both of these identities to assist her in the final phases of her crime. It even appears that her independence and liberation has awarded her a dangerously aware persona that may even suggest an unconventional employment of her mental illness in addition to her status as a independent woman as possible pity points to prevent what would be her retelling of her crime from being traced back to her.

However, when Clara is faced with approaching the closet, she hears a voice from the closet that was nevertheless human (Brown, 78), and it opens to reveal Carwin inside. However, Carwin makes the mistake of acknowledging the voice command, which was supposed to be within her head, and the only other person to be present in the room with Clara was him, and Clara could have easily associated the voice as coming from Carwin, since the noise came from the closet. However, Clara’s canines did more than interpret this distinct voice coming from the closet while being unique, still came from Carwin. However, a more in-depth analysis of this scene, Clara contradicts herself when she claims at the testimony of a false account was due to another woman forced into mimics her voice (Brown).

Later, she states that the voices accompanying each other were distinct, and possessed agency that was at once preternatural and malignant (Brown, 166). If this was the case, then there had to be a reason that she would contradict her statement, that is, if she was hiding something important, yet, the latter is useful for Clara as it gives way for understanding the voices as evil, possibly even magic, and a possibility for her to employ this craft as well. Regardless, Clara makes no attempt to mention either the biloquism, or the magic that would be involved, yet, she spoke to the supernatural aspect that existed within the voices that she possibly kept under wraps till it was convenient for her to use to expose Carwin’s as the puppeteer.

Moving forward, however, her anger and overwhelming emotions of her past experiences remain dormant till Pleyel’s accusation of her sullied virginity would push Clara to her breaking point and instead of envisioning these fantasies, she would now have the impetus to perform her figurative tendencies. As previously mentioned, Clara uses Wieland’s family as these denotations that she would use as a cathartic transformation, and had the perfect victim to claim her revenge for attempting to ruin her sanctity. In order to put this plan into play, her intelligence and independence allowed her to create an elaborate plan that the court would not suspect her of committing, and indeed, used her brother mania, and for a clever person like Clara, could have even employed witchcraft to frame Carwin by replicating the voices and compelling Theodore to murder his family, including other related members.

One note to keep in mind is how compelling Theodore to kill his entire family life included Clara, in some certainty, further eliminate any blame or conviction of herself as the perpetrator. Having done so successfully, Clara is given the opportunity to testify, and hoping she could use her intelligence to convict Carwin, the court deems her testimony unreliable (BROWN CITEEE). This was due, in part, because of her position as a woman with a mental illness that became clear to the court for many, but Clara could see that either way, the crime could never be traced back to her, especially because the court and people would underestimate her, since the courts would view a women with a mental illness as incompetent of formulating such an elaborate plan.

Therefore, when she testifies against Carwin, her testimony is underestimated and seen as a liability rather than a witness. With the lack of conclusive evidence Carwin is set free and although this was not Clara’s intentions, Carwin runs away, never seen again and Pleyel retracts his past claim of her sullied virginity, which leaves her liberated of Carwin’s influence, with a successful catharsis achieved without any convictions against her, and then even marrying the one she loves which, in fact, were her intentions for this beautifully articulated crime.

All in all, her voice as a woman with a mental health issue during  the 16th century, only further allows her narrative to remain convenient and relevant only to the topics she wishes to address, and yet, her story still resonates with events that unfolded during times where witchcraft ran rampant and the patriarchy persisted. This observation directly correlates back to how women’s testimonies for not engaging in witchcraft, and even for accusing someone, that the patriarchy would still deem her incompetent even with the upstanding of her unconventional position of power and independence as a woman.

Nonetheless, Brown articulately depicts just how complex the nature between an author’s influence and the reader’s interpretation can engulf a number of narratives. Here, Brown’s usage of these tropes allows the flexibility and possibility to argue that Clara’s nature is in itself a powerful conduit that is typically not seen in writing. Clara is a manipulative and intelligent character who is able to use her status to appear vulnerable and incapable of committing these crimes, yet, it is possible that she remains the sole practitioner of the Wieland family murder, and then in the end is conveniently and coincidentally given everything her life has been deprived of. This still begs the questions, whether the entire narrative is an accurate representation of Theodore’s story or simply a telling of Clara’s own narrative.

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Charles Brockden Brown’s “Wieland”. (2019, Nov 22). Retrieved from

Charles Brockden Brown’s “Wieland”
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