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CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN'S WIELAND: METHOD AND MEANING Michael D. Butler* Over the past twenty years, a number of critics have steadily moved away from the traditional characterization of Charles Brockden Brown as a great natural phenomenon whose writing most resembles the charge of electricity through a broken circuit.1 Ten to fifteen years ago in particular, Larzer Ziff, Donald Ringe, and William Manly specifically attempted to discover an artistic coherence in Wiehnd not apparent to their predecessors. Their studies did reveal a more unified novel than that read in the past, but it was also a different one. To begin with, all three writers consider Wiehnd a darker work than generally supposed; all deny that it can be interpreted as an expression of perfectibilitarian optimism. Larzer Ziff finds in the book a Calvinistic argument for the innate depravity of man's senses.2 Ringe asserts that its "greatest importance" lies in a "systematic questioning of some fundamental tenets of the Enlightenment."3 Manly declares the subject a conflict between "objective logic and subjective terror" which drives Clara Wieland to the brink of insanity.4 Although each of the three men sees a greater unity in Wiehnd, none of them considers it an unfractured whole. AU believe the ideas of the novel demand that it end before the anti-climactic if not contradictory final chapter. Ringe labels the ending "unfortunate," a conclusion which "distorts to a considerable degree both the form and the meaning of the book."5 Ziff blames Brown's inconsistent art for both an end and a beginning which run counter to what he thinks the body of the novel, an attack on the sentimental tradition.6 Wiehnd is a better book, however, than even these sympathetic critics have claimed. It has real faults, but it is whole. Although loosely—at times grotesquely—constructed, Brown's work is held together by a conscious and consistent method which imposes a necessary order on the novel and ensures that nearly every part, including the beginning and end, contributes to a sophisticated testing and justification of some ultimately optimistic ideas about social man's limitations and capabilities. •Professor Butler teaches in the English Department at the University of Kansas. 128Michael D. Butler In Wiehnd Brown steadily if unsystematically attacked the conventions and basic assumptions of sentimental fiction. Using Clara Wieland as spokesman and example, he subjected the ideals of contemporary Uterature to the tests of experienced good sense and found them wanting. Clara's relationship with Pleyel, for example, disproves the sentimentalist's assumption of an immediate and intuitive understanding between lovers. The confusion, misunderstanding, and distrust arising from their affair destroy the girl's naive belief that "when minds are imbued with a genuine sympathy, are not words and looks superfluous? Are not motion and touch sufficient to impart feelings such as mine?"7 In similar fashion, her disastrous attempts at flirtation lead to an attack on the definition of woman supported by popular fiction and on the "perverse and vicious education" (p. 90) maintaining that definition. In each instance, Brown set up a conventional situation in order to carry it out to an unconventional and therefore, in terms of audience expectations, anti-climactic conclusion. At the heart of the process lies a questioning of perhaps the most basic assumption of sentimental fiction: that virtue is its own protection. About halfway through her narrative, Clara writes: "I used to suppose that certain evils could never befall a being in possession of a sound mind; that true virtue supplies us with energy which vice can never resist" (p. 103). That is so basic a sentimental tenet, Clara considers her new skepticism toward it the first sign of total despair. Nevertheless, the novel goes on to present a number of situations in which virtue unaided does not protect from vice, in which it may even hasten the destruction of its possessor. Clara discovers that her innocence does not overcome Pleyel's readiness to believe the worst of her. The knife she seizes after being menaced by Carwin is a forced recognition of her virtue's inadequacy before Carwin's physical strength. Wieland's goodness likewise proves no check to his homicidal...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 127-142
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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