Wieland is Charles Brockden Brown’s most known novel. That said, it does not stand as one of the best known American novels for good reason. Brown was America’s greatest novelist in the years before America had any great novelists. Predating Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper, Brown churned out long, tedious Gothic novels in the first decade of the 19th century.
The basic plot of Wieland is as follows. The narrator, Clara Wieland, relates the life that she and her brother Theodore live after their father spontaneously combusts. Why did he spontaneously combust? That’s not entirely clear, either in terms of science or in terms of the narrative. Where contemporary motion pictures can be accused of inserting gratuitous sex scenes, Brown inserts a gratuitous combustion.
The brother and sister inherit a fine estate and live in separate houses there. Clara watches as her brother befriends and then marries Catherine Pleyel. Eventually, Catherine’s brother shows up. There’s attraction between him and Clara. As time goes on, various characters begin to hear strange voices which either bring inexplicable tidings or sound like characters who could not possibly be speaking in that place at that time. Eventually we learn that a fifth character, the shadowy Carwin has been using his powers of voice to . . . well, it’s not entirely clear why he does this stuff or why he is hanging about the estate to practice ventriloquism on complete strangers.
We also learn that Carwin hides in Clara’s closet, first with the intention of killing her and then with the intention of raping her. Again, motivation is unclear. That Clara is willing to speak with Carwin any further after learning of his intentions is one of the more bizarre aspects of the book.
Meanwhile, Pleyel waits outside Clara’s house, sees Carwin exit, and assumes the worst about the pair. Clara pursues Pleyel who is apparently headed Europe RIGHT NOW. When she reaches his house, however, she finds him asleep and gives up. Again, strange. Returning home, she visits her brother’s house, wanders around inside but assumes everyone to be asleep. Going back to her own house, she finds Catherine dead in Clara’s bed. Eventually we discover that Theodore, quite out of the blue, has murdered his wife and children, supposedly because the voices told him to do so.
That the book combines several implausible or inexplicable coincidences or events apparently causes Brown no embarrassment. Where a talented novelist, such as another who used spontaneous combustion, Charles Dickens, would introduce a host of apparently unrelated images, themes, characters, and events only to have them draw together into a logical whole by the volume’s end. Brown seems intent simply on throwing a number of vaguely connected things together in the same narrative.
The novel is written in a heavily “told-not-shown” style with a staggering amount of unnecessary detail, character filling, and backstory. The gruesome turn that the book takes when Theodore butchers the family is neither foreshadowed nor suggested by the description of his character.
What is the Christian to make of this novel? My initial response to this question is, “Not much.” Brown is virtually the antithesis of a writer like Bunyan who seeks to use his art for purely didactic purposes. Brown, on the other hand, appears to have no message to push forward. The only “deep hidden message” I can glean from Wieland is “weird and bad things happen to ordinary people.” Is this nihilism? Brown is living a bit early to be drawing from that well. In some ways, Brown seems to operate in the stream of naturalism, simply telling what happened. Yet his use of the Gothic elements would make his work seem more like “unnaturalism.”
Frankly, I would rather read the amoral stylings of a Kerouac. I’d rather read the communist propaganda of a Brecht. I’d rather read somebody who believes something, no matter how dismal, how contrary to my views. All Brown seems to believe is that he “believes he’ll write a novel.”
Shortly after I finished my Ph.D., I found it odd to get back into recreational reading. In those early weeks, I read a couple of books I would never have read otherwise. One was a rather pathetic combination of Western and science fiction. The other was a spy thriller. Both were implausible and memorable only for their absurdities. That’s the class of authors I would place Charles Brockden Brown with.