American Gothic Romance and the impatiences of (one) modern reader– “Wieland; or, the Transformation”

“In a land without castles or ghosts, [Charles Brockden] Brown found the suggestion for a Gothic tale of terror in the strange case of a farmer in Tomhannock, New York, who believed he had been commanded by angels to kill his family.  He provided a sensational plot to interest all readers, while writing a novel of ideas that explored ‘the moral constitution of man.’  The elder Wieland, a mystic, builds a temple on his estate for his private devotions.  One night he is killed by a mysterious flash of light.  His children live on happily with their companions, using the temple as a summerhouse–until they begin to hear unearthly voices, a charming vagabond joins their circle, and the father’s fanaticism overtakes the mind of the son.  In its time Brown’s writing presented a searching and original study of mania and remorse, foreshadowing Poe and Hawthorne.”

This paragraph immediately above is a copy of the blurb from the Dolphin Book edition of Wieland; or, The Transformation:  An American Tale which I read, and I supply it because my topic today is not so much what actually happened in the story as something I’ve noticed in my own perusals of Gothic fiction, an impatience with the character’s avowals of various emotions and beliefs which makes me want to say, “Oh, c’mon now, you surely don’t expect me to believe that that was your honest reaction to that event/remark/action.”  In this tale, as in many such tales, the narrator is a woman, and we are asked to believe that she is an upright and well-trained and veracious person, as well as being a composite of all the womanly virtues, etc.  Therefore, certain (Gothic Romantic) pretenses are in order when she speaks.  But it makes one skim over her narrative and skip certain words and phrases and even sentences and paragraphs, because it seems so masochistic of her to insist upon suffering so!

If you doubt my words, I’ll just give you the final paragraph of the book Wieland (pronounced as in the German VEH-lundt).  Don’t worry:  if you want to read this book, you won’t miss anything by knowing the last paragraph from the beginning:  “I leave you to moralize on this tale.  That virtue should become the victim of treachery is, no doubt, a mournful consideration; but it will not escape your notice, that the evils of which Carwin [a trickster] and Maxwell [a seducer and murderer] were the authors owed their existence to the errors of the sufferers.  All efforts would have been ineffectual to subvert the happiness or shorten the existence of the Stuarts [Maxwell’s victims], if their own frailty had not seconded these efforts.  If the lady had crushed her disastrous passion in the bud, and driven the seducer from her presence when the tendency of his artifices was seen; if Stuart had not admitted the spirit of absurd revenge, we should not have had to deplore this catastrophe.  If Wieland had framed juster notions of moral duty and of the divine attributes, or if I had been gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight, the double-tongued deceiver would have been baffled and repelled.”  This is of a piece with the opening poetical epigraph:  “From Virtue’s blissful paths away/The double-tongued are sure to stray;/Good is a forth-right journey still,/And mazy paths but lead to ill.”

This is pitching it a little too strong, and is rather like blaming the rape victim for what she was wearing when she was attacked.  First of all, there’s the perspective of the narration.  The story is told from the beginning in a way which capitalizes on the miraculous.  And there’s the fact that the father Wieland’s death is a mysterious matter, full of lightning flashes from heaven and the spontaneous combustion of his clothing (he is found in the temple/summerhouse where he regularly goes to worship, with all his clothes burned away from his body while his body is bruised, and then he dies a few hours later with “insupportable exhalations and crawling putrefaction” a factor in driving all mourners away from his body).  What I’m saying is that the narration is a sort of “fake-out,” a “sleight-of-hand,” because through most of the story the characters hear mysterious voices telling them to do or not to do things, and moreover it’s not just one character hearing the voices, rather it’s several.  Given the beginning, what else could one suspect but that heavenly or devilish voices are the sources of their visitations?

But pitted against these seemingly overwhelming odds, the prissy female narrator is constantly reassuring us of her own and nearly everyone else’s virtue and prudence.  The only thing of which she is not possessed in supernatural degree is “foresight,” and the amount of foresight she would have had to have to know what was actually happening would have been impossible (and I’m not going to tell  you; you’re going to have to read this book, both the exciting and good parts and the “draggy” and “gloopy” parts yourself–yes, those last two are critical terms).  Without having been a mind reader, she could not have known in any way or even remotely have guessed, in my view, what was happening to her.

So why all the “I would rather have stabbed myself than have defended myself against a potential rapist/murderer,” and “It would have been better to blame myself than to have assumed that a self-proclaimed liar/villain was to blame”?  I think it must be because it increases the reader’s suspense and tension to a certain nearly unbearable point.  The fact that it could also exasperate a reader and make her want to shake the protagonist silly (if the protagonist weren’t silly enough already) doesn’t seem to be a factor that was considered by Charles Brockden Brown.  Also, Brown was early on the author of a work on the rights of women, and as a champion he perhaps felt that it was necessary to “gild the lily” (that is, to make something good or holy enough even holier).  It has often been the case that male authors writing as women have felt the need to make the narrator more virginal, or naive, or just plain good than a realistic heroine would be, and of course this is a Romantic Gothic work, not a realistic one.

There are also a number of spots in which, true to form, the heroine/narrator decides upon a course of action which the foreshadowing clearly tells the reader is a mistake:  oh, if only she would take the opposite course of action, then this whole tragical farce would be cleared up!  But then, the story would be over, too!  So, it’s a choice between having one’s emotions as a reader manipulated and played upon, and coming to the end of the story too soon.  Personally, I stuck it out to the end, though the structure caused me to skip a sentence or a paragraph here and there during the last ten pages or so, because quite inartistically, some minor characters from early on suddenly resurfaced and had a story told about them which had little or nothing to do with the main fiction, or at least if the smaller story was meant to “point a moral, and adorn a tale” it wasn’t as apposite as it might have been to the main story:  why, for example, didn’t it have something to do with voices from heaven, or inspiration, or family dramas?  It actually seemed to be a sort of afterthought.

I realize that normally I review or write essays upon books that are of major worth, and though this book is a bit dated and not as good as other Gothic thrillers like Frankenstein or Caleb Williams (to name the two far poles of sensationalism that this thriller seems to lie between, partaking of the gory details of one, and the human drama of the other), it’s still worth reading.  It’s a book which was ahead of its time in 1798 America when it appeared, because fiction wasn’t well thought of on this continent then, and Brown had various troubles trying to survive as a literary figure, having to rely on a law career as well as having a position writing history and working on magazines.  But I really have been self-indulgent in this post, because my topic has not been so much a delineation of the progress of the tale itself (I don’t want to ruin the experience of the novel for the reader) as a topic about the price sensationalism paid and still perhaps pays in order to be allowed to outrage our sentiments legally:  the moralistic trappings of the narrator’s tale constitute the “wedding” that sometimes follows after (or accompanies rather than precedes) the “seduction.”


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

4 responses to “American Gothic Romance and the impatiences of (one) modern reader– “Wieland; or, the Transformation”

  1. Gothic literature, from the little I know of it, is about malevolent deities, and how they turn normal people into villainous types. There was a game on the Nintendo Gamecube called ‘Eternal Darkness’, which dealt with an antagonist over two millennium and his effect on a wide array of protagonists (who rarely survived the encounter, making him all the more evil).


    • Well, actually, Gothic can comprise some or any of actual supernatural beings, merely mortal beings who are evil or ill-intentioned, secrets and secret relationships, bandits, old castles and hidden plots, etc. It doesn’t necessarily involve actual deities, though in the case of “Wieland,” the suggestion is (at least as the story starts out being told) that it does. But you really have to read the book to see how the fiction develops–it’s quite interesting, despite my impatience with the female protagonist’s annoying sanctimoniousness.


      • I had to check Wikipedia for the definition of sanctimoniousness. It pointed to a story entitled ‘Good Mrs Hypocrite’, an 1899 novel by a novelist under the pseudonym of ‘Rita’.

        When people are trained to follow a pattern of behaviour, because it is ingrained and reinforced it makes them self-righteous against those who do not follow the same rules. Religion much?

        The real trick comes in because humans are imperfect, and it often makes them hypocritical when they lapse into behaviours they usually speak against.


  2. The odd thing is, the sanctimoniousness, or “holier-than-thou” quality, is fairly constant in “Wieland,” whereas not much is said about hypocrisy, at least not as much as sometimes appears in other Gothic Romances. Even the villains are pretty whole-hearted in “Wieland.”


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