Placement in Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland

by Ryan Gantz

Towards the end of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, the narrator Clara goes to visit a group of servants before her departure for Europe; this is the first time she has seen the family since the recent horrific and murderous events. When Clara tells these people of her intention to visit her own cottage, "Alarm and foreboding spread over their features, and they attempted to dissuade me from visiting a house that they firmly believed to be haunted by a thousand apparitions," (216). This narrator appears to us as a child of the enlightenment and a woman strongly governed by reason; though she refuses to believe in tangible spiritual apparitions, she nevertheless comes to associate geographical locations, and particularly structures, with ghosts of a kind. Places that within one or many lifetimes remain physically unchanged are transformed in the mind of the individual by the history of events that one comes to attach to them. In Wieland, we see many locations that, for Clara and for other characters, come to be haunted by memories of the past. When nearly every physical place one finds familiar becomes haunted by a dark or inexplicable event, and when these events themselves seems to violate familiar physical laws, one is left with nowhere to retreat.

In the early pages of the novel, Clara relates to us the history of her "house"—of her family line, the life of Wieland Sr., and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. As Clara’s narration begins to focus on recent events, we are able to keep in mind the history of her family—and thanks to the background that both Clara and Brown have consciously provided for us, those past events connected to the family estate, and specifically the temple. Wieland Sr., as we become familiar with him, lived as an intensely religious man who valued a personal and private relationship between himself and his God. For his worship, Wieland constructs a structure some three hundred yards from the main house, atop a rocky bluff that overlooks the river. According to Clara’s description, "the edifice was slight and airy. It was no more than a circular area, twelve feet in diameter, whose flooring was the rock, cleared of moss and shrubs, and exactly leveled, edged by twelve Tuscan columns, and covered by an undulating dome" (13). The structures and geographic places of Wieland that become stages for tragic or mysterious events are typically described with this kind of precise detail. Clara does not take the time to describe fully the dimensions of the main house; our only details concerning this structure involve the location of its chamber windows relative to the temple where the supernatural drama that leads to Wieland Sr.’s death takes place. Brown consistently provides us with more precise, physical description for those places where events occur that are not easily explained within known physical laws—for those places that act as settings for the seemingly supernatural. This produces no small dramatic effect, for we can visualize these settings, and things mysterious become as grounded in reality as the temple itself is in rock.

The first fantastic event of the novel takes place in the temple, and is described to Clara in detail by her uncle, and retold by the narrator to us. Brown accompanies the description of the incredible blaze of light simultaneously with further physical detail of the temple’s surroundings. When Clara’s uncle "went forward, the light retired, and, when he put his feet within the apartment, utterly vanished" (18). We cannot avoid the connection between the structure itself and the event that takes place within its boundaries. Clara offers us this history before relating the more recent tragic events.

Our first encounter with the four main characters of the novel is also connected with this edifice, but as Clara tells us, "the temple was no longer assigned to its ancient use" (26). Instead, the structure has been transformed into a kind of shrine to the enlightenment, complete with a bust of Cicero and the characters’ constant conversation or exploration of dramatic works. A mere ten pages before, we first discover the temple as a stage for a supernatural tragedy; Brown in no way intends for us to forget the history of this structure. To attach history, memories and emotions to objects, buildings, and geographical locations seems undeniably human and impossible for any individual to avoid. Throughout the main body of Wieland, the landscape and structures of the family’s estate remains physically unchanged—Clara and her brother have grown up around these stable and static places. And through the experience of events, each has come to connect a personal "place history" to them. According to Clara, "every joyous and tender scene most dear to my heart is connected with this edifice, [the temple]", (26). The young Wieland views the structure in a different way, for, as he tells his friends, "I never visit this building alone, or at night, without being reminded of the fate of my father," (36). The way in which events are revealed to the reader of the novel, particularly with regard to the sharp contrast between the old and new uses for the temple, will give the reader a conception of the structure that differs from that of each character.

When considered in this respect, it becomes clear that while the landscape and structure settings of the novel remain physically unchanging, the psychological effects these places have on the characters of the novel do change over time, since new events occur that are connected with these places. An environment effects the individual through its aesthetic qualities, to be sure: Clara enjoys the temple and her summer retreat for their natural beauty; she "seek[s] relief in a walk" by the summer house because she expects it will improve her mood, (70). The narrator’s unflattering description of the river Delaware as compared to Schuylkill suggests that she does not expect this environment to help Pleyel escape his "gloomy and unsociable grief," (52). As the novel progresses, however, we find characters less frequently affected by the natural mood of their surroundings, and more often affected by the history and memories a place retains for them. The change is most visible in Clara, through the intimacy and apparent honesty of her narration.

This general shift from concern with present mood to concern with past memory progresses with the increasing number of mysterious and unreasonable events that transpire throughout the property. Since the characters in the story are so thoroughly children of the enlightenment, (complete with a bust of Cicero)—mystery, fear, and trauma build up when events are not congruent with what they expect to find in the physical world. This is true both for events that simply defy expectations of placement, and those that seem to go so far as to break physical laws. When Pleyel does not appear at the appointed time, and when Clara does not spend the night at her brother’s home as expected, characters assume something is wrong. When the reader encounters Catherine dead in Clara’s bed, the murder resonates as particularly strange, since we have not previously encountered Catherine within Clara’s chamber.

Each instance of Carwin’s use of vocal trickery adds to the mystery and increasing tension of the novel as a whole, but more specifically, each action corrupts some place that was formerly familiar. On two separate occasions a voice speaks, and in fact seems to make a prediction, in the vicinity of the temple. The structure retains these events as a history, and even we are fooled into finding an obvious connection between these instances and the death of Wieland Sr. The calm relief Clara normally finds in her summer house is corrupted through the vocal warning that the location carries danger. Clara approaches her own familiar closet only to think on what had there "lately passed," the voices that had leagued to murder her (95). Further incidents add to the "psychological baggage" surrounding Clara’s chamber, and toward the climax of the novel the narrator is herself surprised that she "should voluntarily return to a house in which honor and life had so lately been endangered," (161-2). On a later return to her habitation, Clara remembers that the "apartment had been a sweet and tranquil asylum," (217). We can suppose that no physical change, nor change in lighting need have taken place—the memories of the vocal trickery, the unexplained murder done by Wieland to his own wife, his attempt on the life of his sister and his own suicide—these are enough to let Clara see in the room "its present dreariness" (217). The riverbank becomes a stage for another of Carwin’s pranks that leaves Pleyel disgusted with our narrator…. Wieland’s house remains haunted by the murders…. Clara finds herself recalling her past visits to Pleyel as she approaches his house in order to vindicate herself….

There are few places mentioned within the novel that remain untouched my some kind of negative past, at least for Clara and the reader. The novel suggests that men and women remain most comfortable with the people and places they know well. Clara is happiest with friends in the temple to which she has grown accustomed. Wieland does not want to go to Germany out of fear that the experience will change him; does he not have everything he needs in Pennsylvania? It takes a great deal of persuasion, and eventually a fire, to slice Clara away from the structures and landscape that for her contain so much history—some that seems exceedingly unbearable. If Clara were a true child of the enlightenment, she would recognize that these structures are simply habitations, that closets are simply closets. No mind, no matter how empirical, can separate a place from the successive events that have occurred there, even if, as in Wieland, events can be seen to have transpired in a specific location by chance. We feel most comfortable with places because they retain a psychological or emotional history, and because these histories define us. In the friends’ quest to discover Carwin’s identity, they want to know where he is from and where he has been… Carwin’s confession to Clara begins with disclosure of the place of his birth.

For three years, Clara tries to live with a duality that is psychologically draining: everything she sees remind her of her family, and her house has been a stage for a succession of tragic events, yet she remains there because the structure and property retain her past—they define her, and she is unwilling to let go of them. Through courage and a strength of character, Clara is able to survive her three year stay; this is the same courage that brings her to open the closet despite the history she connects to it and the possibility that someone waits inside. But our narrator’s courage does fail her during the novel, and her great powers of reason at times doubt their own validity. Just as no part of the estate of Clara and her brother serves as a safe refuge from the "storm that tore up our happiness" (6), so does no part of the human mind exist that remains sacred and untouched by such a storm. The storm comes as an inexplicable transformation of those things and people closest to one’s heart, into things foreign, with fantastical behavior. The bond between a man and his home is a natural one, for these things define him, but there can come a point when the places of the past become debilitating and should be released.