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British Association for American Studies


Issue 9, Autumn 2006: Article 3


Issue 9, Autumn 2006: Article 3

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 9, Autumn 2006

‘I live to be their protector and friend, and not their tyrant and foe’: Gender and Household Authority in Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798)

Tara Deshpande
© Tara Deshpande. All Rights Reserved

Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland begins with an advertisement in which Brown declares his aim to be ‘the illustration of some important branches of the moral constitution of man’.[1] This claim, along with the subtitle ‘An American Tale’, immediately identifies a political element to the novel’s sensational plot. A number of critics have analysed the fragmentation of its central family in terms of the political and social anxieties of the early Republic. Such interpretations have tended to read the destruction of the family as a representation of the failure of the Revolution to establish a stable nation. Jane Tompkins, for example, offers an early, influential reading in her volume Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Literature. She argues that the murder and insanity that afflict the Wielands express federalist fears that the absence of strong institutions in the new nation would result in chaos and disintegration.[2] More recently, Christopher Looby has suggested that the novel’s disrupted, gothic form and its focus on the problems of voice engage concerns over social coherence and the legitimacy of the nation’s founding, and Julia Stern has argued persuasively that ventriloquism and the corruption of family relationships express doubts as to whether the inhabitants of the United States can be united harmoniously by sympathetic bonds.[3] This article will also suggest that Wieland questions the achievements of the Revolution and undermines notions of a stable, inclusive nation. However, I treat the family from a different perspective. Instead of reading the relationships between the individual Wielands as symptomatic of larger cultural and political forces, I will emphasise the role of the family as a constitutive institution of the state. In Wieland, as in the early Republic, dynamics of authority within the household affect individuals’ relationship to the state. In particular, gender proves determinative of family and civic identity.

Before beginning to analyse the text in detail, it is necessary to give a brief overview of the plot. Wieland is notoriously difficult to summarise, but there is a key sequence of events that is relevant to questions of gendered citizenship. Clara Wieland, the first-person narrator, discovers the body of her murdered sister-in-law, Catharine. The attacker’s identity remains a mystery for some time and it is only gradually revealed that her husband was the perpetrator and was obeying the command of a disembodied voice he believed to belong to God. In his insanity he goes on to kill his children, attempt the life of his sister, and finally commit suicide. Carwin, an enigmatic acquaintance of the Wielands’, confesses that he is a biloquist, or ventriloquist. He admits to imitating the voices of Catharine and Clara at several points earlier in the narrative. However, he denies ordering the murder, and the confusion as to whether he is responsible or Wieland merely hallucinated the voice is never resolved. As I will demonstrate, Brown uses Catharine’s murder to examine the ways in which the civic identity of married women is mediated by their position within the family. By characterising Theodore Wieland as an advocate of Jefferson’s republican ideology, Brown places his representation of married women’s qualified citizenship in relation to the ostensibly universal language of the American Revolution.

As a former lawyer, Brown would have been aware that after the Revolution, the United States retained the laws of ‘coverture’. This body of English law merged a married woman’s legal identity with that of her husband and was also revealingly called the law of ‘baron et feme’, or ‘lord and woman’. Under this system a married woman could not hold property, make contracts, or be held responsible for most crimes. Linda Kerber has argued that the logic of coverture lies in privileging a woman’s obligation to her husband over any to the state. For example, one of the reasons she could not make a contract was that if she defaulted she would be liable for imprisonment, which would remove her from the household and interfere with her husband’s claims. The potential for coercion in the relationship was acknowledged implicitly by the law: the husband’s influence prevented a wife’s criminal guilt. Consequently, her relationship to the state was always mediated by her husband. Kerber also emphasises the inconsistency of the status of married women with the proclaimed ideals of the Revolution: most obviously, women paid taxes to a government that did not represent them.[4]

This tension between coverture and republican ideology is exposed and explored in the relationship between Theodore and Catharine Wieland. Early in the novel, Wieland asserts his republican credentials by articulating a theory of legitimate authority. He discovers that he has inherited ‘large domains in Lusatia’ but he is reluctant to claim them. In contrast, Pleyel, his friend and brother-in-law, urges him to go to Europe and do so. The focus of their argument is the legitimacy of obtaining ‘the revenue and power annexed to a German principality’ by keeping ‘vassals’ in what they call a ‘servile condition’. Pleyel tempts Wieland, mentioning the ‘benevolence’ he might bestow, and attempts to frighten him with the ‘evil’ that would result from that power ‘in malignant hands’ (pp.34-35). In response, Wieland ‘expiate[s] on the perils of wealth and power’ (p.40) in terms that evoke the rhetoric of the American Revolution, in particular the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense. To Wieland, ‘power and riches’ are ‘two great sources of depravity’. They are ‘instruments of misery to others [and] to him on whom they were conferred’. He fears he will ‘degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary’ because ‘power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor’ (p.35).

Wieland repeatedly uses the words ‘tyrant’ and ‘tyranny’ to suggest the specific Lockean construction of the terms adopted by Jefferson in the Declaration. He does not say that keeping peasants in a ‘servile condition’ is ‘tyranny’ in itself, but rather that to inflict on those labourers ‘misery’ instead of ‘positive felicity’ is tyrannous (p.35). This definition depends on a notion of reciprocal right and obligation between citizen (or subject) and ruler: the power to govern must be contingent on responsibilities to the governed if it is capable of misuse. Specifically, for Locke and for Jefferson, the purpose of the monarch’s power is to secure the interests of the people and the state. Jefferson’s arguments for the colonies’ independence relied on allegations that the King had exceeded the proper limits of his authority by imposing taxes without consent, by obstructing the assembly of legislative bodies, and by failing to enforce the law when his supporters committed crimes. In short, he had selfishly advanced his own interests to the detriment of his people. While the Declaration carefully restricts its criticism to the acts of George III, Paine goes further and attacks the institution of hereditary monarchy as ‘evil’. One of his key arguments is that under that system rulers’ ‘minds are early poisoned by importance’.[5] Although Wieland does not go so far as to say that corruption is inevitable, his compulsive return to the effects that power would have on his own moral character resonates with similar ideas in Common Sense.

When he refuses to go to Europe, then, Wieland represents himself as a good republican who subscribes to the declared ideals of the Revolution. The second objection that he raises to Pleyel’s scheme implies that these principles govern his behaviour within his Philadelphia household, as well. He claims that his sister and, more significantly, his wife ‘are adversaries whom all [Pleyel’s] force and stratagem will never subdue’ and that ‘their concurrence is indispensable’ (p.40). Although he suggests that Catharine has equal and independent control over the family’s property interests, she would have had no such rights legally guaranteed. His assertion that her consent is important to him is closely followed by an acknowledgement of her legal subordination. He says, ‘It is not my custom to exact sacrifices of this kind. I live to be their protector and friend, and not their tyrant and foe’ (p.40). Again, the word ‘tyrant’ acknowledges the anti-republican implications of an attempt to control her, but he makes it clear that benevolence is his choice. Coercion is not ‘my custom’, although it is the law’s, and the decision to be a ‘friend’ rather than a ‘foe’ is at his discretion. However, Wieland’s earlier comments suggest that the democracy of the household is precarious. He himself doubts that he can maintain his virtue under the influence of absolute power and this implies that ‘depravity’ threatens his family as well as nameless Saxon ‘vassals’. Clara’s narrative further undermines even this contingent role that Catharine is ascribed in deciding a property matter. From its introduction, the question of the inheritance implies the limits on women’s access to property and challenges Wieland’s claimed reluctance to ‘exact sacrifices’. Clara summarises what she calls the ‘information of considerable importance to my brother’ like this:

My ancestors were noble Saxons, and possessed large domains in Lusatia. The Prussian wars had destroyed those persons whose right to these estates precluded my brother’s. Pleyel had been exact in his inquiries, and had discovered that, by the law of male-primogeniture, my brother’s claims were superior to those of any other person now living. Nothing was wanting but his presence in that country, and a legal application to establish a claim. (p.34)

She immediately distances Catharine and herself from the inheritance. Despite its derivation from ‘my ancestors’ it is of ‘importance’ only to ‘my brother’. The hierarchy of claims, Wieland’s ‘right’, and the necessity of an ‘application’ make it clear that his connection to the estates is purely legal. She gives no information about the others who might claim the land, but does hint at their existence. The ‘law of male-primogeniture’ makes Wieland’s claim ‘superior’, implying that there are other potential claimants and that they are women. She mentions the death of ‘those persons’ with a ‘right to these estates’, but fails to mention the fate of those who live there but have no legal right to hold property. The female survivors of the Prussian wars are not seen in the plot and have no voice with which to contest Wieland’s claims. However, their presence is suggested, disturbing the narrative’s foreground with the injustice of gendered property laws.

The ventriloquist, Carwin, interrupts Wieland’s conversation with Pleyel and reveals the same legal dynamics in the United States. When Pleyel suggests that Catharine’s sense of duty will lead her to support her husband, her voice is heard ‘from another quarter’, saying ‘“No”’ (pp.40-41). Carwin later admits to appropriating Catharine’s voice in order ‘to terminate the controversy in favor of the latter [Wieland]’ (p.184). Since his goal is Wieland’s, the interjection can be read as a displaced representation of the metaphoric ventriloquism her husband performs in mediating her legal identity. The imitation of Catharine’s voice gives the illusion that she is able to give an opinion, but the prominent disembodiment of that voice emphasises her absence from the conversation. This links the restricted access to property that married women experienced in the early Republic to their lack of a public voice. Without property a woman could not demonstrate the necessary independence to qualify to vote, even if her gender had not been a bar in itself. Lack of access to property therefore results in a lack of representation in government, or a lack of independent voice. This silencing was justified by the assumption that a husband would inevitably act in sympathy with his wife’s interests because they had a merged legal identity. Carwin’s ventriloquism exposes the danger inherent in presuming to know a wife’s mind without allowing her to speak for herself. Significantly, Catharine never articulates a view on the Lusatian estates and so it is only the disembodied, deceitful utterance that confirms Wieland’s speculation that she would disapprove. Carwin disrupts the unity of husband and wife to highlight the latter’s silence.

In Catharine’s death, Brown continues to represent women’s exclusion from the apparatus of state as a lack of voice. The murder is detailed in the transcript of Wieland’s confession at his trial. Although Clara edits his account she cannot substitute her own version (and voice) because she did not witness the attack. Wieland gains a degree of control over the event by describing it in his own voice. Significantly, this is one of only three sections that Clara does not narrate directly. The conspicuous displacement of the female narrator involves Wieland and Catharine in a power dynamic at the level of representation. The shift in narrative voice is therefore an integral part of Brown’s treatment of household authority and must be addressed carefully.

A thorough analysis is assisted by two strategies of reading formulated by Elisabeth Bronfen in her work on the representation of femininity and death. In her chapter, ‘Violence of Representation – Representation of Violence’, she considers a series of paintings of a woman in the final stages of a terminal illness and asks:

Should one assume the position of a morally involved spectator, treating the represented body as though it were the same as the material body it refers to, focusing, that is, on the question of reference and in so doing denying the representational aspect? From this position, these images appear monstrous because, in some way inadequate to the demands of the real, losing the real so to speak to the needs of a representational unity. Or should one assume the position of the aesthetically involved spectator, distanced, disinterested, treating the representation of a dying body only as a signifier pointing to many other signifiers; judged on the basis of comparison with other signifiers (previous images in the painter’s oeuvre, in the image repertoire of his culture); foreclosing the question of the real? [6]

Bronfen suggests that the second kind of reading, in which the body becomes ‘an object externally coded’, involves rhetorical violence because it denies the dying woman ‘her individual meaning, a possibility of signifying other than in relation to him [the painter]’. [7] However, Bronfen warns that a focus on this violence risks replicating it because, again, it shifts attention and meaning away from the actual suffering of the woman. Her attempt to negotiate a position for the spectator that is engaged both morally and aesthetically provides a model that is useful to readers of Wieland.

The account of Catharine’s death is given in a court, for the particular purpose of answering the charge of murder. Wieland’s narrative is modified by his need to give meaning to his own actions, which he does when he states that he acted ‘to testify my love of thee [God]’ (p.152). The language of his confession further locates Catharine and her murder as meaningful only as signifiers of his pious motive. He calls her ‘the treasure of my soul’ and God’s ‘last and best gift’ to demonstrate the magnitude of his sacrifice (pp.151, 158). Her questions and pleas are followed repeatedly by references to their effect on him, specifically that they make his task more difficult: ‘my heart faltered’; ‘my thoughts were thrown anew into anarchy’; ‘when she could speak no longer [because he was strangling her], her gestures, her looks appealed to my compassion. My accursed hand was irresolute and tremulous. I meant thy death to be sudden, thy struggles to be brief. Alas! My heart was infirm; my resolves mutable’ (pp.156-57). Her suffering is appropriated to demonstrate his struggle. She loses her specific identity completely in the moments after her death: ‘I looked again at my wife. […] I asked myself who it was whom I saw. Methought it could not be Catharine. It could not be the woman who had lodged for years in my heart’ (p.158). When Wieland testifies, he represents her as an object of sacrifice, not as a suffering, individual woman. In Bronfen’s terms, he re-enacts his violence on a rhetorical level.

Because this occurs in a court, it resonates beyond the personal tragedy that takes place within a family. The merging of a woman’s legal identity with her husband’s and his mediation of her relationship to the state meant that there was practically no female presence in the judicial sphere. Just as women were unable to make contracts because that might interfere with their presence in the home, they were not required to serve on juries. The release from this obligation of citizenship meant a denial of the reciprocal right: to a trial by a jury of one’s peers. [8] Wieland’s representation of Catharine to the court illustrates the more pervasive metaphoric death of women within and to state institutions, and imbues it with his murderous violence. Coverture is rendered not only reckless as regards individual women’s identities, but also brutally repressive and the product of insanity.

The court that tries Wieland is the only state institution that appears in the novel and so Brown’s critique of the law can be extrapolated to the state’s treatment of female citizens more generally. The narrative suggests the reality that Catharine would always be dead, metaphorically if not literally, to those institutions. Although Wieland kills his children as well as his wife, Clara edits the transcript of his confession so that their deaths are not represented. Instead, she focuses the court’s attention on the death of a woman. [9] That emphasis is reinforced by Clara’s displacement from her role as narrator and by her illness at the time of the trial. In her ‘delirium’, she hallucinates a ‘giant oppressor under whose arm [she] was forever on the point of being crushed’. Her ‘malady’ divorces her from the physical world to the extent that ‘strenuous muscles were required to hinder [her] flight’. Crucially, it takes her memory of ‘the scenes that [she] had witnessed’, so that even after her recovery she pleads, ‘my narrative would be imperfect’ (p.145). There is no possibility of Clara giving evidence to the jury or even to her readers. Immediately after she reads the confession she falls ‘lifeless’ and a relapse takes her ‘once more to the brink of the grave’ (p.160). Metaphors of Clara’s death surround the state’s intervention in the household to illustrate the dislocation between its institutions and the female Wielands.

The implications of Brown’s use of death as a metaphor for women’s citizenship are illuminated by Russ Castronovo’s recent work, Necro Citizenship. He argues that since the Revolution, the United States has sought to define freedom as an abstract ideal, without resorting to contingency on the antithetical concepts of slavery and oppression. Given the continuing existence of social and political inequalities, this required a denial of the historical and material specificity of both state and citizen. Simultaneously, the desire to postpone the decay of the nation-state engendered a desire for stasis that could only be achieved through the passivity of its population. Both of these tendencies contributed to an ideology of ‘political necrophilia’ in which the citizen is constructed as disembodied and universal. Castronovo argues that a range of nineteenth-century cultural works represent death as liberty in order to preserve this model of citizenship. In particular, the metaphor is applied to those whose bodies mark their difference from the enfranchised white, male citizen. Gender and ethnicity threaten to disrupt the universal language of freedom and so are removed from their social meaning by death. [10]

Brown’s representation of Catharine follows Castronovo’s model to some extent. In Wieland, the state requires the passivity and ‘death’ of female citizens. However, the narrative resists the process of ‘equalizing’ through death. Catharine’s murder does not involve an erasure of her material specificity or of its social meaning. Wieland’s recollections figure her in explicitly feminine roles, as his ‘wife’ ‘who had borne in her womb, who had fostered at her breast, the beings who called me father’. He graphically describes her body: ‘her eyeballs started from their sockets. Grimness and distortion took place of all that used to bewitch me’. Her eyes are ‘blood-suffused’ and there are ‘livid stains’ on her body (pp.158-9). These details not only embody her after death, they also maintain a level of violence in the representation that exposes the oppression inherent in the construction of the dead citizen. He conjures a specific, physical presence in the court that confronts the state with Catharine’s individuality and refuses the conflation of liberty and death for women. The confession re-enacts the murder and allows Wieland’s authority to continue, mediating her citizenship even in death. ‘Dead’ citizenship is revealed to be violent, and remains exclusive. Brown uses metaphoric death to emphasise the material difference between citizens and to haunt the new nation with its injustice.

At this point, I reintroduce Bronfen’s warning. Has Brown, or my reading of Brown, fallen into the trap of focusing on the (male) artist’s violence at the expense of the dying woman’s specific experience? Is there any potential for a morally-engaged reading of the murder? Wieland’s voice dominates the only explicit representation of the attack and obviously hinders such a reading. However, this is where Clara’s role as narrator and the retrospective structure of the novel become especially relevant. Together, they open up the imaginative space for Catharine’s experience of the attack.

Clara’s account of discovering the body precedes Wieland’s confession. Throughout her description, there is a strong implication that Catharine has been substituted for her. Clara goes to her house expecting to meet Carwin but is greeted by a note from him that asks, ‘Judge how I was disappointed in finding another in your place’ (p.137). When she sees the corpse she says, ‘the merciless fangs of which I was designed to be the prey, had mistaken their victim, and had fixed themselves in her heart’ (p.138). Textual details strongly suggest that ‘the fate which had been reserved for me’ was not simply murder, but also involved a sexual assault. She believes that ‘violation and death awaited my entrance into this chamber’ (p.138) and in lamenting Catharine’s fate she goes on to say, ‘To die beneath his grasp would not satisfy thy enemy. This was mercy to the evils which he previously made thee suffer! After these evils death was a boon which thou besoughtest him to grant’ (p.139).

Clara prepares for the return of ‘the exterminator of my honor and my life’ and fears that she ‘should perish under the same polluting and suffocating grasp!’ (p.138). In addition, the narrative has already offered a model for the attack on Catharine. The exchange of her for Clara, the location in Clara’s chamber and the suspicion that Carwin was present all recall a previous scene, in which he emerged from the closet and declared his intention to ‘have borne away the spoils of [her] honor’ (p.83).

I am not the first to draw the obvious conclusion from Clara’s language. Bernard Rosenthal has observed that:

Readers need not have prurient imaginations to take for granted that Clara can be suggesting nothing other than rape. Does she see something that she will not narrate? Or does Brown raise the spectre in order to encourage the false lead that Carwin was guilty? Certainly nothing in Wieland’s account suggests that he raped his wife before murdering her, and Brown never returns to clarify this issue. [11]

Rosenthal’s reading rightly emphasises the text’s ambivalence and the reader’s subsequent uncertainty. He places this conundrum within a pattern of disruptions that he says dramatise the novel’s warning against relying on sensory perception. However, by designating it as just another inexplicable puzzle, he occludes important questions raised by the insistence of Clara’s language: what would it mean if Wieland did rape Catharine? More particularly, what does it mean for readers to imagine that he could?

This raises a possibility that could only be disturbing in the context of coverture. If Clara had revealed that Wieland was the culprit immediately, the legal impossibility of rape within marriage would have foreclosed any representation of a sexual assault. Instead, she figures the attack as one perpetrated by an ‘enemy’, probably Carwin, that was aimed at herself – Catharine was just in the wrong place at the wrong time (p.139). By representing Clara and Carwin in the place of Catharine and Wieland she enables a reader to interpret the hints that are too emphatic to be ignored. Furthermore, Clara’s insinuations are self-consciously retrospective. She already knows the ending, knows that Wieland is the murderer, but still suggests that his wife was raped. His subsequent confession should not be read as contradicting her because its recognition of crimes is circumscribed by the law. Clara imagines Catharine’s suffering perspective. That is, she offers a morally-involved reading of the corpse. This allows her to focus on the attack, not the attacker. When she later replaces suspicions of Carwin’s guilt with certainty of Wieland’s, she cannot erase the earlier representations of Catharine’s suffering. To ensure that her representation haunts his, Brown duplicates vocabulary in the two scenes. The corpse is marked with ‘lividness’ or ‘livid stains’; it is ‘breathless’ and ‘her breath was stopped’; both speak of ‘the assassin’, his ‘fury’ and of ‘agonies’ suffered. Clara ‘fixed steadfast eyes upon’ the corpse, while Catharine had ‘fixed enquiring eyes on’ Wieland (pp.138-39, 151-52). Bringing together the two versions erodes the distinction between the legitimate sexual dominance of the husband and the criminal assault by the stranger. Clara forces her reader to confront the hidden implications of the legally guaranteed access of a husband to his wife’s body, and implies a conception of marriage as a form of sexual slavery. Most importantly, she makes violence and coercion inherent characteristics of the new nation’s treatment, or neglect, of its female citizens.

There is, however, a persistent question that might trouble a reader, especially one sensitive to the novel’s concern with the uncertainty of event and the characters’ preoccupation with causality. Quite simply, when could Wieland have raped Catharine? Up until ‘the moment of triumph’ when his ‘sacred duty is fulfilled’, the confession is characterised by his claim to have ‘subdued the stubbornness of human passions’ (p.158). It seems tenuous to suggest that an assault occurred somewhere between the lines of his blow-by-blow description of murder. However, his account of the moments following her death is less clear. Initially he says that he ‘gazed upon it [the corpse] with delight’, in ‘rapture’. Soon after, his immunity to passion subsides and eventually becomes an uncontrollable excess of emotion: ‘I imagined I had set myself forever beyond the reach of selfishness; but my imaginations were false’ (p.158). After his moment of self-congratulation, Wieland remains fascinated by Catharine’s body. He begins to construct an image of her alive in an attempt to recreate the woman who could ‘bewitch [him] into transport, and subdue [him] into reverence’ (p.157). As he stares, he projects fantasies of life onto the corpse: looking at her ‘deadly and blood-suffused’ eyes he envisions the ‘azure and ecstatic tenderness’ they used to hold; seeing ‘these livid stains and this hideous deformity’ on her body, he imagines ‘the glow of love that was wont to sit upon that cheek’. Wieland’s language revivifies Catharine who ceases to be ‘the corpse’ to him, and again becomes ‘my wife’. The shift in her identity precedes a corresponding change in his self-perception. Having previously declared himself her ‘appointed […] destroyer’, he becomes ‘mere man’ and displaces the agency for the murder onto the third-person ‘assassin’ (p.158). The memories he conjures reinforce their relationship as husband and wife, baron et feme, rather than destroyer and sacrifice. Wieland focuses on the domestic role of the woman who had lodged for years in my heart; who had slept, nightly, in my bosom; who had borne in her womb, who had fostered at her breast, the beings who called me father; whom I had watched with delight, and cherished with a fondness ever new and perpetually growing. (p.158)

The specific memories of her ‘bewitching’ appearance, sleeping in his bosom, and bearing his children add a sexual connotation to Wieland’s regard of the corpse. The implication of sexual desire is heightened if the persistence of Wieland’s gaze and his emphasis on the visual are read with regard to Freud’s comments on scopophilia. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, he calls seeing ‘an activity that is ultimately derived from touching’ and states that ‘visual impressions remain the most frequent pathway along which libidinal excitation is aroused’. [12] Wieland’s prolonged stare, therefore, becomes equivalent to touching. When touch and conjugal memories are read through the frame of Clara’s insinuations, they suggest sexual desire.

What follows this contemplation of the corpse is a period of uncontrolled ‘degeneracy’. Wieland deliberately obscures the episode, saying, ‘I will not dwell upon my lapse into desperate and outrageous sorrow’. After his descent ‘into mere man’ his behaviour is irrational and excessive:

I leaped from the floor: I dashed my head against the wall: I uttered screams of horror: I panted after torment and pain. Eternal fire, and the bickerings of hell, compared with what I felt, were music and a bed of roses. (p.158)

Whereas he represents the murder as ‘sacred duty’ to a ‘divine command’, this interlude is figured as a fall into ‘the bickerings of hell’ (pp.158-9). His imagery implies a crime worse than murder, but conceals it in an impression of confusion. The ellipsis allows for the disturbing possibility that desire was enacted on the corpse as necrophilia. A post-mortem sexual assault would explain Clara’s comments without contradicting Wieland’s description of his mental state before the murder. It would also resolve an otherwise puzzling detail. After the murder, Wieland ‘lifted the corpse […] and laid it on the bed’ (p.158). When Clara finds the body she notes that Catharine’s ‘flowing drapery was discomposed’ (p.139). Why would the corpse’s clothes be dishevelled if it had been moved onto the bed and carefully placed there after death? The suggestion of necrophilia dramatises the desirability of the passive female citizen as an expression of a taboo, irrational passion. It adds another layer to the critique of women’s legal death and challenges the liberating notion of necrophilia that Castronovo attributes to the state. In Wieland death is not a condition of equilibrium divorced from disruptive, individual passions. Rather, the death of women in relation to the state makes their husbands unaccountable. As a consequence, married women are left subject to the state lifts any restrictions that might have been placed on their husbands, subjecting them to selfish, violent passions. The pairing of absolute authority and enforced passivity is detrimental to both Catharine and Wieland, who becomes ‘inhuman’ in his violence (pp.159, 174).

Of course, there can be no certainty that there was any sexual assault or if there was that it was post-mortem, but to some extent that is the point. Catharine’s experience cannot be reliably reconstructed because her relationship to the reader, like her interaction with the state, is ultimately mediated by others. Possibilities are raised between the narrators’ conflicting accounts but their very uncertainty emphasises the silence of the woman at the centre of the plot.

Wieland’s claim to be a ‘protector’ is obviously contradicted by his transformation into a murderer. However, I would like to suggest that there is no fundamental change in him. As the narrative progresses the mask of republican rhetoric is replaced by insanity, and repressive speech becomes physical violence. The change is in the expression of the power that already exists. Wieland fulfils his pessimistic prediction of degeneration ‘into a tyrant and voluptuary’ without exposure to the corrupting influence of Europe, without even leaving his Pennsylvania home. The problems of female citizenship and Wieland’s oppressive exercise of authority within his household are evident from his discussion of the Lusatian states, long before he loses his reason. The origin of the murder, therefore, is inherent in the household from this early stage. In both of the incidents I have examined, Carwin is used to defamiliarise the conjugal relationship and reveal the vestiges of absolute power that it retains. His disruption is crucial to recognising Catharine’s independent identity and experience. By placing Wieland’s aesthetically-involved representation of the murder within Clara’s morally-involved reading of events, Brown reveals the tyranny enshrined in the institutions retained by the post-revolutionary, democratic United States.

University of Leeds


[1] Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland; or The Transformation and Memoirs of Carwin, The Biloquist, ed. by Emory Elliott (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 3. All further references made within the body of the text.

[2] Jane Tompkins, ‘What Happens in Wieland’, in Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 40-61.

[3] Christopher Looby, ‘“The Very Act of Utterance”: Law, Language, and Legitimation in Brown’s Wieland’, in Voicing America: Language, Literary Form, and the Origins of the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp.145-202; Julia A. Stern, ‘The Plight of Feeling’, in The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997), pp.1-29.

[4] For an overview of the law of ‘baron et feme’ and on the married woman’s obligation to her husband, see Linda K. Kerber, ‘A Constitutional Right to Be Treated Like American Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship’, in U.S. History As Women’s History, ed. by Linda K. Kerber, Alice Kessler Harris and Kathryn Kish Sklar (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), pp.17-35. For a more detailed discussion of coverture in the early Republic and revolutionary ideals see Linda K. Kerber, ‘“Disabilities … Intended for Her Protection”: The Anti-Republican Implications of Coverture’, in Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), pp.137-55.

[5]Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, Common Sense and other Political Writings, ed. by Mark Philp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995; repr. 1998), p.17; Thomas Jefferson, A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled, in The Thomas Jefferson Papers, ed. by Frank Donovan (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963), pp.12-18; John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. by Peter Laslett, rev. edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[6] Elisabeth Bronfen, ‘Violence of Representation’, in Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), pp. 39-56 (pp.44-45).

[7] Bronfen, pp. 50-51.

[8] Kerber, ‘A Constitutional Right to Be Treated Like American Ladies’.

[9] Clara’s ability to edit Wieland’s words does imply that she is not completely disempowered. As an unmarried, propertied woman she is less constrained by her family and enjoys greater independence than Catharine. However, this episode reveals that her relationship to the state is little different from her sister-in-law’s. Her editorial authority over the confession does not translate directly into a civic, or even public identity. The novel’s advertisement assures readers that ‘this narrative is addressed, in an epistolary form, by the Lady whose story it contains, to a small number of friends, whose curiosity, with regard to it had been greatly awakened’ (p.3, my emphasis).

[10] Russ Castronovo, Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).

[11] Bernard Rosenthal, ‘The Voices in Wieland’, in Critical Essays on Charles Brockden Brown, ed. by Bernard Rosenthal (Boston: Hall, 1981), pp. 104-25 (p.107).

[12] Sigmund Freud, ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’, in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), VII, pp.123-45 (p.156).