Engl 730: The New Rise of the American Novel: Readings

Discussion Questions/Talking Points on Brown's Wieland

1. What does Brown seem to be saying about epistemology? "The will is the tool of the understanding, which must fashion its conclusions on the notices of the senses" (p. 35). But those who rely on their senses seem to be the dupes in the tale? Is that a correct analysis?

2. What is the role of religion in the novel? I'm thinking particularly of the elder Wieland--he is morose, gloomy, introspective, with a scrupulous conscience, missionary zeal--and creates sort of his own private religion (builds a temple, seems to expect to hear special orders from God, and so on). Yet he dies such a bizarre death--what are we to think of this? How does the elder Wieland's religious orientation carry over into his kids' lives? Is Brown suggesting that such fanaticism is actually a version of insanity that gets manifested secularly in his progeny?

3. Related to the question above, how are we to look at special revelation (a cornerstone of Puritanism was that all knowledge was contained in the Bible; they banished those who claimed to have special conduits to God--Anne Hutchinson, for example)? A most obvious example of special revelation is the biblical Abraham's injunction to sacrifice his own child when he hears a voice from God; the sin in that case would be to hesitate rather than immediately give into God's command. Calvin said that Abraham's obedience was an example of "singular courage and faith."

4. What are the rules of decorum that prevent Clara from expressing her affection to Pleyel? She eventually claims that her own reticence to articulate her feelings is a primary cause of much of the misery in the tale--what do you make of that? Is Brown trying to tell us something about social mores or is he simply having Clara misattribute the real causes for the mess in which she finds herself?

5. Who really kills Wieland? Several critics have claimed that Clara lies throughout the story to cover up her own duplicity, her own involvement, and even her own murderous behavior. Is Clara, then, a reliable narrator?

6. The subtitle of the novel is "the transformation"--who or what gets transformed in the novel?

7. What about the subplots and minor characters who seem to be shuffled on and off stage with little regard to the traditional concerns of "dramatic unity"? How, especially, do we explain the long added-on chapter--is there some way that it can be seen as relevant? Evidently Brown must have thought so.

8. Compare Carwin to some of the other "villains" we have encountered so far--how does he rate on the spectrum of "evil"? What are his motivations? What exactly does he do wrong? Is Clara's appraisal of his role(s) accurate? What about the strange reactions she has to him when she first sees him--what's doing on there?

9. What are the consequences of Brown's choosing to have Clara tell her tale the way she does? Why doesn't she reveal the true source of the voices when she's telling the tale--she already knows the real causes--why not share them with the reader?