'Wieland,' 'Othello,' 'Genesis,' and the Floating City: The Sources of Charles Brockden Brown's 'Wieland.' (William Shakespeare, Charles Bockden Brown)

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According to Harold Kittel, "Wieland criticism during the past generation has generally taken a psychological or philosophical tack--either bringing Freudian insights to bear on characters' behavior (particularly Clara's) or examining the ways in which the novel questions Enlightenment assumptions it was formerly thought to dramatize" (Kittel 123). Both approaches have of course served to open the book up nicely, but I would like to look at the novel from a third angle, one that may in fact be closer to Brown's own angle of view--that of literary antecedents or models, specifically Wieland as a Nineteenth-century American re-telling of Shakespeare's Othello, a re-telling that, like Shakespeare's play, depends for its impact on some of the most basic Christian nature metaphors of Genesis. Baym, among others, has identified Othello as a possible source for Wieland, but little work has been done on the significance of this background to the interpretation of Brown's tale.(1) I will argue that Brown wrote Wieland as a conscious echo of the Othello story, that he coopts Shakespeare's ontology and uses it to address what is arguably the question of the play, viz., whether there is a moral principle reigning in the universe. The link to Othello is important to a full understanding of Brown's point, because he insists on locating both psychology and philosophy in a decidedly literary frame of reference which asks, ultimately, not about the mind or about systems of knowledge, but about the issue addressed by all great classical literature: what Gods rule the earth, and are they our friends, our enemies, or merely indifferent? Or, to make the same point in a slightly different way, although the landscape of Wieland is clearly a kind of psychological metaphor, and although Lockean issues of perception clearly underlie these psychological issues, there is a third level on which these others implicitly depend. Beverly Voloshin makes this argument of dependence nicely: "Speculations about whether it is the mind that is not apprehending nature properly or whether nature is unapprehensible" is the characteristic psychological issue of gothic fiction, she writes. That issue depends on undermining Locke's assumption "that nature acts in a uniform and orderly fashion and that human nature is typically constant." This in turn implicitly involves a third level of inquiry testing the very foundations of Creation, since "our only assurance of the congruence of idea and object is Locke's assertion that a benevolent God has fitted the mind to nature." Once Locke's assertion is seriously challenged, it puts into play a number of more general questions, including whether there is in fact a God at all (Voloshin 263).

Voloshin and others are certainly correct that much of the plot hinges on the dangerous lack of correspondence between the world as it exists and as we perceive it, but the assault on Locke, at this level, turns out to be largely a gothic plot device, since [almost] all the mysteries of perception are painstakingly explained away by the end of the novel. The real issue that remains is not so much whether Nature is comprehensible, as whether it is morally indifferent or inherently Tragic in much the way that Shakespeare suggests, and whether Wieland, like Othello, was tragically heroic, or merely a fool who rested his faith in the fiction of something higher than nature. Brown's text addresses this question by artfully evoking the cosmology of Shakespeare's play, as I hope to show; but at the same time it pushes the nihilistic implications further than Shakespeare dared to do, by effectively undercutting some of Shakespeare's most basic, and most comforting, Christian assumptions about the ontology in which these events occur. Both Othello and Wieland base part of their epistemology on Christian nature images from Genesis, but Brown uses them ironically, twisting them until Mettingen becomes a kind of anti-Eden, a poisoned environment which suggests that an indifferent principle of chaos and not a benevolent God underlies visible reality. …