The Problem of Faith and Reason in Brown’s ‘Wieland’; or a Kierkegaardian Critique of Wieland As a Knight of Faith

Eng 470: Gothic America
October 22, 2002

Charles Brocken Brown’s novel Wieland; or the Transformation: An American Tale, challenges the limits faith when Theodore Wieland admits to wife and family’s murder. During the confession, which is in court papers given to Clara by her uncle, Wieland reveals actions, for which “vindication is ignoble” (186). While Wieland does not expect forgiveness or understanding, he does attempt to relay the motives behind the murder, claiming that God instructed him to kill his family and that he therefore had no choice but to resort to murder. Wieland’s situation bears a striking resemblance to the Biblical story of Abraham that appears in Genesis. In the story, Abraham is instructed by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, in order to prove his devotion to God. Abraham complies with God’s order. When he arrives at Mount Moriah, where he is to murder Isaac, however, God sends a ram from heaven for Abraham to sacrifice instead. Thus, in the end, Abraham maintains his faith without having to murder his son . Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher who became extremely influential during the existential movement, meditates on the issues of faith and ethics raised by Abraham’s situation in his work Fear and Trembling. If Abraham did not have absolute faith in God, Kierkegaard asserts, he “would have borne witness neither to his faith nor to God’s grace” (34). Although, on the surface, it appears that Wieland finds himself in a situation similar to that of Abraham, the events that follow ultimately prove that something was wrong for Wieland. Thus, Wieland becomes a critique of faith while, at the same time, a critique of reason and rationality. Ultimately, Brown leaves readers with no absolute solution. Instead, he demonstrates the danger of giving oneself completely to faith or to reason.

The structure and overall theme of Wieland undermine rational ways of communication, and, on a larger level, subvert the Enlightenment supposition that reason underlies all narratives. By intentionally focusing on these themes, Brown reflects an anxiety about such “enlightened” ideals. Rather than allowing a rational, omniscient narrator to give the story, Brown makes Clara the storyteller. As a narrator, she even admits feeling “a little reluctance” (5), though insists “to all that is to come I am perfectly indifference” (6). No sister could be perfectly indifferent to her brother murdering his entire family. Throughout the novel, Clara reveals herself as an unreliable narrator . Though she claims indifference to the events of the novel, her doting over Pleyel, her inability to determine that Carwin was behind the mysterious voices, and her insistence that the voices Wieland heard were not Carwin’s, all demonstrate of her failure as a non-biased observer. When she predicts that her story will “exemplify the force of early impressions” (6), perhaps this is Brown prematurely mocking the readers for falling under Clara’s impression that she will tell the story using reason and rationality. Additionally, the inclusion of Carwin and his uncanny ability to mimic other people’s voices and throw his own voice complicates the operation of reason in Wieland. A rational explanation for Clara hearing the voices throughout the novel might suggest that she was just hearing things or imagining the voices altogether. When it is revealed that Carwin is indeed behind the voices, no explanation of reason for doing so is given. Brown addresses the Enlightenment by calling into question its practices and ideals.

Unlike Brown, who critiques reason and rationality as insufficient expectations for the world, Kierkegaard focuses on the absence of faith. He suggests that through the Enlightenment, faith was reduced to superstition, or, at the very least, subjugated to reason and rationality. As Charles Guignon and Derk Pereboom establish in their biographical introduction, G.W.F. Hegel was, for Kierkegaard, a representation of the Enlightenment philosophy of which he disagreed. (4). Hegel’s theory of the dialectic maintains that two opposing forces (a thesis and an antithesis) will result in a new synthesis. Thus, using reason to understand the dialectic, all events in history can be understood. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, sees the world as less rational and easy to understand. Guignon and Pereboom explain, “Whereas Hegel posits a rational reconciliation of all opposition in reality, Kierkegaard believes that existential reality exhibits a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict” (4-5). Kierkegaard, then, sees a world that is more conflicted and less stable—a world that defies reason. To counter the Enlightenment movement toward reason, Kierkegaard creates what he calls a “knight of faith.” This knight “acts by virtue of the absurd” (58) and therefore goes against rational action. Kierkegaard equates rational action with ethical action which he defines as “universal.” “The ethical as such is the universal,” Kierkegaard explains, “and as the universal it applies to everyone” (55). The ethical/universal, therefore, correlate to Enlightenment ideals such as freedom and democracy. Faith is contrary to the universal, Kierkegaard argues, because in the ethical, one’s duty is to the universal good, and not to God. Kierkegaard calls this the “paradox of faith,” because in faith, “the particular is higher than the universal” even though “the ethical (i.e. the moral) is the highest thing” (56). The knight of faith “renounces the universal in order to become the individual” (72) and can forgo ethics in the name of God. Kierkegaard declares Abraham as a knight of faith—someone who is able to completely overcome rationality to perform a duty to God. Kierkegaard’s knight of faith as a model shows that, assuming that the voice he heard was actually from God, Wieland’s faith is flawed—he ultimately relies on reason instead of making a “leap of faith.”

If Wieland were a true knight of faith, he would not be able to make the confession that he does in the court room. Kierkegaard explains, “The knight of faith is obliged to rely on himself alone, he feels the pain of not being able to make himself intelligible to others” (76). Although Wieland does suggest that the audience will not be able to understand his reasons. He asks them, “Think ye that malice could have urged me to this deed?” and responds, “Hide your audacious fronts and the scrutiny of heaven” (185). Wieland implies that if people are expecting to understand a reason for the murders, they will not find one. Nor will his explanation ease their hatred and violence toward someone who killed his family. He says, “I utter not a word to cure you of your sanguinary folly” (182). Despite the fact that telling his side of the story will not appease anyone in the audience, he tells it anyway because “there are probably some in this assembly who have come from far: for their sakes… I will tell them what I have done, and why” (187). If Wieland were a true knight of faith, he would not make such a decision—a decision which is based in a rational desire to appease others. Although he makes this concession to those who traveled to hear his story, he still maintains, “God is the object of my supreme passion” (187). Even if Wieland tells an unintelligible story and the audience does not understand him, his failure to do exactly what the voice of God tells him prevents him from being a knight.

The voice of God also proves problematic for Wieland for two reasons: the fact that he needs to hear the voice in order to have proof of God and because, in the end, he does not do exactly what the voice tells him. The supposed voice of God gives Wieland specific instructions. It says, “In proof of thy faith, render me thy wife. This is the victim I chuse. Call her hither, and here let her fall” (190). Instead of already having an absolute faith in God, Wieland admits, “My knowledge has always stopped short of certainty [in God]” (187). Whereas Abraham already had a faith in God and was not looking for proof of God’s existence, Wieland already had doubt. Therefore when God talks to him, he listens in order that he may have “proof” of God’s existence rather than out of a duty he already felt he had. Regardless of his perceived duty, he, technically, does not even do what the voice commands of him. When he hears the voice, it is while he is “descending the stair” (189-190), and presumably the voice either startles him while he is either going down the stairs or when he is actually at the bottom. When he returns with Catharine, he notes, “This was the allotted scene: here she was to fall” (192), so he obviously has an idea as to where he should kill her. After that realization, however, he explains, “In vain; it would not be; my courage was appalled; my arms nerveless” (192). He is unable to kill her where the supposed voice of God instructed him to kill her. After he “stood rigid and cold as marble” (192), he considers moving. Had he been a knight of faith, he would not be faltering at the point that he should have killed her. Instead, he decides, “Perhaps what my rebellious heart refused to perform here, I might obtain strength enough to execute elsewhere” (193). Abraham, on the other hand, had no such doubts when the time came for him to kill Isaac. Kierkegaard explains, “But he did not doubt, he did not look anxiously to the right or left, he did not challenge heaven with his prayers. He knew that it was God the Almighty who was trying him, he knew that it was the hardest sacrifice that could be required of him; but he knew also that no sacrifice was too hard when God required it—and he drew the knife” (34). Abraham’s faith assures him that his actions will not be in vain.

Wieland has neither the faith nor duty to God that Abraham does. Whereas Abraham lets go of his reason and does not analyze the situation from a rational standpoint, Wieland, at the moment when he is supposed to be a subject to his faith, steps back to think about the situation. He considers, “To rebel against the mandate was impossible; but obedience would render me the executioner of my wife” (193). At the time, doubtful thoughts would not be in the mind of a knight of faith. Once Wieland and Catharine move into the Clara’s bedroom, Wieland makes an utterance to her about what is happening. He recalls, “I muttered something about death, and the injunctions of my duty” (194). Obviously understanding what her husband is telling her, Wieland tells that Catharine “shrunk back, and looked at me with a new expression of anguish” (194). A knight of faith would not be able to make such an explanation. Kierkegaard explains, “The knight of faith has only himself alone, and this constitutes the dreadfulness of the situation” (75). Instead of being alone, however, Wieland minimizes the “dreadfulness of the situation” by attempting to rationalize his duty and explain it to Catharine. In the end, unlike the Abraham story, Wieland finally murders his wife, and then, after the voice tells him “thy children must be offered—they must perish with their mother!” (197), he proceeds to murder his children as well. If Wieland were a true knight of faith, like Abraham, the duty would not have resulted in murder. Because of Abraham’s willingness to reject reason and bring the knife to Isaac, “God’s grace” (34) ultimately prevented the death from occurring. Wieland, as a false knight of faith, received no such grace.

Kierkegaard’s critique of Wieland’s situation might revolve around the fact that, ultimately, Wieland was not a true knight of faith. In Fear and Trembling he admits, “I have not found any reliable example of the knight of faith” (43-44). Majority of the work focuses on the fact that being a knight of faith is an extremely difficult task. He establishes a multitude of requirements and characteristics a knight would have, and re-emphasizes the difficulty of being a knight. Ultimately, when a “leap of faith” would be required, Kierkegaard might argue that Wieland was unable to relinquish his reason. Kierkegaard explains that Abraham “believed by virtue of the absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function” (42). Instead of giving in to the “virtue of the absurd,” Wieland contemplates his duty when, instead, he should have been performing his duty. Then, even when he has failed by moving into another room, he attempts to give a reason for his actions by explaining them to his wife. By Kierkegaard’s evaluation, Wieland was a flawed knight. Analyzing Wieland from such a view, however, does tell much of Brown’s intent or message.

If Brown were advocating an entirely Kierkegaardian view of faith, however, there would be no doubt as to the origin of the voice. In Wieland, Brown weaves a tale involving Carwin, a character who is able to throw his voice and mimic the voice of others. Although Carwin tells Clara, “You allege me with the guilt of this agency [of telling Wieland to murder his wife and children]; but I repeat that the amount of my guilt has already been stated” (246). Carwin does acknowledge that he was behind all of the other voices Clara heard, but he insists that “the perpetuator of Catharine’s death was unknown to me till now; nay, it is still unknown to me” (246). While Clara still believes that “his tale is a lie, and his nature devilish” (246), Brown makes no absolute claim either way. He does not, through the narration of Clara, albeit, offer much evidence whether Carwin was indeed behind the “voice of God” or not.

Brown, therefore, complicates the relation between faith and reason. If Wieland had been a true knight of faith, and gone ahead and murdered Catharine in the proper spot, what would have followed? If faith is particular and not bound to the universal limits of reason, does the origin of the voice actually matter? In the end, though Wieland is proven to be a false knight of faith, he is shown to have found the proof of God that he was hoping to find. In the courtroom, he notes, “It is needless to say that God is the object of my supreme passion” (187). After the execution, Wieland maintains a faith in God. If Brown were to advocate living a life of complete faith, though, one may fall victim to tricks like those played by Carwin. Assuming Carwin was behind the voices that Wieland hears, absolute faith would render Wieland an insane murderer who thought he was commanded by the voice of God—and, though he could possibly be considered a knight of faith by Kierkegaard, he would ultimately be the brunt of a cruel joke. If Brown were to advocate living a life of reason and rationality while pursuing faith, Wieland would, in the end, be a tragic hero without his family and without his faith. That is not the case. And if Brown were to advocate living a life of only reason and faith, he would not structure the novel as he does and play with the ideas of communication and truth. So rather than forwarding that one should live entirely by faith or reason, Brown leaves the readers with no absolute answer. He complicates both sides of the issue and shows the dangers of following either prescribed life absolutely will result in confusion and inconsistency.

Works Cited

Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland; or the Transformation: An American Tale. 1798. Introd. Jay Fliegelman. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1991.

Guignon, Charles, Derk Pereboom, eds. Existentialism: Basic Writings. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. (1843). Rpt. in Existentialism: Basic Writings. 2nd ed. Trans. Walter Lowrie, 1941. Ed. Charles Guignon and Derk Pereboom. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001.

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