Thursday, August 6, 2015
Enjoying fragments over finish
I am well aware of the fact that I'm a grumpy motherfucker. I'm pretty well-known among my group of friends (yes, I do actually have those!) as the one who can gripe about any given subject for half an hour at a time at the drop of a hat. I am the epitome of the "feminist buzzkill" stereotype.
And I love it.
So, anyway, Wieland is another one of those books written in the eighteenth century where the story basically wouldn't happen if people weren't so focused on controlling women and their sexuality. Which made me grumpy for most of the time I was reading it, of course.
When I first read (most) of this book it was for my 400 level Early American Lit class in college. We didn't have to read the Memoirs chunk at the end of the book but the longer novel (sometimes described as the first Great American Novel) was mandatory reading. When I started rereading the book I realized that I remembered essentially nothing about it at all except that the dude who had presented on it at the end of the quarter gave his presentation as a puppet show, which seemed funny at first and quickly became strained. And I seem to remember that he got expelled for plagiarism, so fuck him anyway. But I digress.
The story is narrated by Clara who, SPOILERS, is left alone in the world after her brother goes crazy and murders his wife and children because this random dude, Carwin, who happens to be a ventriloquist, accidentally convinces Wieland (the brother) that he's hearing the voice of God.
A lot of the drama that occurs in the story is as a result of Clara having to try to resurrect her reputation after Carwin pretends to have seduced her. Wieland might not have had an opportunity to kill just freaking everyone if Clara hadn't had to go rabbiting after Pleyel, who might have stayed behind and been a defender of the wife and kids (who are such unnecessary acted-upon-but-never-acting characters that they may as well not have names (though the wife's name is Catherine and the murdered lodger who is also in this story for some reason is Louisa)).
Clara almost gets killed at the end because she was misinformed about how bugshit insane her brother has gone - seems like some kindly males wanted to protect their delicate weeping flower from the knowledge that a maniac was attempting to murder her. Of course when she becomes aware of that fact she's suicidal anyway because what even is the point of living unless it's for the love of Pleyel who doesn't respect her at this juncture because she is such a potentially fallen woman, or the brother she serves as a substitute mother to, or the sister-in-law who is such a perfect model of femininity that I'm not actually sure she speaks a single line or does anything other than literally sit and look pretty in the book, or the nieces and/or nephews who act as good surrogate children and allow Clara to display her maternal instincts without the complication of her ever having touched a penis to infringe on her innocence and trustworthiness as a narrator? Why would Clara even want to exist if she couldn't be a model for or learning from a model of some variety of idealized femininity, right?
But that's okay. Clara gets a happy ending because Pleyel forgives her once he's given proof from someone with a reliable penis that Clara isn't a whore (wouldn't do to believe Clara herself, of course), and Pleyel's wife, whom he has married after deciding Clara was a whore, conveniently dies young enough that Pleyel is still an attractive marriage prospect. Yay.
But that wasn't even the woman whose sexuality I was talking about controlling! Funnily enough if Judith, Clara's housemaid, hadn't had to hide her affair with Carwin pretty much nothing in the story would have happened. Everyone would have known who Carwin was and he wouldn't have been able to get away with sneaking and tricking and hiding in closets so Pleyel never would have doubted Clara, the two of them would have been around to call for help or prevent Wieland from killing his family, and Clara wouldn't have ended up writhing with guilt over feelings of self-preservation when facing down her criminally insane brother.
But, you know, you can't let the maids hand out "buttermilk" to just anyone. What would the neighbors think?
The Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist are a bit more interesting to me and less irritating than Wieland. There's no gendered element of innocence in Carwin, he's just young and stupid and has too much talent and trust for his own good. The story of Carwin doesn't finish and you sort of have to piece it together from passing references in Wieland and fill in the gaps with your imagination and everything seems to indicate that Carwin's self-satisfaction combined with the arrogance of youth came together to fuck up his life.
And that's the kind of story I can get behind - it's got a great element of exceptionalism thwarted by tripping on straws. Carwin wasn't quite enough to offset Wieland for me, but I had a much better time reading it than I had reading the longer work.
Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. Penguin Classics.
New York: New York. 1991. (1771).