A Hopeless Endeavor. The Quest for Knowledge in Wieland

Or The Transformation and in “The Fall of the House of Usher”

Term Paper, 2008

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table Of Contents

1. The Sources of Knowledge

2. The Importance of the Historical Background
2.1 Historical Background of Charles Brockden Brown’s Writings
2.2 Historical Background of Edgar Allan Poe’s Writings

3. Rationalism as a source of knowledge
3.1 Rationalism in Wieland
3.2 Rationalism in “The Fall of the House of Usher”

4. Anti-rationalism and enthusiasm as sources of knowledge
4.1 Anti-rationalism and Enthusiasm in Wieland
4.2 Anti-rationalism and Enthusiasm in “The Fall of the House of Usher”

5. Other Concepts as Sources of Knowledge
5.1 The Republican Concept of Vigilance
5.2 Book Learning as a Source of Knowledge
5.3 Transcendentalism as a Source of Knowledge

6. The Readers’ Reactions and Conclusions
6.1 The Effect on the Reader – Fantastic or Uncanny?
6.2 The Limits of Epistemology

1. Sources of Knowledge

Gothic elements, spooky settings and supernatural incidents – these are some things that probably come to people’s minds when they think of Charles Brockden Brown and Edgar Allan Poe. These features definitely appear in most of their stories, for example in Brown’s novel Wieland; or The Transformation and in Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher”, which will play a major role in this work. When comparing the novel and the short story the reader’s attention is attracted by several parallels between the two stories. The most striking common motifs, which have been pointed out and analyzed by many literary critics[1], are those of incestuous love[2] and inherited madness[3]. Although I won’t focus on any of these issues in this work, it is always important to keep these parallels at the back of one’s mind.

In the following I am primarily going to concentrate on questions of epistemology, which The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines as “the study of knowledge and justified belief” (Stanford Encyclopedia 1). The Encyclopedia states that “[a]s the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits?” (Stanford Encyclopedia 1) Here I’ll mainly be concerned with the sources of knowledge and I will point out how the different characters in Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland; or The Transformation and in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories “The Fall of The House of Usher” and “The Sphinx” try to make use of these sources.

More precisely, I will argue that Charles Brockden Brown and Edgar Allan Poe show the limits of epistemology by creating characters who try to acquire knowledge through different approaches, but fail in the end. Both authors respond to their cultural and historical background and present a rather pessimistic view of the new American nation.

In the following I will very briefly describe the historical and cultural background of Brown and Poe’s writings and explain to what extent the contents of Wieland, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are influenced by and related to this background.

Then I am going to focus on the two texts and turn to the different approaches through which the protagonists try to acquire true knowledge. I am going to categorize these approaches as “rationalism”, “anti-rationalism and enthusiasm” and “others” and each of these concepts will be adressed in detail in separate chapters. To get a wider perspective I will also analyze and refer to parts of Poe’s short story “The Sphinx”. Before I start my comparison of Wieland and “The Fall of the House of Usher” I want to define and explain some terms that I am going to use.

When I talk about “rationalism” I mean any form of thinking that involves the use of reason and any approaches that try to explain phenomena by drawing on fixed laws that are accepted as standard. Therefore rationalism excludes everything that’s supernatural. The term “empiricism” refers to Locke’s theory of the acquisition of knowledge. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke states that “All ideas come from Sensation or Reflection” (Locke 41). This means that knowledge can only be gained by relying on the senses while reason takes a minor part (Hyland 40).

The word “anti-rationalism” concerns any way of thinking that doesn’t make use of reason and any approaches that accept and believe in the supernatural without relying on fixed laws. When I refer to “enthusiasm” I look at it in the way that Hume described the term in Essays Moral, Political, and Literary: “Human reason, and even morality are rejected as fallacious guides: And the fanatic madman delivers himself over, blindly, and without reserve, to the supposed illapses of the spirit, and to inspiration from above” (145).

2. The Importance of the Historical Background

2.1. Historical Background of Charles Brockden Brown’s Writings

Charles Brockden Brown published Wieland in 1798; 22 years after the publication of The Declaration of Independence and 11 years after the ratification of The Constitution of the United States of America. Although a new nation with a new system of government had been created, the situation in the country was by no means stable and settled. Bill Christophersen states that “related cultural tensions churned both the secular and spiritual waters” (39). According to him American citizens didn’t know what the future would bring and their greatest fears were directed towards European organizations, such as the Jacobins or the Illuminati. As the population knew about the French Revolution and its disastrous outcome, they were afraid of conspiracies and factions among their own people (Christophersen 40). Besides, many people felt frustrated and disappointed, because the American Revolution had evoked hopes that hadn’t been fulfilled yet. The question of the political identity of the new nation hadn’t been entirely resolved as there were, for example, still debates about the concept of direct democracy and the principle of representation, which had started in the 1780s as the conflict between Federalists and Anti- Federalists (Christophersen 40). This dissatisfaction found its expression in several rural insurrections in the 1790s, for example Shay’s Rebellion or the Whiskey Rebellion (White 44).

According to Jay Fliegelman “Brown’s novel of authority misrepresented and authority imagined is a terrifying post- French Revolutionary account of the fallibility of the human mind and, by extension, of democracy itself” (x). This is a very suitable statement, because the novel shows how easily the senses and the mind are deceived. If this idea is extended to the domain of politics, it can be used to criticize democracy itself, because if the people’s minds are fallible, their ability to make the right decisions for their country might be questioned. However, Brown probably didn’t want to pass criticism on democracy in general. He just wanted to point out that the future of the new American society might not be as great as many people imagined.

The small Mettingen community serves as a perfect example of the unstable American nation, which was very vulnerable to intruders and which could easily be destabilized. Fliegelman declares “A secure world made insecure, Brown announces, is the price of its having become ‘free’” (xii) and Elizabeth Dill puts it this way: “As men become authorities over their own lives, their incapacity to interpret the value of authority from other sources and indeed in themselves threatens the stability of the new republic” (298). In Wieland the voices and, in Theodore’s case, God’s commands function as authorities, which are misinterpreted.

The novel was written right before the beginning of the Second Great Awakening. The movement hadn’t started yet, but according to Bill Christophersen the first symptoms of religious tensions between the traditional Calvinists and the rationalists, who were inspired by the Enlightenment movement, were certainly noticeable:

Calvinist- rationalist tensions animate Wieland from the start, the elder Wieland’s bizarre incineration bringing into focus the question of whether the world operates according to fixed laws instituted at the Creation, as the deists held, or according to an ever-present divine agency.

These “[c]alvinist- rational tensions” are apparent throughout the novel, especially in the way that the different characters try to explain the mysterious voices which mess things up in the Mettingen community. As will be explained in more detail, Wieland reflects the continuous struggle between rationalism and religious enthusiasm, so Brown transfers a conflict that took place in the American society to the fictitious small community in his novel.

2.2. Historical Background of Edgar Allan Poe’s Writings

Poe wrote “The Fall of the House of Usher” in 1839, 41 years after the publication of Wieland. The 1830s were very much influenced by the politics of President Andrew Jackson (1829- 1837). He belonged to the newly founded Democratic Republican Party and made full use of his presidential power, for example when he eliminated the Second Bank of the United States in 1832. In 1837 Jackson’s politics led to an economic depression which caused very high unemployment rates and unrest among the population (Zapf 88). This added to the dark and anxious mood, which had been evoked by the cholera epidemic of 1832.

In the world of literature the 1830s marked the beginning of the so called American Renaissance, which stands for an independent American literature with an own identity that could finally stand up to British traditions (Zapf 85). The authors of that time were influenced by the emergence of the transcendentalist movement, which contradicted and rebelled against the views of rationalists and empiricists, and by Romanticism, which spread from the European literary market to America (Zapf 92). Edgar Allan Poe was affected by these movements as well. According to Zapf he was influenced by several English romantics, such as “Blake, Shelley, Keats and Byron” (Zapf 111). His attitude towards transcendentalism is rather complex and I will deal with this issue later on in a chapter that focuses on Poe’s story “The Sphinx” and transcendentalism.

In opposition to Charles Brockden Brown Poe doesn’t use the American context as setting for his stories. In general the settings can’t be identified with certain countries or places (Zapf 111). However, some of Poe’s stories can be interpreted as parodies of the American Dream (Zapf 114 f). This concept is associated with the striving for wealth and with expansionism, which found its expression in Manifest Destiny (Zapf 88 f). The belief in America’s superiority resulted in the forced displacement of the Indians. Slavery and this bad treatment of the Indians were criticized by many of Poe’s contemporaries, especially by the abolitionists. Poe was not among this group of authors, but still he satirized the American Dream, because his themes were death and destruction instead of hope and success.

Therefore, although Poe does without an American setting, he still reflects or criticizes certain issues that were important at his time.

3. Rationalism as a Source of Knowledge

3.1. Rationalism in Wieland

One concept that plays an important role in Brown’s novel is that of rationalism.

In Wieland Pleyel is the most rational of all characters. When Clara introduces Pleyel to the reader she states that “Pleyel was the champion of intellectual liberty, and rejected all guidance but that of reason” (Brown 28). When Wieland hears the mysterious voice for the first time, Pleyel tries to explain this phenomenon rationally. Clara tells us that “Pleyel did not scruple to regard the whole as a deception of the senses. Perhaps a voice had been heard; but Wieland’s imagination had misled him in supposing a resemblance to that of his wife, and giving such a signification to the sounds” (Brown 38). Later on she states that “He scrupled not to deny faith to any testimony but that of his senses” (Brown 85 f). This implies that Pleyel absolutely trusts his senses. An example for this empiricist mindset is the alleged conversation between Carwin and Clara where he absolutely relies on what he hears. When Pleyel accuses Clara of having a love affair with Carwin, she tells him the following:


[1] For example Leo Spitzer talks about incestuous love in Leo Spitzer. “A Reinterpretation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Fall of the House of Usher. A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Thomas Woodson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice, 1969, 56-70.

[2] In “The Fall of the House of Usher” the narrator points out that “the entire family lay in direct line of descent” (Poe “The Fall” 232) and Roderick admits “that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between” (Poe “The Fall” 240) him and his sister Madeline. Clara and Theodore’s special bond in Brown’s Wieland can be interpreted as an indication of incestuous love as well.

[3] The Usher family has always been known “for a peculiar sensibility of temperament” (Poe “The Fall” 232) and through “the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son” (Poe “The Fall” 232) Roderick might have inherited his madness. Theodore’s father and grandfather have passed their unstable minds on to him as well.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


A Hopeless Endeavor. The Quest for Knowledge in Wieland
Or The Transformation and in “The Fall of the House of Usher”
University of Göttingen
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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hopeless, endeavor, quest, knowledge, wieland, transformation, fall, house, usher”
Quote paper
Anna Poppen (Author), 2008, A Hopeless Endeavor. The Quest for Knowledge in Wieland, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/230241


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