Self-Undetermined: The Role of Sexism in Two Canonical Early American Works

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             Charlotte Temple by Susana Rowson and Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown both tell the story of great tragedies that befall two female characters, Charlotte Temple and Clara Wieland respectively. Both novels take place during the period of the French and Indian War yet both were written subsequently, and have each become canonical examples of early American literature. The novels are certainly different, as Brown breaks from the sentimentalist narratives found everywhere in Rowson for a more gothic thematic, yet the two stories share portrayals of women profoundly impacted by the patriarchal society that surrounded them. Where Charlotte is fooled by Montraville and shamed into not breaking off the relationship, Clara is shamed by Ciceronian reason to suppress her from expressing the totality of what was happening to her. By studying the shame levied upon both characters, the absolute nature in which both characters are seen by their male counterparts, and the solutions each character must use to end their suffering a clearer conception of the impact of sexism on both novels becomes clear. Both female protagonists are firmly seated in the patriarchal society that existed in Colonial America and the later United States. It is this very sexism that catalyzes Charlotte’s death and the deaths of the Wieland family at Theodore’s hands. While Charlotte and Clara both blame themselves within the texts, the critical reader need only look to their profound lack of self-determination in their lives, a product of the patriarchal nature of American society; and a significant factor in both characters’ downfall. Sexism is not merely present, but an active player, in both Charlotte Temple and Wieland.

Both Charlotte and Clara are shamed by male characters into neglecting their fears, and because of this, their respective downfalls are hastened. Charlotte Temple keys on shame as one of its primary sentimentalist expressions of extreme emotion, and the shame expressed in the novel is almost exclusively a product of societal expectations on Charlotte and Montraville’s usage of it to achieve his ends. The seduction sequence at the beginning of the novel revolves around Charlotte’s inability to call of the relationship due to her own shame regarding the matter. In the climactic seduction scene, Charlotte says refutes Montraville saying, “I hope my affection for them will ever keep me from infringing the laws of filial duty” (43). Here we see an initial statement by Charlotte that is later changed by the pressure of another, in this case, Montraville. Charlotte has her own consciousness and knows without a doubt the right path to take; yet as Rowson says throughout the book, Charlotte is simply too “innocent” to act upon it. Montraville’s response is telling, and filled with shame eliciting statements. He states, ” had it been my fate to fall, that your tenderness would cheer the hour of death, and smooth my passage to another world. But farewell, Charlotte! I see you never loved me. I shall now welcome the friendly ball that deprives me of the sense of my misery” (43). Montraville, whether sincere or not, levies shame upon Charlotte for “mislead(ing)” him. Montraville is playing on the idea of filial duty, portraying Charlotte as his ideal caretaker in the new world; and eliciting conflict in Charlotte’s ideology. To Rowson, it is Charlotte’s lack of experience that allows her to be so easily manipulated; yet her fall is specifically catalyzed by multiple acts of shame and seduction by Montraville, seen in his continued pleading for one more visit with Charlotte at the end of every visit. Clara Wieland experiences a similar level of coercion when strange events begin to happen to her within her own house. In the first incident, when she hears gruff voices plotting her murder. She runs frightened from her quarters and collapses outside her brother’s house, where in short order she is told it was nothing but a dream. Clara reflects, “That solitude, formerly so dear to me, could no longer be endured. Pleyel, who had consented to reside with us during the months of spring, lodged in the vacant chamber, in order to quiet my alarms. He treated my fears with ridicule, and in a short time very slight traces of them remained” (53). Again we see a change, or in this case a “transformation” in the female protagonists perceptions due to a male character’s influence and ridicule. Clara has experienced something that should truly have caused fear, yet her concerns are “ridiculed” by Pleyel and repressed. Just as Charlotte’s convictions are attacked by the deceptive pleadings of Montraville, Clara’s fears are written off by the Ciceronian mind of Pleyel. Both characters form an original analysis, which is indeed correct, that is later coerced into something else by a male character. The identities of each player is less important than the societal factors they represent – Montraville and Pleyel both representing specific aspects of a patriarchal society in reaction to a female character who is emotionally vulnerable. Ergo, the shame levied on both protagonists in relation to societal norms and stereotypes prevented both protagonists from stemming the tide of their own downfall.

The character of each female protagonist is reckoned by the male characters in each novel as absolute in nature, and this is another example of the impact of a sexist society on each narrative. In Charlotte Temple, Charlotte is first seen by Montraville as angelic and pure of heart, as his initial letter to her illustrates. Even when Montraville begins to part with Charlotte in favor of Julia, he expresses empathy and respect for the character of Charlotte Temple. Yet in one climactic event he immediately rescinds it all, saying, “Treacherous, infamous girl…from this instant our connexion is at an end….I have done with you forever” (89). When Montraville sees Charlotte in bed with Belcour, he immediately withdraws his respect for Charlotte, and she becomes “treacherous” and “infamous.” Thus, Charlotte is either pure of heart and action, or a traitor to Montraville. Her character is absolute; she is either true to filial duty or a fallen and destroyed character. Here we can see the more conservative thematic within Charlotte Temple in comparison to Wieland, as the latter conceives of Clara as absolute only from the perspective of Pleyel and not in the actual persuasive rhetoric of the novel. Yet, a congruent thread between the two female protagonists can still be found. A key scene in Clara’s descent into despair is Pleyel’s accusations towards her in regards to her dignity and fidelity. Clara reflects after the incident, “I saw him in a few moments hurrying along the path which led to my brother’s. I had no power to prevent his going, or to recall, or to follow him. The accents I had heard were calculated to confound and bewilder. I looked around me to assure myself that the scene was real. I moved that I might banish the doubt that I was awake. Such enormous imputations from the mouth of Pleyel! To be stigmatized with the names of wanton and profligate!” (126) This section is rich with keen insights from Clara, as she remarks upon her own “powerlessness” to change Pleyel’s perceptions of her. Clara is either pure or a wanton to Pleyel, and as Clara remarks upon, the entire community and society she is a part of. She even notes the “stigmatized” nature of these accusations, showing her own consciousness of the society she moves in. Clara knows that these accusations will gravely injure her perception within her community, even considering its small scale. In this episode, the absolute nature in which Pleyel conceived Clara becomes clear as well, as he goes from pure admiration to cruel hatred and accusations. What is found in both of these cases is a profound lack of self-determination in the formation of identity in both characters. There is a difference in each author’s portrayal of the absolute nature of the character, as Rowson seems to agree that Charlotte’s fall was absolute from innocent child to disgraced maiden contrasted to Brown who delivers the reader Clara Wieland; a more nuanced and interactive player in the dialogue of being a woman in a sexist society. Yet both protagonists are not merely bystanders in the sexism of the society and  historical epoch in which they live, this sexism impacts their stories specifically and profoundly; as both characters are bound to identities not of their choosing. Each woman is one thing or another, robbing each of autonomy of identity and self-determination within their own stories.

The solution for each female protagonist is rather telling of the society in which each character moves and acts; chiefly that both characters either die or get married. The former solution is common in sentimentalist novels, as the deviant female protagonist usually dies in disgrace or is sent off into exile. Charlotte Temple, a thoroughly sentimentalist novel from beginning to end, mirrors this unfortunate end for its protagonist.  As highlighted above, Charlotte’s destruction is almost exclusively because of the manipulations of Montraville and Belcour, yet it is Charlotte who pays the price. The narrator paints a scene of pure drama, “but to describe the agony of his sufferings is past the power of any one, who, though they may readily conceive, cannot delineate the dreadful scene. Every eye gave testimony of what each heartfelt– but all were silent.” The end is tragic by the author’s design, yet the ending is also absolute in nature, further evidence of the thematic highlighted above. Charlotte’s downfall is so complete, within the rhetoric of the novel, that death is truly the only escape. Indeed, Charlotte herself wishes for death on multiple occasions. This is truly a troubling part of Charlotte Temple as it removes any sense of redemption short of death and rebirth, through her unborn child. The depth of Charlotte’s downfall at the hands of Montraville is such that death is the only escape. This set of circumstances is a manifestation of sexism – where as Montraville continues to live Charlotte must die. The role of sexism moves Charlotte’s story and in the end, kills her for the fulfillment of the narrative persuasion. Brown’s solution for Clara is more nuanced as it moves away from Sentimentalism to a more gothic thematic. Yet the end of Clara’s story is still tied to the vindication of her relationship with Pleyel. Further, her uncle plays a key role in her liberation to Europe. Clara’s autonomy is so thoroughly robbed that she is unable to determine her own fate, and even when she achieves this it is only through marriage. Clara writes, ” If you reflect upon that entire confidence which had subsisted from our infancy between Pleyel and myself; on the passion that I had contracted, and which was merely smothered for a time; and on the esteem which was mutual, you will not, perhaps, be surprised that the renovation of our intercourse should give birth to that union which at present subsists.” The placement of this section is important, as it is the end of the tale. In many ways the marriage demonstrates a return to normality and movement towards something better than what is recounted in the novel. The story offers something more transcendent than what is in Charlotte Temple yet the solution is still a man and arranged by men – a product of the society in which both characters  and their creators lived. Due to the shame levied upon each character and the absolute identities assigned to each, the end of each of their stories is not merely influence by sexism but a product of it;  the limited nature of each solution directly in relation with their lack of self-determination.

Charlotte Temple and Wieland both portray female protagonists fighting against calamitous events that befall them. For Charlotte, the fight ends in melodramatic death and tragedy and for Clara it ends in the novel, itself a symbol of moving past the calamity. Each character is profoundly impacted by the sexism present in their society; yet the influence does not stop at mere influence but the sexism of the male characters and the specter of a judgmental society actively moves the plot. By studying the shame levied on characters and its impact on the furthering of their downfall, the absolute nature the women in the eyes of the narrative and other characters and the “solution” to each of their calamities a greater depiction of sexism’s role in Charlotte Temple and Wieland emerges. It was not a lack of “equanimity” or “foresight” that brought destruction to the women, but it was rather the sexism of their society, friends and communities that left the double-tongued antagonists free to baffle and deceive.

Cited Editions:

Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland, Or, the Transformation: An American Tale, with Related Texts. Ed. Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2009. Print.

Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple ; And, Lucy Temple. Ed. Ann Douglas. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1991. Print.

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Filed under American Literature, Charlotte Temple, Early American, Feminist Readings, Literature, Sexism, Wieland

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