Guilt in Charles Brockden Browns’ Wieland
There are many ways to decide what makes a man guilty. In an ethical sense, there is more to guilt than just committing the crime. In Charles Brockden Browns’ Wieland, the reader is presented with a moral dilemma: is Theodore Wieland guilty of murdering his wife and children, even though he claims that the command came from God, or is Carwin guilty because of his history of using persuasive voices, even though his role in the Wieland family’s murder is questionable? To answer these questions, one must consider what determines guilt, such as responsibility, motives, consequences, and the act itself. No matter which view is taken on what determines a man’s guilt, it can be concluded that Wieland bears the fault in the murder of Catharine Wieland and her children.
To any religious person, hearing a command from the voice of their god is reason enough to carry out the proposed action, but in the case of Wieland, a third party must take a deeper look at such a command from a God whose known character does not line up with the order He supposedly gives. This makes Wieland’s motivation questionable, especially to those who believe that a man’s motive determines a man’s guilt. In his testimony to the court, Wieland, a pious man, reveals his motive in the murders as he recounts God as saying, “‘Thy prayers are heard. In proof of thy faith, render me thy wife. This is the victim I chuse. Call her hither and here let her fall’” (190). Being a devout Christian, it is very likely that Wieland would be familiar with the Ten Commandments listed in Deuteronomy 5, and specifically, verse 17 which states, “You shall not murder”. Though in Isaiah 55:8 the Lord tells Christians to not assume His plans or how He works as He says “‘…my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…’”, it is relevant that not one instance in the Bible can be found where the God has a man prove his faith by carrying out a murder against a people who have not greatly sinned against the Lord. Therefore, Wieland’s supposed holy motivation of pleasing the Lord is discounted by his ignorance of the nature of God. Though Wieland’s actions follow a desire to please the Lord, one must question why Wieland did not stop to consider such an illegitimate command.
Though an argument can be made that an action’s results, or consequences, not motives, determine a man’s guilt, Wieland can still be shown guilty. In describing how he murdered Catharine, Wieland says, “‘Thrice I slackened my grip, and life kept its hold, though in the midst of pangs. Her eye-balls started from their sockets. Grimness and distortion took place of all that used to bewitch me into transport…’”, thus showing that Catharine’s brutal murder one of the...