Charles Brockden Brown and the Ethics of the Grotesque



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This work focuses on tracing the animating ethos of Charles Brockden Brown’s intriguing but confusing novels through close attention to the texts and to the richly complex historical environment from which they emerge and to which they respond. In several non-novelistic writings, including prefaces, letters, essays, and reviews, Brown insists that the value of narratives, whether fictional or historical, lies in their effects in the realm of the ethical; it “lies without doubt in their moral tendency.” But Brown’s narratives go beyond inculcating a moral system; indeed, as I aim to show in my analyses of the novels Wieland and Ormond, each marked by Gothic sensationalism and psychological realism, Brown’s narratives function to challenge the ethics of ethics, to subject ideas to reality-grounded counterfactual scenarios so as to expose the humanity and justice or lack thereof of moral systems. Brown’s relentless skepticism coupled with his deep-seated concern for moral responsibility, I argue, speaks to problematic formal features of the narratives as well. That is, I want to argue that the novels’ resistance to a totalizing explanatory construct serves to prompt a mode of continuous critical engagement, a living practice of attentive reading that is, when transposed into the realm of interpersonal relations, the active awareness and ethical regarding of the other in its true otherness. As such, the novels’ very weirdness—their inconclusiveness, incongruity, and contradictions, in content and form; that which I suggest is best understood as their grotesqueness; that which commands attention and resists assimilation—serves an ethical end.



Brown, Charles Brockden, Ethics