Master of Arts (MA)
Semester of Degree Completion
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed the development of the United States of America as a new nation. This development brought with it new ideologies and social and political change; included in these changes was the way that sexual conduct outside of marriage was dealt with. Because the emerging legal system became less concerned with matters of morality, some people became frightened that sexual promiscuity would become rampant. The sentimental novel or seduction tale became a means of attempting to control sexual behavior when the law was not able to step in.
The way that madness, a term used to describe a variety of mental disorders, was understood was also changing in the post-Revolutionary era. As historian Roy Porter points out, mental illness has a complex history in which it is used by society for a variety of reasons and perceptions of it have changed depending on the needs of a particular group of people. Early American culture was no different. Mental illness became something to discuss and write about, and the medical documents presented it in such a way that it fit the goals of the sentimental novelist well.
Sentimental Novelists typically used mental illness and eventual death as a way to punish those characters who committed sexual misconduct. Not all novelists bought into the link between sexual misconduct and mental illness, however. Writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles Brockden Brown believed that the relationship between the two was much more complex. Charles Brockden Brown brings to life many of Wollstonecraft's philosophies in his fiction and pushes very strongly for women's rights using his American brand of Gothic fiction. He destabilizes the idea that sexual misconduct in and of itself could cause mental illness in three of his novels: Wieland, Ormond, and Arthur Mervyn. This thesis examines Charles Brockden Brown's novels in relation to sentimental novels and shows that while he does not dispute the ability of grief and other emotions to cause mental illness, he also does not attempt to scare readers but instead uses mentally ill characters in his novels to push for social change and more rights for women.
Walk, Katie E., "Mental Illness in Early American Fiction: Charles Brockden Brown and the Sentimental Novelists" (2015). Masters Theses. 2343.