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Accepting Oedipus: Achsa Fielding And The Mature, Gothic Woman

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Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn embodies the mentality of the newly formed U. S. A. , speaking to how 18th century readers – in fact, citizens, regardless of their literacy – were both repulsed yet fascinated by social concepts that were literally and figuratively revolutionary. Specifically, Arthur Mervyn represents the Gothic literary genre through its unconventional portrayal of women as love interests because of their matronly qualities. Additionally, traditional mainstream Western society both prior to the novel’s publication and in the modern world overwhelmingly tends to feature a weighted power balance in heterosexual couples, depicting the man as dominant and the woman as submissive. However, through the character of Achsa Fielding, and through her relationship with Arthur, Brown makes the case that it is better for a man to seek an unconventional, more empowered woman to love and marry — one who is more mature and matronly, and one who the man can have an equal amount of power within their relationship.

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The titular protagonist’s conversation and narration in a passage from the story’s penultimate chapter detail these ideas both explicitly, with his sonly nickname for Achsa, and implicitly, with his desire to make her as satisfied and content in their relationship as he is. Brown’s willingness to buck then-modern relationship conventions in his book’s fictional romance embodies his aims to act contrarian to traditional values, confronting social fears about romance in a way akin to the Gothic tradition of dealing with sublime scariness. Achsa’s portrayal as a matronly figure in Arthur’s life highlights the nonconformity in her romance with Arthur. The fact that Achsa is not significantly older than Arthur Mervyn’s other main love interest, the 15-year-old Eliza Hadwin, but furthermore is six years older than Arthur himself, speaks to the deviant romance between Achsa and Arthur that Brown propagates. Arthur’s nickname for Achsa most explicitly emphasizes that deviance: he calls her “mamma” to such a degree that even Eliza, who eventually takes on a sisterly role to Arthur, “never called her by any other name, ” either (Brown 303). This consistency displays the prominent, motherly position Achsa occupies in the world, to both her romantic interest, Arthur, and to his “sister, ” Eliza. That position as mother is one she continues to occupy even when she and Arthur decide to wed. Therefore, it is important to note that Arthur does not love Achsa despite her matronly image, but because of it. In a crucial interaction between the two characters toward the end of the novel, Arthur, talking to Achsa about how they should be more honest with each other, internally muses, “was she not the substitute of my lost mamma. Would I not have clasped that beloved shade?”. This scene is the moment when the couple starts to move beyond close friendship, and when Arthur starts to consider how romantic his feelings for Achsa truly are. What is noteworthy is that Achsa’s maturity and parenthood-related aspects are what draw Arthur to her; specifically, it is the comparison between Achsa and his actual mother, his “lost mamma, ” that solidifies his realization that he loves her. Arthur foregoes the common romantic choice of a youthful wife in favor of a maternal wife.

It is also important to note that Brown does not portray the maternal relationship between Arthur and Achsa as incestuous, but rather, as prudent. Shortly after the previously mentioned conversation where Arthur recognizes his want to kiss Achsa, he holds a conversation with his good friend Dr. Stevens where they discuss the possible benefits of their marriage. When Stevens raises the issues of Achsa’s previous marriage and childbirth, Arthur declares, “that is…an advantage. She has wisdom, because she has experience. Her sensibilities are stronger, because they have been exercised and chastened”. Arthur, and by extension, Brown, sees Achsa’s previous romantic and wedded life as a positive, not a detriment—he thereby moves away from the (ir)rationale of general 1790s American society. As Allan Lloyd-Smith details in American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction, “political anxieties about the spread of radical …underlie this early American Gothic, while later, a growing popular interest in psychology and deviance became a further element to intrigue a wide readership”. Arthur and Achsa’s filial relationship, which is certainly deviant, thus contributes to the plethora of radical ideas that the Gothic genre of literature brought to post-colonial America.

Additionally, Brown appeals to pathos as well as logos via his argument that true passion and love is a cause for Arthur and Achsa to wed. George E. Haggerty, in “Mothers and Other Lovers: Gothic Fiction and the Erotics of Loss, ” begins by stating how “transgressive sexual relations are an undeniable common denominator of Gothic”. While Western cultures often give incestuous mother-son relationships stamps of condemnation because of their assumed “transgressive” bases, in Arthur Mervyn, Brown emphasizes the comparison between Achsa and Arthur’s late mother, with whom Arthur did not have any sexual relationship with. Instead, Arthur’s love for the similarly maternal Achsa is driven by what Haggerty calls “erotics of loss”. Arthur loves in Achsa because of her resemblance to his mother, but that attraction is due to his desire for a guiding figure in his life, which he has been missing since the death of his mother, not out of any illicit motives. Haggerty later quotes the fictional Victoria from Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, who states, “‘that which I have been, my mother made me’”. This cited novel, also from the Gothic era of 1806, elaborates on the role of the matron in Gothic mother-child relationships — it is not sexual, but nurturing. With his depiction of a relationship that is generally taboo in Western society, Brown aims to destigmatize irregular romances, exploring unknown and frightening concepts with the intention of showing society that Arthur’s relationship with Achsa, though deviant, is not, in this case, necessarily amoral. This dissection of what could be misconstrued as incestuous is Brown’s fitting attempt to unleash fearful ideas, as a key argument of Gothicism is the pleasure to be gained from the sublime, or “how even the emotion of fear might be pleasurable in the right context”. Achsa’s romantic attributes are potentially transgressive and upsetting, but Brown argues that that is not a valid reason to discount or exclude them from society.

Arthur Mervyn is also interesting in that Arthur wants his relationship with Achsa to be equally happy and satisfying for both of them, rather than just he, the man, being the dominant one in the relationship. Although alluded to in the base element of their mother-son dynamic, Arthur delves even more explicitly into that dismissal of a need for him to be in power during his climactic inner ponderings and conversation with Achsa. Arthur tells his beloved, “You must not be silent; you must tell me what I can do for you. Hitherto I have done nothing. All the service is on your side. Your conversation has been my study, a delightful study, but the profit has only been mine. Tell me how I can be grateful”. Arthur does not want their relationship to be one-sided; instead, he genuinely cares for Achsa enough to want to make her truly content. Conventional literature of the time period tended to be male-centric – and Arthur Mervyn does not completely subvert this, as the protagonist and most of the characters are still men – but “the advantage – perhaps even inevitability – of the Gothic form in articulating the concerns of the unvoiced ‘other’ has meant that the position of the female in a predominantly masculinist culture provided another important strand in American Gothicism”. Brown’s central romance, then, draws from a central Gothic appeal toward making women more empowered in their relationships, rather than letting the men rule. It is at this point that the crucial dichotomy between balanced and unbalanced power in Gothic fiction comes into the picture. Haggerty posits that “Gothic fiction…is not about homo or hetero desire as much it is about power”. It therefore makes little sense for Arthur and Achsa’s love to be balanced in how much power they have in relation to each other. To elaborate, there are other relationships in Arthur Mervyn that feature a semblance of a parent-child dynamic. The most notable is that between the villainous Welbeck and the younger, mentally unwell Clemenza Lodi, who Welbeck takes advantage of and impregnates. When Arthur first becomes suspicious of their sexual relationship, it is when he believes them to be father and daughter. However, as Welbeck tells Arthur himself, “his love for the Italian girl, in spite of all his efforts to keep it alive, had begun to languish”. In the filial relationship between Welbeck and Clemenza, Welbeck most definitely holds more power — from the mental and physical capacities to the fact that Clemenza is a foreigner who does not speak the language of the country. Integral to the contrast between the two different parent-child couples, Brown portrays Welbeck and Clemenza’s relationship as unhealthy and manipulative; the imbalance of power between the two characters poisons any prospective love or care the two might have for each other. Arthur, on the other hand, wants no such romance with Achsa; in his passionate plea to her, he states: “…methinks I would be wholly yours. I shall be impatient and uneasy till every act, every thought, every minute, someway does you good”. Arthur desires happiness for both he and his love interest via a relationship in which he is not the dominator. As Leslie Fiedler addresses in Love and Death in the American Novel, “Brown’s protagonists are dependent boys in search of motherly wives, rather than phallic aggressors in quest of virgins to sully”. Brown wishes to counter the assumption that men always wish to marry nubile, naïve young women; indeed, he believes that finding a woman to marry who is antithetical to that picture is more beneficial for both couples involved. In depicting the unhealthy Welbeck-Clemenza relationship as between two members of the upper-class while having the healthy pairing involve the poor Arthur and disgraced Achsa, Brown critiques the type of romance that conventional Western culture tends to promote, instead praising the Gothically transgressive and potentially upsetting romance even though society might fear it.

Achsa’s ethnic Jewishness also contributes to the taboo nature of the novel’s central romance, but Brown transgresses societal norms in this instance more subtly than he does depicting her mature, empowered, and matronly qualities. Arthur Mervyn addresses Achsa Fielding’s additional deviance from the White European norm, and Brown’s characters do not turn a blind eye to her ethnicity; when conversing with Arthur, Dr. Stevens reminds him (albeit jokingly) that she is “tawny as a moor, with the eye of a gypsey”. Although he is only mocking Arthur when discussing Achsa’s race, he is not shying away from it, either, thereby acknowledging her different stature in American society. In his concluding argument to persuade Arthur to wed Achsa, Stevens makes one last reference to Achsa’s ethnic background, invoking a stereotype: “a brilliant skin is not her’s; nor elegant proportions; nor majestic stature; yet no creature had ever more power to bewitch”. However, Arthur does not concede nor counter this statement, instead running off in his anxiousness at realizing his true feelings. In the final chapter, when Arthur decides to propose to Achsa, he does not address her ethnic background to the same extent that he does her age or past romantic experience. That omission, coupled with the fact that Achsa’s ethnicity is only brought up very late in the novel, rather than being a persisting attribute of hers throughout, alludes to how Brown does not dwell on her ethnicity with the same amount of debate as he does her other transgressive qualities. He utilizes a different tactic than he does elsewhere in the story: instead of calling attention to Achsa’s outlying attributes and offering strong arguments for why they would be more beneficial in a relationship, he treats her Jewishness as more of a neutral afterthought, with no serious debate needed. In other words, Brown does not try too hard to sway the readers to accept the scary, Gothic “other” as he does not see it as a major issue. As a result, Brown posits that what society “should” view as untrustworthy should not be feared at all.

Gothic literature often deals with the unknown and the “other, ” glorifying the fearful things in life that society generally thinks of as abnormal and frightening. Many times, authors uphold these fears — by detailing the horrors that they entail, they give society even greater cause to be scared of them. Authors like Edgar Allan Poe use this method of writing frequently, depicting mentally ill characters or transgressive actions in ways that are horrifying and disturbing, thereby validating America’s societal anxieties. Charles Brockden Brown does briefly engage in this mode of writing – Arthur Mervyn’s 1793 backdrop involving the then-still-recent yellow fever outbreak – but his main scare tactic is different than the norm of other genres of literature, and even different from those of other Gothic writings. Arthur Mervyn seeks to scare the audience by presenting transgressive ideas as not only acceptable, but desirable. Achsa’s romance with Arthur showcases this strategy: her Jewish heritage is not discounted when Arthur is thinking of wedding her, and her mature, matronly, and empowered aspects are the main reasons why Arthur falls in love with her, rather than being strikes against her wifely potential. Perhaps the most blatant call for the destigmatizing of these transgressive concepts is how the novel ends happily: Arthur and Achsa become lovers, and the murderous schemes and yellow fever that plagued their lives gets left behind. Arthur Mervyn is not only Gothic because it features taboo and dangerous elements — it is Gothic because it praises and accepts them.

15 July 2020

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