Moral Plagues on a Beachy Day

As we were reading Arthur Mervyn on the pristine sands of the Corniche, we could not help but be distracted by the azure Gulf waters and the towering skyline of Abu Dhabi. In a moment of reflection, we realized how our new life at this Arab Crossroad shared several key themes with that of Brown’s protagonist. Abu Dhabi is a city of both substantial wealth and gross socioeconomic inequalities, two ideas which shape the volatile character interactions within Arthur Mervyn.

The titular character, with his humble agricultural background, is intelligent and adaptable, but inexperienced in the norms of upper-class life. When he is exiled from his rural home, Mervyn is at the mercy of Philadelphia’s streets. Here, we find an essential theme which unites Abu Dhabi, Mervyn’s Pennsylvania, and Daniel Defoe’s London in Journal of the Plague Year. With sickness and socioeconomic inequalities against the backdrop of an urban landscape, class interactions take on contrasting forms under the influence of moralism, religion, and self-preservation.

At the first signs of plague in London, the affluent would flee the city out of panic, abandoning the poor to pestilence. Furthermore, as the epidemic seized the city, all interpersonal relationships crumbled — leaving each individual to fight for his life both isolated and despairing.

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is in some ways an antithesis to Brown’s Arthur Mervyn. The latter novel is introduced with a deed of altruistic charity. The narrator finds Arthur Mervyn penniless and stricken with yellow fever. Without scruple, the narrator invites Mervyn back to his house, where he is nursed back to full health. One might ask what the benefits are in risking one’s life for that of a helpless other. Inspired by a humanistic and moral obligation, nearly absent from the London populous during the 1665 visitation, the narrator quotes:

“I had more confidence than others in the vincibility of this disease, and in the success of those measure which we had used for our defence against it. But, whatever were the evils to accrue to us, we were sure of one thing; namely, that the consciousness of having neglected this unfortunate person, would be a source of more unhappiness than could possibly redound from the attendance and care that he would claim.”

This moral debt, which the narrator takes action upon, often arises when both philosophy and religion are confronted with plague. The practices of Islamic martyrdom (in the face of disease) and almsgiving are two principles highly present in modern Arabia and Justin Stearns’s examination of plague and Abrahamic faith.

But what is altruism? Defined as “selfless concern for the well-being of others,” we see in Arthur Mervyn, that like Yin and Yang, generosity is always complemented by greed. Quoting Brown’s titular character:

“…interest and duty were blended in every act of generosity.” (Brown, 27)

As yellow fever ravages Philadelphia, no good act remains unrequited. When Mervyn is most desperate, the wealthy Welbeck shows him charity, but not without its price. Bound to his benefactor, Mervyn is sucked into a world of corruption, betrayal, murder, and intrigue. The plot only thickens when Mervyn himself, and Welbeck, are confronted with yellow fever.

Under the societal pressures of a city devastated by plague, what would you do? Flee to the country in hopes of escape? Flock to the city in the hopes of some fortune? Ambivalence is inevitable, but choices necessary. What will go first, your life, your soul, or your resolution? Think about that next time you’re enjoying the beautiful waves and powdered sands of the Corniche.

“My poverty, but not my will consents.” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, V.i.75)


Allen, Adam, and Diana


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  1. Red pill or blue pill? Rhetorical question, especially in terms of driving the plot further. Little did we know “how deep the rabbit hole goes”, should Mervyn choose a blue pill.

    On the different note, audeamus extending the suggested metaphor of Abu Dhabi being Philadelphia of US colonial era, as well as the main protagonist, Arthur Mervyn being a random immigrant worker of “humble agricultural background” from, say, Philippines – what would be ‘the yellow fever’ (not an epidemic instance necessarily) of the “powdered sands of the Corniche”?

  2. Your comments on altruism and the nature of human incentives and interaction were quite compelling. You mention that altruism is the “selfless concern for the well being of others”, but quickly follow up by complementing generosity and greed. Doesn’t the existence of greed as the Yang to generosity’s Yin serve as evidence of an absence of altruism? If indeed, there is a celestial balance between polar attributes as Yin/Yang suggests, that, as Isacc Newton revealed, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”, then can altruism really exist? Your diction in using “always” to describe the relationship between generosity and greed, sourced from the phrase “every act” that Mervyn uses, is telling. As an absolute and totalising word, especially when put in the context of “interest and duty”, the message recieved is that at best, altruism is a guise; a word we use to explain incentives that we cannot discern, but that someone other then the benefactor benefits from.

  3. I stumbled upon this article and especially like the short and sharp comment on Arthur Mervyn.


  4. As you’ve well pointed out, altruism is a recurring theme in the novel, and as the plot proceeds, it makes us wonder whether true altruism without any greed or interest could ever exist. Arthur Mervyn keeps running into random benefactors who all later turn out to be mere frauds or tricksters. As the yellow fever and groundless rumors spread, things only get worse. Whether the true altruism can exist or not, however, is a question I’d like to delay until the end of the novel. While it is disappointing to see trickery and fraud in Arthur Mervyn’s narrative, the interesting structure of this novel (story inside a story) gives us a glimpse of hope in mankind, reminding us of how the narrator, Stevens, saved Mervyn’s life without any selfish concern.

    In addition to this, it would be interesting to think about the factors in the novel that affect the morals in the city. Is it the wide spread of the plague? Is it the reevaluation of commerce in the eighteenth century? Or was Mervyn just extremely unlucky to meet the worst people on his way?

  5. Caroline — thanks for linking to that. I’d forgotten abt it. (Caleb is a friend, I should have remembered that he wrote that.)

    I like how he hits a whole set of titles we’ll be reading; this post will come in handy again, I’m sure. For now, what do people make of the lines about Mervyn? “In graduate school at the time, I found myself reading and rereading one of America’s first Gothic novels, Arthur Mervyn by Charles Brockden Brown, set during the yellow fever epidemic of 1797. The book’s paranoid mood and untrustworthy hero seemed timely. Moralizing was ubiquitous but unhelpful; virtue and villainy seemed mixed up in oneself.”

    Does that square with your reading?

    Caleb has a much longer reading of Arthur Mervyn in this book. He also writes a mean lit/history blog at

  6. I’m anxious to hear what others have to say about altruism, too, in response to Kee, Kefa, & the original post.

  7. As Kefa points out, the people who help Arthur Mervyn keep turning out to be dubious characters. Arthur Mervyn himself volunteers his help and then receives a windfall or other good fortune out of the blue. The question of whether ‘true’ altruism exists is further muddled after the discussion held in class on the effect of one’s appearance on social interactions.

    If appearances hold enough influence in our minds to immediately judge a person’s trustworthiness, character, or economic status (correctly or incorrectly so), then we become biased in our aims toward a person from the minute we meet them. It is possible that in our minds, good deeds and rewards are intrinsically linked and thus while we do not consciously expect something in return, it still drives our inclination to practice goodwill.

    However, keeping the transient nature of appearances in mind, we may approach each person at a neutral level and build a more genuine evaluation of their character. Arthur would like us to believe that he personally practices the latter method, yet his bias in the matter leaves this claim up for question.

    Brockden Brown crafts multiple layers of guise that beg the reader to ask, “Is Arthur being truthful?” But even more importantly, does the truth even matter or give us a better feel for Arthur’s character than a lie he may tell? Is truth as relative to perception as are appearance and possibly altruism? What makes something true or fiction? The rest of the novel may clear up these questions by offering answers, however these questions do not necessarily need answers from the text. Simply raising these questions may have been part of Brockden Brown’s intentions for the reader.

  8. ‘True’ Altruism… selfless good deeds, a topic not only addressed in Arthur Mervyn but also in more contemporary television! (relevant, though not academic):
    In response to Kee’s and Diana’s comments, can we trust Dr Steven’s apparent altruism, a shining light for humanity, at the start of the novel, or is he as guilty of selfishness as the other characters portrayed in the novel? Is there such thing as a selfless good deed?
    As Diana says, the complexity of the issue comes from whether the reader can trust the storyteller, especially as he himself is a character in the novel. The paranoia of the narration makes it both captivating and difficult to read at the same time.

  9. Indeed, altruism is to be considered as a major theme of the novel, but on the other hand we should not forget about the concept of money and materialism, which are in close relationships with altruism. According to Ayn Rand, compassion/altruism is an individual and not a social value (as in the novel it is represented by Dr. Steven). Since Kefa, Kee and Diana point to the question wheter to trust another person I started to think about it more than I thought I would. And I most definitely agree with the point, that the idea behind questions like this is not always the find the answer written in the novel. Ayn Rand talks about objectivism versus altruism and I found it very interesting how she discusses morality. This is a great interview for everyone interested in digging in the topic a bit further down. What is self-sacrifice? What is selfishness? Great questions, and I believe all of us, or at least most of us have been thinking about it because of the influence of Arthur Mervyn.
    Link to the interview:

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