Recurring Themes: Sacrifice, Loyalty and Determination

The story of Arthur Mervyn (1799) by Charles Brockden Brown was based on the yellow fever epidemic that had struck Philadelphia, then the capital of America, in 1793. The novel’s prominent themes include sacrifice, loyalty and determination. As is evident below, these themes are interlinked and are essential forces that drive the characters and the novel.

Sacrifice is a theme which we have encountered before in Defoe’s reading and will be re-exploring them in Arthur Mervyn. In Defoe’s novel, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), we saw sacrifice of family and values for the ‘sake of survival.’ Sacrifice does reemerge in Arthur Mervyn but in totally different forms which will be explained later. Sacrifice is an evident and recurring theme in both Volume I and II of Arthur Mervyn. This not only includes sacrificing one’s health and wellbeing, but also one’s reputation. Relating sacrifice back to our previous readings, it is apparent how H.F., in Defoe’s novel, sacrifices his health by staying in London. In Arthur Mervyn, Dr. Stevens sacrifices his health and the health of his family by bringing Mervyn into their home. Moreover, Mervyn also sacrifices his well-being for the sake of finding Wallace, Susan Hadwin’s love interest, by going to the city.

Sacrifice in Volume II, on the other hand, is about risking one’s safety and reputation. That is, the risk of getting hurt and shot (e.g. by Philip Hadwin when he was mad that Mervyn was “involved” in the burning of his brother’s will; by the woman whom Clemenza Lodi was staying with who shot Mervyn; by Welbeck when he found out that Mervyn had told Dr. Stevens all about his life) and the risk of suspicion and going to prison. For instance, one encounter we would like to highlight is when Mervyn was determined to visit Welbeck at his apartment, Dr. Stevens expressed his concerns for Mervyn and his reputation by saying:

“There are other embarrassments and dangers of which you are not aware. Welbeck is pursued by many persons whom he has defrauded of large sums. By three persons you aredeemed an accomplice in his guilt, and a warrant is already in the hands of officers for arresting you wherever you are found…You lived with him. You fled with him. You aided and connived at his escape…they subject you to suspicion” (Brown, 259-260).

However, Mervyn assures him and says “I have nothing to fear” after he and Dr. Stevens deduced that these are not really “crimes” and it will not “expose [him] to punishment” (Brown, 260). Furthermore, Mervyn also says that imprisonment and obloquy “cannot be avoided but my exile and skulking out of sight…I shall, therefore, not avoid them. The sooner my conduct is subjected to scrutiny, the better” (Brown, 260). Why does Mervyn risk his safety and reputation for the sake of doing what’s deemed just? Was it to avoid guilt? Was it because he has seen what it can do to people (i.e. Welbeck)? Another question worth considering would be: Why do you think he was able to get away with some of his actions that seemed suspicious? Was it because of his charismatic personality?

In Volume I, we have seen how Mervyn keeps his promises of not uttering a word about his encounters with the people he meets as per their request to remain silent. For instance, when Wortley questions Mervyn about Welbeck, Mervyn says that he promised not to say anything:

“I questioned him as to the fate of that man. To own the truth, I expected some well-digested lie; but he merely said that he had promised secrecy on that subject, and must therefore be excused from giving me any information. I asked him if he knew that his master, or accomplice, or whatever was his relation to him, absconded in my debt? He answered that he knew it well; but still pleaded a promise of inviolable secrecy as to his hiding-place.” (Brown, 12)

Despite the conflicts and betrayals Mervyn was put through by those people, he maintained his loyalty to them as much as he can. One would think why does Mervyn remain quiet given his unjust treatment by them? This question relates to past years’ discussions on the theme of altruism in Arthur Mervyn and the question of what drives people to help others voluntarily. There must be countless explanations for such actions but thinking about Mervyn himself, can we say that his confidentiality towards others is a form of altruism? Could he be protecting his confidants by keeping quiet? Did Mervyn fear the failure of fulfilling his responsibilities towards those who trusted him for their safety and secrecy? Overall, we see Mervyn’s persistence in withholding vital information even in the face of all the deceptions he runs into.

In Volume II, we learn about Mervyn’s strong determination and willingness to help Eliza Hadwin and Clemenza Lodi after his recovery. The way in which the story unfolds in this part is driven by Mervyn’s perseverance to fulfill the responsibilities he felt were put upon him. Finding Clemenza Lodi and ensuring her well-being was not necessarily Mervyn’s responsibility but he insisted on helping her because he felt that it was his duty to do so. If we are to explore this situation closely we would be able to see the intertwining of loyalty and perseverance. This tells us another thing about Mervyn; his sympathetic character also motivates his decisions and we find that he shows compassion for everyone, even strangers. Towards the end of the novel Mervyn expresses:

“Anyone who could listen found me willing to talk. Every talker found me willing to listen. Every one had my sympathy and kindness, without claiming it; but I claimed the kindness and sympathy of every one” (Brown, 292).

From this we learn that Mervyn realizes that not everyone deserves his loyalty and kindness but he gives it to them anyway. What’s different about this part of the story is that we see Mervyn open his eyes to reality and admit that he had to deal with people who tricked him but he stayed true to himself.

One thing to note, which will not be explored deeply in the post due to length constraints, is the narrative structure of the story because Brown starts his narrative not from the beginning of the text, as in Defoe, but further into the story. Getting the readers more involved in the story by going through the thought process of various characters at different times will have a different effect than simply directing the readers chronologically through the story. One effect is that starting from the middle of the story and having it slowly unfold will create more suspense and the readers will be able to match up the events and actions of people (as it will then start to make more sense to them), similar to a mystery story.

Overall, it is evident how sacrifice, determination and loyalty are recurring themes in Volume I and II of Arthur Mervyn and are what drive the characters and the novel. These themes are important to focus on particularly because Mervyn does possess these qualities especially in times of desperation. It is essential that Brown drives our attention to the noble side of people because even in the worst circumstances, some of them can act nobly which restores faith in humanity.

Happy reading,

Mahra, Aysha, and Ali



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  1. Hey Mahra, Aysha, and Ali! Thank you for the awesome post! ;)) Because this was our first time to post or comment on the blog, our group decided to comment together. Anyway, we would like to agree on the fact that the three themes that you guys mentioned are recurring themes. There is no doubt that the link between the qualities of being loyal, determined and caring influence the characters’ decisions and actions in the texts we have read. For example, Defoe describes how a (loyal) wife sacrifices her health for the sake of her husband. Because she was loyal, she was determined to sacrifice her health for the comfort of her husband. There are numerous examples you have outlined that suggest how each quality fairly brings out another.

    We also believe that each quality is capable of eliminating another. The strongest example of this is the determination of characters. Mervyn constantly imagines his successful future. His determination to fulfill his dream of a luxurious lifestyle causes him to act and reason in a selfish manner. A particular example is when Arthur explains his love to Eliza and asks her to marry him (when they were both at a young age). At that moment, he isn’t loyal to Eliza or himself; he expresses emotions that are not genuine. He acts impulsively to achieve, his fantasy. Moreover, when Eliza refuses the marriage proposal and suggests the idea of both them living in one house, he refuses to sacrifice his reputation.

    Focusing on the two themes you mentioned, sacrifice and determination, there is always a reason behind these actions. When one sacrifices, he or she does with a desire to gain something bigger in return. Just like how you concluded, determination, fidelity, and sacrifice are the factors that drive or trigger the characters to do certain actions. At the end of the novel, Mervyn eventually abandons Eliza and decides to marry Mrs. Fielding. Even though it seems that Mervyn and Mrs. Fielding have feelings for each other, this ending confirms that Mervyn’s determination reflects self-interest–sense of belonging to the upper class society.

    The idea of determination also reminded us about Hobbes’s ideas of human nature. One of the many arguments he presents is that people would compete with one another for gain, safety and reputation (Hobbes 57). People who are competitive and determined to stand out would do anything to fulfill their goals. This conception is depicted by Welbeck’s actions when he betrays his promise to Lodi and sacrifices his reputation by killing Watson. He does all of this for money and class.

    Having said that, maybe Mervyn is not the altruistic being that many readers might perceive him to be. OED defines the term altruism as disinterested or selfless concern for the well-being of others, esp. as a principle of action. Numerous times in the book, Mervyn carries out acts of loyalty which could be perceived as altruistic but really, he usually does it for some sense of personal gain. Doesn’t trying to be “the happiest of men” (330) signify that Mervyn is not really an altruistic man?

    Also, we thought that maybe, the purpose of Brown’s novel is not to “restore faith in humanity” but to outline the complexity and unpredictability of human’s actions.

    -Jenny, Shereena, and Rhoshenda 😀

  2. I agree with the comment above that this novel questions the complexity of human actions. Here, I just want to focus on the word choice “sacrifice” and “loyalty”.

    “Sacrifice” seems to be an action that “gives up” something. It is true that Dr. Steven risks his safety to take care of sick Arthur and Arthur risks his healthy to look for Wallace. These behaviors may be risky but do not clearly imply a sense of “giving up”. “Sacrifice”, therefore, may be a little bit stronger in this circumstance. Or, I may not fully understand your intention when you are talking about “sacrifice”. Do you want to briefly elaborate more on this words choice? 🙂

    “Loyalty” is also a strong and interesting word. For me, this word implies a sense of “faithfulness” or “adherence” that I personally cannot clearly observe in this novel. Arthur does not really share specially close relationship with any character in this book. Therefore, his behaviors do not directly respond to his adherence to anybody. Rather, I find that the word “duty” keeps occurring in Arthur’s narration. Instead of personal attachment, moral obligation seems to the main force driven Arthur’s “altruist” behaviors.

    Just some random thoughts while I am reading your post again this afternoon. 🙂

    Also, happy Chinese New Year to all! 春节快乐!


    • Dear YL,

      Good critical analysis of the word choices. Ultimately, words imply different meanings and can have various denotations according to the reader. For me, simply saying “risky” is an understatement of Mervyn’s actions. I believe the word “sacrifice” better describes what he went through, even though he might have had other intentions along the way. One may say that some of Mervyn’s missions and trips were for personal gains, but that does not mean he is not sacrificing part of himself to get there (i.e. reputation, health, safety). “Sacrifice” means both “giving up” something, like you said, and “gaining” something else in return. Mervyn got shot when trying to look for Clemenza and he was still convinced to find her to make sure she lives in better conditions; Mervyn almost got hurt by Philip Hadwin, Eliza’s uncle, who was mad that Mervyn could have been “involved” in the burning of his brother’s will; Mervyn got infected with the yellow fever trying to save Wallace for the sake of Susan Hadwin when he knew the city was infected with the fever. These circumstances could have been the end of him and so, I believe, he “sacrificed” his health, safety, and reputation to fulfill his responsibility and to get to where he wants to be. Speaking of responsibility, with regards to the word “loyalty,” I do believe that it could be used to describe the relationship between Dr. Stevens and Mervyn since Dr. Stevens always tries to see the good in Mervyn. It could also describe the relationship between Mervyn and Eliza as Mervyn always tries to make sure she is safe and living a comfortable lifestyle. These two relationships, I would say, portray “personal attachment.” Although, I do agree that “duty” is a better word choice to use in general when it comes to his relationships with the other characters (i.e. duty to give money to its rightful owner; duty to notify characters of certain events) because it is more, like you said, a “moral obligation” in this case.

      Thanks & Regards

      Mahra Al Suwaidi

  3. Thank you for the comments! I like the idea of each theme or quality “eliminating another”! We can see this happening when Dr. Stevens takes the risk of allowing sick Mervyn to enter his house, which could have been driven by Dr. Steven’s interest and curiosity to achieve a certain aim. Mervyn’s “determination” comes from a similar incentive, which is fulfilling his desires to lead a more successful life. In the case of Mervyn being “loyal”, I agree with your comment that Mervyn might actually be doing all this for the sake of his interests rather than his sympathy or kindness. I actually believed Mervyn and his story but I am now starting to have second thoughts after our discussions and what you point out about him in this comment. I guess Mervyn has trapped me, and possibly others, in trusting him and believing that his intentions were pure. After all, the novel is built upon deception and people falling in such “traps” including Mervyn himself. I was tricked just like he was throughout the novel!

    -Aysha 😀

  4. Dear Jenny, Shereena, and Roshenda,

    It is an interesting approach to say that these qualities have the ability to eliminate one another. I like how you are playing “devil’s advocate,” which is a valid argument in and of itself, in saying that Mervyn’s determination to fulfill his dream of having a better lifestyle leads him to “act and reason in a selfish manner,” such as marrying Mrs. Fielding instead of Eliza. Although, I wouldn’t consider his emotions disingenuous and, moreover, he did not “abandon” Eliza per se. A lot of his trips and missions were because of Eliza: wanting to protect her and making sure she is living a comfortable lifestyle. In addition, when Mervyn asked Eliza to marry him, you say that “at that moment, he isn’t loyal to Eliza or himself,” however, at that point, I would say that he did have feelings for her. In other words, he wanted to keep her safe and he felt sympathy for her. Although, I do agree that in some points, Mervyn could have (sometimes unintentionally?) acted “impulsively” to achieve his goals and how some of his sacrifices were for personal gains (e.g. by marrying Mrs. Fielding whom he states has more experience which, we can infer, he can benefit from). As a result, Mervyn being altruistic or not is definitely debatable. Bringing in Thomas Hobbes and his philosophy on human nature and competition is also another interesting approach. For instance, how he states that humans are naturally evil and how competition leads them to do unjust actions, which is evident with Welbeck. Based on your critique of Mervyn, would you say he also falls under this category? Also, the idea of faith and humanity in times of desperation was not the sole purpose of the book but it was, undoubtedly, shown in several different characters and circumstances. When you state that Brown’s purpose is to “outline the complexity and unpredictability of human’s actions,” I see a merit in that statement as it could be argued that Mervyn has questionable intentions at times. Again, the purpose, just like Mervyn’s personality and intentions, is arguable. Great critical analysis of the character and theme of the book.

    Thanks & Regards

    Mahra Al Suwaidi

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