Trust me, I am a stranger

The previous conveners brought up the notion of altruism. In contrast, at the beginning of the second volume we are faced with questions of trust. The question of Steven’s faith in Mervyn and the validity of his story become more prevalent at the beginning of the second volume.

Dr. Stevens regularly emphasizes his unwavering faith in Mervyn’s character and the authenticity of his tale:

“His courage was the growth of benevolence and reason, and not the child of insensibility and the nursling of habit.” (p.167)

We see here that Stevens is very much attached to Mervyn as a heroic figure. Stevens also disregards the notion that people are defined by their social status, upbringing, gender, or race, making a point of saying that the Mervyn’s honesty was apparent through his demeanor (tone, gestures, “looks”):

“Mervyn is the index of an honest mind.” (p.175)

Steven’s fondness towards Mervyn develops to the point where he considers mentoring Arthur Mervyn in the skills of a physician (an idea that comes to fruition by the end of the novel, which is equally interesting considering his ambitions to run a hospital toward the end of the Vol.1):

“By residing with me… he would, in a few years, be fitted for the practice of physic.” (p.167)

This faith in Mervyn’s character translates into a general faith in his story, which, at times, can seem to be contrived. Volume 2 introduces the first, proper discussion and evaluation of the authenticity of Mervyn’s tale. Steven’s contemplations are summarized in the following lines:

“Surely the youth was honest. His tale could not be the fruit of invention; and yet, what are the bounds of fraud” (p.175)

We see throughout the first chapters of Volume 2 a confused Stevens consulting several people regarding Mervyn’s character in an attempt to ascertain the truth. His conversations with the Althorpes and Wortley reveal that there is more to Mervyn’s story than he originally thought. It should be noted, however, that even with this newfound knowledge regarding Mervyn’s story, Stevens remains relatively faithful to Mervyn:

“Suspicions have fixed themselves upon him, which allow him not the privilege of silence and obscurity.” (p.193)

Stevens still sides with Mervyn even when others begin to question his character and his story.

Why is Steven’s so faithful towards Arthur Mervyn and the authenticity of his story? Furthermore, why should we (the readers) believe any of what Mervyn recounts seeing as that, according to Stevens, honesty can only be determined by inspection of a person’s demeanor and body language? The questions brought up regarding Mervyn’s tale aren’t so directed at Stevens as they are directed at the reader. When Mervyn’s narrative resumes once more in chapter V, is the reader to assume what he says is true? Why does the author choose a relatively similar narrative structure the second time around (with Mervyn relaying what has happened to him)?


The previous group of conveners  brought up the role of women in Volume 1. It was suggested that women are portrayed as being key figures of power and, in some instances, determine the plot.

In Volume 2 does this trend continue? If so, how? Are they still portrayed as decision-makers?

We are introduced to several new characters (e.g. Mrs. Villars and Mrs. Althorpe) but also the course of the plot is, to a great degree, shaped by the desires and needs of these female characters. We witness several key events involving women such as Susan’s death, Mervyn’s compulsion to help Eliza, and the love that appears between Mervyn and Achsa. One could make the claim that in Volume 2, the desires of women drive the plot, since Mervyn’s actions are governed by the situations of various women (Eliza, Clemenza Lodi, and Achsa).


Do women act more as catalysts for the plot development in Vol.2? Why does Brockden Brown depict women in this way? Is this a counterbalance to the way women were depicted in the first volume? Or is it an expression of his own values regarding the role of women in society, perhaps influenced by his Quaker background? The previous post brought up similar questions and they are even more relevant to the second installment of Mervyn’s adventures.

PS.: Watch out for this guy!

Liam, Rafael, Vlad



 Add your comment
  1. The issue of women as decision-makers (and their influence on the storyline) was touched upon several times throughout our discussions and in this post as well, but I feel that we haven’t talked enough about Mervyn and his process of decision-making yet. It is indeed strange, how Mervyn, despite his ‘massive’ character development and gain of confidence in Volume II, is sometimes still unable to pass judgments or wrap his mind around certain things. In fact, on several occasions he needs a ‘wake-up call’ or warning to come to a decision, which is always humbly provided by the good Dr. Stevens (who, throughout the course of the novel, transforms from being a narrator into a catalyst of events.) This ‘phenomenon’ is especially apparent when Dr. Stevens, through a dialogue that can almost be labelled as Socratic, leads Mervyn to ‘discover’ his passionate love towards Achsa Fielding:

    “Is there no other whom you love?
    No. There is one worthier than all others; one whom I wish the woman who shall be my wife to resemble in all things.
    And who is this model?
    You know I can only mean Achsa Fielding.
    If you love her likeness, why not love herself?
    I felt my heart leap.-What a thought is that! Love her as I do as I love my God as I love virtue. To love her in another sense, would brand me for a lunatic.” (p.320)

    Why is Arthur still so indecisive when it comes to important matters? What does this tell us about his character, and the significance of Dr. Stevens in the story? Could it be claimed that without Dr. Stevens’ insistence Mervyn wouldn’t have been able to convey his story? Does Stevens seem like a paternal figure to Mervyn? What is the real stage of Mervyn’s character development?

  2. Mervyn’s credibility has been an eminent issue from the very beginning of volume 1. Wortley’s first encounter with Mervyn displayed the discomfort that continued to persist in volume 2. After the prolonged narrative in volume 1, however, the readers are put in such a position where they cease to doubt Mervyn. We are captured by his narrative due to the pathos and ethos involved throughout the story. The audience falls into the trap of believing him due to the way Stevens frames the tale. As mentioned in the post, Stevens seems to keep faith in Mervyn. It is worthy to note the instance when Stevens states that his belief in Mervyn is so strong, that if it proved to be a lie, his faith in humanity would be lost. This gives us insight into Stevens character. This strong sentiment brings about the possibility that Stevens may be naive. Later, Stevens admits that his ‘confidence is shaken’, and he is ‘afraid to speak: fearing, that, in the present trouble of [his] thoughts, [he] may say something which [he] may afterwards regret. In some sense this shows both a strength and weakness in his character. Stevens seems to always think before passing judgments, and assess things once he has fully attained the relative facts.

  3. Laura,

    I absolutely agree, I too find Mervyn’s indecisiveness quite fascinating. It is clear his inability to come to certain conclusions on his own plays a vital role in this tale of personal growth and increase in social standing. It does indeed seem, especially in the second volume, that it is the external forces of the world that drive our protagonist forward, and I think this ties nicely into the question of the female roles, as these characters are the ones partially controlling Mervyn’s fate.

    Also, I find it interesting that despite his inability to see some of the more obvious facts and come to ‘revelationary’ conclusions on his own (as was the case with Achsa), his moral compass has guided him to act on several occasions, including helping the female characters in need, good examples being the desperate situations of Eliza and Clemenza. Thus, I think the author presents a perplexing contrast in Arthur’s personality, juxtaposing his indecisiveness and inability to see truths that would be quite apparent in the readers’ eyes with his unfaltering morality.

    As for Dr. Stevens role in the story in relation to Mervyn’s development, I believe your suggestion that he becomes a father figure to Arthur is a valid point. Mervyn’s tale begins with him ‘losing’ his father to an opportunistic woman and, in a way, his adventures lead him to finding a father and a mentor. Without Dr. Stevens the novel simply would not have come to the resolution it has.

  4. For all the times I’ve read this novel, I haven’t thought as much about the Stevens-Mervyn relationship as I have Mervyn’s relationship to Acsha or Eliza. I’m intrigued by the implications for the novel’s liberal individualism — ie, for the narrative arc that places Arthur in control of his own story. Yes, he may ultimately wield — and lay down — the pen, but he seems equally dependent on Stevens (to help him see things about himself to which he remains blind) and Achsa (who brings to the relationship forms of experience he can only dream of). It’s interesting to me that although the novel maintains an anti-contagionist stance when it comes to the fever, it very much places emphasis on networks of individuals when it comes to information, self-knowledge, and love.

  5. In this novel especially, I find that the female characters all carry a significant role and impact, and thus, I highly agree with the statement that women act as catalysts. Though we’ve discussed much about the effects of women on Mervyn, we have neglected to note their equally important role in the subplots and with the other characters within the text. Not only do they direct our beloved narrator, Mervyn, but they also affect such characters as the scheming Mr. Welbeck, which is evident in an earlier passage narrated by Welbeck in Volume 1:

    My friend had a sister, who was married; but, during the absence of her husband resided with her family. … I sought her intercourse without illicit views; I delighted in the effusions of her candour and the flashes of her intelligence; I conformed, by a kind of instinctive hypocrisy, to her views; I spoke and felt from the influence of immediate and momentary conviction (68).

    Similarly, as aforementioned, women have had tremendous effects on our protagonist, but I think it is important to note how he describes the women who capture his fancy, such as in the following passage in Volume 2:

    Books are cold, jejune, vexatious in their sparingness of information at one time, and their impertinent loquacity at another. … How different was Mrs. Fielding’s discourse! So versatile; so bending to the changes of occasion; so obsequious to my curiosity, and so abundant in that very knowledge in which I was most deficient, and on which I set the most value, the knowledge of the human heart (317).

    In contrast to the portrayal of women in 16th and 17th century literature, not only does Brown provide them with an influential role, but he highlights their intelligence. The male characters in this novel are not merely attracted to women because of their beauty, but because of the content of their conversations with them, and the knowledge that they possess. Women are not, for the most part, portrayed as promiscuous or sexual beings, but as mysterious and intelligent ones.

    This observation on the role of women in this work reminds me of a particular line from the comedy, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”: “The man is the head [of the family], but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”

    What is the significance of Brown’s portrayal of women? How has women’s roles changed in literature from the 20th and 21st centuries? How does this affect (or reflect) women of today’s society?

  6. The developing relationships with women in Volume Two contrast strongly with the breakaway Mervyn has with some of the main male characters as they die or move on, for example Mr. Welbeck. It is also in Volume Two that Mervyn’s decision making strategy comes increasingly to the forefront (p211, p232) and develops his increasingly rational process of consideration. In Volume One, Mervyn is almost led by other men, certainly not a dominating character as demonstrated by his ability to get dragged into dangerous situations despite not wanting to have a role; a prime example of this would be his role in the corpse disposal with Welbeck. Mervyn fails to take the initiative, and relies on men to help him, and one wonders what would have happened to him had Dr. Stevens not found him and not shown him some charity?

    Yet in Volume Two, Mervyn is a colder, more calculating creature who manages to make multiple decisions himself and even deals with on the spot judgments and choices. This is not to say that he has made the correct choices, but he has a defined process and is not fearful of utilising it. This seems to occur particularly prominently when Mervyn deals with women, a case in point being his dismissal of the idea of having Eliza as his bride. His quest for matrimony is paused as he briefly thinks he has found ‘the one’ but the casts the idea of this aside feeling that she may not be good enough for him, as his intelligence is greater than hers. This process repeats itself with Lodi and even Fielding to some degree.

    How should we take this difference in character between the two volumes? One way would be to look at the people he is with when exhibiting either school of behaviour. His lack of decisiveness certainly curtails any idea of him having any form of ‘alpha male’ status when we consider Mervyn in a male environmental context, however when he is existing in a female environment, he actively makes choices with little hesitation as to whether to consult another or with any other variable in mind. It is almost a paradox of power that we see develop in the latter volume, however also may come across somewhat distasteful to modern sensibilities as he clearly fails to consider the woman’s desires and motives in his actions.

    We can also look to Mervyn’s past to consider why this may be: his alleged tryst with Betty should have placed him in a dominant position; he was the buyer of what he perceived to be an inferior good. Yet she comes back to dominate him, artificially engineering the control of the power vacuum left by Mervyn’s mother and usurping him of control of his estate. To Mervyn, perhaps Betty had ‘risen above her station’ and this clearly angered him as he went into self-imposed exile. This is merely one suggestion in what could be a huge causal change to drive his behavioral shifts. What do you feel the significance of this is, and where do you feel the causes lie?

  7. I can’t help but think that Betty’s elevated station was a threat to Arthur in terms of property and inheritance. She clearly stands in a position between Arthur and his father, complicating that relationship. I haven’t gone back to look at language of inheritance in Mervyn’s description of his childhood though. Is it there? I’d have to investigate further but don’t have time right at the moment.

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