Archive for September, 2014

Embracing Etiology in Arthur Mervyn

Etiology, defined as the ‘the causation of diseases and disorders as a subject of investigation’, is a predominant feature throughout Arthur Mervyn. From the very beginning of the memoir, we learn that Stevens does not believe in the conventional superstitious remedies of ‘gun-powder, vinegar or tar’, but rather, he believed in the need for ‘cleanliness, reasonable exercise, and wholesome diet’. In other sections of the book however, the other side of the coin is demonstrated: streets are deserted, families abandon one another, workers are not cared for (as shown in the case of Wallace), and interaction between people is avoided.

The conceptions on the origin of the disease stem from two main sources: the first being contagion, and the other being environmentalists. Stevens and Medlicote, the two physicians introduced in Volume 1 argued against contagion. The thoughts and theories regarding the origin of the disease greatly affect the population: as soon as Medlicote comforts Mervyn against the contagionist theory, Mervyn describes a physical well being. This goes to show how the mental conception of the disease affects the physical body; it parallels the view we discussed in class regarding a ‘social disease’ whose root is rumor. The rumor of contagion caused the sick to ‘die of negligence’ rather than disease itself; and the description of the disease is repeatedly mentioned as a ‘tale’. The situation is described:


“the disease created a psychic environment of heightened anxiety and nagging uncertainty, presenting Philadelphia’s denizens with a particularly horrific set of phenomena for which no satisfactory explanation could be given. This sense of uncertainty, of anxiety over the causes of appearances, pervades the first half of Arthur Mervyn”


Stomaching the Truth

During last class’ discussion, certain patterns and themes that emerge in Brown’s Arthur Mervyn were examined. Among the various motifs and images that recur, a particularly interesting one is that of the stomach. This vital organ is highlighted a number of times (8, within the entire text), often in conjunction with the yellow fever epidemic and/or the rumours that spread in tandem with the disease.

A notable example of Brown’s use of “stomach” is in relationship with the effects of rumour. When Mervyn first describes the rumours of the spreading pestilence, he says:

As often as the tale was embellished with new incidents, or inforced by new testimony, the hearer grew pale, his breath was stifled by inquietudes, his blood was chilled and his stomach was bereaved of its usual energies (Brown, 101).

It is important to note the phrase that Brown associates with “stomach” in this passage. What does it mean for the stomach to lose its “usual energies” or its “vigour” (111)? What is the significance of the stomach regaining this energy, a phenomenon that occurs to our narrator later in the novel (124)? Why use the stomach, of all organs?

According to the theory and practice of Chinese acupuncture, different parts of the human body have different functions, in addition to their biological roles. The stomach serves as the processor of “food” – both physical, mental, and emotional. Perhaps this article will shed some insight into this recurring image of the stomach, and provide reasons of why Brown chose to emphasize this organ.

Our stomachs provide us nourishment, but they also reflect our state of being. They not only indicate if we’re hungry, but they could reflect a truth beyond their physical contents. Pay attention to each time “stomach” appears in the text – and pay attention to your own!

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


The values of Quakers in Arthur Mervyn

While reading the book, and throughout the class discussions, in which we touched upon Arthur Mervyn’s strong ‘moral’ guidelines (this is not to imply that he always acts ‘morally’) that influence his decisions, I kept asking myself: what kind of factors or events made Arthur the man we met in the first pages of the book? Though the first part of the narration (Volume I) doesn’t provide much information about Arthur’s (religious) background, we know that from early childhood he was acquainted with the values promoted by the Quakers or the Religious Society of Friends. As additional information, we are aware of the fact that the author of the book, Charles Brockden Brown, also grew up in a Quaker household and was familiar with the customs and philosophies of this religious movement.

Therefore, I believe that in order to fully comprehend the underlying themes of the memoir and the connection between religion and society’s response to diseases (in our case the yellow fever), it is important to gain insight into the Quaker ‘way of life’ and their views on egalitarianism and social hierarchy.

Although our commentators for this week have given us some details in connection with this movement, I think that some extra information wouldn’t hurt our so very ‘absorbtive’ minds. You can find a short overview on the views of Quakers on this link, if you are interested!

Markets of Mervyn

Yellow Fever is evidently a vital component of the novel, as it provides a framing for the events within the narrative. Today, we discussed the recurring theme of ‘stomachs’ in the book, and the link provided may go some way to solve this puzzle. The symtoms of Yellow Fever include nausea, much like the so often invoked feeling – both physical and metaphorical – in the book. The fever, perhaps, best represents the way the characters act: impulsively, heatedly, dangerously. Also available through some close reading, is the idea that it all stems from one event. The tales in the book begin at the fragile home revealed to Mervyn when he finds his father to have married Betty: rumours infect their relationship, and he feels compelled to leave. Yellow Fever originates from a single infected mosquito, perhaps represented by Betty when considering the fever as a state of mind as well as a physical ailment. Reading the introductory pages again with this in mind opens up another layer of analysis we can use, due to the addition of context.

Attached is also a visual representation of the market forces acting in Arthur Mervyn, which we considered towards the end of today’s class. As we progress through the second volume in particular, you may see how the ‘market’ or ‘novel’ gets resolved back to a sustainable market clearing point.

Market in Action – this is the graphical market explanation. I have an A3 Poster version available if this is too small for you to see properly, just let me know and I can bring you one to the next class.

Discussion questions on Arthur Mervyn (from A2C 5th Floor Lounge – aka the Ballroom)

Our previous conveners’ post casts light on altruism shown by Dr. Stevens and his wife at the very beginning of the novel. In Chapter 1 of Arthur Mervyn, they decide to take the eponymous character with yellow fever “into [their] protection and care,” although they were aware of the “consequences” (Brown 6). This altruistic behavior is indeed unusual during an outbreak of infectious disease, especially when we look back on our previous novel, A Journal of the Plague Year by D. Defoe, in which the narrator delivers stories of inhumane incidents.

Altruism of the sound toward the sick is one thing, but the latter’s concern for the former is another. Quoting H.F. of A Journal of the Plague Year:

But very unhappily, she being so near, he caught hold of her, and pull’d her down also; and getting up first, master’d her, and kiss’d her; and which was worst of all, when he had done, told her he had the Plague, and why should not she have it as well as he (Defoe 128)

The “zombie” syndrome—the “wicked inclination in those that were infected to infect others” (Defoe 124)—depicted in Defoe’s novel doesn’t exist in Arthur Mervyn. On the contrary, Arthur Mervyn strives not to harm his host:

He suppressed his feelings and struggled to maintain a cheerful tone and countenance, that he might prevent that anxiety which the sight of his sufferings produced in us. He was perpetually furnishing reasons why his nurse should leave him alone, and betrayed dissatisfaction whenever she entered his apartment.

How can we explain the difference of behaviors portrayed in the two novels? Did Arthur Mervyn’s altruism simply derive from gratitude toward his benefactor? Or does it have underlying religious and/or cultural background? How did the infected people in London differ from Arthur Mervyn in terms of economic and social status?

Another notable feature of Arthur Mervyn is the novel’s portrayal of women. On one hand, females seem to emerge as figures of power, in charge of major decisions that determine the plot. When deciding whether or not to take in Arthur Mervyn, Dr. Stevens allows “the advice of my wife to govern” (Brown, 6) his decision. Arthur Mervyn himself chooses to leave his home because a female (Betty Lawrence) has overpowered him:

No doubt her own interest would be, to this woman, the supreme law, and this would be considered as irreconcilably hostile to mine. My father would easily be moulded to her purpose, and that act easily extorted from him which should reduce me to beggary. … The house in which I lived was no longer my own, nor even my father’s (Brown, 16). 

On the other hand, Arthur Mervyn himself develops romantic feelings for three women in succession: Clemenza, Eliza, and Mrs. Fielding. He fantasizes of marrying and regaining social power: 

I was raised to a level with her and made a tenant of the same mansion. Some intercourse would take place between us. Time would lay level impediments and establish familiarity, and this intercourse might foster love and terminate in- marriage! (Brown, 46)

 He ultimately values women that attain the adequate amount of sophistication and social status he considers necessary to fulfill the lifestyle he dreams of.

a gif from Blue Jasmine the movie

Could Brown simply be reflecting the social changes of the time, or offering a sort of critique towards this social phenomenon? Are these women depicted as true powers of figure or simply individuals symbolizing opportunities to climb the social ladder? What are the moral implications of such desires of Arthur Mervyn?

Last but not least, Arthur Mervyn sets out from his father’s house with the intention of making his own fortune and living on his own terms. He’s an unencumbered young man who is physically able, and at first he “trod this unwonted path with all the fearlessness of youth” (Brown 20). But since Arthur has very little money and quickly loses his small bundle of belongings, he lives largely on advantageous coincidences and the mercy of others. Often this mercy springs from the best intentions, such as the doctor’s offer of shelter despite Arthur’s dangerous yellow fever. But Arthur also meets Welbeck, whose mercy is a guise for manipulation and greed. When Arthur sets out from his family’s home, does he find freedom or simply a lifestyle dependent on societal goodwill? 

Philadelphia’s Homeless. 1986 Pulitzer Prize, Feature Photography, Tom Gralish, The Philadelphia Enquirer

We’ve come up with questions that are worthy of discussion–hopefully they will enrich tomorrow’s roundtable!

Happy reading,

Mina, Joohee, Annie