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


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  1. We agree that there are certain female characters in the novel that represent powerful women, such as the case of Dr Steven’s wife, who makes significant decisions involving her household, and Mervyn’s step-mother Betty Lawrence, who showed a cunning personality and rose to become the dominant figure of her marriage.

    However, most other roles depict women to be subordinate to the will of their husbands, outstanding amongst them Clemenza Lodi, who is constantly described to need that help of a male figure to survive in this world. Susan Hadwin presents another female character that is in a dire need of her man, which becomes obvious from her worry for Wallace, her fiancé, who was in the town during the epidemic. In addition, the fact that the name of Dr Steven’s wife is never mentioned hints at her role’s inferiority in the rest of the novel. Finally, Betty’s character, the single true female character in possession of real agency, is not applauded, but frowned upon: “I knew the woman to be rude, ignorant, and licentious” (Brown 16).

    We feel that Brockden Brown is not trying to promote the empowerment of women or indicate a social change taking place, but rather his writing is simply influenced by his personal background. Coming from a merchant Quaker family, Brockden Brown’s women represent the traditional values of the religious movement, in which women are given an important role: “at a time in America when women had virtually no rights, these Quakers provided model relationships where men and women worked and live in equality”(1). Thus Brown is more likely to describe women as capable and autonomous individuals.

    The class’s previous reading, A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, emphasizes the latter argument. Here, the author does not depict women as strong characters: they require the care of their husbands, are portrayed as murderous nurses by the rumors, and H.F. gives an account of women stealing his brother’s hats, a luxury that can’t be described as requisitioning in times of need.

    By Rafa, Vlad and Liam

    (1) http://www.nps.gov/wori/historyculture/quaker-influence.htm

    • Dear Rafa, Vlad, and Liam,

      I think you guys have a valid argument. While there are certain female figures in this novel that hold considerable influence over men, other women, despite their significant role in developing the plot, depend on men’s help, especially that of Arthur Mervyn.
      But what caught my attention is that in this novel, gender doesn’t seem to be the deciding factor in whether a character is subordinate or not. That is to say, the propensity to depend on others is shown by several characters in this novel regardless of their gender.

      Clemenza Lodi and the Hadwin sisters are clearly examples of those individuals. Betty Lawrence, although depicted as an influential character who caused Arthur Mervyn to leave, merely gained that influence through relying on another character, Arthur Mervyn’s father. Even Arthur Mervyn is a main beneficiary of outside assistance. Since he left his home, he had sought to “secure a livelihood” (17) and gain social status, and his primary method in doing so, whether intended or not, was taking advantage of others. Due to Dr. Stevens’ altruism and faith in him, Arthur Mervyn could not only save his life but also learn to become a physician. Moreover, he inexplicitly seeks a stable life through marrying affluent women. Later he feels that Eliza Hadwin no longer suits him, and develops feeling for Mrs. Fielding who would help him live elite, sophisticated life.

      Personally, I share your thought in that Brockden Brown is not particularly interested in female empowerment–but still he seems to have a sense of gender equality, probably due to his Quaker background as you have pointed out. And although gender issues are not explicitly presented in the novel, it is noticeable that the novel doesn’t fit into the common gender stereotype. Brockden Brown doesn’t portray female characters as subordinate and males superior–rather, he introduces round individuals that can be opportunist and/or influential regardless of their gender.

      • Interesting points!! I agree with Mina- it’s hard to define the novel as a whole as “feminist” or “anti-feminist”. I believe it is neither. However I still believe the changing social roles of the time were portrayed throughout, especially (as mentioned in post) Dr. Steven’s wife (at least in the opening scene, as it introduces their relationship as well) and Betty Lawrence (even if she was not a likeable character, the fact that “my father would easily be moulded to her purpose” still indicates her power, no?) Perhaps the roles of the other subordinate females were presented as representatives of the old status quo, and the other more controlling females as the change that is slowly insinuating into society. Whether or not Brown is approving of this social change is another question in itself….

        • There are certainly examples in the novel of female characters dismissed or devalued because of their gender, and Arthur Mervyn makes many misogynistic comments of his own. But the presence of significant, impactful female characters is important, and may be a result of both Brockden Brown’s Quaker upbringing and the circle of intellectuals he was surrounded by when he wrote much of his literature.

          This group introduced Brown to the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, a hugely influential 18th century feminist writer and advocate. In 1798, Brown published a feminist treatise entitled “Alcuin” which many believe was influenced by Wollstonecraft’s 1792 book “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”. “Arthur Mervyn” was published just a year after “Alcuin”, which provides broader context regarding Brown’s political views when he wrote the novel. But as Mina and Joo Hee mentioned, this novel departs from a clear feminist stance and doesn’t always highlight the capability and independence of its female characters.

  2. Annie, I’m glad you mentioned Wollstonecraft and Alcuin. It’s both true that Brown and his circle considered themselves disciples of Wollstonecraft — or at least fanboys — but also that they never put into place a program of gender equality that came close to what she advocated. I think we sense some of that tension in the novel, similar to its conflicted statements or implications about race.

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