Choosing Your Religion and Political Beliefs – Literature Essay
Everyone knows that part of the idea behind the creation of an independent nation in the 1700’s was the opportunity for all people to make choices for themselves and to be whoever they wanted to be. Whether or not the idea turned
out the way it was supposed to, is another question. However, the opportunity for people to make choices concerning religion, political beliefs and other important matters relies upon the idea that people are equipped to make these decisions, as well as other less substantial decisions everyday. Supposing that people have the ability to live as individuals, responsible for and living in the best possible way for themselves, assumes that people are capable of making good decisions, decisions benefiting themselves and those around them in the best possible way. The possibility of this ideal, the basis of the establishment of America, is explored and represented in a number of the works of the time, including Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, and in Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland and Arthur Mervyn. In the works, the authors represent individualism in different ways, but each seems to support the idea that it is impossible for any person to make every decision correctly for him or herself, and that to some extent, all need the help of others to make the choices which are best for themselves and the world around them.
Foster presents the idea that women are unable to make good decisions for themselves in The Coquette. In The Coquette, Eliza is always appealing to her family and friends for help in making her decisions regarding her two suitors, and she is constantly going back and forth with her decisions and convictions. One moment, Eliza has determined to be with Boyer, and the next she is regretting and recanting her decision and again running to Sanford. Eliza also declares again and again that she is no longer going to see or spend time with Sanford, only to agree to a meeting with him only days or moments later. Even after Eliza makes a seemingly definitive decision to reject Sanford, she does not follow it, to the dismay of her family and friends. Eliza’s indecisiveness even leads to the loss of Boyer, and it is not until he has found another love that she makes the decision that she loves him. Eliza’s inability to make a timely decision only leads to her misfortune.
Further supporting the idea that Eliza is incapable of making a good decision is the result of her final decision to be with Sanford. Although it could be argued that a part of Eliza’s misery stems from her family and friends lack acceptance of her choices, it is undeniable that her ultimate decision results in the ruin of her life, both emotionally and physically. Because Eliza consents to the affair with Sanford, she is resigned to a life of shame and ruined reputation, and she mourns her decision and the effect it will have on her mother and friends as soon as her “mistake” is revealed. As a result of her decision to be with Sanford, Eliza becomes pregnant, and the shame and strain of bearing a child out of wedlock leads to her eventual death. Clearly Eliza is unable to make a good decision, so it is entirely possible that Foster believes that not only her character, but all women, are unable to do so as well. Foster seems to support the idea that women need the help and advice of others in order to make the right decision, and that a foolish girl trying to make such decisions for herself, trying to exert her individuality, can only result in disaster in the end.
Brown also leads the reader to question individuals’ abilities to make good decisions in Wieland. In Wieland, several characters are presented as making decisions which have extreme ill effects for those around them, implying that Brown supports the idea that individuals are incapable of relying solely on themselves when it comes to decision making. Such bad decision making is without a doubt illustrated in the decisions of the villain of Weiland, Carwin. In the work, Carwin’s choice to fool around with the Wieland family creates the worst possible effects for everyone. Because of Carwin’s pranks, the family goes through countless instances of horror and grief, and their content existence is essentially ruined. Carwin and his ventriloquism causes the distress of Clara, her brother Wieland, and his entire family, and leads to an immense amount of questioning and doubting among the group. Carwin’s tricks may even have played a role in Wieland’s slaughtering of his family, if not by the direct encouragement through ventriloquism of Wieland to sacrifice them, at least by making his mind more susceptible to a mental breakdown causing him to do so by placing unnecessary stress on his mind. Carwin comes to regret his fooling with the family, as is demonstrated by his attempt to gain forgiveness and to explain himself to Clara after the nasty results of his schemes. Since Carwin regrets his decision to use the family to entertain himself, he too is illustrated as unable to make a decision which is best for himself, and which has even worse results for those around him.
It could also be argued that Wieland himself is further proof of the individual’s inability to make responsible and good decisions. Not only does Wieland make the unfortunate decision to murder his family as homage to God, but his apparent mental instability initiates questioning about the ability for all Americans to make decisions for themselves. If mental instability could happen in the case of one American, it could logically happen to others, making the stability of all America vulnerable. If there are those out there who are hearing voices telling them to kill their families, America truly is in danger, especially if these people are being trusted to make significant decisions affecting themselves and others. Brown seems to be warning his readers against this possibility, and to be supporting the idea that one alone cannot make the important decisions for himself or for society.
Inexperience seems to be the problem associated with one making one’s own decisions in Arthur Mervyn. Again in Mervyn, Brown seems to be supporting the idea that the intelligence of more than one person is necessary to make good decisions, and that the individual is incapable of making the wisest choices for oneself. Arthur Mervyn seems to be Brown’s illustration of why individuals are incapable of decision making, as he is undeniably inexperienced and uneducated, and unable to trust in many of his own choices in important matters. Although Mervyn seems to place faith in his actions and their moral consequences, he still is unable to believe himself to possess enough experience and knowledge to make every good decision and to achieve anything substantial in society or the world. He is constantly seeking the advice and counsel of his wiser and more worldly friends, such as the Stevens’ and even Welbeck, proving his desperation for resources and help and his inability to make choices for himself. Mervyn even requires the advice and encouragement of Mr. Stevens in the situation of making Ascha his wife, demonstrating that he cannot make important decisions for himself even when they are of the most personal kind.
Adding further doubt to Mervyn’s ability to make good decisions is the fact that when Mervyn does make a decision for himself, it has many extremely unfortunate results. Because Mervyn decides to run hastily to the city to save Susan’s fiancé, he causes a number of events which have terrible effects for himself and for those around him. Since Mervyn left without informing the Hadwin’s of his intentions, Mr. Hadwin risks his life unnecessarily in entering the city himself to search for Wallace. Mervyn also exposes himself to the disease while conducting his search, an occurrence which leads to the danger of infection to others as well. Undoubtedly, Mervyn is a reckless and somewhat thoughtless man when he must make his own decisions, and if it were not for luck and the care of others, he most likely would not have made it through his ordeal alive and happy. Without the intervention of others, and their help in making his choices, Mervyn would not have had his happy ending, showing that Brown believes that everyone needs help when it comes to deciding what is best for themselves and for the world.
As Foster and Brown demonstrate, although America may be ideally a land where people can achieve individuality, it may not always be best for people to assume responsibility for each decison in such a tumultuous time. As the works demonstrate, looking only into oneself for the right answers is not always best, and can have some unfortunate results. Therefore, these authors each seem to be supporting the idea that in a time of many questions and such doubt, allowing others to advise and counsel can only help in the decision-making process, and help to ensure the well-being and happiness of those for whom they care.