Volume I, Chapters I–XII
Caleb Williams, born to a poor family laboring on the estate of the wealthy Ferdinando Falkland, is raised to be honest and virtuous, with an active mind and healthy body. Though of limited means, Caleb learns to read and write. Mr. Collins, the chief administrator of Mr. Falkland's estate, notices Caleb's progress, and, after the death of Caleb's parents, Collins recommends Caleb for service to Mr. Falkland. Mr. Falkland, though a cultivated and not unkind master, has a reserved and distant manner and at other times seems to be possessed by “paroxysms” that cause him to retreat into “a solitude upon which no person dared intrude.” He employs Caleb as his amanuensis, and Caleb thus finds himself frequently in the company of Falkland. During his employment, Caleb surprises Mr. Falkland at some mysterious activity concerning a locked chest in the library. Mr. Falkland, “sparkling with rage,” accuses Caleb of being “a spy” and terrifies Caleb by his irrational outburst. Though Mr. Falkland later expresses regret and gives a gift of money to Caleb, Caleb confides his confusion about the day’s events to Mr. Collins who then narrates the story of Mr. Falkland.
Ferdinando Falkland’s aristocratic lineage was not wasted on him. He cultivated his mind, body, and virtues and brought them all to bear upon improving the general welfare. He was active in executing the requirements of good governance and good management, respecting the structures by which his culture distributed in equitable fashion the fruits of individual labor. He found expression for this gallantry in the stories of Italian epic poets such as Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso. However, he was also exposed to the darker side of such codes of chivalry as practiced by the Italians—namely, the use of duels and assassination to rectify perceived slights to one's honor. In one instance, he acquits himself, through the use of reason and straightforward talk, of a charge of seducing the Lady Lucretia away from her betrothed, Count Malvese. Thus in a display of Falkland’s genius, he expresses an understanding of “things as they are” concluding to Count Malvese, “Let us...learn to avoid haste and indiscretion, the consequences of which may be inexpiable but with blood.”
This incident is ironic since it bears so much on the turn of events that take place when Falkland returns to England. His aristocratic neighbor, Barnabas Tyrrel, exercises all the freedoms that property and position have given him and few of the responsibilities. Fierce in defending his own prerogatives, Tyrrel tramples on the rights and needs of any of his dependents who violate his sense of his own privilege to do exactly as he wants. He is a bore in the society of his equals, but due to his rank, he is generally accepted into their gatherings and, indeed, because of his physical prowess, is looked upon as a good catch for their daughters by many local families. The arrival of the physically smaller but otherwise gifted and well-mannered Falkland overshadows Tyrrel, and thus finding himself eclipsed by the grace and abilities and charms of Falkland, Tyrrel develops a hatred for him. Those among the lower classes whom Tyrrel has oppressed turn to Falkland for assistance; the ladies who once humored Tyrrel now favor Falkland; and society speaks glowingly of Falkland's accomplishments.
In one instance, an independent-minded farmer, Hawkins, is thrown out of his tenancy by a neighbor of Tyrrel's, and to spite his neighbor, Tyrrel sets Hawkins up on a farm on his estate. When Hawkins crosses Tyrrel, Tyrrel allows the full weight of his malevolence to fall on his tenant, destroying his crops, closing up access to public roads through his property, and eventually having Hawkins’s son imprisoned on trumped up charges.
In a final incident of cruelty, Tyrrel, who is the guardian of a poor female cousin, Emily, attempts to force her into a union with his tenant Grimes, and eventually develops a scheme whereby Grimes will rape Emily, thus forcing her into a marriage with him. All of this comes about because Falkland had saved Emily and three quarters of a neighboring village from a fire, after which Emily praised the strengths and virtues of Falkland. Falkland happens to be nearby when Grimes attempts to rape Emily and thus once again rescues her. Tyrrel, thwarted in his plans, has Emily arrested and carried off to jail on the charge of owing a debt for room and board, and Emily, exhausted, eventually sickens, even though Falkland once again comes to her aid, and she dies. At the county Assembly where all members of the local aristocracy take a seat, Tyrrel is castigated and his privileges withdrawn. Enraged, Tyrrel forces himself forward, and just as the assembled members begin to waver in their intent, Falkland arrives and with a stirring denunciation of Tyrrel’s behavior, drives him from the Assembly. An hour later, Tyrrel returns, very drunk, and beats Falkland, who falls under the blows he receives. Soon afterward, Tyrrel's murdered corpse is found.
The conclusion to Volume I consists of a transcription of Mr. Collins’s account of the aftermath of the murder and the court documents relating to the trial. It is generally believed that the gravity of the insult of being beaten is motive enough for murder, and Falkland is arrested. Defending himself on the basis of his own good reputation, Falkland refuses to call any witnesses to his defense since all present know how he has lived his “life in acts of justice and philanthropy.” He argues that the mere imputation of murder is so foul that he would give up his life simply to be free of the charge. Finally, he argues that had he been guilty he would have used the freedom he had to flee but instead is desirous to preserve his reputation. Falkland is acquitted of the crime, and eventually, Hawkins, once ruined by Tyrrel and aided by Falkland, is found in possession of part of the knife that killed Tyrrel. Hawkins, so it is held by some people, also confesses to the murder. Hawkins and his son are both executed, and Collins describes how Falkland’s lack of joy, his solemnity, and his fits of irrationality date to this event.
Volume II, Chapter I
In Volume I, Caleb recounts events of Falkland’s history and the trial’s outcome based on the stories Mr. Collins has told him. In Volume II, Chapter I, Caleb begins to inhabit the history in a more fundamental and personal way. He expresses how Falkland’s history has had an impact on him. Though Caleb’s sympathies lie with Falkland, upon further examination of the events, he begins to have an element of doubt and suspicion about Falkland. He rationalizes his curiosity by explaining a compulsion that propels him to research Falkland’s story, and to question, to observe, to conclude what drives Falkland’s strange behavior. In an extended piece of self-analysis, for which Godwin’s contemporaries praised the novel, Caleb explains how and why he has now become “a spy upon Mr. Falkland.” He describes how familiarity has emboldened his relationship with Mr. Falkland and how his own “simplicity” and professed innocence of the world allow him to test the waters, so to speak, of Falkland’s guilty conscience. Caleb perversely concludes that Falkland’s liberal and open manner with him is an attempt on Falkland’s part to disguise his guilt and shame about the murder of Tyrrel, which would sabotage any interaction with Caleb or people in general. To support this conclusion, Caleb recounts a discussion he has with Falkland concerning the character of one of the ancient world’s most famous heroes, Alexander the Great. The gist of the debate is whether Alexander was a great liberator of human kind and builder of civilizations, as Falkland argues, or a kind of madman who forced his will on others, unleashing destruction, mayhem, and even murder in his wake, as Caleb counters. At the mention of the word “murders,” Falkland’s countenance grows pale and then the blood “rushed back again with rapidity and fierceness.” With this, Caleb grows more certain in his suspicions of Falkland’s guilt.
Volume II, Chapters II–XIV
Caleb’s researches into Falkland’s guilt lead him to discover a letter from Hawkins to Falkland describing the final stages of his family’s ruin at the hands of Tyrrel. The letter reveals Hawkins’s courage and provides a “very interesting picture of a blunt, downright, honest mind.” Caleb ponders the mystery of how such a person could also be a murderer and then places the letter where Falkland will find it. In a subsequent conversation with Falkland, Caleb argues that the good qualities in a person could be used to work injury and concludes that “innocence and guilt are too much confounded in human life.” Knowing Falkland has probably read Hawkins’s letter, Caleb reminds Falkland of a story about a falsely accused man who is spared from death only because the true murderer is sitting on the jury and prevents it. This creates a paroxysm in Falkland who wishes he could “crush the whole system into nothing.” Falkland’s response continues to feed Caleb’s fatal curiosity and soon after this exchange, Falkland asks Caleb if he had read Hawkins’s letter which he has found. Now that he is aware that Caleb is pursuing a line of reasoning in regards to the murder, Falkland presents a kind of apologia to Caleb: “As soon as I was capable of choice, I chose honour and esteem of mankind as a good I preferred to all others.” He tells Caleb that the accusations have thwarted him in his ambitions to do good and that Caleb’s inquiries are merely “sporting with his feelings.” Caleb feels ashamed of his suspicions, and having been taken into the confidence of Falkland, he expresses devotion to his master.
But Caleb’s restlessness returns, and he contrasts his own situation with that of Falkland. In a remarkable analysis, Caleb suggests that the unknown gratifications waiting at the end of his researches will more than compensate him for any pain he might endure in arriving there. Here is another example of Godwin employing the language of reason to describe drives and impulses that we recognize today. Caleb determines that Falkland is not innocent, but he has a hard time accepting and proving that Falkland is guilty. In the meantime, Falkland’s strange behavior and fits and starts drive him from the house, and Falkland is to be found wandering among scenes of Nature in its more violent and sublime aspects, its rocks, precipices, and torrents. Caleb upon being sent to bring his master home, and observing his behavior, finds convincing evidence that “[s]urely this man is a murderer.”
Convinced of Falkland’s guilt, Caleb seeks proof and looks forward to an upcoming trial of a peasant accused of murdering a neighbor at which Falkland will preside: “Murder is the master-key that wakes distemper in the mind of Falkland.” In this case, the man accused reflects the story of Falkland’s own relation to Tyrrel, and what ensues is a tale of the accused constantly harassed by a bullying fellow whose final insult is such a breach of honor that in one blow, the defendant kills his opponent. Falkland, in a state of great agitation, leaves the courtroom and later acquits the peasant. The dead man’s brother, however, takes his complaint through an appeals process, and a less-forgiving judge eventually sentences the peasant to death. Caleb feels he has seen Falkland’s life pass before him at the trial, and finds this proof enough. While passing to and fro in a nearby garden expostulating to himself out loud and wondering what to do with his information, Caleb catches a glimpse of a shadow and is convinced Falkland has overheard him.
A fire breaks out in Falkland’s house, and in the rush to remove valuables, Caleb finds himself compelled by the confusion to enter the library and break open the chest in which he thinks the evidence of Falkland’s guilt is hidden. Falkland enters and sees what Caleb intends, seizes a pistol, and almost shoots Caleb on the spot. Restraining himself, Falkland relocks the chest and rushes out to fight the fire. Later that evening, Falkland calls Caleb into his presence and confirms Caleb’s suspicions. All the particulars fit with Caleb’s understanding save how Hawkins came into possession of part of the knife used to kill Tyrrel. Perhaps he passed by and assisted Tyrrel in his death throes, Falkland suggests. Having gratified his curiosity, Falkland says, Caleb must live with the consequences: “To gratify a foolishly inquisitive humour you have sold yourself.” He requires Caleb’s compliance and threatens him with “death or worse” should Caleb divulge information. Caleb feels all the remorse of having transgressed and “the ease and light-heartedness of [his] youth were...