William Godwin titled his novel Things As They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, but it survives under the name of its hero. It is a novel of divided interests, as it was written to criticize society and to tell an adventure story. All the elements that contribute to Caleb’s misery are the result of weaknesses in eighteenth century English laws, which permitted the wealthy landowners to hold power over poorer citizens.
Historians of the novel have always encountered great difficulty in categorizing Godwin’s Caleb Williams. It has been called a great tragic novel, the first pursuit novel, a crime or mystery novel, a chase-and-capture adventure, a political thesis fiction, a gothic romance, a terror or sensation novel, even a sentimental tale. To some extent, it is all of these—and none of them. The novel has, like most enduring works of art, taken on many shapes and meanings as new readers interpret the narrative in terms of their own personal, cultural, and historical experiences.
Godwin had no doubts about his book’s meaning or about the effect he hoped to achieve with it: “I will write a tale that shall constitute an epoch in the mind of the reader, that no one, after he has read it, shall ever be exactly the same man that he was before.” Having achieved fame in 1793 with his powerful, influential, and controversial political treatise An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, he sought a form in which to dramatize his ideas. At the most obvious level, then, Caleb Williams can be seen as a fictional gloss on Godwin’s previous political masterpiece.
Caleb Williams, however, is no simple political tract. Godwin knew that he must first develop a narrative, in his words, “distinguished by a very powerful interest,” if he expected readers to absorb and seriously consider his philosophical and social ideas, so he took the most exciting situation he could conceive, creating, as he said, “a series of adventures of flight and pursuit; the fugitive in perpetual apprehension of being overwhelmed with the worst calamities,...
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