Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, William Godwin
Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams William Godwin
The following entry presents criticism of Godwin's novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794).
Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams is Godwin's most famous novel and is often considered the fictional counterpart of his best-known work, the political and philosophical treatise An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). According to many critics, the essay represents Godwin's utopian view of the way things should be, while the novel represents—as the full title indicates—his dystopian view of things as they are.
The seventh of thirteen children in a strict Calvinist family, William Godwin was born on March 3, 1756, in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, to John Godwin, a Dissenting minister, and Ann Hull Godwin, the daughter of a shipowner. The family moved to Debenham in Suffolk when Godwin was two years old and then to Guestwick near Norwich two years later. His early education took place in Guestwick and nearby Hindolveston, and in 1767 he began training with a Calvinist preacher in Norwich. When his father died in 1772, Godwin and his mother moved to London where he attended Hoxton College, studying theology, philosophy, and the classics. He graduated in May, 1778, as a Calvinist and a Tory.
Although he originally planned to enter the ministry, his commitment to rationalism and intellectual freedom led him in other directions. Influenced by Thomas Holcroft, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others, Godwin abandoned his religious and political beliefs and became first a deist, and later an atheist and a Whig. He began writing pamphlets and literary parodies, most of them published anonymously, and novels in which he criticized the manners of the aristocracy. Against the backdrop of revolution in France and the repression of seditious writings and speech in Britain, Godwin produced Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, his most acclaimed work. It was an immediate success, and although its primary appeal was to intellectuals, it also found its way into the hands of the working class. A year later Godwin addressed that audience more directly with the publication of Caleb Williams, which he claimed to have written for “persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach.” The two texts represented the high point of Godwin's career as a writer and a radical.
By 1795, concerned about the excesses of the French Revolution, he began tempering his commitment to change, calling for gradual reform through education of the populace. In 1796 he renewed his acquaintance with the writer Mary Wollstonecraft. They were married in March 1797, but Wollstonecraft died in August of that year, soon after giving birth to their daughter, Mary. Grief-stricken, Godwin published his late wife's memoirs the following year. He continued writing for more than thirty years, producing novels, essays, biographies, and historical texts, and died on April 7, 1836, at the age of eighty.
Plot and Major Characters
Caleb Williams is narrated in the first person by the title character, the son of a peasant who serves as secretary to Squire Falkland, a wealthy country gentleman. Falkland is publicly insulted by another landowner, Tyrrel, a bully despised by the entire community. Rather than challenge Tyrrel to a duel, Falkland murders him in secret and allows two innocent men to be executed for the crime. When Caleb discovers his master's secret, Falkland threatens him into silence, and when Caleb tries to leave his position, Falkland plants jewelry in his bag and accuses him of theft. Caleb is convicted and imprisoned, but escapes. He is captured in London, but the authorities must release him because Falkland, fearing his own crime will be revealed, fails to testify against him. Although technically free, Caleb is hounded by Falkland's agents, who pursue him wherever he goes, turning his neighbors against him with their stories. Finally Caleb, unable to bear this persecution any longer, confronts the dying Falkland who publicly confesses the whole story.
Caleb Williams represents Godwin's attempt to expose the injustices of English social and political life: the unchecked power of landlords over peasants, the horrors of the prison system, the tyranny of the wealthy over the poor, and the government's oppression of its citizens. The emptiness and hypocrisy of the aristocratic code of honor was exposed through Falkland's willingness to stand by as two innocent men were executed for a murder he committed. The contemporary political climate wherein spies seemed to be listening in on every conversation and critics of the government were imprisoned on the flimsiest of evidence was represented by the relentless persecution of Caleb and the justifiable paranoia that resulted. The novel was released at the same time that members of the London Corresponding Society, including Thomas Holcroft, were arrested and tried for treason. Godwin made two significant changes to the original manuscript at this time: the elimination of a Preface, which was later reinstated in the second edition, and a dramatic change in the novel's ending. Whether these changes were in response to the arrest of his friends and fellow writers or were prompted by his own fears of government reprisals is a matter of conjecture on the part of literary scholars. The original ending of the novel was considerably more pessimistic than the published version—Falkland continues to deny his crime, and Caleb's protests are silenced by the judge. Unable to bear further persecution, Caleb goes mad while Falkland lives out his years in health and apparent happiness.
Godwin's novel has been interpreted in widely varying ways. Some critics consider it a gothic novel, others consider it a precursor to the English detective novel, and still others refer to it as the first psychological novel. Harvey Gross contends that Godwin employed gothic conventions in a revolutionary way, turning what was considered an escapist genre into political literature by using “the despotic hero and the narrative technique of flight and pursuit in a context that is specifically social and political.” Many scholars concentrate on the parallels between Godwin's political treatise, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Caleb Williams. D. Gilbert Dumas reports that Godwin's stated intent was to demonstrate within his novel “that the spirit and character of the government intrudes itself into every rank of society”; Dumas points out that this is “the same political principle that supports much of the huge argument of Political Justice.” Similarly, Kenneth W. Graham maintains that “from the beginning Godwin linked the two works in content and in spirit. In both he sought to undermine fundamental prejudices and open the mind to change.” Rudolf F. Storch explores the connections between Godwin's social criticism and his Calvinist upbringing, claiming that “the psychic energy for social criticism is derived from rebellion against parental authority, which in its turn is linked with guilt finding its expressive language in Calvinist obsession with divine persecution.” Marilyn Butler discusses the central position of politics in Godwin's novel, contending that the work represents a response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).
Although some critics have read Caleb Williams as a novel of homosexual love, Alex Gold, Jr. does not quite agree. Gold contends that although the novel “transcends heterosexual boundaries” in its exploration of the connections between tyranny and love, it does not necessarily imply that the story is about homosexual passion. Robert J. Corber suggests that Godwin's novel is part of the homophobic political atmosphere of late eighteenth-century Britain because it codes homosexual acts as an element of aristocratic privilege and patronage, which Godwin was trying to discredit. According to Corber, “By associating aristocratic patronage with the ‘unspeakable,’ [Godwin] promoted forms of male bonding more conducive to middle-class ambitions,” and thus encouraged middle-class men to succeed on the basis of their own merit rather than relying on an outmoded system of patronage.
An Account of the Seminary That Will Be Opened at Epsom (essay) 1783
The History of the Life of William Pitt (biography) 1783
An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (essay) 1793
Cursory Strictures on the Charge delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, October 2, 1794. First Published in the Morning Chronicle, October 21 (essay) 1794
Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (novel) 1794
Considerations on Lord Grenville's and Mr. Pitt's Bill Concerning Treasonable and Seditious Practices, and Unlawful Assemblies (essay) 1795
The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (essays) 1797
Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (memoirs) 1798
St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (novel) 1799
Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (biography) 1803
Fleetwood; or, The New Man of Feeling (novel) 1805
Faulkener (play) 1807
Mandeville: A Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England (novel) 1817
Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, Being an Answer to Mr. Malthus' Essay on That...
(The entire section is 220 words.)
SOURCE: Dumas, D. Gilbert. “Things as They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams.” SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6, no. 3 (summer 1966): 575-97.
[In the following essay, Dumas explores possible motivations for Godwin's withdrawal of the Preface from the first edition and his substitution of the original ending of the novel.]
Godwin's note in the second edition of Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams informs us that he had withdrawn the Preface, now restored, from the first edition because of the fears of booksellers. The novel had first appeared in May 1794, “the same month,” says Godwin in his note, “in which the sanguinary plot broke out against the liberties of Englishmen. … Terror was the order of the day; and it was feared that even the humble novelist might be shown to be constructively a traitor.”1 The plot Godwin alludes to was of course the Crown's proceedings against Hardy, Tooke, Thelwall, Holcroft, and other members of the London Corresponding Society on charges of High Treason. Noting that the series of political arrests commenced with that of Thomas Hardy on May 12, perhaps more than one reader of Godwin's note has wondered whether the author might after that date not only have withdrawn the Preface but altered or deleted other material in CW which might have aroused the fears of booksellers. An...
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SOURCE: Storch, Rudolf F. “Metaphors of Private Guilt and Social Rebellion in Godwin's Caleb Williams.” ELH 34, no. 2 (June 1967): 188-207.
[In the following essay, Storch maintains that Caleb Williams is a surprisingly modern text in its treatment of neurotic obsession despite its commonly perceived status as a late eighteenth-century gothic romance.]
Caleb Williams was published in 1794, but is in essentials a very modern novel and may strike the twentieth-century reader as more congenial in its psychology than even the best Victorian character analysis. Its great imaginative power has unfortunately been suffocated by the wrappers of literary history: social novel, gothic terror, romance. When it is freed from these generalities and seen in its pristine state, it may be left to do its work on the reader's sensibility even to-day. The puzzle about the book is that in spite of its wooden style, wild improbabilities and unconvincing characterisation it produces a feverish intensity which few ‘successful’ novels of classical stature can equal, and which literary history has not altogether accounted for. The experience nearest to this intensity is to be found in recent surrealist and automatic writing, which exploits the subconscious storehouse as a matter of policy. The fascination (and in a sense, the greater value) of Caleb Williams lies in the fact that Godwin seems...
(The entire section is 8319 words.)
SOURCE: Harvey, A. D. “The Nightmare of Caleb Williams.” Essays in Criticism 26, no. 3 (July 1976): 236-49.
[In the following essay, Harvey discusses the nightmarish setting of Godwin's novel, focusing on the vivid descriptions of corruption and oppression as well as the harsh fates to which the primary characters are subjected.]
Although there has been some interesting recent work on William Godwin's novel Caleb Williams it can hardly be said to have received the recognition it deserves. It is too often dismissed as a ‘Philosophical Novel’, that is, a piece of inadequately dramatised preaching, and some commentators degrade it even further by seeing it merely as a curious pendant to Political Justice, the work Godwin completed just before starting the novel in 1793.1
That Godwin himself considered Caleb Williams to be a novel of ideas, and in particular, an analysis of contemporary society, is shown by the full title under which he originally published the novel, Things As They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, and by a brief preface, suppressed ‘in compliance with the alarms of booksellers’, in which it was claimed that the
narrative is intended to answer a purpose more general and important than immediately appears upon the face of it … to comprehend, as far as the progressive...
(The entire section is 4928 words.)
SOURCE: Gold, Alex, Jr. “It's Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin's Caleb Williams.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 19, no. 2 (summer 1977): 135-60.
[In the following essay, Gold studies the issue of governmental control over private life in Caleb Williams.]
Equality fled and was no more; and love, almighty, perdurable love, came to supply its place.
—William Godwin, Thoughts on Man
The crucial scene in Godwin's Caleb Williams occurs, unfortunately, in a garden:
While I thus proceeded with hasty steps along the most secret paths of the garden, and from time to time gave vent to the tumult of my thoughts in involuntary exclamations, I felt as if my animal system had undergone a total revolution. My blood boiled within me. I was conscious to a kind of rapture for which I could not account. I was solemn, yet full of rapid emotion, burning with indignation and energy. In the very tempest and hurricane of the passions, I seemed to enjoy the most soul-ravishing calm. I cannot better express the then state of my mind, than by saying, I was never so perfectly alive as at that moment.
Caleb is struggling to describe the sensationally eccentric exhilaration which overwhelms him at the...
(The entire section is 11468 words.)
SOURCE: Miller, Jacqueline T. “The Imperfect Tale: Articulation, Rhetoric, and Self in Caleb Williams.” Criticism 20, no. 4 (fall 1978): 366-82.
[In the following essay, Miller examines Godwin's theory of language as set forth in his essay on political justice and his application of that theory in the novel Caleb Williams.]
Recent criticism of Caleb Williams generally concentrates on the theme of mastery and victimization, placing it in political, psychological, or theological contexts.1 These studies provide useful perspectives, but Godwin himself extended this concept of authority and oppression to include the domain of language and aesthetics, and it is here that we can locate a crucial but largely ignored dimension of the novel. From the book emerges an idea of language that equates words and things, defining the self and the world as basically linguistic constructs which are shaped, manipulated and controlled by those who possess the most powerful and persuasive language.2 In this paper I intend to examine the theory of language proposed in Godwin's essays, and then to explore the ways in which the principles of that theory inform the novel. For Caleb Williams is the “imperfect and mutilated story”3 of a man who cannot speak his own words and who thereby fails to “bring into being what he really is.”4 It is the history of a...
(The entire section is 6420 words.)
SOURCE: Butler, Marilyn. “Godwin, Burke, and Caleb Williams.” Essays in Criticism 32, no. 3 (July 1982): 237-57.
[In the following essay, Butler illustrates the centrality of politics in Caleb Williams, particularly in relation to the conservatism of Edmund Burke.]
Where politics appears in English novels, it is commonly at the margins; in Caleb Williams it is central. Godwin's most significant creative period was during the political crisis of 1791-6, when a native English radical movement first blossomed, warmed by events across the Channel, and then withered and died in the national crisis of full-scale war with France. He wrote continuously in these years: pamphlets, letters to newspapers, and the two most important books of his career, the treatise Political Justice (1793) and the novel Caleb Williams (1794). The two books both went into revised second editions by 1796, with Political Justice so materially changed that its second edition represents a new political statement.
This body of writing made Godwin the foremost intellectual among English radicals once the post fell vacant with Tom Paine's precipitate departure for France in 1792. Too much knowledge of Godwin's later years makes us pin on him Lamb's tag, ‘the Philosopher’, as though he was always chairbound and anything but practically dangerous. Despite his emphasis on...
(The entire section is 7402 words.)
SOURCE: DePorte, Michael. “The Consolations of Fiction: Mystery in Caleb Williams.” Papers on Language and Literature 20, no. 2 (spring 1984): 154-64.
[In the following essay, DePorte discusses Godwin's use of standard mystery story elements in Caleb Williams.]
Caleb Williams has long been recognized as a prototype of the mystery story. It contains a notorious, supposedly solved murder; an amateur detective who gets more than he bargained for; a compelling sequence of capture, escape, and pursuit; and a climax in which the true murderer makes a public confession.1 Of course, the novel can also be read as a good deal more than a mystery story. It can be read as a powerful dramatization of the arguments Godwin had made a year before in Political Justice,2 or as a psychological novel, the intensity and insight of which anticipate Dostoevsky and Kafka.3
Much recent Caleb Williams criticism calls attention to the curious lack of resolution in the novel and to the way Godwin derives many of his most striking effects from that lack of resolution.4 For Caleb Williams is a kind of mystery story in reverse: as the facts become clearer, the meaning of those facts becomes more mysterious; the closer one gets to the truth, the more complicated truth seems. I view the mystifications of the narrative as devices of...
(The entire section is 4631 words.)
SOURCE: Simms, Karl N. “Caleb Williams' Godwin: Things as They Are Written.” Studies in Romanticism 26, no. 3 (fall 1987): 343-63.
[In the following essay, Simms examines Godwin's use of first-person narration in Caleb Williams.]
In the “Preface” to Fleetwood (1805) Godwin writes: “One caution I have particularly sought to exercise: ‘not to repeat myself.’”1 This is a curious remark for him to make with regard to his own work, since in writings dated as diversely as 1793 and 1832, the gesture of becoming one's own historian appears several times. In the first edition of Political Justice (1793) this is seen as an effect of the decision of an individual always to employ “real sincerity”:
Did every man impose this law upon himself he would be obliged to consider before he decided upon the commission of an equivocal action, whether he chose to be his own historian, to be the future narrator of the scene in which he was engaging.2
In the third edition (1798) the position is reversed, and it becomes the cause of an effect of sincerity:
Did every man impose this law upon himself, did he regard himself as not authorised to conceal any part of his character and conduct, this circumstance alone would prevent millions of actions from being perpetrated, in...
(The entire section is 9480 words.)
SOURCE: Thompson, James. “Surveillance in William Godwin's Caleb Williams.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham, pp. 173-98. New York: AMS Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Thompson discusses Godwin's novel within the historical context of England in the 1790s.]
A functioning police state needs no police.
There is a wealth of documentary evidence surrounding the composition and intention of William Godwin's Caleb Williams, or Things as They Are. We have several of Godwin's own statements from different stages of his life about the composition of the text, his own theoretical work from the same period, his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, along with abundant evidence of his political engagement at this time. However, if we take Godwin's own statements too literally, or if we try to systematize these various texts into one whole vision, such an abundance of material can lead us into obvious trouble. Political Justice, it can be argued, does provide a utopian vision of Things as They Ought to Be, while Caleb Williams or Things as They Are analogously offers a counter or dystopian vision of the present state of corruption. Nevertheless, as continuing critical arguments demonstrate, neither vision is unambiguous, nor can either...
(The entire section is 7901 words.)
SOURCE: Corber, Robert J. “Representing the ‘Unspeakable’: William Godwin and the Politics of Homophobia.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1, no. 1 (July 1990): 85-101.
[In the following essay, Corber examines Godwin's participation in the homophobic atmosphere of the late eighteenth century with his novel's association of effeminacy and homosexuality with aristocratic privilege.]
Despite the impact of the new historicism on Romantic studies, the virulently homophobic climate of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has been all but ignored by scholars interested in situating Romantic writers in relation to the political debates of the period. As a number of scholars working in the field of gay history have recently shown, sodomites were subjected to a virtually unprecedented persecution in Georgian England.1 The number of sodomy convictions rose dramatically, antisodomitical pamphlets warning against an “epidemic” of sodomy proliferated, and the popular press gloated over the appallingly brutal treatment of sodomites sentenced to the pillory.2 Moreover, members of Parliament who protested the widespread violence against sodomites were themselves subjected to vicious attacks. When Edmund Burke, for instance, spoke out against the physical and verbal abuse to which the pillory exposed men convicted of sodomy, several London newspapers insinuated that he...
(The entire section is 7832 words.)
SOURCE: Graham, Kenneth W. “‘Domestic and Unrecorded Despotism’: The Politics of Caleb Williams.” In The Politics of Narrative: Ideology and Social Change in William Godwin's Caleb Williams, pp. 13-48. New York: AMS Press, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Graham discusses Godwin's treatment of class and gender inequalities in Caleb Williams, maintaining that the novel is a product of Godwin's most radical period.]
Caleb Williams and Political Justice represent Godwin during his most radical period. Soon after their publication Godwin was to be a helpless witness at the death of Mary Wollstonecraft and, a little later, he was to see his ideas and his marriage held up to ridicule and his supporters desert him. Works written after such experiences continue to exhibit his philosophical rigor and creative powers, as well as his extraordinary industry, but they lack the fire and audacity of the publications of 1792-95 that attacked the repressions fostered and encouraged by government: the MUCIUS letters of 1792-93, Political Justice (1793), Caleb Williams (1794), Cursory Strictures and A Reply to an Answer to Cursory Strictures (1794), and Considerations on Lord Grenville's and Mr Pitt's Bills (1795). Just as Godwin blunted some of the contentious edges in subsequent editions of Political Justice,...
(The entire section is 9637 words.)
SOURCE: Barker, Gerard A. “The Narrative Mode of Caleb Williams: Problems and Resolutions.” Studies in the Novel 25, no. 1 (spring 1993): 1-15.
[In the following essay, Barker examines Godwin's original purpose in writing Caleb Williams, his initial use of third-person narration, and the changes he made to accommodate the shift to first person.]
The inherent limitations of first-person narratives in which the hero recounts his own story have often been described.1 Character analysis in memoir novels is usually limited both by the narrator's inability to view himself with the detachment of a privileged third-person narrator as well as enter the minds of other characters. As Mrs. Barbauld long ago observed, “what the hero cannot say, the author cannot tell.”2 Or, to quote a more recent critic, “the author using the I-narrator deliberately goes forth to battle with one hand tied behind his back.”3 We know that Dostoevski abandoned his first-person version of Crime and Punishment for the third person4 and that Henry James decided against making Strether “at once hero and historian” of The Ambassadors.5
Curiously enough, William Godwin took precisely the opposite direction in creating Caleb Williams (1794). Looking back in 1832, he recalled in his preface to Fleetwood: “I began my...
(The entire section is 6735 words.)
SOURCE: Handwerk, Gary. “Of Caleb's Guilt and Godwin's Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb Williams.” ELH 60, no. 4 (winter 1993): 939-60.
[In the following essay, Handwerk studies the relationship between Godwin's novel and his political treatise, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.]
For a moralizing solution, like any essentializing gesture, serves the ideological function of masking the more difficult cultural and ethicopolitical issues.
—Dominick LaCapra, History, Politics, and the Novel
Despite a recent resurgence of interest in his life and in certain of his works, William Godwin remains an elusive and little-noticed figure of English literary and intellectual history. Known as much for his personal links to other figures—to Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth, or Shelley—as for his own writing, Godwin remains largely unread except by specialists in the Jacobin period. At best, other critics may identify Godwin with the eccentric anarchism of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice or the Gothic histrionics of Caleb Williams. Even if one gives full credit to work by more recent critics, literary criticism is still very far from doing justice to his work as a whole or overcoming long-nurtured suspicions about the quality and significance of much of his writing....
(The entire section is 9702 words.)
SOURCE: Logan, Peter Melville. “Narrating Hysteria: Caleb Williams and the Cultural History of Nerves.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 29, no. 2 (winter 1996): 206-22.
[In the following essay, Logan discusses Godwin's use of the nervous condition of his narrator as a way of engaging in criticism of the social and political conditions of British life.]
England experienced an epidemic of nerves in 1800. As one physician noted, “nervous diseases make up two-thirds of the whole with which civilized society is infested” (Trotter, View viii).1 He could make such a claim because “nerves” was a broad, undifferentiated disease that took on the appearance of other diseases. Every complaint was potentially nervous in origin, and so nerves became the leading category of illness in the late-Georgian period. The explanation for this epidemic was social. Since the physician George Cheyne, in The English Malady (1733), had tied the stereotypical gloom of the English aristocracy to England's “wealth and abundance,” rather than to an intrinsic defect in the upper-class body, the nervous complaint was viewed as the disease of civilization (i).2 The late-Georgian epidemic was explained in similar terms. Medical writers pointed to the continued accumulation of British wealth since Cheyne's day, and its diffusion among the growing middle class explained the apparent growth...
(The entire section is 8640 words.)
SOURCE: von Mücke, Dorothea. “‘To Love a Murderer’—Fantasy, Sexuality, and the Political Novel: The Case of Caleb Williams.” In Cultural Institutions of the Novel, edited by Deidre Lynch and William B. Warner, pp. 306-34. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, von Mücke explores Godwin's use of language as a means of creating subjective realities within fictional representations.]
The popularity of William Godwin's novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (first published in 1794) was short-lived. One might wonder why this relatively unknown and inconsequential book should be of interest to anybody besides scholars of eighteenth-century literature. And yet, one of the first consciously “political” novels, this text provides a very interesting test case for an analysis of the relationships between literature and politics, ideology and sexuality. Caleb Williams challenges the reductionist understanding of the political that depends on a straightforward mimesis of history: it does so by constantly confronting its reader with the pragmatic aspects of language, that is, the ways in which language shapes subjective fantasies or organizes social hierarchies. Of course, to the extent that the novel provides a detailed first-person account of Caleb's suffering at the margins of society as the character attempts to escape being...
(The entire section is 12288 words.)
SOURCE: Cohen, Michael. “Godwin's Caleb Williams: Showing the Strains in Detective Fiction.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 10, no. 2 (January 1998): 203-19.
[In the following essay, Cohen discusses Caleb Williams as the precursor of the detective novel, maintaining that inconsistencies within the novel anticipate different strains within the genre.]
According to Julian Symons in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, “The characteristic note of crime literature is first struck in Caleb Williams.”1 Symons argues that however ingeniously others mine biblical or classical texts as sources for detective fiction, the genre's characteristic features do not come together before the end of the eighteenth century. William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) “is about a murder, its detection, and the unrelenting pursuit by the murderer of the person who has discovered his guilt.” Moreover, says Symons, Godwin's novel has the crime story's distinctive construction “from effect to cause, from solution to problem,” Godwin having conveniently admitted that he “invented first the third volume … then the second, and last of all the first.”2 Ian Ousby also treats Caleb Williams as the first detective novel. He begins Bloodhounds of Heaven, his survey of detective fiction up to Doyle, with a...
(The entire section is 7665 words.)
SOURCE: Fisher, Carl. “The Crowd and the Public in Godwin's Caleb Williams.” In Women, Revolution, and the Novels of the 1790s, edited by Linda Lang-Peralta, pp. 47-67. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Fisher explores Godwin's inclusion of the larger community as a force that reacts to the words and deeds of individual characters within his novel.]
Nothing is more notorious than the ease with which the conviviality of a crowded feast may degenerate into the depredations of a riot. While the sympathy of opinion catches from man to man, especially among persons whose passions have been little used to the curb of judgment, actions may be determined on which the solitary reflection of all would have rejected. There is nothing more barbarous, blood-thirsty and unfeeling than the triumph of the mob.
—Enquiry Concerning Political Justice1
Few novels engage their historical moment as cogently as Caleb Williams. The way in which the novel depicts individual psychology, or critiques the state, has often been documented.2
Personal obsession and private oppression are undoubtedly foregrounded, but always against a background of the community. The novel incorporates and involves the general populace, a public which responds to the actions of...
(The entire section is 7720 words.)
SOURCE: Stauffer, Andrew M. “Godwin, Provocation, and the Plot of Anger.” Studies in Romanticism 39, no. 4 (winter 2000): 579-97.
[In the following essay, Stauffer explores the concept of anger and its role in determining culpability in 1790s England, maintaining that Caleb Williams is an “anti-anger” novel.]
I was angry with my friend I told my wrath my wrath did end I was angry with my foe I told it not my wrath did grow
—Blake, “A Poison Tree”
William Blake's “A Poison Tree” suggests that acting upon anger puts an end to plot; whether we tell or wreak our wrath, its expression is antithetical to calculated narratives. As Philip Fisher says, anger is a fundamentally rash emotion precisely at odds with the “world of plots.”1 On the other hand, the same poem presents the cultivation of angry passions as dependent upon the secret plotting of the speaker, whose hunger for vengeance grows in proportion to the narrative's deferral of satisfaction. In other words, in Blake's poem, anger both requires plots and disables them. This double vision is symptomatic of a broader, historically-specific oscillation in British conceptions of anger during the 1790s, due primarily to the influence of the French Revolution and the ways it was discussed. In English political, medical, and legal discourse of the period, we find a remarkable alignment of...
(The entire section is 8202 words.)
SOURCE: Fludernik, Monika. “William Godwin's Caleb Williams: The Tarnishing of the Sublime.” ELH 68, no. 4 (winter 2001): 857-96.
[In the following essay, Fludernik discusses Caleb Williams in relation to Edmund Burke's concept of the sublime and Adam Smith's concept of sympathy.]
Caleb Williams, Godwin's literary masterpiece of 1794, has recently come in for extensive interpretative analysis and wide critical acclaim.1 The novel serves as a key text for studies of the radical novel (most recently by Schäffner in 1997) or “English Jacobin novel”; it has now acquired a firm position in the canon of the Romantic novel; it sometimes figures as the first detective or spy novel; and it is frequently discussed in its relation to the Gothic novel with which it seems to share a number of prominent features: the continual references to “horror” and “terror”; the prominence of dungeons, confinement, and persecution; and the motif of virtue in distress, which is present in its stereotypical form in Emily Melville's story, and less typically so in the male protagonist's ordeal.2 Only twenty years ago it seemed unbelievable that Godwin “in his day” should have been considered “as equal to Scott,” and that “Shelley and Keats, Coleridge and Byron … Hazlitt and Lytton venerated him.”3 Since then,...
(The entire section is 17351 words.)
Edwards, Gavin. “William Godwin's Foreign Language: Stories and Families in Caleb Williams and Political Justice.” Studies in Romanticism 39, no. 4 (winter 2000): 533-51.
Explores the relationship between politics and narrative through a comparison of Godwin's language in his two most famous texts.
Graham, Kenneth W. “The Gothic Unity of Godwin's Caleb Williams.” Papers on Language and Literature 20, no. 1 (winter 1984): 47-59.
Suggests that despite the novel's apparent divisions, the work reveals a unity within emerging Gothic conventions that reconciles those divisions.
Gross, Harvey. “The Pursuer and the Pursued: A Study of Caleb Williams.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 1, no. 3 (autumn 1959): 401-11.
Considers Godwin's novel as a struggle between the individual and the social order.
Helfield, Randa. “Constructive Treason and Godwin's Treasonous Constructions.” Mosaic 28, no. 2 (June 1995): 43-62.
Examines Godwin's novel within the context of the eighteenth century's laws on treason.
Lang, Hans-Joachim. “Godwin's Caleb Williams as a Political Allegory.” In Literatur als Kritik des Lebens, edited by Rudolf Haas, Heinz-Joachim Müllenbrock, and Claus...
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