Falkland’s Manor. Country house of the intelligent and well-read English nobleman Ferdinando Falkland. This manor house acts as a focal point for the central theme of the novel: that even the most virtuous and intelligent of people can be corrupted by inherited social power. This house signifies the corruption of Falkland, who personally combines great intelligence with arrogance. When the novel’s hero takes a position as secretary to Falkland, his movement through the house symbolizes his growing knowledge that Falkland has committed murder. Falkland’s efforts to keep his criminality hidden are symbolized by the locked library and chest at the center of the mansion. In a plot movement similar to a fairy-tale, Caleb unlocks hidden and dangerous knowledge when he sneaks into the locked room; there he learns that Falkland has committed murder and allowed others to take the blame for it.
Village. Unnamed English country village populated by poor but honest farmers and overbearing noblemen, this setting demonstrates William Godwin’s concept that people should govern themselves by reason and not by inherited laws and conditions. The landscape of this setting is not described beyond a few simple structures—a few mansions, some simple dwellings, and a few village greens—but the human settings are emphasized. The antagonist in the village is Tyrrel, a vicious and violent nobleman, and it is clear that within this setting Falkland and Tyrrel will eventually struggle for dominance. This struggle is characterized as an abuse of reason and justice, and Falkland—despite his education and civility—is quick to jettison reason if his pride is wounded. A key secondary character cautions Falkland, “You have impetuosity, and an impatience of imagined dishonour, that if once set wrong, may make you...
Due to Caleb's notoriety, his infamous history, and the pursuit by Jones, one of Falkland's men, Caleb is unable to find rest anywhere and then commences to write a narrative of events which forms the body of the novel and that takes him several years. It is at the completion of his narrative that he resolves to leave England for good but is threatened by Jones with death if he attempts to cross the sea out of England. He then takes the final step of accusing Falkland of murder in front of a magistrate and having the magistrate bring Falkland to meet his accuser. It is then that Godwin's published ending and the manuscript's ending diverge. From the time Caleb breaks open Falkland's chest through all his subsequent adventures, about six months elapse; events in the final chapter occur several years later.
Within this time frame, Godwin employs many different settings which reflect his primary theme: a dramatization of the injustice of "things as they are." Thus, Godwin's settings demonstrate a shadow world of violence and passion that underlies the world of enlightened eighteenth century rationalism. The English country side of private and public spaces is set against the crass power struggles between gentry, free holders, tenants and other dependents. Prisons, dungeons, and jails expose the abuses of a justice system seemingly unconcerned with equitable treatment. Ruins, moorlands, cliff faces reflect a rising interest in the different subjective states of the different characters. The city, with its multitudes of teeming tenements and shifting relationships, indicates a growing alienation between people.
To some extent, Caleb Williams's situation evokes that of Hamlet's. Living with an intolerable wrong that society views simply as "things as they are," Caleb, like Hamlet, feels the burden of his knowledge, and like Hamlet, for whom "Denmark's a prison," Caleb finds that all of England has become a Benthamite Panopticon as he criss-crosses the countryside and cities always pursued by the watchful eye of Falkland's power. But while Shakespeare's Hamlet seeks to execute justice peculiar to the Elizabethan world, Godwin employs reason and sentiment to question the belief systems and conventional morality that make such intolerable wrongs possible.
Indicating the dark Gothic, irrational undertow beneath the bright surfaces of social convention, Godwin depicts the drawing rooms of civilized society, the assembly halls and court rooms of its judicial establishments, and the organization of the English country side with its land holding gentry and dependent tenant farmers. The quiet and still formalities of Caleb's job as Falkland's amanuensis, the many conversations they carry on, are disrupted by Falkland's rage sparked by Caleb's most innocent of actions. The rhythms of life are further disrupted by Caleb's ungovernable curiosity about the contents of the chest, and the full fury of this passion breaks forth when, during a fire, he violently breaks open the chest thus causing Falkland to confront him with a pistol to his head. In another example of these juxtapositions, the civilized surfaces of Italian court life that the young Falkland encounters belie the passions that course beneath, represented by the braggadocios, hired assassins, and young men ready to duel to the death at the least sense of loss of honor. One of Falkland's first encounters with Tyrrel occurs during the niceties of the ballroom where Miss Hardingham, in a test of Tyrrel's ardor for her, flirts with Falkland thus allowing the full force of anger and rage to break through the etiquette and custom of social conventions.
The organization of the countryside with its system of public and private spaces, free hold and tenant relationships, also exemplifies the darker disruptive currents running underneath the seeming orderliness of the English landscape. For instance, the farmer Hawkins, who has a small freehold, thus placing him somewhere in the middling classes, rebels against his landlord by refusing to vote for the landlord's candidate. To spite his neighbor for other perceived injuries, Tyrrel sides with Hawkins and sets him up on his own property. But upon Hawkins' next act of independence, the enraged Tyrrel circumscribes Hawkins by cutting off his access to public roads, flooding his crops and then having Hawkins' son arrested and jailed for maliciously breaking the padlocks that Tyrrel has put on the gates leading out of the purgatory that Tyrrel's "benevolence" had become. It is a significant plotting element that Tyrrel physically beats Falkland in the setting of the Assembly Hall and that soon afterwards...
Boulton, James T. The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963. Discusses the “inexorable deliberateness” of Godwin’s novel, the way he builds up a systematic chain and combination of events. Godwin’s weakness is a lack of dramatic immediacy. Too often Godwin speaks about psychological states rather than dramatizing them.
Godwin, William. Things As They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. Edited by Maurice Hindle. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. Hindle’s introduction discusses the novel’s origins, the politics and history informing its narrative, and its place in the genre. Notes, bibliography, and appendices.
Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. Considers how Godwin’s philosophy influences his novel and compares him to his contemporaries. Discusses his fascination with fantasy and romance writing.
Miyoshi, Masao. The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians. New York: New York University Press, 1969. Considers the novel as part of the gothic tradition. Analyzes Caleb’s motivations for spying on Falkland, discusses the differences between Godwin’s novel and his great work of political philosophy, Political Justice, and addresses differences between the imaginative and discursive process.
Ousby, Ian. Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. Discusses the novel as the first work of English fiction to take a sustained interest in detection. Other critics have emphasized how the structure of the novel influenced later detective fiction, but Ousby points out that the main character, Caleb, is equally important because he is an original detective in the English novel.