William Godwin Essay - Godwin, William (1756 - 1836)

Godwin, William (1756 - 1836)

Introduction

William Godwin (1756 - 1836)

English philosopher, novelist, essayist, historian, playwright, and biographer.

Although known primarily for his philosophical works and his influence on English Romantic writers, Godwin is also remembered for his contributions to the Gothic literary tradition. His best-known novel, Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), is a didactic tale about the evils of government that borrows heavily from the popular Gothic fiction of the day. Caleb Williams dramatizes many of the anarchistic and rationalistic beliefs that Godwin put forward in his philosophical masterpiece, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), which argues that humankind is innately good and capable of living harmoniously without laws or institutions. Godwin's only other work in the Gothic tradition is the occult tale St. Leon (1799), which also has philosophical overtones. Critics point out that this novel, as well as his numerous other works, lack the emotional power and intellectual appeal of Caleb Williams and Political Justice. The influence of Godwin's writings on his younger contemporaries, including novelists, poets, economists, and philosophers, was considerable. However, Godwin's philosophical and literary reputation has declined, and he is chiefly known today as a figure of historical importance—as the husband of philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, as the father of novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and as the author of two minor Gothic novels.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

The seventh of thirteen children, Godwin was born in Wisbeach, England, to a Presbyterian minister and his wife. Raised in a strict, puritanical environment, Godwin trained for the ministry at an early age and became a Sandemanian clergyman in 1777. However, after studying the French revolutionary philosophers, he grew disenchanted with religion and eventually became an atheist. Leaving the church in 1783, Godwin moved to London, intending to make his living as an author. He began writing pamphlets and literary parodies, most of them published anonymously. Against the backdrop of revolution in France and the repression of seditious writings and speech in Britain, he produced Political Justice, which met with immediate success. 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 people who would never read books of science or philosophy.

Godwin was already an established and influential writer and radical when in 1796 he met Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), an attack on society's treatment of women. Their rapport was immediate, and soon the two began living together. When Wollstonecraft became pregnant a few months later, the two wed despite their mutual distaste for the institution of marriage because they wanted to ensure the legal rights of their child. By all accounts, both found great joy in wedlock, but their happiness was short-lived. Several days after the birth of their daughter in 1797, Wollstonecraft died of complications from the delivery. A desolate Godwin recorded his memories of their brief life together in Memoirs of the Author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1798), in which he wrote of his wife, "I honoured her intellectual powers and the nobleness and generosity of her propensities; mere tenderness would not have been adequate to produce the happiness we experienced." Left with his infant daughter as well as a step-daughter to care for, Godwin set out to find a mother for his children. He was turned down by one woman after another before marrying Mary Jane Clairmont, by all accounts a harsh, cruel woman who treated his children poorly.

Although he continued to write and publish works of philosophy and fiction, Godwin was struggling financially, and around 1805 he and his wife began publishing children's books, histories, and biographies in a desperate attempt to support their growing family. Godwin also relied heavily on the financial assistance of the young followers who sought his philosophical guidance; most notable among these was the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1814, Shelley, who was already married, eloped with Godwin's sixteen-year-old daughter, Mary. Though a furious Godwin disowned them both, he continued to demand Shelley's monetary support. Godwin's wrath diminished when the two married several years later, and he became once again extremely close to his daughter. Shelley too remained a devoted disciple of his father-in-law, supporting his writing even as his popularity was declining and his ideas were falling out of favor. Godwin continued to write until his death due to complications of a cold in 1836.

MAJOR WORKS

Political Justice contains the theoretical essence of all Godwin's later writings. In this work, Godwin denounced contemporary governments as corrupt and ineffective, arguing that reason rather than law should provide the ruling force of society. Through the development of reason, he declared, humanity could become perfect. Godwin maintained too that criminals should be reformed, not merely punished. Of all the arguments advanced in Political Justice, perhaps the best known is Godwin's disdain for the institution of marriage: he advocated that men and women should be united solely by a bond of mutual respect rather than a social and legal contract. Godwin was nearly prosecuted for these unconventional beliefs. However, among those who sympathized with its unorthodox tenets, Political Justice met with immediate acclaim, and its author was widely hailed as an influential philosopher.

Following the success of Political Justice, Godwin produced Caleb Williams, a novel inspired by his desire to disseminate the ideas of Political Justice through a more popular form. A tale of good triumphing over evil and an individual conquering a corrupt system, the novel tells the story of Caleb Williams, a man persecuted by his employer, Ferdinando Falkland, and jailed for a crime he did not commit. Williams's troubles begin when he learns that Falkland once committed murder. When he confesses his discovery, he gets swept up in a series of events over which he has no control, as Falkland frames him for a capital crime. Falkland is an important prototype of the seemingly benevolent but cruel and morally bankrupt Gothic villain, a dual personality that foreshadows Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The account of Caleb's imprisonment and exile is a calculated indictment of the horrors of the British criminal justice. Godwin's plot combines historical events with psychological realism and Gothic and detective elements. Though undeniably propagandistic, the novel won critical praise for its synthesis of content and style. It established the sub-genre of "political Gothics" and was a precedent for the popular Victorian crime-fiction genre. It was a great success, to the extent that the publishers reinstated in the later editions of 1795 the controversial preface they had not dared to print in 1794 because it had been considered politically subversive.

Godwin's other Gothic-inspired tale, St. Leon, is a historical novel that reflects his interest in heroic drama and his desire to modify some of his earlier radical beliefs, which were considered harsh and insensitive. A sentimental depiction of the joys of domesticity, St. Leon is also a tribute to his late wife. In the apologetic preface to an 1831 edition of St. Leon, Godwin observed that he had been urgently solicited to follow up the success of his first, but had long remained in a state of "dif-fidence and irresolution" for lack of a new idea. What he eventually produced was a longer and far more orthodox Gothic tale following the adventures of a dissolute French nobleman who takes to farming after gambling away his inheritance but loses everything to a caprice of nature. Response to the novel was mixed, and critics termed St. Leon more ambitious in design than Godwin's range would permit. St. Leon is, however, regarded as significant in several respects. In its flirtation with Rosicrucian mysticism it anticipates Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Zanoni and further compounded the influence of Godwin on that writer. It also provided inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Two years before he died at the age of seventy-eight, Godwin published another work that delves into the occult. Lives of the Necromancers (1834), despite its title, is less a series of biographies than a study of the way the mind is readily deceived by the overwrought imagination and the desire for immortality. The work has been described as a series of tales of sorcery culled from the Bible, the Ancient World, and the Far East, as well as from medieval Europe. One of the admirers of the book was Edgar Allan Poe.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

At the time of his death, Godwin's contemporaries considered him a figure of historical and literary importance whose beliefs had inspired such individuals as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth. However, Godwin's works soon fell into relative obscurity, receiving attention only from critics who censured his verbosity and excessive didacticism. It was not until the turn of the century that critics began to demonstrate a renewed interest in Godwin as a philosopher and author. Early twentieth-century studies stressed the literary merits of Political Justice, and its value as one of the main documents of English Romantic philosophy is now firmly established. Caleb Williams, too, has enjoyed a revival. Since the 1940s, critics have analyzed various aspects of the work, including its elements of tragedy and mystery, its status as a work of Gothic fiction, its two endings, and its prose style. Scholars regard the work as an important contribution to the evolution of the English novel and one of the first novels to successfully combine fiction and philosophy. Critics who have focused on the work's gothicism have argued that the author used Gothic devices to make the work less of a simple adventure narrative and to focus on the psychological and emotional excesses of the characters. They have pointed out too that the use of Gothic elements highlights the defenselessness of the protagonist against a cruel and often faceless power.

Critical commentary on Godwin's other Gothic novel, St. Leon, is more scant today, but shortly after it was published in 1799 there appeared a parody entitled St. Godwin: A Tale of the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century (1800), which is a testament, if nothing else, to the work's popularity—or notoriety. Criticism of the novel today has focused on its exploration of life-extension and immortality, its influence on Frankenstein, as well as its debt to the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Despite Poe's appreciation of Lives of the Necromancers, it is of little more than historical interest. Godwin's more important legacy, at least for readers of Gothic literature, is the influence he had on later practitioners of the genre and the synthesis of philosophy, social criticism, and horror in his novels.

Principal Works

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...

(The entire section is 220 words.)

Primary Sources

William Godwin (Essay Date 1794)

SOURCE: Godwin, William. Preface to The Adventures of Caleb Williams; or, Things as They Are. 1794. Revised edition, pp. xix-xx. London: Richard Bentley, 1849.

In the following preface to Caleb Williams, written in 1794, Godwin explains the philosophical underpinnings of the novel. In a note appended to the original preface for the 1796 edition of the novel, Godwin explains why the preface was deleted from the first edition of the novel in 1794.

The following narrative is intended to answer a purpose more general and important than immediately appears upon the face of it. The question now afloat in the world respecting...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

William Godwin (Essay Date 1834)

SOURCE: Godwin, William. "Ambitious Nature of Man." In Lives of the Necromancers; or, An Account of the Most Eminent Persons in Successive Ages, Who Have Claimed for Themselves, or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power. 1834. Reprint edition, pp. 13-18. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

In the following excerpt from a book originally published in 1834, Godwin discusses certain pursuits and practices of persons skilled in magic and the supernatural.

The Desire to Command and Control Future Events.

Next to the consideration of those measures by which men have...

(The entire section is 2090 words.)