Introduction

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 222

William Godwin's novel Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, published in 1794, explores the vast range of human relationships and institutions that fail to reconcile two states: "things as they are" and "things as they might be." The language of sentiment and feeling that Godwin employs may at first seem foreign and difficult, but the human situation this language expresses can readily be understood.

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Falsely accused, framed, and mercilessly hunted and treated like a monster by society, the protagonist, Caleb Williams, is a recognizable figure to modern readers. Forced to forgo any comfortable relationship to "things as they are," Caleb is driven into a nightmare world where good and evil, legitimacy and illegitimacy are confused. To survive, he questions everything he has been raised to believe in. Caleb must resort to behavior and meet individuals that challenge the reader to test his or her own preconceptions about "things as they are." In modern terms, Caleb Williams can be seen as an antihero of an existential drama.

Though cloaked in the language of feeling and sentiment, Caleb Williams explores the mystery of human motivation. Like Falkland did before him, Caleb gazes into the heart of darkness and the abyss of human depravity. The challenge for readers is to examine what they themselves see when looking into "things as they are."

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5341

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...

(The entire section contains 5563 words.)

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