Caleb Williams Summary
by William Godwin

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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.

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."


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Caleb Williams is engaged as secretary by Mr. Ferdinando Falkland, the wealthiest and most respected squire in the country. Falkland, although a considerate employer, is subject to fits of distemper that bewilder Caleb. These black moods are so contrary to his employer’s usual gentle nature that Caleb soon investigates, asking Collins, a trusted servant of the household, about them and learning from him the story of Falkland’s early life.

Studious and romantic in his youth, Falkland lived many years abroad before he returned to England to live on his ancestral estate. One of his neighbors was Barnabas Tyrrel, a man of proud, combative nature. When Falkland returned to his family estate, Tyrrel was the leading gentleman in the neighborhood. As a result of his graceful manners and warm intelligence, Falkland soon began to win the admiration of his neighbors. Tyrrel was jealous and showed his feelings by speech and actions. Falkland tried to make peace, but the ill-tempered Tyrrel refused his proffered friendship.

Miss Emily Melvile, Tyrrel’s cousin, occupied the position of a servant in his household. One night, she was trapped in a burning building, and Falkland saved her. Afterward, Emily could do nothing but praise her benefactor. Her gratitude annoyed her cousin, who planned to take revenge on Emily for her admiration of Falkland. He found one of his tenants, Grimes, a clumsy, ill-bred lout, to consent to marry Emily. When Emily refused to marry a man whom she could never love, Tyrrel confined her to her room. As part of the plot, Grimes helped Emily to escape and then attempted to seduce her. She was rescued from her plight by Falkland, who for the second time proved to be her savior. Further cruelties inflicted on her by Tyrrel finally killed her, and Tyrrel became an object of disgrace in the community.

One evening, Tyrrel attacked Falkland in a public meeting, and Falkland was deeply humiliated. That night, Tyrrel was found dead in the streets. Since the quarrel had been witnessed by so many people just before the murder, Falkland was called before a jury to explain his whereabouts during that fatal night. No one really believed Falkland guilty, but he was hurt by what he considered the disgrace of his being questioned. Although a former tenant was afterward arrested and hanged for the crime, Falkland never recovered his injured pride. He retired to his estate, where he became a moody and disconsolate recluse.

For a long time after learning these details, Caleb ponders the apparent unhappiness of his employer. Attempting to understand Falkland’s morose...

(The entire section is 6,511 words.)