The eponymous hero and narrator and chief protagonist, Caleb is an adolescent when we first meet him, and he comes of age over the course of his story. His propensity for curiosity and the independence he hopes such knowledge will give him, cause him much suffering as he comes to terms with "things as they are." As a figure burdened with knowledge and skilled in the physical arts, he can be compared to many heroes in literature. His descent into prison, his daring escape, fugitive status, and the way he resolves his problem, may remind the reader of other characters who confront the problems of their society and attempt to set things right. Due to the subject of the plot revolving as it does around a crime, he thus is an archetype for characters in a growing genre dealing with crime, fugitives from justice, police and detective procedural novels, and even situations reflective of modern existentialism. Although the published ending resolves Caleb's plight through the language of sentiment and identification with his oppressor and may seem implausible, the novel itself is testimony to the achievements of Godwin and his contemporaries, some of whom created the founding documents of the United States of America, in their attempts to get a grasp of "the way things are" and transform them.
Falkland is the chief antagonist to Caleb Williams. His pursuit of Caleb and his seeming omnipresence in Caleb's every thought indicate that he represents the authority of a deity. His position as best representative of "things as they are" is further evidence of allegorical significance. That Caleb questions and transgresses the limitations imposed upon him by Falkland also suggest a biblical allegory of sorts dramatized in this novel. The two endings to the novel created by Godwin also shed light on the function of Falkland. In the unpublished version, Caleb encounters the physically decrepit Falkland who is exhausted by his attempts to exercise power over Caleb. Caleb imagines a silent cold obelisk rising over his own grave, a fitting symbol of dead power annihilating individuality. In the published version, Caleb succeeds in redeeming himself and Falkland through the sufferings Caleb has endured and the active way in which he insists on truth and compassion. There is, in the published version at least, the sense that Falkland without Caleb is a kind of vengeful Old Testament deity, while with Caleb, his role is rehabilitated. The existence of both endings gives the reader an insight into the way Godwin's society grappled imaginatively with the forces of modernity and the past and forms an interesting parallel with the poets of the period, notably William Blake in "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience" (1789) and the longer poems such as "America: A Prophecy" (1793).
A local aristocratic landowner with the same level of wealth as Falkland. Tyrrel's name evokes the word "tyrant" and he fulfills his destiny completely. Over indulged by an affectionate mother who could see no fault in her darling, Tyrrel grows up without the tutelage of a father to restrict his impulses. Instead, he identifies with the grooms and stable keepers, the houndsmen and rougher men of the establishment. His physical abilities, his wealth, potency, and the lack of any restraining influences on his appetites, lead him to become a bully, a boor, and completely self satisfied with no tolerance for any challenge to his self regard. His cruelty to his cousin and ward, Emily Melvile, precipitates a series of actions that lead him finally to be expelled in disgrace from the public Assembly. In a drunken fit, he beats Falkland who then, feeling the gravity of the dishonor, murders Tyrrel, thus setting the ground for all subsequent actions in the novel.
Clare represents the positive force of the imaginative and creative, poetic and artistic temperament. Such an ability places the poet in the best situation to observe the interrelationships between seeming opposing realities. Thus Clare...
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