William Godwin titled his novel Things As They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, but it survives under the name of its hero. It is a novel of divided interests, as it was written to criticize society and to tell an adventure story. All the elements that contribute to Caleb’s misery are the result of weaknesses in eighteenth century English laws, which permitted the wealthy landowners to hold power over poorer citizens.
Historians of the novel have always encountered great difficulty in categorizing Godwin’s Caleb Williams. It has been called a great tragic novel, the first pursuit novel, a crime or mystery novel, a chase-and-capture adventure, a political thesis fiction, a gothic romance, a terror or sensation novel, even a sentimental tale. To some extent, it is all of these—and none of them. The novel has, like most enduring works of art, taken on many shapes and meanings as new readers interpret the narrative in terms of their own personal, cultural, and historical experiences.
Godwin had no doubts about his book’s meaning or about the effect he hoped to achieve with it: “I will write a tale that shall constitute an epoch in the mind of the reader, that no one, after he has read it, shall ever be exactly the same man that he was before.” Having achieved fame in 1793 with his powerful, influential, and controversial political treatise An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, he sought a form in which to dramatize his ideas. At the most obvious level, then, Caleb Williams can be seen as a fictional gloss on Godwin’s previous political masterpiece.
Caleb Williams, however, is no simple political tract. Godwin knew that he must first develop a narrative, in his words, “distinguished by a very powerful interest,” if he expected readers to absorb and seriously consider his philosophical and social ideas, so he took the most exciting situation he could conceive, creating, as he said, “a series of adventures of flight and pursuit; the fugitive in perpetual apprehension of being overwhelmed with the worst calamities, and the pursuer, by his ingenuity and resources, keeping his victim in a state of the most fearful alarm.” Having first decided on the outcome of his adventure, Godwin then worked backward, like a modern mystery story writer, to develop a sequence of events leading up to his climax. The result is a well-constructed narrative in which the three volumes are tightly connected, both structurally and thematically, the action developing logically and directly with ever-mounting tension to a powerful, even tragic, denouement.
In Godwin’s words, Ferdinando Falkland has the ability to “alarm and harass his victim with an inextinguishable resolution never to allow him the least interval of peace and security,” because of an unjust and fundamentally corrupt society. The worst villain is a legal system that gives too much power to the rich and victimizes the poor, all in the name of justice. Falkland fears Caleb’s knowledge, because Falkland has committed the only crime that an aristocrat could commit in eighteenth century England—an injury to a social equal. Had Tyrrel been poor, the issue would never have been raised. Caleb’s alleged crime—stealing from his master and accusing the master of conspiracy against him—arouses such extreme repugnance because it challenges the social hierarchy and the assumptions that support it.
The problem, however, is not one of simple, conscious tyranny. The rich and the poor are unaware of the injustice and cruelty that their social institutions foster. They have been conditioned by their environment to accept the system as necessary, proper, and even benevolent. It is not...
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the willful malevolence of a few but society itself that distorts and dissipates the best qualities of men, regardless of their social class, although the poor suffer the most obvious physical oppression. Falkland is not an example of deliberate evil; he is a good man who, because of his social role, has accepted a system of attitudes and moral values that is destructive. His passion to conceal his crime and his persecution of Caleb are the results not of any fear of legal punishment but of his obsessive concern for his aristocratic honor. “Though I be the blackest of villains,” he tells Caleb, “I will leave behind me a spotless and illustrious name. There is no crime so malignant, no scene of blood so horrible in which that object cannot engage me.”
There are no human villains in this novel; social institutions are Godwin’s targets. This explains the novel’s strange ending, which seems to reverse all of the book’s previous assumptions. Having finally succeeded in turning the law against his tormentor, Caleb realizes, as he faces a broken Falkland, that he, Caleb, is the real enemy. Falkland, for his part, admits his guilt and embraces Caleb; but, to Godwin, neither man is guilty. Both have been caught up in a series of causal circumstances created by their environment and resulting in their inevitable mutual destruction. Only when the environment can be altered to allow people’s natural capacities to emerge, undistorted and unfettered by artificial, malevolent environmental conditioning, can such self-destruction be avoided and human potential realized.