D. Gilbert Dumas (essay date summer 1966)

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SOURCE: Dumas, D. Gilbert. “Things as They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams.SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6, no. 3 (summer 1966): 575-97.

[In the following essay, Dumas explores possible motivations for Godwin's withdrawal of the Preface from the first edition and his substitution of the original ending of the novel.]

Godwin's note in the second edition of Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams informs us that he had withdrawn the Preface, now restored, from the first edition because of the fears of booksellers. The novel had first appeared in May 1794, “the same month,” says Godwin in his note, “in which the sanguinary plot broke out against the liberties of Englishmen. … Terror was the order of the day; and it was feared that even the humble novelist might be shown to be constructively a traitor.”1 The plot Godwin alludes to was of course the Crown's proceedings against Hardy, Tooke, Thelwall, Holcroft, and other members of the London Corresponding Society on charges of High Treason. Noting that the series of political arrests commenced with that of Thomas Hardy on May 12, perhaps more than one reader of Godwin's note has wondered whether the author might after that date not only have withdrawn the Preface but altered or deleted other material in CW which might have aroused the fears of booksellers. An examination of the holograph manuscript of CW reveals that Godwin did indeed make a major change in the novel, but whether the change was made before or after May 12, and whether the change was made in compliance with the fears of booksellers or in compliance with the demands of the author's artistic judgment remains conjectural. The startling fact, hitherto unnoticed, is that bound together in the holograph are two radically different versions of the novel's ending, a cancelled first version and the version of the first edition of 1794, the version, that is, we are familiar with.2

No portion of a novel is liable to be so crucial to its total significance and ultimate esthetic impact as its ending. Godwin himself tells us in his account of the composition of CW that he first “invented” his third volume, working backwards to the first volume before undertaking the actual composition from the beginning: “I felt that I had a great advantage in thus carrying back my invention from the ultimate conclusion to the first commencement. … An entire unity of plot would be the infallible result; and the unity of spirit and interest in a tale truly considered, gives it a powerful hold on the reader, which can scarcely be generated with equal success in any other way.”3 Despite his avowed circumspection in working out his conclusion, Godwin, after having once finished the work, returned to it a few days later in order to rewrite its ending, altering substantially its nature. Nowhere to my knowledge does Godwin comment on this remarkable fact. In his correspondence, in his various prefaces, and in his journals we search unsuccessfully for such a comment.

One must nevertheless confront head-on questions raised by the discovery of the novel's ending. Despite the prevailing political harassment during the period Godwin wrote and published CW, there appears to be no direct relationship between the incidence of the rewritten ending and the fact that the Preface was withdrawn because of the publisher's fear of political reprisal.4 Details afforded by the holograph and by Godwin's journal indicate, as we shall see below, that he wrote the new ending several days before Hardy's arrest, a...

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circumstance which provides persuasive argument against any view that the rewriting was motivated by political timidity. My object here will be first to establish the time of rewriting and, second, to examine briefly the effects of the change on the novel in terms of its literary merit and doctrinal intention. Before proceeding with the analysis, however, it will be useful here to summarize the two endings.

In the published version, it will be remembered that the confrontation between Falkland and Caleb before the English magistrate concludes with Falkland's collapse and confession. He acknowledges that he is the murderer of Tyrrel and responsible for the execution of the Hawkinses. Three days following his confession Falkland dies. Caleb, imagining himself Falkland's murderer, condemns himself for motives of selfish egoism and, overwhelmed by remorse, prepares to live out his life suffering the penalty of his crime—a conscience agonized by guilt. The novel ends with Caleb's panegyric on the benevolence, intellect, and nobility of his former master, whom he sees as victimized by society.

In the original version, during the confrontation before the magistrate Falkland again denies his crime. Caleb's protestations are abruptly and rudely silenced by the prejudiced magistrate: “Be silent! said he. What is it you intend by thus continuing to intrude yourself? Do you believe you can overbear and intimidate us? We will hear none of your witnesses. We have heard you too long. Never was the dignity of administrative justice in any instance insulted with so barefaced and impudent a forgery!”5 After his unsuccessful petition before the justice of England, and tortured by Falkland's sinister and cruel agent, Jones,6 Caleb goes mad. Recovering partially, he dreams about escaping: “It would be better at once to cease to exist, than remain for ever in this horrible situation. But hope still clings to my heart. I may escape. Why should I, who have broken fetters, and made my way through walls of stone, doubt of my deliverance from this new confinement?” (MS. III, 113). Hearing that Falkland is alive and healthy Caleb exclaims, “Alas! It too plainly appears in my history that persecution and tyranny can never die!” (MS. III, 114). “I am still in the highest degree perplexed,” says Caleb, “whenever it recurs to my mind, to account for the entire and ignominious miscarriage of my last … accusation before the chief magistrate … I so ardent, so impassioned, so full of my subject, so confident in the justice of my cause! It must surely have been with the persons that heard me an affair of the senses rather than the understanding” (MS. III, 114-115). Reflecting on his “defeat” he concludes: “My innocence will then die with me! The narrative I have taken the pains to digest will then only perpetuate my shame and spread more widely the persuasion of my nefarious guilt! … This is the bitterest aggravation of all my sufferings!” (MS. III, 115). The final entries in Caleb's history, given below, consist of rambling incoherent passages reminiscent of Clarissa Harlowe's “papers,” for, indeed, like Clarissa he is writing while under the effects of a drug:7

I wonder how long I have slept—sometimes it seems to have been so long—and sometimes it seems a very little while—As soon as I eat, and drink, I fall asleep again—is not that strange?

I should like to recollect something—it would make an addition to my history—but it is all a blank!—sometimes it is day, and sometimes it is night—but nobody does any thing, and nobody says any thing—It would be an odd kind of a history!

Once I had an enemy—oh! two or three enemies—and they drove me about, and menaced me, and tormented me!—and now nobody disturbs me—I am so quiet—I have not an enemy in the world—nor a friend.

So you tell me Mr. Falkland is dead?—Very likely—it was high time—was not it?

They do nothing but tell me over and over again that Mr. Falkland is dead—what is that to me?—Heaven rest his soul!—I wonder who that Mr. Falkland was, for every body to think so much about him?—Do you know?

If I could once again be thoroughly myself, I should tell such tales!—Some folks are afraid of that, do you see, and so—But I never shall—never—never!—I sit in a chair in a corner, never move hand or foot—I am like a log—I know all that very well, but I cannot help it!—I wonder which is the man, I or my chair?

I have dreams—they are strange dreams—I never know what they are about—No, not while I am dreaming—they are about nothing at all—and yet there is one thing first, and then another thing, and there is so much of them, and it is all nothing—when I am awake it is just the same!—I used to have dreams of quite a different kind—and to talk in my dreams—and some folks said I disturbed them—and so, I believe they have given me something to quiet me.

Well, it is all one at last—I believe there was nothing in life worth making such a bustle about—no, nor in secrets—nor in murders neither, for the matter of that—when people are dead, you know, one cannot bring them to life again!—dead folks tell no tales—ghosts do not walk these days—I never saw Mr. Tyrrel's—Only once!

Well then,—it is wisest to be quiet, it seems—Some people are ambitious—other people talk of sensibility—but it is all folly!—I am sure I am not one of those—was I ever?—True happiness lies in being like a stone—Nobody can complain of me—all day long I do nothing—I am a stone—a grave-stone!—an obelisk to tell you, There lies what was once a man!

(MS. III, 116-117).

If we turn now to examine Godwin's daily progress in the composition of CW as it is recorded in his journal,8 we find no entry clearly indicating that he has rewritten the ending, information which would of course conclusively establish the date of rewriting. Although Godwin meticulously recorded the number of pages written each day, he apparently regarded his revisions as incidental to the primary task of invention, citing in the journal neither which pages he revised nor their total number but giving merely the single word “revise.” Moreover, the journal does not reveal the dates Godwin delivered the whole or portions of his CW manuscript to the printer, nor does it specifically note his receipt of proofs. Significantly, the journal entry of 30 April 1794, reads, “Write pp. 112-117/2, fin.”9 The pagination here exactly corresponds to that of the manuscript's original ending; the rewritten version was shorter, running to page 115 only. The journal tells us that Godwin revised on the following day, 1 May. On 2 and 3 May he did not work on the novel. From 4 to 16 May the following relevant entries occur:

  1. Su. Write 1[frac12] pages. …
  2. M. Write 2 pages. …
  3. Tu. Write 4 pages. …
  4. W. Write 1 page: Revise. …
  5. Th. Write 1 page: Revise. …
  6. F. Revise. … Williams, Vol. I. …
  7. Sa. Revise. …
  8. Tu. … Williams, Vol. II. …
  9. F. … Williams, Vol. III. …

Since between 8 May and 26, the date of publication, no “write” entries appear, one must ask whether the above entries refer to the new version. It is probable that they do, for the nine and a half page total of the “write” entries almost exactly matches the nine manuscript pages of the rewritten version. The half-page discrepancy may be accounted for by either an unrecorded half-page of additional rewriting or by a miscalculation on Godwin's part. Now it is possible that these entries refer to another manuscript and that Godwin actually rewrote the ending of CW at a later date without recording the fact in his journal. There is, however, no evidence in the journal that Godwin was working on another manuscript during this period. Moreover, if Godwin had indeed rewritten the novel's ending after Hardy's arrest on 12 May, it is unlikely that the novel could have been published by 26 May. What we know of Godwin's habits in dealing with his printer—his practice, for example, of forwarding completed portions of his manuscript to the printer while latter portions were in the process of being composed10—clearly suggests that all but the final chapter or two of CW was at the printer's while Godwin was rewriting the ending and that the journal entries of 9, 13, and 16 May mark his receipt and revision of final proofs or unbound sheets. If the first two volumes were being set up in type while Godwin was forwarding portions of the third, it is likely that he would have received the final proofs for all three volumes within a few days of each other. It is important to note, furthermore, that the proofs or unbound sheets received or revised by Godwin on 16 May must have included the new version of the novel's ending, for the pages of the original ending were never set up in type.11 It is probable, therefore, that Godwin brought the novel to a premature close on 30 April, and, except for revisions made in manuscript and proof, to a final close on 8 May—four days before the arrest of Hardy.

We must not abandon the bibliographical problem without pausing over the Preface. Lacking in the holograph and unrecorded in the journal, the Preface appears in the second edition of CW with the date 12 May, the very date of Hardy's arrest. Mere coincidence is doubtful. By affixing this date Godwin could both ironically comment on and underscore the importance of the views he voices in his text. Furthermore, Godwin's own role vis-à-vis the “terror” commands the reader's attention in the 1795 note to the Preface, first, when the author of Political Justice refers to himself as a “humble novelist,” second, when he refers to constructive treason—a reference surely intended to remind us of Chief Justice Eyre's charge to the grand jury and of Godwin's attempt in his Strictures12 to shatter Eyre's fragile legal argument. Of more immediate relevance to a discussion of the cancelled ending of CW is the fact that the Preface was evidently withdrawn only after the political arrests had begun, for when Elizabeth Inchbald read CW in proof—proofs which apparently were not ready for the author until 16 May—she directly warned Godwin about the politically dangerous nature of the Preface.13 If Godwin had revised the novel's ending out of timidity it is hardly probable that he would have several days later added or allowed to stand a preface characterized by its irreverence toward government.

During the short interval between 30 April, the day he finished the first version, and 4 May, the day he apparently began the second, Godwin may have turned over the final portion of his manuscript to a friend, who persuaded him to rewrite it; or, he may quite simply have changed his mind concerning the literary merit or doctrinal character of the original ending. As to the respective literary merits of the two versions critics will perhaps disagree; but that the political and philosophical implications of the first version undergo considerable transformation in the second, a transformation which directly and adversely affects both the logical dramatic development and the propagandistic intention of the narrative, seems to me indisputable.

CW was not, like the author's Political Justice, written for the happy few; nevertheless, it was, says Godwin in an autobiographical note, “the offspring of that temper of mind in which the composition of my Political Justice left me.”14 The novel's “valuable lesson” was intended, Godwin explains in the Preface, for an audience “whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach.”15 Stated generally, the author's task was “to comprehend, as far as the progressive nature of a single story will allow, a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man.”16 The specific message, the political principle, he determined to embody in his fictional work was “that the spirit and character of the government intrudes itself into every rank of society.”17 This of course is the same political principle that supports much of the huge argument of Political Justice.CW was meant to work out concretely and in terms of practical experience—carefully selected, to be sure—the “despotism” of government. So far as it is his intention to persuade his readers to a particular view regarding government, Godwin's purpose may correctly be termed propagandistic.

In July 1795, before the second edition, which restores the Preface, appeared, Godwin, in response to an attack on CW in the British Critic,18 wrote a letter to the editor of that journal reaffirming his doctrinal and propagandistic purpose. Since his statement of purpose here has not previously been noted by commentators, it will be worth citing at length:

[Your correspondent] supposes that my book was written “to throw an odium upon the laws of my country.” But this is a mistake into which no attentive and clearsighted reader could possibly fall. The object is of much greater magnitude. It is to expose the evils which arise out of the present system of civilized society; and having exposed them to lead the enquiring reader to examine whether they are, or are not, as has commonly been supposed, irremediable; in a word, to disengage the minds of men from presupposition, and launch them upon the sea of moral and political enquiry. … Your correspondent comes nearer the point when he … states my object to be: “the laws of this country, and the mode of their execution”; or rather, as he ought to have stated, the administration of justice and equity, with its consequences, as it exists in the world at large, and in Great Britain in particular.19

Despite Godwin's clear statements of purpose the alternate endings suggest that either he was uncertain how he could best execute his design or was unwilling, finally, to pursue with relentless rigor and clarity his original conception. While Godwin's critical portrayal of “the administration of justice” as we have it in the published version was forceful enough to raise howls of righteous outrage from eighteenth-century conservatives, more liberal-minded men in the next century, such as Leslie Stephen, could declare that “The reader, unassisted by the preface, would scarcely perceive Godwin's doctrine between the lines.”20 Stephen exaggerates of course; yet it is true that in the new version Godwin's political theme emerges in somewhat attenuated form, for although it very much remains a major theme, its privileged position is usurped when at the crucial point of the narrative the thematic focus shifts and, as we shall see, other doctrines suddenly obtrude themselves as major themes. I am not surprised, therefore, that Stephen, who admired the development of the novel up to the catastrophe, could exclaim, “what has happened to the moral? How about the wickedness of government? The answer must be that it has passed out of sight.”21

The rewritten ending in effect almost transforms CW into a novel of “things as they ought to be,” undercutting the severity of Godwin's view of “Things as They Are.” Almost, for while the new ending adroitly sidesteps the political issues set up by the intellectual and fictional framework of the novel, the current of injustice which runs throughout is not by any means dissipated and Caleb, though vindicated, has little cause to exult in his triumph over Falkland. But vindicated he is, the “sincerity” of his plain tale overcoming whatever resistance we might have expected from biased magistrates and an obsessed Falkland: “as I went on,” says Caleb, “[Falkland] could no longer resist. He saw my sincerity; he was penetrated with my grief and compunction,” and Falkland, throwing himself into Caleb's arms, declares, “Williams … you have conquered! … the artless and manly story you have told, has carried conviction to every hearer.”22 Readers and critics alike, both in Godwin's time and our own, have seized upon this incident as demonstrating the triumph of certain Godwinian doctrines such as the power of justice and truth. Thus Hazlitt could say that Caleb “overthrows [Falkland] on the vantage-ground of humanity and justice.”23 Similarly in a recent article George Sherburn argued that in the concluding episode Caleb finally proved his belief that truth will be convincing when delivered with heartfelt enthusiasm.24 It must be observed, however, that Caleb's innocence does not establish itself through the honest procedures of impartial justice but through the collapse and confession of Falkland. Truth, that is, innocence, triumphs by default, not by its own strength. Although there occurs no literal triumph, there is, in the confession of Falkland, the illusion of such a triumph. If the second version of the novel's final episode is indeed intended to illustrate the triumph of truth, we must exclaim together with Leslie Stephen, “what has happened to the moral? How about the wickedness of government?” Repeatedly the novel has been telling us that truth cannot triumph so dramatically as the collapse of Falkland suggests. In society as it is, fervent expostulation, to use Godwin's rhetoric, simply does not produce such startling triumphs of justice.

Throughout the novel Godwin takes care to develop Caleb's progressive loss of faith in the political system and in the capacity of men to acknowledge truth when they hear it—worse, even to give truth a fair hearing. When Caleb states that he “will never believe that a man conscious of innocence, cannot make other men perceive that he has that thought” (II, x, 186-187), he is expressing one of several beliefs that characterize him as a naive hero, specifically a politically naive hero unaware of the extraordinary efficacy of prejudices pervading the social system. His solemn protestation that he is not guilty of the crimes alleged against him by Falkland convinces no one. In jail—that disabusing experience—Caleb exclaims, “I recollected with astonishment my puerile eagerness to be brought to the test and have my innocence examined” (II, xi, 218). Many adventures later, when he has had recourse to what he considers the ultimate resort in proving his innocence, that is, revealing Falkland's secret crime, he again learns that the power of truth is no power at all. His attempt to reveal Falkland's crime meets with the contemptuous jeer of English class prejudice from a magistrate who declares, “whether or no the felony with which you stand charged would have brought you to the gallows, I will not pretend to say. But I am sure this story will. There would be a speedy end to all order and good government, if fellows that trample upon ranks and distinctions in this atrocious sort, were upon any consideration suffered to get off” (III, xi, 191). Led back to the very prison from which he had earlier taken prodigious pains to escape, Caleb sums up his added insight into things as they are: “And this … was the justice of mankind. … Six thousand a year shall protect a man from accusation; and the validity of an impeachment shall be superseded, because the author of it is a servant!” (III, xi, 193).

If the law judges according to wealth and position, ordinary mortals do so according to reputation. As a victim of calumny Caleb is destined to lose the sympathy of even his dearest friends. In an interesting passage in The Enquirer Godwin states that the actions of a victim of calumny will be “misrepresented, misunderstood and vilified. It matters not with how much generosity he sets himself to act: the glass of truth shall never be turned on him; nor shall he in any instance obtain justice.”25 Even after the charges against him have been formally dropped, Caleb continues to suffer the ignominy of the servant who has robbed his master. He is compelled to abandon his peaceful retreat in a Welsh village when Falkland's agent introduces into the community the pamphlet describing the alleged crimes and sensational escapes of the notorious “Kit” Williams (III, xiii, 239-240). Caleb's faith in the power of truth is by this time so shattered that he does not trouble to attempt to clear himself. “I had seen,” he says, “too much of the reign of triumphant falshood to have … sanguine confidence in the effects of my innocence” (III, xiii, 241).

Of all mankind there is one person, thinks Caleb, who will listen to his story, Collins, the man whom Caleb regards with a son's affection and respect. In a climactic encounter with the long absent Collins, Caleb is persuaded to forego his final chance to proclaim his innocence to a sympathetic fellow being. Collins, wise in years, realizes the impotence of truth when opposed by self-interest, prejudice, and circumstance:

Of what would you convince me? That Mr. Falkland is a suborner and a murderer? … If you could change all my ideas, and show me that there was no criterion by which vice might be prevented from being mistaken for virtue, what benefit would arise from that? I must part with all my interior consolation and all my external connections. And for what? … I do not believe I shall find you innocent. If you succeed in perplexing my understanding, you will not succeed in enlightening it. Such is the state of mankind, that innocence when involved in circumstances of suspicion, can scarcely ever make out a demonstration of its purity, and guilt can often make us feel an insurmountable reluctance in pronouncing it guilt.

(III, xiv, 257-259)

If the man Caleb calls father can approach no nearer to truth than bewilderment, we can hardly expect villainous magistrates to heed his avowals of innocence; nor can we expect them to credit his accusations against the lordly Falkland. Thus Falkland in the original ending fulfills our expectations when, with haughty assurance, he calls on the assembled gentlemen at the hearing to compare his “uniformly benevolent and honourable” life with that of his calumniated accuser. “Which of the two,” he asks, “would they believe? What credit was due to the palpable mockery of oaths and asseverations, when put into competition with a life of unimpeachable virtue?” (MS. III, 109). In a narrative intent on describing things as they are, the laws of the land and the laws of prejudice can be expected to prevail over the beauty of expiatory justice. Not so, according to the rewritten version; truth will out: a single dramatic stroke submerges the political moral, the melodramatic volte-face forcing upon the doctrinal surface implications more appropriate to future utopian victories than to present inevitable defeats. The second ending at once violates the progressive logic of the novel and, curiously enough, parallels a similar contradiction in the first edition of Political Justice.

Despite Godwin's own dictum that “Nothing can be more unreasonable than to argue from men as we now find them to men as they may hereafter be found,”26 I think it will be agreed that such arguments are not absent from Political Justice, where the tension between a critical and a utopian attitude frequently expresses itself in rhetorical postures which conform to the conscious or unconscious rhetorical aim of the moment and thereby sacrifice the consistency of the whole. His cherished doctrine of the omnipotence of truth is especially subject to exaggerated declarations, and unless we take note of the underlying rhetorical aim we will be likely to confound the incidental exaggeration with the qualified proposition. The power of truth as it properly refers to theories of progress and perfectibility is no more than a familiar appeal to the advance of science and knowledge. While it is the property of truth to diffuse itself, its apprehension is at first limited to the enlightened few and it is only with time that the truth of a proposition gains the plain man's assent,27 for the obstacles which prevent any sudden diffusion consist in large measure of the prejudices fostered by what Godwin calls positive institutions, such as government, law, education, class systems—the pernicious influences of which form the basis for his criticism of society in CW. Where Godwin discusses improvements to be introduced into society by the discovery of truth—for example, in his chapters on government, revolution, resistance, property, and political association—he seldom fails to insist on the gradual nature of change. Thus Burton Ralph Pollin in a recent book on Godwin rightly warns readers that “critics who stress the instantaneous nature of the apprehension of truth which some passages in Godwin seem to imply, overlooked the factor of amenability to instruction or preparation for it that he always stipulates.”28 What Pollin and other critics have failed to note, however, is that Godwin distinguishes between two classes of truth, “abstract” and “practical.” Abstract truth “relates to certain general and unchangeable principles”;29 such is the truth of science and knowledge. Practical truth is that of “particular nature” and “relates to the daily incidents and ordinary commerce of human life.”30 This distinction, workable if not satisfactory, would not detain us here but for the fact that Godwin associates with practical truth the virtue of sincerity,31 or truth-telling in day to day human relations, for it is almost exclusively in reference to the virtue of sincerity that we find excessive claims regarding the power of truth to convince instantaneously,32 claims which obviously contradict his view concerning the gradual progress of truth.

Because sincerity is for Godwin an axiom of ethics it is not surprising that his analysis of the power of truth-telling concentrates on future and possible benefits to be derived from its universal practice. Within such a context absolute statements concerning its power are really disguised rhetorical pleas to the reader. Insofar as the philosopher relies on empirical evidence, as he does when discussing progress, to demonstrate that the discovery of truth has helped release man from the tyrannies of the past, his calm and confident optimism regarding the omnipotence of truth logically derives from “men as we now find them.” Insofar as the moralist casts his sweeping generalizations in the indisputable present-indicative rather than in the future-conditional, we may expect the rhetorical aim to have more to do with the exhortations of the preacher than with the objective analysis of the philosopher. It is noteworthy that such exaggerated claims were removed when Godwin revised Political Justice for the second edition. It can be argued of course that revision followed upon the author's weakened faith in such power, but arguments of this kind seem to me fanciful. Godwin acknowledged the inconsistencies of the first edition, attributing them to the manner of its printing and composition,33 and it seems reasonable to infer that he realized the inconsistency of certain of his claims for sincerity.34 His new chapter, “The Voluntary Actions of Men Originate in their Opinions,” explicitly denies the earlier absolute affirmations regarding the omnipotence of truth: “This proposition, which is convenient for its brevity, must be understood with limitations. It would be absurd to affirm that truth, unaccompanied by the evidence which proves it to be such, or when that evidence is partially and imperfectly stated, has any such property.”35 Again: “It has sometimes been affirmed that, whenever a question is ably brought forward for examination, the decision of the human species must ultimately be on the right side. But this proposition is to be understood with allowances. Civil policy, magnificent emoluments and sinister motives may upon many occasions, by distracting the attention, cause the worse reason to pass as if it were the better.”36

Now CW can be said to describe practical experience designed to illustrate general principles intended, if we are to credit Godwin's stated purpose in the novel's Preface and in his letter to the British Critic, to exhibit the “despotism” of government, especially as revealed in the “administration of justice and equity.” The rewritten ending introduces a decisive shift in the novel's portrait of society and men when the illustration of law yielding to a specific vindication of innocence—a vindication which proves an exception to the rule of experience depicted in the novel. The narrative's implicit argument moves from a political generalization legitimately derived from a representative sampling to an ethical one fallaciously derived from a single instance. It is peculiarly appropriate that in abandoning the rules of logic Godwin correspondingly devalues reason and elevates feeling. Whereas, for example, Caleb in the first version of the ending relates his tale to the magistrate in a language “varied, perspicuous and forcible” (MS. III, 108), in the second he decides to “lay the emotions of my soul naked before my hearers” (III, xv, 286) and to “confess every sentiment of my heart” (III, xv, 287): in the one version hope for the successful communication of truth resides in reason, in the other, emotion.

We should note, furthermore, the prominence given in the new ending to “confidence,” an implicit plea for trust and understanding between men which commands no interest whatever in the original version. Referring to his decision to reveal Falkland's crime, Caleb states, “I see now that mistake in all its enormity. I am sure that if I had opened my heart to Mr. Falkland … he could not have resisted my reasonable demand” (III, xv, 294). The plain fact is that we need not have read the novel with uncommon attention to know that Caleb did try to open his heart to Falkland; indeed Caleb in expressing such regret contradicts his assertion, stated only a moment before, that “the restless and jealous anxiety of Mr. Falkland would not permit him to repose the least atom of confidence” (III, xv, 294). Once again the novel's concluding episode underscores a doctrine which makes its appeal to the heart rather than to the head. Sentimental ethic—for Godwin associates confidence with sincerity and virtue37—coincides with sentimental style and both combine to further reduce the impact of the originally intended political lesson.

From one version of the ending to the other we pass from a Caleb victim of the institutions of society to a Caleb victim as much to his own egoism as to Falkland's persecution. His action of exposing Falkland, prompted, he states, by utilitarian principles, namely that “one person should be miserable in preference to two, that one person rather than two should be incapacitated from acting his part, and contributing his share to the general good” (III, xv, 284), is, we are now to suppose, the result of perverse self-interest. His “fine-spun reasonings” collide with his feelings of compassion for his former patron: “There must have been some dreadful mistake in the train of argument that persuaded me to be the author of this hateful scene. There must have been a better and more magnanimous remedy to the evils under which I groaned” (III, xv, 285-286). Readers who have followed Caleb throughout his years of misery and observed his developing hatred for Falkland must be allowed some astonishment at Caleb's insistence on personal responsibility and at his overflowing compassion for his persecutor. Such appeals to the heart are quite lacking in the first ending, where the young hero's final destruction by social forces he has come cynically to accept sustains the spirit and doctrinal logic of the overall fictional structure. In fact, there could hardly be a more compelling political statement regarding the injustice of things as they are than the first ending's image of the once ardent, idealistic, and energetic Caleb vanquished into bitterness, madness, and inertia, the final reduction of his independence, his identity, and his very humanity symbolized in his comparison of himself first to a chair—“I wonder,” says Caleb, “which is the man, I or my chair?” (MS. III, 116)—and then to a stone (for Godwin the lowest form of existence): “True happiness lies in being like a stone—nobody can complain of me—all day long I do nothing—am a stone—a grave-stone! an obelisk to tell you, There lies what was once a man!” (MS. III, 117).

The world of the first version of CW provides for no instantaneous triumphs of innocence or truth; it provides no means by which one might “change all the ideas” of such well-intentioned men as Collins so that they might not mistake vice for virtue and innocence for guilt. While Man advances toward a perfectibility thousands of years distant, men live their lives in the “vast abortion”38 of an imperfect world. In Godwin's system vice may be only error, but the pain it inflicts is real not imaginary evil. Caleb's condition at the conclusion of the first ending, in fact, anticipates in almost every detail a catalogue of evils added to the second edition of Political Justice:

Who is there that will look on, and say, “All this is well; there is no evil in the world?” Let us recollect the pains of the mind; the loss of friends, the rankling tooth of ingratitude, the unrelenting rage of tyranny, the slow progress of justice, the brave and honest consigned to the fate of guilt. Let us plunge into the depth of dungeons. Let us observe youth languishing in hopeless despair, and talents and virtue shrouded in eternal oblivion. The evil does not consist merely in the pain endured. It is the injustice that inflicts it, that gives it its sharpest sting. Malignity, an unfeeling disposition, vengeance and cruelty, are inmates of every climate.39

The original ending's portrait of the pathetic reduction of an ambitious peasant's son would by no means have furnished readers with revolutionary messages so optimistic in implication as the following: “In the end it is Williams who triumphs. … The aristocrat goes down before simple middle-class virtue. …”40 Nor would Godwin's picture of Falkland, whose icy hypocrisy in the first ending withstands the assault of Caleb's remonstrances, have supplied a basis for interpretations which see in the new version's portrayal of Falkland “Godwin's way of doing justice to the ancien régime.41 Only Caleb's defeat by the power and arrogance of Falkland abetted by the prejudice of law can serve to sound loudly and conclusively the originally intended political lesson. An ending that gives us a triumphant Falkland, secure in position and reputation, and an insane, broken Caleb runs little risk of undermining the political doctrine beneath the story's surface or of reducing the work's propagandistic impact.

It would be characteristic of Godwin's “schizophrenic tendency”42—what I have called the tension between his critical and utopian attitudes—that he should wish, in rewriting the ending, to appeal to man's love and humanity rather than to his hate and resentment. It is further characteristic that his compulsion to illustrate ethical principles, overcoming his critical determination, should instinctively express itself in a rhetoric of emotion, for the habits of the dissenting minister were evidently not easily disciplined by the utilitarian's commitment to reason. In exchanging his role of political philosopher and propagandist for that of ethical exhorter, Godwin becomes guilty in the novel of contradictions in doctrine and style similar to those in the first edition of Political Justice. Warm appeals to love and reconciliation, sincerity and confidence, personal responsibility and selflessness, while compatible to Christian and intuitionist constructions in ethics, serve to invalidate the moral arithmetic of a cool and rational utilitarianism and suggest to the reader that the imperfections of men rather than of political and social institutions are responsible for the injustice of things as they are. At best such a suggestion would, in Godwin's ratiocinative moments, be rejected by him as a dangerously misleading half-truth which makes its appeal not to reason but to what in Political Justice he terms in one place “a brute and unintelligent sympathy.”43

If I have stressed doctrine, I have done so because of the startling divergence of the alternate endings and because the new ending appears to me to betray Godwin's proclaimed purpose. Brute feeling, however, plays an enormous role in fiction, and in defense of Godwin we must remind ourselves that in writing CW he was not writing a treatise. It is surely unfair to expect in fiction—even in a so-called novel of purpose—the consistency, clarity, and precision of philosophy. Any approach to the alternate endings solely in terms of doctrine will fail to account for whatever artistic compulsions may finally have determined or contributed to the subversion of the author's purpose.

To Godwin's great credit it must be emphasized that his penetrating and flexible psychology comes close to cancelling all deficiencies. For despite inconsistencies of doctrine and purpose, CW remains one of the great seminal novels of eighteenth-century fiction. Because Godwin's delineation of Falkland's character is complex enough to allow for his collapse and confession, readers may miss or indeed ignore the novel's inconsistencies. In considerable measure Falkland's remorse, ambivalence, and basic humanity prepare for his sudden downfall. Moreover only Falkland might convince the world of Caleb's innocence, and, although he has a pact with Fame no less binding than Faust's with Mephistopheles, it is precisely because we feel that only Falkland can exonerate Caleb that the new ending may strike us as dramatically effective. The remarkable reversal in the roles of victim and persecutor, which at once destroys and elevates Falkland, is really, however, a coup de théatre, a piece of artistic witchcraft sacrificing thematic logic to dramatic immediacy. Reversals, reconciliations, vindications of innocence, convenient deaths—these common conventions of dramaturgy suggest that Godwin, in introducing them into the novel's rewritten resolution, may very probably have been heeding his literary inspiration after all and that the rewritten ending represents an effort to raise the novel from the level of propaganda and sensation to the heights of tragedy.

While we hesitate to criticize the author for attempting to heighten the emotional impact of his story, we must regret certain unconvincing, even mawkish, effects resulting from that attempt. It must be evident from the discussion of the alternate endings above that the metamorphosis of doctrine brings with it a corresponding transformation in narrative mode. Having forsaken reason for feeling on the doctrinal level, it was perhaps inevitable that Godwin should simultaneously abandon a somewhat artificial though symbolically charged realism for outright sentimentalism. Most conspicuous, because most crucial, is the effect of Caleb's revelation of Falkland's crime: “Every one that heard me,” says Caleb, “was melted into tears. They could not resist the ardour with which I praised the great qualities of Falkland; they manifested their sympathy in the tokens of my penitence” (III, 297). Tears, ardor, sympathy, penitence—a familiar enough onslaught in the sentimental novel—are totally absent in the first version, where Caleb's words succeed only in evoking angry contempt from the magistrate and a haughty denial from Falkland. While it is probably true, as George Sherburn has claimed, that CW “is certainly the first impressive tragic novel since Richardson's Clarissa, and its tragic themes seem more modern and less special than those of Clarissa,44 one wishes that Godwin had remained satisfied with the first ending. For its tragic theme, the utter reduction by a hostile society of a human being of considerable potential, has come to seem more poignant and “modern” than tales which relate how the mighty have fallen.

In view of the foregoing, it is not surprising that a critic with an eye for political doctrine, like Leslie Stephen, should be nonplused by Godwin's published version, while, on the other hand, a critic with an acute eye for structure and effects, like Edgar Poe, should admire the contriving of the catastrophe.45 Poe attributed what he considered to be a superb achievement to Godwin's declared method of composition, that is, first working out the denouement and then accounting for it by devising the incidents leading up to it. Indeed the inference one clearly draws from Godwin's account is that if he was certain of anything concerning CW it was how the work would end. The sudden transformation of the resolution calls into question the thoroughness of Godwin's own account of the novel's composition, for it is precisely the “ultimate conclusion” that he chose to rewrite after once having finished the novel in its entirety. Why then does Godwin fail to mention so crucial a change? One inescapably suspects that he is hiding something. It is possible, as I have suggested, that Godwin was not aware that he had, in rewriting the novel's ending transformed its political nature. It is scarcely possible, however, that he should have forgotten or considered unimportant—even thirty-eight years later, when he came to describe his method of composing CW—the very fact of the rewriting. In his account of the composition, moreover, Godwin, thinking perhaps that his readers would be familiar with the 1794 Preface (which had formed part of nearly every edition of CW since the second), ignores completely his original political impulse. It is remarkable, too, that although he writes at some length on literary considerations such as unity, plot, and suspense, he neglects to consider specifically how he worked out the novel's catastrophe.

It would be altogether too simple an answer to say that the aged philosopher remained silent about the rewriting of the novel's conclusion because he did not wish to acknowledge that political fear had motivated him. His obvious intention to publish the Preface until forced by his bookseller to withdraw it, his statement of purpose to the editor of the British Critic, and the restoration of the Preface in the second edition are facts which belie political timidity. If Godwin had been convinced that his original ending was the more effective and appropriate one, he surely could have restored it along with the Preface when he revised the novel for a second edition—although authorial vanity would argue against tampering with what was a considerable popular and critical success.46 It may, in fact, be Godwin's well-known vanity that made him reluctant to admit either that the catastrophe was an aesthetic afterthought or that he had muddled the conceptual basis of the novel. It is fruitless, lacking sufficient evidence, to speculate at length concerning Godwin's motive for making the change. We may be confronted here with one more example of his “schizophrenic tendency,” blinding him to the contradictions—common in all his novels—between a theory committing him to the realism of things as they are and a temperament urging him to the sentimentality of things as they ought to be.47


  1. (3 vols. London, 1796), I, vii. References in my text and notes hereafter cite the title of all editions as CW.

  2. MS. Forster 3. M. Victoria and Albert Museum Library, London. 161 leaves, 4°, 3 vols. in 1, paged separately: I. 1-119, (lacks Preface and pp. 1-36, 115-119), (10 pp. inserted). II. 1-106, (lacks pp. 13-20, 31-36, 81-82), (8 pp. inserted). III. 1-115, (lacks pp. 91-100), (8 pp. inserted), (pp. 94a, 107a, 108a, 115 are misbound in vol. 1). Rejected ending: 107-117, (lacks pp. 111-112), binding position: pp. 107-108 in vol. 3 after p. 106; pp. 109-110 in vol. 1 after pp. 107a, 108a of vol. 3 misbound in vol. 1; pp. 113-117 in vol. 3 after p. 114b. The MS. contains an overwhelming number of interlineations, deletions and insertions. Abundant notations by the typesetters, such as “Morton begins,” and signature indications (in a variety of hands) which correspond exactly to the signatures of the first edition provide conclusive proof that the book was set in type from this MS. Whoever assembled the leaves for binding must have worked with a deficient MS whose leaves had already been gathered into correct sequential order except for those of the rejected and new endings and except for a few miscellaneous ones. Confronted with superfluous pages and unaware that two versions of the novel's ending were present, the binder, ignoring the text, probably inserted some of these pages into the first volume in order to fill gaps in the pagination; e.g., although volume 1 lacks pages 109-110, no gap in pagination exists in the bound MS because pages 109-110 of the rejected ending have been inserted here.

  3. Fleetwood: or, The New Man of Feeling (Standard Novels No. XXII) (London, 1832), p. viii.

  4. Godwin's booksellers, John and George Robinson were fined in Nov. 1793, for selling Part II of Paine's Rights of Man (“The King v. Robinson and Others,” London Chronicle, Tue. 26 Nov. to Thur. 28 Nov. 1793, pp. 517-518). The harassment of publishers and booksellers may explain the curious fact that CW, although purchased by the Robinsons (Kenneth Neill Cameron, Shelley and his Circle: 1773-1822, Cambridge, Mass., 1961, I, 203, n. 6), first appeared not under the imprint of the Robinsons, but under that of B. Crosby; yet the second and third editions bear the Robinsons' imprint. A business connection may have existed between Benjamin Crosby and George Robinson, for whom he had once worked. Crosby sold his business to W. Simkin and R. Marshall in 1814, the firm which later brought out the 4th ed. of CW in 1816 (Joseph Shaylor, Sixty Years a Bookman, London, 1923, pp. 113-114).

  5. Holograph MS. III, 110. Hereafter I insert into my text all references to the MS. Permission to quote granted by the Keeper of the Public Relations, Victoria and Albert Museum.

  6. Godwin changed the name to “Gines” in the 2nd ed.

  7. It is worth noting that Godwin was, according to his journal (see n. 8 below) reading Richardson's Clarissa while engaged in writing the final 26 pages of the first version of CW, a fact which argues direct imitation.

  8. Godwin's journals are in the possession of Lord Abinger, Clees Hall, Bures, Suffolk. Professor Lewis Patton of Duke University is preparing a critical edition. Microfilm copies may be consulted at the Bodleian Library, the Duke University Library, and the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library.

  9. The numeral “2” beneath a page number signifies that Godwin has written the first or second half of that page.

  10. “It has been my habit,” says Godwin in a letter to Archibald Constable (publisher of Mandeville), “to write with so much deliberation and thought that I have never hesitated to send my work to the press by the time half of it was completed, and as it drew to its conclusion the printer and the author generally finished within three days of each other.” See Thomas Constable, Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents (Edinburgh, 1873), II, 71. We may recall that Godwin attributed inconsistencies in the arguments of Political Justice in the 1st ed. (2 vols., London, 1793) to the fact that the early portions of the book were being printed while the latter portions were in the process of composition (Preface, pp. ix-x).

  11. None of the extant pages of the rejected ending contains a typesetter's notation. In the rewritten version MS. p. 109 carries the typesetter's notation for signature O, and MS. p. 112 the notation “Morton.” If the pages of the rejected ending had been set in type, the signature O would appear somewhere between the bottom of p. 109 and the top half of p. 110.

  12. 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 (London, 1794).

  13. C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, 2 vols. (London, 1876), I, 139-140. This letter, undated, is quoted only in part by Paul.

  14. Paul, I, 78.

  15. CW (2nd ed.), I, vi.

  16. CW (2nd ed.), I, vi.

  17. CW (2nd ed.), I, vi.

  18. “Correspondence,” V (Apr. 1795), 444-447.

  19. VI (July 1795), 94-95. (Emphasis added.) See also rejoinder, VI (Aug. 1795), 213-215.

  20. “William Godwin's Novels,” Studies of a Biographer, III (2nd ser., New York and London, 1902), 140.

  21. Stephen, p. 145.

  22. (3 vols., London, 1794), III, xv, 298. References are to this, the first, edition. For readers using other editions I include chapter number and treat the concluding chapter heading, “Postscript,” as part of chapter xv.

  23. “Mr. Godwin,” (rev. of Cloudesley) Edin. Rev. LI (Apr. 1830) in Works, ed. P. P. Howe (London and Toronto, 1930), XVI, 394.

  24. “Godwin's Later Novels,” Studies in Romanticism, I (Winter, 1962), 70.

  25. Reflections on Education, Manners and Literature (London, 1797), p. 148.

  26. An Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its influence on General Virtue and Happiness (2 vols., London, 1793), II, 494. Unless otherwise noted, all references are to this edition, hereafter cited in the notes as PJ.

  27. I, 21, 63, 206-211.

  28. Education and Enlightenment in the Works of William Godwin (New York, 1962), p. 167.

  29. PJ, I, 231-232. Also 2nd ed. (1796), I, 309-310.

  30. PJ, I, 231-232.

  31. I, 238. Also 2nd ed. I, 309-310, 329.

  32. e.g. “There is an energy in the sincerity of a virtuous mind that nothing human can resist.” (I, 243) See also I, 240, 241-242, 368.

  33. I, ix-x. Also 2nd ed., I, xiii-xvii.

  34. In the 2nd ed. the claims of sincerity upon the individual are no longer absolute. Sincerity is recognized as a “secondary principle” and “general utility” is, consistent with Godwin's views on justice, recognized as the “paramount and original principle” (I, 350-351).

  35. I, 91-92.

  36. I, 90-91.

  37. I, 229, 298. Also 2nd ed., I, 306, 338, 348, 349. For the relation of confidence to sympathy see “Of the Obtaining of Confidence,” The Enquirer, pp. 119-128. In the only systematic treatment of confidence in PJ, the principle is regarded as a form of blind obedience and therefore as vicious (I, 172-174; also 2nd ed., I, 229-230, 234-235, 239-240).

  38. PJ, 2nd ed., I, 457.

  39. I, 456.

  40. Harvey Gross, “The Pursuer and the Pursued: A Study of Caleb Williams,Texas Studies in Literature and Language, I (Autumn, 1959), 410.

  41. P. N. Furbank, “Godwin's Novels,” Essays in Criticism, V (July 1955), 218.

  42. Aptly termed by Angus Wilson to characterize the “nightmare dissociation between the gloomy tortured lives of Godwin's heroes and the sweet reasonableness … of Political Justice …” in “The Novels of William Godwin,” World Review, No. 28 (June 1951), 40.

  43. I, 214.

  44. Introduction to his ed. of CW (New York, 1960), p. viii.

  45. “The Philosophy of Composition,” Selected Poetry and Prose (New York, 1951), pp. 363-364.

  46. Many revisions made in the 2nd ed., in fact, amplify old passages and add new ones emphasizing Caleb's emotional estrangement from society and, consequently, serve to heighten sentiment at the expense of politics. The present writer is preparing a critical edition of CW which will treat fully revisions made by Godwin in MS and for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th eds.

  47. See B. Sprague Allen, “William Godwin as a Sentimentalist,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association], XXXIII (Mar. 1918), 1-29.


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Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams William Godwin

The following entry presents criticism of Godwin's novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794).

Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams is Godwin's most famous novel and is often considered the fictional counterpart of his best-known work, the political and philosophical treatise An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). According to many critics, the essay represents Godwin's utopian view of the way things should be, while the novel represents—as the full title indicates—his dystopian view of things as they are.

Biographical Information

The seventh of thirteen children in a strict Calvinist family, William Godwin was born on March 3, 1756, in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, to John Godwin, a Dissenting minister, and Ann Hull Godwin, the daughter of a shipowner. The family moved to Debenham in Suffolk when Godwin was two years old and then to Guestwick near Norwich two years later. His early education took place in Guestwick and nearby Hindolveston, and in 1767 he began training with a Calvinist preacher in Norwich. When his father died in 1772, Godwin and his mother moved to London where he attended Hoxton College, studying theology, philosophy, and the classics. He graduated in May, 1778, as a Calvinist and a Tory.

Although he originally planned to enter the ministry, his commitment to rationalism and intellectual freedom led him in other directions. Influenced by Thomas Holcroft, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others, Godwin abandoned his religious and political beliefs and became first a deist, and later an atheist and a Whig. He began writing pamphlets and literary parodies, most of them published anonymously, and novels in which he criticized the manners of the aristocracy. Against the backdrop of revolution in France and the repression of seditious writings and speech in Britain, Godwin produced Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, his most acclaimed work. It was an immediate success, and 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 “persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach.” The two texts represented the high point of Godwin's career as a writer and a radical.

By 1795, concerned about the excesses of the French Revolution, he began tempering his commitment to change, calling for gradual reform through education of the populace. In 1796 he renewed his acquaintance with the writer Mary Wollstonecraft. They were married in March 1797, but Wollstonecraft died in August of that year, soon after giving birth to their daughter, Mary. Grief-stricken, Godwin published his late wife's memoirs the following year. He continued writing for more than thirty years, producing novels, essays, biographies, and historical texts, and died on April 7, 1836, at the age of eighty.

Plot and Major Characters

Caleb Williams is narrated in the first person by the title character, the son of a peasant who serves as secretary to Squire Falkland, a wealthy country gentleman. Falkland is publicly insulted by another landowner, Tyrrel, a bully despised by the entire community. Rather than challenge Tyrrel to a duel, Falkland murders him in secret and allows two innocent men to be executed for the crime. When Caleb discovers his master's secret, Falkland threatens him into silence, and when Caleb tries to leave his position, Falkland plants jewelry in his bag and accuses him of theft. Caleb is convicted and imprisoned, but escapes. He is captured in London, but the authorities must release him because Falkland, fearing his own crime will be revealed, fails to testify against him. Although technically free, Caleb is hounded by Falkland's agents, who pursue him wherever he goes, turning his neighbors against him with their stories. Finally Caleb, unable to bear this persecution any longer, confronts the dying Falkland who publicly confesses the whole story.

Major Themes

Caleb Williams represents Godwin's attempt to expose the injustices of English social and political life: the unchecked power of landlords over peasants, the horrors of the prison system, the tyranny of the wealthy over the poor, and the government's oppression of its citizens. The emptiness and hypocrisy of the aristocratic code of honor was exposed through Falkland's willingness to stand by as two innocent men were executed for a murder he committed. The contemporary political climate wherein spies seemed to be listening in on every conversation and critics of the government were imprisoned on the flimsiest of evidence was represented by the relentless persecution of Caleb and the justifiable paranoia that resulted. The novel was released at the same time that members of the London Corresponding Society, including Thomas Holcroft, were arrested and tried for treason. Godwin made two significant changes to the original manuscript at this time: the elimination of a Preface, which was later reinstated in the second edition, and a dramatic change in the novel's ending. Whether these changes were in response to the arrest of his friends and fellow writers or were prompted by his own fears of government reprisals is a matter of conjecture on the part of literary scholars. The original ending of the novel was considerably more pessimistic than the published version—Falkland continues to deny his crime, and Caleb's protests are silenced by the judge. Unable to bear further persecution, Caleb goes mad while Falkland lives out his years in health and apparent happiness.

Critical Reception

Godwin's novel has been interpreted in widely varying ways. Some critics consider it a gothic novel, others consider it a precursor to the English detective novel, and still others refer to it as the first psychological novel. Harvey Gross contends that Godwin employed gothic conventions in a revolutionary way, turning what was considered an escapist genre into political literature by using “the despotic hero and the narrative technique of flight and pursuit in a context that is specifically social and political.” Many scholars concentrate on the parallels between Godwin's political treatise, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Caleb Williams. D. Gilbert Dumas reports that Godwin's stated intent was to demonstrate within his novel “that the spirit and character of the government intrudes itself into every rank of society”; Dumas points out that this is “the same political principle that supports much of the huge argument of Political Justice.” Similarly, Kenneth W. Graham maintains that “from the beginning Godwin linked the two works in content and in spirit. In both he sought to undermine fundamental prejudices and open the mind to change.” Rudolf F. Storch explores the connections between Godwin's social criticism and his Calvinist upbringing, claiming that “the psychic energy for social criticism is derived from rebellion against parental authority, which in its turn is linked with guilt finding its expressive language in Calvinist obsession with divine persecution.” Marilyn Butler discusses the central position of politics in Godwin's novel, contending that the work represents a response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Although some critics have read Caleb Williams as a novel of homosexual love, Alex Gold, Jr. does not quite agree. Gold contends that although the novel “transcends heterosexual boundaries” in its exploration of the connections between tyranny and love, it does not necessarily imply that the story is about homosexual passion. Robert J. Corber suggests that Godwin's novel is part of the homophobic political atmosphere of late eighteenth-century Britain because it codes homosexual acts as an element of aristocratic privilege and patronage, which Godwin was trying to discredit. According to Corber, “By associating aristocratic patronage with the ‘unspeakable,’ [Godwin] promoted forms of male bonding more conducive to middle-class ambitions,” and thus encouraged middle-class men to succeed on the basis of their own merit rather than relying on an outmoded system of patronage.

Rudolf F. Storch (essay date June 1967)

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SOURCE: Storch, Rudolf F. “Metaphors of Private Guilt and Social Rebellion in Godwin's Caleb Williams.ELH 34, no. 2 (June 1967): 188-207.

[In the following essay, Storch maintains that Caleb Williams is a surprisingly modern text in its treatment of neurotic obsession despite its commonly perceived status as a late eighteenth-century gothic romance.]

Caleb Williams was published in 1794, but is in essentials a very modern novel and may strike the twentieth-century reader as more congenial in its psychology than even the best Victorian character analysis. Its great imaginative power has unfortunately been suffocated by the wrappers of literary history: social novel, gothic terror, romance. When it is freed from these generalities and seen in its pristine state, it may be left to do its work on the reader's sensibility even to-day. The puzzle about the book is that in spite of its wooden style, wild improbabilities and unconvincing characterisation it produces a feverish intensity which few ‘successful’ novels of classical stature can equal, and which literary history has not altogether accounted for. The experience nearest to this intensity is to be found in recent surrealist and automatic writing, which exploits the subconscious storehouse as a matter of policy. The fascination (and in a sense, the greater value) of Caleb Williams lies in the fact that Godwin seems to have written a study of neurosis without being fully aware of doing so. The book is therefore that much more convincing. One does not have to understand in abstract terms the neurosis played out in the book in order to come under its sway. On the contrary, its impact is all the greater for the source of the power remaining hidden.

Beyond this immediate appeal Caleb Williams is also a document of great theoretic value, because it offers in exceptionally clear form a constituent element, neurotic obsessions, of all imaginative literature. And finally, it has the more specific interest belonging to the history of ideas, of narrating a state of mind, an experience, which has a peculiarly ‘modern’ resonance, as if the book saw the modern soul with exceptional intensity (and a dream-like clarity) at the very moment of its emergence. This clairvoyant power is usually ascribed only to great literature. Caleb Williams certainly does not belong to this category, and yet it has the effect of revelation: we feel and recognize in the narrative the guilt and the anxieties which seem to have dominated much of Western Culture since the end of the eighteenth century. In this way Caleb Williams speaks to our condition more pertinently than does Goethe's Faust.

Godwin's novels are usually grouped with his contemporary Thomas Holcroft's once fashionable tales of social criticism. Godwin's Preface to Caleb Williams may be partly to blame for this critical error. He proposed, he said, “a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man.”1 This sounds very much like social analysis and leads one to expect an attack on the abuses of hereditary power. That is no doubt the reason why anthologies select the chapter of Caleb's imprisonment, or the robber's speech against institutionalized robbery protected by law. But these incidents are peripheral: at its centre Caleb Williams is not a rational exposition of social abuses but a narrative of obsession.2 A genuine sense of tragic destiny may be detected in it—an account of an individual experience rather than a social protest.3 Above all it reveals the psychological link between private guilt and social policy, and it is this insight which makes the book valuable both as literature and as cultural document. The psychological link takes the literary form of metaphoric transfer and fusion; the literary metaphor being the equivalent to the channel through which political energies flow in life as well as in literature. Without being in the least aware of it, Godwin released into his narrative those energies of the individual mind which fuel overt social protest. For social justice is an abstract idea which is not likely to be self-generating even as an ideal force, but draws its energies from sources within the individual mind, which are usually disguised and symbolically displaced.

The transfer from private obsession to social protest is, as one would expect, gradual and involved. There are at least three stages to be observed. Ultimately the source of rebellion is guilt, which in Caleb Williams is clearly Calvinistic. The book is dominated by this metaphor. Godwin's imagination struggles with the idea of social justice because he had already experienced conflicts over the idea of divine justice. The Calvinist obsession with divine justice in its turn is truly personal because of the metaphoric link between God the Father and the pater familias, the secular head of the family or his surrogate. The events, characterisation, ideas and language of Caleb Williams are determined by these metaphors. The psychic energy for social criticism is derived from rebellion against parental authority, which in its turn is linked with guilt finding its expressive language in Calvinist obsession with divine persecution.

In Caleb Williams the conflict between rebellion and guilt remains unresolved. The irony of this is poignant. Here is Godwin, the apostle of Faith in Reason, having to show in his one outstanding novel that in the end human life is an unresolved conflict of subterranean emotions. But it is not surprising that his imagination had to redress the crudities of his intellect, which had pushed self-deception to the limit. His Political Justice, published in 1793, the year before Caleb Williams, prescribes a way of life which is ruled entirely by the disembodied reason. Such a prescription is simply an evasion of emotional conflicts; they are repressed, not resolved. Wordsworth's account, in The Prelude (Book X, 806-830, in the version of 1805), of the Godwinian philosophy, implies this very neatly. It is fair to say that every analysis of man in Political Justice stops short of the essential psychological insight. Godwin's lack of concern with the quality of emotional life is conveyed by such chapters as “The Characters of Men Originate in Their External Circumstances”; or “The Voluntary Actions of Men Originate in Their Opinions.” The best known example of Godwin's rational calculus occurs in the chapter on Justice. We cannot, ought not, love our neighbours as ourselves, because some men are more valuable than others. When Godwin opposes tyrannical institutions he does not appeal to human nature or the promptings of the heart; actions, he says, must proceed from calculations. Such is probably the most unrealistic programme ever put forward by a philosopher who was also a novelist. The remarkable thing about Caleb Williams is, that it shows life to be completely irrational. There, Godwin's imagination managed to obviate his rational abstractions and show the real sources of power, of justice, and of rebellion. As so often, the imagination knew better than the intellect. The ironical situation, that Caleb Williams undermines everything that the propagandist had thought up, is therefore of the greatest interest not only to the student of literature, but also to the historian. One and the same mind wrote Political Justice, and a year later, the novel which discovers that life is not a matter of justice deliberated and weighed, but that it is the prey to obsessions and terrors; that it is not only society which is tyrannical, but also guilt, hate and love.

Caleb Williams is an orphan employed as private secretary by the squire and local potentate, Mr. Falkland. Falkland commits a murder and Caleb gets to know of it by fairly circumstantial though not conclusive evidence. He is a nosy young man and snoops for clues that will convict his master, who is of course also the magistrate. He breaks into a chest and is discovered in this act of dangerous curiosity by Falkland, who consequently terrorizes and persecutes Caleb. The law will not even initiate a case against Falkland because Caleb has not ‘evidence’ but only reasoning and a feeling. He wants to leave Falkland's service but is not allowed to, though at last he succeeds in stealing away. He cannot, however, escape Falkland's vigilance. He is always ‘shadowed’ and England becomes one huge prison. He puts on one disguise after another, but Falkland or his agents see through them all. Falkland not only persecutes, he also protects and keeps Caleb alive. He sends him food and money for comforts in prison. Whatever Falkland's motives, Caleb is hunted and haunted by his seeming omnipotence, relentless anger and thirst for revenge. The persecution cannot be explained rationally, for Falkland has nothing to fear from Caleb, who has shot his bolt: no one will believe Caleb's story, not even his guardian friend or his fellow servants. No, Falkland's thirst for revenge is simply part of his ‘character’—he seems to enjoy terrorizing his victims.

Even the briefest account of the book shows that we are reading not a didactic analysis of social oppression, but a story of guilt and of the ambivalence of love and hate. This becomes dramatically clear in every detail of the narrative and the dialogue. The novel opens with two very suggestive pieces of information. Caleb as a child had a very highly developed intellectual curiosity, which from the description given must seem almost a mania.4 And secondly at the age of eighteen he loses his father at the precise moment that the squire Falkland returns home after a lengthy absence. “I was surprised with a message from the squire, ordering me to repair to the mansion house the morning after my father's funeral.” (p. 5). His mother had died some years before, so that Caleb stands alone in the world, completely dependent on his master. From the moment of his father's death his days were “devoted to misery and alarm.” (p. 6) Falkland is a recluse with a gloomy temperament and suffers from a distemper which “had its paroxisms.” Although this reads like a rather feeble attempt at characterization, perhaps in the convention of the Gothic hypochondriac and misanthrope, Falkland in fact derives his threatening aspect from a projection of Caleb's paranoiac guilt. For Falkland is clearly the revengeful father figure who has taken the place of the dead father. It is this guilt which binds Caleb to him. “My heart bleeds at the recollection of his misfortunes, as if they were my own. How can it fail to do so? To his story the whole fortune of my life was linked; because he was miserable, my happiness, my name, and my existence have been irretrievably blasted.” (p. 10)

A description of Caleb's intense relationship with Falkland would have been beyond the scope of eighteenth century character analysis. Not even the subtlety and intelligence of George Eliot's probings could have captured it. For the two characters are not separate and interacting, but aspects of one and the same soul, so that their conflicts and the fate that binds them together have indeed the force of inescapable destiny. Writer and reader sense this oppressive destiny, without deliberately tearing apart the web of fiction, for the pattern of the fiction does its work in its own way. For example the identity of Caleb and Falkland is insinuated by their physical resemblance. Caleb describes himself thus: “Without being particularly athletic in appearance or large in my dimensions, I was uncommonly vigorous and active.” (p. 3) Falkland is described as being equally small of stature, and having an air of “common dignity. His dignity was then heightened by certain additions which were afterwards obliterated,—an expression of frankness, ingenuity, and unreserve, and a spirit of the most ardent enthusiasm.” (p. 11) The physical and the mental characteristics apply to both the men equally. And just as Caleb succeeds among the village gallants at home, so Falkland shines in his gallantries in Italy. Falkland's adventure in Italy is sheer romance, or dream fantasy by Caleb-Godwin. The god-like Englishman (p. 16) exemplifies ideal conduct. Instead of murdering his rival in a duel (there is no doubt of his superior skill), he hands over the girl with a consciousness of moral superiority. But as soon as Falkland returns home, the fantasy deepens into an intuition of psychological conflict. Falkland is made to encounter a man exactly his opposite, his neighbor Barnabas Tyrrel, who is an only child, raised and spoiled by his mother. He grows up an uneducated brute. “From his birth he was muscular and sturdy; and, confined to the ruelle of his mother, he made much such a figure as the whelp lion that a barbarian might have given for a lap-dog to his mistress.” (p. 19) He grows up without the discipline imposed by a father and remains an uncouth savage, and without intellectual curiosity. He is therefore the exact counterpart to Caleb-Falkland. His behaviour towards women is far from gallant. It is his tyrannous conduct towards his niece that brings about the circumstances leading to Falkland's murdering him. As Tyrrel jealously maltreats the niece, Falkland gains her affections, though he is apparently unaware of her feelings for him. Before Falkland gives way to his murderous impulses and on a dark night stabs Tyrrel to death, he listens to the voice of perfect wisdom and understanding embodied in Mr. Clare. Unfortunately Mr. Clare is suddenly stricken by a plague, so that his deathbed admonishment of Falkland is both oracular but also ineffectual. “Do not commit the mistake,” he warns Falkland against Tyrrel, “of despising him as an unequal opponent.” (p. 39)—“And now that the influence of Mr. Clare's presence and virtue was entirely removed, Mr. Tyrrel's temper broke out into more criminal excesses than ever.” (p. 42) The details of Tyrrel's persecution of his niece may be passed over, as may other instances of his tyranny. When the girl dies Falkland's reaction is extreme: “He raved, he swore, he beat his head, he rent up his hair. He was unable to continue in one posture, or to remain in one place. He burst away from the spot with vehemence, as if he sought to leave behind him his recollection and his existence.” (pp. 102-103) There is nothing in the story to account for this extreme grief; he behaves more like the girl's murderer than her friend. And that is of course the point: Falkland, Tyrrel, Caleb and Clare are not so much separate persons with their own motivations (or characters in an observed society) as elements within the mind of one person who projects them warring one against the other onto the figures moving in this strange dreamlike story.

The main identification is between Caleb and Falkland, and that means both a sympathy so close that they are psychically almost one, and also the sharp conflict that arises from warring impulses within one mind. Falkland is both the model father whom the son must emulate, and also the hated tyrant. Having a morbid sense of honor, his life seems to be governed by the need to guard his honor against the slightest slur, and by an obsessive thirst for revenge against anyone who in the smallest degree might endanger his honor. Such a character seems to belong to the stock-in-trade of neo-classical literature, but Godwin transforms him into something altogether new and important. For the ideal man of honor here becomes the embodiment of the jealous God. To take His name in vain entails eternal persecution. This jealous God is moreover the guarantor of justice and righteousness. The whole novel turns on this one point, namely that in Godwin's imagination the idealized father figure must also be at the mercy of his intellectually curious son. The father's sense of honor is only a metaphor for his constant fear of his rebellious son. Under Caleb's observant eye Falkland shows every sign of guilty confusion. “I perfectly understood his feelings,” says Caleb “and would willingly have withdrawn myself. But it was impossible; my passions were too deeply engaged; I was rooted to the spot; though my own life, that of my master, or almost of a whole nation had been at stake, I had no power to change my position.” (p. 146) But Caleb as yet only surmises guilt; in order to be sure he has to watch a dream within a dream, that is a trial within a trial. He observes Falkland sitting as magistrate over a case of murder, just as Hamlet watches Claudius watching the mime. Falkland's violent emotions reveal his guilt. The effect on Caleb is astonishing: “… I felt as if my animal system had undergone a total revolution. My blood boiled within me. I was conscious to a kind of rapture for which I could not account. I was solemn, yet full of rapid emotions, burning with indigation and energy. In the very tempest and hurricane of the passions, I seemed to enjoy the most soul-ravishing calm. I cannot better express the then state of my mind, than by saying, I was never so perfectly alive as at that moment.” (p. 150) If, by novelistic conventions, these emotions seem excessive, that is not because Godwin is overwriting but because he is drawing on truths deeper than the conventions. This mixture of turbulent energies and a central calm, above all this being “so perfectly alive,” is the result of the completed projection of guilt. It conveys the moment of rejection of a revengeful God, for the crime is his, not man's. The ensuing central peace amounts to an acceptance of life instead of anxious questionings as to God's purpose and character. Caleb here anticipates the Romantic energy which has been liberated from guilt because it has faced the superego, has met it face to face, and has turned back upon it the imputations of criminality.

But Falkland's guilt must remain an article of faith which no court of justice would listen to (p. 150). Nor will the book ever offer concrete evidence. In the end it is only Falkland's confession which bears out our sharing Caleb's faith that Falkland is guilty. Caleb's belief however amounts to certainty: “‘Mr. Falkland is the murderer! He is guilty! I see it! I feel it! I am sure of it!’ Thus was I hurried along by an uncontrollable destiny.” (pp. 150-151) The experience of destiny suggests that Caleb's certainty is not the result of deduction, but of a religious conversion. (It occurs while Caleb is alone in the deepest thickets of the garden.) This moment of exultation is immediately followed by a shadow, and the destiny threatens to be ironical. “In the midst of one of my paroxysms of exclamation, and when I thought myself most alone, the shadow of a man as avoiding me passed transiently by me at a small distance.” (p. 151) The destiny, after all, is not going to be freedom from guilt, but a guilt intensified: the exultation brings its own nemesis.

There now follows the episode of Caleb's breaking into Falkland's trunk. The nightmare horror of this comes from no Gothic paraphernalia, but entirely from a state of mind. Perhaps there is no human tie as binding as a shared guilt. What has already been shown of Caleb and Falkland establishes that they are indeed ‘each other's fate,’ are ‘joint to each other’—clichés about romantic lovers, but perhaps even more pertinent to these two souls linked by curiosity, crime and guilt. In the episode of the trunk the link is given symbolic definition. During Falkland's absence a fire breaks out in his mansion and Caleb takes advantage of the ensuing turmoil to steal into a chamber and break open a trunk which had attracted his attention and which he surmised to hold the ‘evidence’ of Falkland's crime. He has scarcely wrenched open the lock when he is surprised by Falkland. The significance of the episode lies in the emotions, which go far beyond the excitement of detective work instigated by an idle curiosity. He hoped to find in the trunk all for which his “heart panted. After two or three efforts, in which the energy of uncontrollable passion was added to my bodily strength, the fastenings gave way, the trunk opened, and all that I sought was at once within my reach.” (p. 152) Everything that happens in that chamber has the intensity of a dream. “In the high tide of boiling passion I had overlooked all consequence. It now appeared to me like a dream.” But the dream is also analyzed and given moral significance. Caleb's motive in hunting for evidence is not justice but “ungoverned curiosity” which, as Falkland knows, and the story reveals, is an instrument of power, of dominion over another soul. Caleb's curiosity means disobedience, it is “an impulse that I had represented to myself as so innocent or so venial!” (p. 153) It is in fact the Original Sin. Caleb himself, on the following page, explains this clearly enough, except that he fails to recognize the ulterior uses of knowledge for power: “And yet what was my fault? It proceeded from none of those errors which are justly held up to the aversion of mankind; my object had been neither wealth nor the means of indulgence, nor the usurpation of power. No spark of malignity had harboured in my soul. I had always reverenced the sublime mind of Mr. Falkland; I reverenced it still. My offence had merely been a mistaken thirst for knowledge.” The thirst for knowledge is not merely mistaken, it is also fatal; just as Caleb's reverence can be analyzed into awe and rebellious hatred. And he knows it intuitively, by the extreme punishment he anticipates: “Such however it was [the offense], as to admit neither forgiveness nor remission.” His relentless search for evidence against Falkland is now to be paralleled by unrelenting retribution. This is the simple economy of Caleb's mind, which is an accurate reflection of the primitive levels of the human mind. The emotion which seems excessive to the occasion can be accounted for by the psychic displacement of Caleb's real motives, which are not idle curiosity but power over Falkland, disobedience and rebellion. He searches the trunk for forbidden knowledge. The guilt is Caleb's, and only by projection Falkland's. These real motives are disguised by the metaphors of intellectual curiosity in Caleb, and of honor in Falkland. Caleb does not of course know that he is explaining the situation metaphorically, nor can he explain the emotions that overwhelm him. For him the situation has the irrationality of a dream: “In the high tide of passion I had overlooked all consequences. It now appeared to me like a dream.” (p. 152) And: “I have always been at a loss to account for my having plunged thus headlong into an act so monstrous. There is something in it of unexplained and involuntary sympathy.” (p. 154) Although he asks himself why he broke into the trunk, he does not question why this should appear to him such a “monstrous act.” We know that it represents a search into the unconscious, a glimpse of it in a moment of disequilibrium. The result can indeed be dire. The forces released are Falkland's completely irrational revenge and persecution. These are of course projections of the inner turmoil which Caleb so vividly describes: “All was chaos and uncertainty within me. My thoughts were too full of horror to be susceptible of activity. I felt deserted of my intellectual powers, palsied in mind, and compelled to sit in speechless expectation of a misery to which I was destined. To my own conception I was like a man, who, though blasted with lightning, and deprived for ever of the power of motion, should yet retain the consciousness of his situation. Death-dealing despair was the only idea of which I was sensible.” (p. 155)

The pages that now follow are some of the least probable (in terms of realistic narrative) in the book. Caleb had not had time to lift the lid of the trunk, but Falkland volunteers a confession! Apart from the fact that it is difficult to conceive of the kind of evidence that could be hidden in the trunk, Falkland is of course free to destroy it now. Instead he confesses to the murder, and explains both it and the confession by his honor and love of fame. (p. 157) Godwin is groping for an explanation (or diagnosis) of psychological energies he cannot understand and which he condemns as irrational. For him honor and fame are irrational “divinities” belonging to an antiquated society; he therefore makes Falkland's irrational, hysterical conduct the symptom of his love of honor and of fame. It may well be that Godwin has by chance hit upon an insight into the motivations of the chivalric code. Of more immediate concern, however, is the use here of the code of honor and fame as a metaphor for a hypersensitive conscience projected by the victim of guilt. Falkland's sensitivity regarding his honor is a metaphoric step to the projection of the jealous god. The world of chivalry does not belong to history but to the imagination. It is created in the land of Faerie and of moral allegory. Ultimately it belongs not so much to moral allegory as to magic and the unconscious. The story of Caleb Williams has no place in the society of 18th century England, but belongs to the shadowy world of dreams. Caleb's movement is not across the geography of England but through a land under a spell: “Occupied with these meditations, I rode many miles, before I perceived that I had totally deviated from the right path. At length I roused myself, and surveyed the horizon around me; but I could observe nothing with which my organ was previously acquainted. etc.” (p. 169) Eventually he discovers that he has come not to Falkland's place, but to Mr. Forester's, Falkland's rival for Caleb's attention and respect.

Caleb now addresses to Falkland a letter asking for his freedom, because he wants to be his own master. The letter reads very like a transcription of one of the more passionate of Herbert's poems: “Why should you subject me to eternal penance? why should you consign my youthful hopes to suffering and despair?”—and “I sincerely ask you forgiveness.” (p. 175) But Falkland has to answer very differently from Herbert's God. He does not trust the letter because it is a trick. And Caleb's subconscious knows of course that his was not genuine repentance and gratitude. For what he really needs is not forgiveness but self-abasement. That is why Falkland replies: “I shall crush you in the end with the same indifference, that I would any other little insect that disturbed my serenity.” (p. 177) Falkland becomes the agent of those deep emotional needs that have little connection with reason or commonsense, and which are reflected most terribly in the Calvinist faith. Falkland's service cannot be left: “That is my will.” When Caleb runs away his reflections on tyranny and freedom are a curious blend of political, moral and religious ideas. The blend is not deliberate on Godwin's part, but is the result of the metaphoric opening up of the imagination.

The two most powerful metaphors are guilt and innocence. At the primary level they refer to social transgression and obedience, i. e. Caleb's breaking into the trunk and betraying his master. But a metaphysical meaning insinuates itself immediately. Caleb is shown by Godwin to labor under a delusion which blinds him fatefully to the truth of the situation. His delusion is that “Innocence and guilt were … the things in the whole world the most opposite to each other.”—And that unless the innocent's mind and spirit be broken, he can never mistake himself for guilty. It is for this reason that Caleb still believes in justice. This much is true at the level of social justice. But it is not true at the psychological level. After undergoing agonies of persecution Caleb will have to acknowledge that the distinction between innocence and guilt is not such a clear one. (p. 347) But even at the beginning of his flight Caleb is not altogether innocent, for he did after all break into the trunk, he did disobey his master and seek after forbidden knowledge. And Falkland is far from being just, in accusing Caleb of robbing him. In short, Caleb is deceiving himself as regards his own innocence and also as regards the simple pattern of justice that rules the world. Falkland is not just but implacable; and Caleb far from having been clever in arranging his escape, has in fact, though unwittingly, provided the evidence that will convict him. The net is indeed inescapable. In the next ironic twist Mr. Forester, who is rectitude himself, is hoodwinked by Falkland and, his honest trust having been outraged, now turns with the utmost severity against Caleb. Caleb is tried, condemned and imprisoned. Social justice is perverted. But we are distressed not by the political implications so much as by the harshness and above all the inescapability of fate. Caleb is at the beginning of the agonizing lesson, that no one can be sure of his innocence, that the will has no effect on existence, and that there is no connection between justice and the descent of grace.

Caleb in prison offered Godwin a chance for a tirade against injustice: “This is society. This is the object, the distribution of justice, which is the end of human reason. For this sages have toiled, and the midnight oil has been wasted. This!” (p. 210) But just as there is very little point in looking at prisons through the eye of reason, so this part of the story is effective not for its social protest, as for the nightmare of escapes foiled at the last minute, and for the sense of the net tightening over the victim. The issues are of the largest: “What chance had I, after the purgation I was now suffering, that I should come out acquitted at last?” And: “Thus was I cut off for ever, from all that existence had to bestow—from all the high hopes I had so often conceived—from all the future excellence my soul so much delighted to imagine,—…” (p. 211). Here again the language fuses religious anguish with indignation at social injustice.

Caleb's encounter with the band of robbers provides another occasion for rhetoric against social tyranny. They “who are thieves without a licence are at open war with another set of men, who are thieves according to law.” (p. 251) This set speech has little relevance to Caleb's troubles, for Falkland's motive is certainly not gain. The tyranny of “the powerful members of the community” (p. 256) as Caleb experiences it has neither economic nor (in the usual sense) political origins.

Godwin's inventive skill becomes magnificent when he narrates Caleb's flight from Falkland's omnipotence. The fugitive is persecuted, harassed and hunted throughout England, until the whole country is made one prison for him. (p. 363) Not only Falkland's agents but also mere chance prevents him from escaping from England. But we do not ask what is chance, or what is probable and what improbable in Falkland's knowledge of Caleb's every move: for we share Caleb's sense of the inescapable eye of the avenger. Here the narrative becomes intense again as in the account of the breaking into the trunk and of Caleb's certainty of Falkland's guilt. It is especially powerful in suggesting the transition from physical disguise to loss of psychic identity. At first he deliberately “loses himself” in London by staining his face and wearing workman's clothes; but gradually he becomes cast out from human fellowship and the “alienation” leads to metaphysical despair. His “life was all a lie.” (p. 297) “Why,” he exclaims, “am I overwhelmed with the load of existence? Why are all these engines at work to torment me? … To what purpose serve the restless aspirations of my soul, but to make me like a frighted bird beat myself in vain against the enclosure of my cage? Nature, barbarous nature, to me thou hast proved indeed the worst of stepmothers; endowed me with wishes insatiate and sunk me in never-ending degradation!” (pp. 297-298) His very words remind us of the transgression which is the cause of the sense of persecution, and of the agonies of guilt: namely his inordinate curiosity, his limitless aspirations, which affront the stern Father and Master. Caleb's intensest suffering comes therefore when voices tell him that it is he who is guilty and not Falkland. The voices belong to respected and revered figures from Caleb's past. “There was no criminal upon the face of the earth, no murderer, half so detestable as the person who could prevail upon himself to utter the charges I had done, by way of recrimination, against so generous a master.” The speaker is an “incomparable and amiable old man.” (pp. 289-290) His boyhood mentor Collins turns against him in similar words. Worst of all is the revelation that Falkland is not only persecutor but also protector and savior. “Were you so stupid and undistinguished” he says to Caleb, “as not to know that the preservation of your life was the uniform object of my exertions? Did I not maintain you in prison? Did not I endeavour to prevent your being sent thither? … I meditated to do you good. For that reason I was willing to prove you. … I left you to your own discretion. You might show the impotent malignity of your own heart, …” (p. 326)

In the last thirty pages of Book III the theme of rebellion and guilt receives its most concentrated treatment. The symptoms of delusions of persecution (caused by guilt) become unmistakable. The whole world becomes cold and hostile. “The greatest aggravation of my present lot was that I was cut off from the friendship of mankind.” (p. 357) When he offers affection to others, he is repelled. Of course, it is not the world that is cold but himself, for one can only feel cut off from mankind by cutting oneself off from it. Caleb has gone into hiding because he is pursued by the phantoms of his guilt which will not let him live in the company of men.

In his great need for human contact Caleb turns for consolation to the friend of his boyhood, Mr. Collins, who however rejects him with an argument both illogical and also decisive. Mr. Collins first refuses to change his mind about Mr. Falkland, whom he admires as a living model of liberality and goodness. (p. 369) He dare not change his opinion because that would involve a complete reworking of his moral values. He argues that the general criteria of virtue and vice are too important to be tampered with, even if occasionally they lead to misinterpretation and misjudgment. To change his mind about one person would undermine the security of his moral sensibility. In short, he wants to maintain the sharp distinction between virtue and vice.—But when it comes to Caleb's innocence or guilt, Collins' argument is the exact reverse. He does not believe, a priori, that Caleb can be innocent. Mankind is such that no innocence can ever be demonstrated. Guilt we often refuse to see clearly and without disguise. This question would therefore also lead to uncertainty. Mr. Collins refuses to sacrifice the comforts of life for such fruitless and unsettling investigations. He will, in other words, accept the conventional estimate of things and have peace. Besides, Falkland is powerful and unforgiving. When appealed to for kindness and assistance, Collins admits that Caleb has a right to expect them, but only to a degree, which limitation in effect nullifies the right. Instead of helping, Collins declares that he does not think Caleb totally vicious, and in any case not altogether responsible for his failings, since he is a machine. He did not make himself. (pp. 358-360)

In Collins' argument Godwin brilliantly sums up the superficiality of eighteenth century benevolence: its refusal to go deeply into the human condition, its reluctance to sacrifice its comforts, its fear of unsettling thoughts, feelings and commitments.5 What Godwin now offers in the last pages of the novel destroys the easy assurance of eighteenth century rationalism. The climax is ambiguous and ambivalent, virtue and vice are confused, guilt and innocence become exchangeable, and characters reverse roles several times.

Caleb with a sudden access of energy turns the tables on Falkland. Speaking with a voice of thunder he is now the god and Falkland the victim. But though the last chapter ends on a note of threat, the Postscript once more reverses the situation. Caleb feels an agony of remorse when he sees Falkland a mere ruin of his former self. He repents having dragged his former tyrant before the tribunal, and his own purpose now seems diabolical. (p. 371) The despotism of authority he now thinks well-meant. He utterly abases himself, calls Falkland divine (p. 372) and reverences him. He still knows him for the murderer of Tyrrel and to be responsible for the hanging of the innocent Hawkinses, but somehow he is able to reconcile this knowledge with his reverence. Caleb's only accusation now is that Falkland did not show enough trust in him. He explains that he wanted no more than his freedom and had no idea of giving away Falkland's secret. (But behind this we can sense a metaphysical contradiction.) He made the most horrible mistake, he says, of turning resentment and impatience into criminal proceedings. At this self-abasement we start with incredulity: all of Caleb's intense suffering, his intense hatred of Falkland, are now called mere resentment and impatience! The fault was his own, he says, because he had not opened his heart to Falkland. And he can say this after his many fruitless appeals to Falkland's generosity, and after the many instances of Falkland's jealousy! But Caleb takes the ultimate blame upon himself: he had shown a lack of faith. “But my despair was criminal, was treason against the sovereignty of truth.” (p. 375) In short, he is penitent and submits. The result is that Falkland's heart is conquered, and he in turn humiliates himself before Caleb. It appears now that Caleb's humiliation in his address to the court was only a psychological trick, a softening up of Falkland, so that in the end Caleb could triumph and take Falkland's place. Falkland in his turn now confesses: “I have spent a life of the basest cruelty, to cover one act of momentary vice. … My name will be consecrated to infamy, while your heroism, your patience, and your virtues, will be for ever admired.” (p. 376) But Caleb is not yet satisfied; he wants to have his emotions every way: “I record the praises bestowed on me by Falkland not because I deserved them, but because they serve to aggravate the baseness of my cruelty. He survived this dreadful scene but three days. I have been his murderer.” (p. 376)

The last pages leave one dizzy, as the see-saw of accusation, admission of guilt, its repudiation, assertion of god-like freedom, and final abasement follow one upon the other. It makes no sense at the realistic level and there is no point in asking whether Caleb or Falkland was the guiltier. The reader becomes aware through the metaphoric language of levels of meaning where guilt is not easily apportioned in Mr. Collins' fashion. In the end nothing is resolved: guilt and innocence remain as inextricable as ever. This is not a matter of literary failure, of Godwin's not achieving what he set out to do. (By that test perhaps the best writing would have to be judged a failure.) It is not a matter of ‘ambiguity’ in the sense that the writer cannot or does not wish to commit himself to an unequivocal position. The confusing pattern of alternating accusation and self-abasement is in fact a penetrating account of mental conflict with its projections, defenses, disguises and subterfuges. The intricacies and cross-currents are imaginative recordings of the psychology of rebellion and guilt.

The social dimensions of the story—the prison scene, the paragraphs of social protest, the rhetoric against political tyranny—are neither conspicuous nor central. This is not to say that Godwin's social indignation was not genuine. But it clearly drew its energy from a rebellion of a less rational kind: it had little connection with eighteenth century benevolence. The diction suggests that it is the energy generated by a personal rebellion (best described as a metaphysical rebellion since it assumes the images of a rebellion against the godhead, against the very notion of authority) which is transferred to ideas of social justice. Caleb Williams achieves its remarkable effects because the psychic level is definitely part of the story and does not have to be inferred from the author's life. No violence is done to the text, or to the ‘realistic level’ by our focusing attention on these metaphors. On the contrary, the realistic level does not stand up by itself without the transfer of meaning from other levels. To read the book as a study in obsessive honor is to reduce it to an uninteresting failure. Falkland makes sense only as a projection of, or counterpart to Caleb's guilt.

In such writing about psychic conflict the author must draw upon his inner life, rather than upon observation of the outer world, and to that extent be (in a manner of speaking) autobiographical. Godwin's father was a Calvinist minister. Godwin himself began his adult life as a Sandimanian. The sect has been described as one which “after Calvin had damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind, has contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin.”6 He reacted against the severity and fanaticism of a father he disliked. He turned not only against his father but also against his father's God. The rebellion was not effective, as Caleb Williams shows. He stayed in his prison-cage of rebellion and guilt, and projected his hatred upon a wrathful God whom he both feared and also stood in awe of. His conscience became split off from himself in a typical Puritan manner. This disruption of the self is a characteristic element in Romantic literature. As E. T. A. Hoffman says in one of his phantasmagoric tales: “I imagine myself to be looking at my ego through a kaleidoscope—all the forms moving round me are Egos, and annoy me by what they do and leave undone.” A later victim of a Puritan father, Edmund Gosse, remembers that as a boy he often felt like two separate persons and thought that one self could watch the other from somewhere near the cornice of the room. (Father and Son, 1907) Biographical parallels to Caleb's conflict could no doubt be extended and particularized, without, however, saying much about the imaginative achievement of the novel. Godwin's own account of the planning and writing of Caleb Williams (pp. xxv-xxx) is more revealing, especially if one reads between the lines. On the surface it seems a rational working out of a formula for a best-seller: having completed Political Justice, the same master-mind will now construct the perfect thriller, by working out the logic of tension and action. In fact Godwin cannot help giving away his emotional engagement, and there are sentences in his account which are more appropriate to Paradise Lost than to “a book of fictitious adventure.” He acknowledges that his mind was “in a high state of excitement. I said to myself a thousand times, ‘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.’” (p. xxvii) He started writing in the third person but could not make much headway. Only when he switched to first person narration did he achieve the thing which as he says his imagination revelled in most freely, “the analysis of the private and internal operations of the mind, employing my metaphysical dissecting knife in tracing and laying bare the involutions of motive, …” (p. xxviii) He began with the third volume, he says, in order to work out the perfect plot. What he probably was not aware of, is that in this way he captured the dreamlike intensity of the first inspiration (without having at that stage to explain anything) and then could trace from the dream content, by way of free association the dream-work (to use the Freudian terms). It is in this way that he wrote the metaphors which associate the private and public realms of rebellion and guilt. Godwin even tells us of the immediate occasion in his consciousness that helped to shape the dream-content: he read a tale of persecution, a compilation entitled “God's Revenge against Murder,” and knew well the Newgate Calendar and the Lives of the Pirates. (p. xxix) Godwin had by luck hit upon the perfect way of drawing upon the unconscious sources of the imagination and combining them with material from his conscious experience. He must have been in a state of high nervous excitation, for only thus can be explained his associating (a very free association indeed) the tale of Caleb and Falkland with the tale of Bluebeard, one of the classic embodiments of the guilt complex.

Much could be said about the curiosity which is shown to motivate Caleb, its connection on the one hand with the notion of Original Sin, with the spirit impelling natural history, and on the other hand with the ‘mystery’ which becomes the story of detection. Caleb Williams also offers material for an investigation into the transformation of neurosis into literary form. But of more immediate interest to the literary historian is the link between this novel and the first flowering of Romantic poetry, say the Lyrical Ballads. I have already quoted from the paragraph in which Caleb describes his greatest misery, estrangement from mankind:

The greatest aggravation of my present lot was that I was cut off from the friendship of mankind. I can safely affirm that poverty and hunger, that endless wanderings, that a blasted character and the curses that clung to my name, were all of them slight misfortunes compared to this. I endeavoured to sustain myself by the sense of my integrity, but the voice of no man upon earth echoed to the voice of my conscience. “I called aloud; but there was none to answer; there was none that regarded.” To me the whole world was as unhearing as the tempest and as cold as the torpedo. Sympathy, the magnetic virtue, the hidden essence of our life, was extinct. Nor was this the sum of my misery. This food, so essential to an intelligent existence, seemed perpetually renewing before me in its fairest colours, only the more effectually to elude my grasp and to mock my hunger. From time to time I was prompted to unfold the affections of my soul, only to be repelled with the greater anguish and to be baffled in a way the most intolerably mortifying.

The similarity of this experience to that of “The Ancient Mariner” or of Oswald in The Borderers may reveal something not only about the authors but about the age, namely a great sensitivity to the lack of communal life which the eighteenth century had not brought into consciousness, though many of its prominent figures had suffered from it to the extent of neurosis. Godwin analyzes the malady, but cannot (in the character of Caleb) escape it. The decisive psychological revolution is achieved in the poetry of Wordsworth, who after his Godwinian phase altogether turns away from the image of the authoritarian father, frees himself of guilt and rebellion and finds in nature both the source and the object of love. His ego is not divided but finds a new wholeness in the idea of a universal being of which nature and social man are part. Wordsworth's “Presence” is not a God of Wrath, but a source of joy. He rejects the felicific calculus and puts his trust in spontaneity, in a wise passiveness rather than a feverish curiosity. He breaks out of the prison of guilt and feels at home with his fellow men, the commonalty.


  1. The Adventures of Caleb Williams or Things as They Are (New York, 1965), p. xxiii.

  2. See P. N. Furbank, “Godwin's Novels,” Essays in Criticism, III (1955), 214-228.

  3. See Patrick Crutwell, “On Caleb Williams,Hudson Review, XI (1958), 87-95.

  4. “… I was desirous of tracing the variety of effects which might be produced from given causes. It was this that made me a sort of natural philosopher; I could not rest until I had acquainted myself with the solutions that had been invented for the phenomena of the universe. In fine, this produced in me an invincible attachment to books of narrative and romance. I panted for the unravelling of an adventure, with an anxiety, perhaps almost equal to that of the man whose future happiness or misery depended on its issue.” (p. 4)

  5. Mr. Collins' brand of benevolence is perfectly illustrated by Lord Ellenborough's letter to Wilberforce (quoted in J. Bronowski: William Blake, London, 1954, p. 74):

    “I have always felt a great abhorrence of the mode by which these unfortunate creatures [African slaves] are torn from their families and country, and have doubted whether any sound policy could grow out of a system which seemed to be vicious at its foundation; but I am extremely alarmed at the consequence of disturbing it, particularly in the present convulsed state of the world. In short, my dear sir, I am almost ashamed to say that I tremble at giving their full effect to the impressions which the subject naturally makes on my mind, in the first view of it, as a man and a Christian. I am frightened at the consequences of any innovation upon a long-established practice, at a period so full of dangers as the present. At the same time I cannot well reconcile it with the will of God.”

  6. A. E. Rodway, Godwin and the Age of Transition (London, 1952), pp. 25 ff.

Principal Works

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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 Education, Manners, and Literature (essays) 1797

Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (memoirs) 1798

St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (novel) 1799

Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (biography) 1803

Fleetwood; or, The New Man of Feeling (novel) 1805

Faulkener (play) 1807

Mandeville: A Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England (novel) 1817

Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, Being an Answer to Mr. Malthus' Essay on That Subject (essay) 1820

Cloudesly: A Tale (novel) 1830

Thoughts on Man: His Nature, Productions, and Discoveries (essay) 1831

Deloraine: A Tale (novel) 1833

Lives of the Necromancers; or, An Account of the Most Eminent Persons Who Have Claimed or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power (biographical sketches) 1834

Essays Never before Published (essays) 1873

A. D. Harvey (essay date July 1976)

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SOURCE: Harvey, A. D. “The Nightmare of Caleb Williams.Essays in Criticism 26, no. 3 (July 1976): 236-49.

[In the following essay, Harvey discusses the nightmarish setting of Godwin's novel, focusing on the vivid descriptions of corruption and oppression as well as the harsh fates to which the primary characters are subjected.]

Although there has been some interesting recent work on William Godwin's novel Caleb Williams it can hardly be said to have received the recognition it deserves. It is too often dismissed as a ‘Philosophical Novel’, that is, a piece of inadequately dramatised preaching, and some commentators degrade it even further by seeing it merely as a curious pendant to Political Justice, the work Godwin completed just before starting the novel in 1793.1

That Godwin himself considered Caleb Williams to be a novel of ideas, and in particular, an analysis of contemporary society, is shown by the full title under which he originally published the novel, Things As They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, and by a brief preface, suppressed ‘in compliance with the alarms of booksellers’, in which it was claimed that the

narrative is intended to answer a purpose more general and important than immediately appears upon the face of it … to comprehend, as far as the progressive nature of a single story would allow, a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man.

Godwin also wrote a letter to The British Critic (vol. 6, pp. 94-5) in answer to criticism of his portrayal of the English legal system, in which he claimed that the novel's object ‘is to expose the evils which arise out of the present system of civilized society; and, having exposed them, to lead the enquiring reader to examine whether they are, or are not, as has commonly been supposed, irremediable’. But Godwin's letter went on to make clear that his object was to expose more than just the evils of English society. ‘I was obviously led to place my scene, and draw my instances from the country with which I was best acquainted—England. Not that I thought the laws of England worse than the laws of most other countries.’ His aim was not to expose particular features of a particular society, but rather to deal with the common features of all societies.

Yet as an account of the theme of Caleb Williams both the suppressed preface and the letter to The British Critic are clearly inadequate. They in no way deal with significant aspects of the novel which are obvious to any discerning reader. Even as far as it goes, the professed aim of providing an analysis of social injustice cannot be taken too literally. It is no accident that Caleb Williams itself, for all its immediacy of effect, is curiously detached from recognisable time and place, and contains no hint of the precise period at which the action is supposed to have occurred, nor of the locality where the most important of the events took place. We are told that Caleb spent a night in ‘an inn in the midway between Mile-end and Wapping’ (III, ch. 8, p. 254),2 and that he lived for a period in ‘an obscure market-town in Wales’ (III, ch. 13, p. 289), but most of the action seems to be set in a generalised Midland landscape which has all the distinctness of immediate details, and all the vagueness of real distance and direction, of a nightmare. This might be understood as part of an attempt to give the narrative a general rather than a purely English application; but the way in which for example Caleb, returning from an errand, is able to lose himself in a place ‘where scarcely a single track could be found to mark that any human being had ever visited the spot’ (II, ch. 8, p. 146), and then chances upon an inn halfway to Forester's home, where he meets first Forester, his potential saviour, and next Falkland, his potential persecutor, indicates that in fact these events are not taking place in the real world at all but in an idealised landscape of coincidences and cruel twists of fate.

The novel does, however, embody two extended studies of the corrupting influence of society: the account of landlords persecuting tenants and dependants, and the various descriptions of robbers and convicts. To some extent the whole novel is about a landlord persecuting a dependant—that is, Falkland persecuting Caleb—but as this piece of tyranny is not particularly plausible, and depends for what credibility it has on the more down to earth account of the persecutions of Tyrrel and Underwood in Volume One, it is these former which repay closer examination. Certainly no other novel of the eighteenth century has anything resembling in vividness Tyrrel's oppression of his dependants. The nearest thing to it is the description of Squire B.'s power over his servants in Richardson's Pamela, but this is vague and insubstantial by comparison, hinted at rather than made explicit. The explicitness of Caleb Williams on the other hand almost tempts one to speak of Godwin as a pioneer of socialist realism. But then there is difficulty. Hawkins is evicted by Underwood because he refuses to vote according to Underwood's wishes. We may leave out of the question the fact that Hawkins, as a freeholder in an English county, necessarily had not one vote, but two to dispose of—unless it was a by-election, or a Welsh county, neither of which is stated to be the case in the novel. The novel describes how Hawkins was evicted for refusing to dispose of his supposed one vote according to his landlord's wishes. That such a thing ever happened in an English county election in Godwin's day is extremely unlikely. In boroughs where electors voted by virtue of being ratepayers for houses rented from borough patrons, or by right of possessing burgages or freeholds which actually belonged to the patron, evictions of recalcitrant voters certainly occurred.3 In Ilchester, only ten years after Caleb Williams was published, the local patron punished householders who voted against his interest by demolishing 100 out of 160 houses in town, of which he was sole owner, and erecting ‘a large workhouse, to accommodate those whose disobedience had offended him’.4 In Irish counties, where many voters were so only by right of fictitious freeholds granted to them by their landlords with the sole purpose of creating votes, similar tyranny was possible, and many duels were fought between landlords and rivals who dared to poach their tame voters.5 In English counties, however, the independence of the voters was jealously regarded; interference would have been resented by the voters and deplored by the landlords themselves. It is true that landlords often stated their preferences in the expectation of influencing their tenants, but in six years of reading material dealing with elections, I have never come across an instance of an English county voter being positively ordered how to dispose of his votes, let alone of his being victimised for disobedience. Of course it is impossible to deny categorically that such a thing ever occurred in this period, but such an event was certainly quite out of the normal order of things.

Godwin himself was in a rural county during a county election only once in his life, being at school in Norwich during the Norfolk contest in 1768, when he was aged twelve. Consequently there is no reason to suppose that his description of Hawkins's persecution was based on first-hand knowledge and certainly it is not to be regarded as a typical instance of landlord oppression. Moreover, Hawkins's misfortunes are brought to a conclusion by the discovery in his lodging of the blade of the knife with which Tyrrel was murdered, a discovery which is never explained in the novel, so that it may be said that his whole story, both in its beginning and in its end, is ideal rather than real, generally probable enough in view of the power of the rich over the poor, but altogether improbable with regard to details.

Godwin's account of the robbers and convicts—deftly set off by convincing descriptions of the interior of gaols, culled from John Howard's The State of Prisons in England and Wales (1777-1780)—departs from verisimilitude in a different way. It is not actually implausible, but it is expressed in ideal terms:

The persons who composed this society had each of them cast off all control from established principle; their trade was terror, and their constant object to elude the vigilance of the community. The influence of these circumstances was visible in their character. I found among them benevolence and kindness: they were strongly susceptible of emotions of generosity. But, as their situation was precarious, their dispositions were proportionately fluctuating. Inured to the animosity of their species, they were irritable and passionate. Accustomed to exercise harshness towards the subject of their depredations, they did not always confine their brutality within that scope. They were habituated to consider wounds and bludgeons and stabbing as the obvious mode of surmounting every difficulty. Uninvolved in the debilitating routine of human affairs, they frequently displayed an energy which, from every impartial observer, would have extorted veneration. Energy is perhaps of all qualities the most valuable; and a just political system would possess the means of extracting from it, thus circumstanced, its beneficial qualities, instead of consigning it, as now, to indiscriminate destruction. We act like the chymist, who should reject the finest ore, and employ none but what was sufficiently debased to fit it immediately for the vilest uses. But the energy of these men, such as I beheld it, was in the highest degree, misapplied, unassisted by liberal and enlightened views, and directed only to the most narrow and contemptible purposes.

(III, ch. 2, pp. 218-9)

In such passages that Godwin's didacticism comes out strongly, but its tendentiousness completely nullifies any claim it may have to be objective reporting. Description of things as they are has here been overwhelmed in preaching.

But according to the stock view, preaching is exactly what this novel is all about. All that Godwin himself said on the subject (apart from the general claims in his preface and in his letter to The British Critic) was that the novel ‘may, perhaps, be considered as affording no inadequate image of the fervour of my spirit: it was the offspring of that temper of mind in which the composition of my Political Justice left me’.6 This, however, is no more than stating that the novel was written in a state of nervous exaltation. It is in no way an assertion that Godwin was still preoccupied by the issues of Political Justice. In fact, Political Justice and Caleb Williams have very little subject matter in common. References in Political Justice to the power of landlords or to the psychology of robbers are scanty in the extreme.

The most important (and lengthiest) parts of Political Justice are Books III and V which discuss the principles of government and contain Godwin's critique of representative democracy, and Book VIII which discusses the question of property. These sections, which constitute Godwin's title to be considered as the founder of Philosophical Anarchism, have scarcely any echo in Caleb Williams. This is not to say that the two books do not share certain assumptions, such as the power of the mind to alter the human predicament, and the influence of social systems on individual happiness: indeed it would be hardly conceivable that two books written by the same man within a brief period of time should not contain some evidence of a common viewpoint. But assumptions are one thing, explicit discussion another, and there is little common ground between the two works when it comes to priorities of emphasis and the treatment of details.

There is, however, one theme in Caleb Williams with regard to which Political Justice provides a valuable gloss. At various stages in the novel the plot is given a new twist by a deliberate decision on the part of one or other of the protagonists: Tyrrel's decision to persecute Hawkins, Caleb's decision to investigate Falkland's mysterious past, Falkland's decision to persecute Caleb, Caleb's decision to force a showdown. All these decisions contain a large element of perversion in that they all lead to consequences the reverse of what the decider originally wished for: they are, as it were, tragic decisions. Yet it is clear throughout that each of these protagonists could not have decided otherwise, being the people they were. Tyrrel's furious jealousy of opposition, Caleb's obsessive curiosity, Falkland's fanatical regard for the purity of his good name: all determine the resolutions they make. Though there is a kind of apparent existentialisme in each protagonist's decision to fulfil the dictates of his own personality at whatever cost to himself or others, in reality the protagonists are not making any decisions at all, being trapped each within his own system of personality and having no alternative but to pursue the course of action already determined by the pre-existing framework of their ideas and appetites. They do not make decisions because they do not actually have any scope for choice. That this reflects Godwin's beliefs about human behaviour will be seen clearly from an examination of two chapters of Book IV of Political Justice, Chapter V ‘Of Free Will And Necessity’ and Chapter VI ‘Inferences From The Doctrine Of Necessity’.7

In these chapters Godwin argues that there is no such thing as Free Will. He claims ‘if we form a just and complete view of all the circumstances in which a living or intelligent being is placed, we shall find that he could not in any moment of his existence have acted otherwise than he has acted’.8 There is no such thing, therefore, as a voluntary action: any given act results

completely from the determination that was its precursor. It was itself necessary; and, if we would look for freedom, it must be in the preceding act. But in that preceding act also, if the mind was free, it was self determined, that is, this volition was chosen by a preceding volition, and by the same reasoning this also by another antecedent to itself. … Trace back the chain as far as you please, every act at which you arrive is necessary. That act, which gives the character of freedom to the whole, can never be discovered. …9

Godwin concludes that ‘Man is in reality a passive, and not an active being’.10

Godwin's argument in these two chapters is not altogether satisfactory, and the political moral he deduces from it, that everyone can be persuaded of his or her true interest merely by rational explanation, and will then, being incapable of choice, infallibly act upon that true interest, is less satisfactory still. Nevertheless, the passages on Free Will in the earlier book provide us with a reading of Caleb Williams which makes more sense than the idea that the novel is about moral choice. A strong vein of determinism runs through the novel. Every so-called decision made by Tyrrel, Caleb and Falkland is inevitable, given their respective characters. Caleb himself speaks of ‘a hand of fatal impulse that seemed destined to hurry me to my destruction’ (II, ch. 4, p. 121). When Collins tells Caleb ‘I consider you as a machine … but you did not make yourself; you are just what circumstances irresistibly compelled you to be’ (III, ch. 14, p. 310), this is not merely the last in a long line of callous rejections of Caleb by those whom he looked up to, but a simplified version of the doctrine of necessity in Political Justice. It may be assumed further that the respective characters of Tyrrel and Falkland which determine their behaviour are the products of a corrupt society and of their position in it, and that their manifestly inaccurate analysis of their respective true interests is the result of their environment—though curiously enough the same is not obviously true for the deraciné Caleb himself.

We ought not to complain, however, of Godwin's overt didacticism in thus injecting a favourite notion of his Political Justice into his novel, for two reasons. Firstly, the discussion of necessity in the earlier book makes it possible to interpret the ‘decisions’ in Caleb Williams correctly; secondly, this interpretation embodies the deeply tragic notion that the individual is not merely trapped by his environment, but that he himself is the trap. It is as if Godwin had elaborated a theory of tragic inevitability, and then written a novel to exemplify his theory. Nor is this all, for Caleb, pursuing the destiny of his own character, which is to reveal the truth about himself and about Falkland, finally catches up with Falkland, and finds that the ‘best interest’ which his character has caused him to pursue has led him to destroy the one man he admires more than any other; his achievement, instead of bringing him happiness, overwhelms him with guilt.

Yet though Caleb Williams may be detached both from the period of political upheaval in which it was written, and, in most respects, from Political Justice, it remains a novel based on the central springs of the society which produced it. It does not attempt a detailed exploration of the outward ramifications of that society, but focuses on a single, but crucial, aspect of society. Caleb Williams concentrates on a single social relationship which can be taken as the archetype of all such relationships in eighteenth-century England. The persecution of the poor Caleb by the rich Falkland is not a factual representation of what happened, or could happen then, so much as a myth; it illustrates not the outward manifestations of society but rather its underlying structure.

In some novels, such as most of Jane Austen's, the conflict between the protagonists and society is internalized, and the struggle is between the protagonist's better self or real destiny and the web of conventional aspirations and attitudes which society has grafted on to the protagonist's psyche. But in a few novels—Clarissa and Caleb Williams are perhaps the only two produced by the eighteenth century—the protagonist is not fighting to overcome society, either internally or externally: it is evident almost from the very beginning that the protagonist is totally trapped by society, and the narrative concerns the horrifying struggles of a doomed creature, hopelessly striving to free itself before it is inevitably crushed. In these novels, society is not an opponent whom, despite huge odds, the hero or heroine dares to take on in a David and Goliath struggle in which David is destined to win: rather society is a trap, and the hero or heroine's boldest efforts to escape are doomed to failure. Thus Falkland, as the embodiment of society's oppressive power, tells Caleb

I have dug a pit for you; and, whichever way you move, backward or forward, to the right or the left, it is ready to swallow you. Be still! If once you fall, call as loud as you will, no man on earth shall hear your cries; prepare a tale however plausible, or however true, the whole world shall execrate you for an imposter.

(II, ch. 8, pp. 153-4)

This sense of imprisonment accounts at a superficial level for the horrific fascination of these novels, but it also allows them to achieve a rare profundity of pessimism.

In Richardson's Clarissa, the author's exploration of the personalities and motivations of Clarissa Harlowe and of Lovelace detract from the mythic element of the novel, and in some ways Clarissa lacks the simple force and directness of Richardson's earlier and cruder Pamela. In Caleb Williams, however, the detailed, very striking, explorations of personal motivation are fully integrated into the myth because, as we have seen, even differences of personality and of apparent choice are represented as merely the inevitable outcome of social forces.

Thus the implausibilities of detail in Godwin's account of the various persecutions in Caleb Williams, though they invalidate the novel as a piece of reportage, in no way detract from it as a visionary exposition of what was implicit in a society where some people had great wealth and power, and others nothing at all. Caleb is the archetype of the man who has nothing but his manhood. ‘Ah, this is indeed to be a man!’ he exclaims on escaping from gaol, and goes on to muse, ‘Strange, that men, from age to age, should consent to hold their lives at the breath of another, merely that each in his turn may have a power of acting the tyrant according to law’ (III, ch. 1, p. 210).

A further aspect of the mythic element of the novel is the completeness of Caleb's isolation. ‘Everyone, as far as my story has been known, has refused to assist me in my distress, and has execrated my name’ (I, ch. 1, p. 3). Magistrates, the very personifications of fairness, are eloquent in their condemnation. The virtuous Laura casts him off without staying to hear his explanation. Even the ‘amiable, incomparable’ Mr. Collins turns from him. Caleb feels this bitterly:

The greatest aggravation of my present lot was, that I was cut off from the friendship of mankind. I can safely affirm that poverty and hunger, that endless wanderings, that a blasted character and the curses that clung to my name, were all of them slight misfortunes compared to this. I endeavoured to sustain myself by the sense of my integrity, but the voice of no man upon earth echoed to the voice of my conscience. ‘I called aloud, but there was none to answer; there was none that regarded’.

(III, ch. 14, p. 308).

Pamela had her parents, and Clarissa had Miss Howe, though they were powerless to help, but Caleb is totally alone, the individual pitted against a society united in condemning him.

Caleb's struggle with society is also portrayed in terms of a conflict between old and new. Caleb's claim to represent the new is merely implied—sufficiently clearly, no doubt, in view of his numerous criticisms of society—but implied nonetheless. Falkland's identification with the old is, however, specifically indicated by the fact that ‘among the favourite authors of his early years were the heroic poets of Italy. From them he imbibed the love of chivalry and romance’ (I, ch. 2, p. 10). Falkland's adherence to an outmoded code of chivalry is his tragedy, for it embroils him both with the vile and wholly contemporary Tyrrel, and with the idealistic Caleb. Falkland and Caleb are thus representatives of two rival value systems, Falkland of the code of honour and reputation, Caleb the code of truth at all costs. Falkland's value system is quite as sympathetically portrayed as Caleb's: Caleb himself admires it and in the end, in the very moment that Falkland, its embodiment, is destroyed, it is seen to prevail. Yet this conflict has nothing to do with the real-life historical struggle between old and new, between the oligarchic rule of the great landowners and the political ideology of the late Enlightenment, with which Godwin was personally involved at the time that he was writing Caleb Williams. Although Godwin seems sympathetic to Falkland's ideas, there is no evidence that he had the least affection for landowner oligarchy, and he can hardly have intended the conflict between Caleb and Falkland as a symbolic representation of the conflict between the progressive political ideology of the day and the traditions of the ancien régime. It is merely a generalised portrayal of the way in which, by emphasizing their differences, rival ideologies are doomed to destroy each other even though pointing to the same goal.

But Caleb Williams is more than a mythic representation of man-in-society. It is also a mythic representation of the individual's struggle with life itself, and more than one critic has written of the novel as an account of obsession.11 But an individual's obsessions cut him off from other people, and if Caleb Williams were merely interesting as a piece of early psychological analysis, it would not grip the reader's attention to the extent it does. Hazlitt wrote in The Spirit Of The Age, that ‘We conceive no one ever began Caleb Williams that did not read it through; no one that ever read it could possibly forget it or speak of it after any length of time but with an impression as if the events and feelings had been personal to himself’. The obsession in Caleb Williams is indeed universal. The pursuit of Caleb is an archetypal representation of every man's fear of being trapped; it portrays a situation which most of its readers will have actually experienced in nightmares.

If we examine Caleb Williams as a report of a nightmare, we shall see that one of its most striking features has nothing to do with social analysis or propaganda, and can only be interpreted in terms of subconscious disturbance. This feature is the element of perversion of purpose or function-reversal. Very little happens in the novel as it is intended to happen: most of what the characters do results in the opposite of what was intended or what might have been expected. One could draw up a very long list, but to cite only the most obvious: Falkland's virtues bring down on him the animosity of Tyrrel, and his attempts to pacify Tyrrel only increase the latter's hatred; Falkland is pursued by Caleb, whose benefactor he is; Caleb, though guiltless, is pursued by the guilty; though admiring Falkland, Caleb feels obliged to expose him as a villain; yet the accuser becomes the accused, and his prosecution leads to his own imprisonment; Caleb's insistence on the truth causes him to be reprobated as a villain; Falkland's hounding of Caleb forces Caleb to try once more to expose Falkland; having exposed Falkland, Caleb is overcome by remorse, having, in order to vindicate himself of the crimes of which he is accused, committed the even greater one of destroying Falkland. Such a world has nothing to do with Political Justice except insofar as it cruelly lampoons Godwin's ideas on necessity.

This perversion of cause and effect is linked with the sense of dreadful inevitability which pervades the novel:

Hitherto I have spoken only of preliminary matters, seemingly unconnected with each other, though leading to that state of mind in both parties which had such fatal effects. But all that remains is rapid and tremendous. The death-dealing mischief advances with an accelerated motion, appearing to defy human wisdom and strength to obstruct its operation.

(I, ch. 6, p. 37).

The reader will feel how rapidly I was advancing to the brink of the precipice. I had a confused apprehension of what I was doing but I could not stop myself.

(II, ch. 2, p. 113).

Incident followed upon incident, in a kind of breathless succession.

(II, ch. 6, p. 131).

To some extent this inevitability derives from the logic of the social situation and the human interrelations; but though the trap is constructed out of social mechanisms, it is more than merely social. Caleb himself speaks of ‘the uninterrupted persecution of a malignant destiny, a series of adventures that seemed to take rise in various accidents, but pointing to one termination’ (I, ch. 3, p. 16). In the last resort, it is not society but fate which hounds Caleb.

A further aspect of the nightmarishness of the situation is the immense disproportion between the paltriness of apparent causes, and the horrific scale of their effect. Caleb is ‘cut off for ever, from all that existence had to bestow, from all the high hopes I had so often conceived, from all the future excellence my soul so much delighted to imagine’ (II, ch. 11; p. 163). And why? Merely because of his curiosity. ‘To gratify a foolishly inquisitive humour, you have sold yourself’, Falkland tells him. ‘… It is a dear bargain you have made. But it is too late to look back’ (II, ch. 6, p. 136). No one in the novel, except perhaps Tyrrel, deserves his fate, yet everyone brings down on his own head a monstrous punishment originating in some involuntary act. For Caleb is not the only one who is trapped: he pursues his pitiful course through a world in which his own nightmare is one among many.


  1. cf. G. Woodcock. William Godwin (1946), p. 119; P. N. Furbank, ‘Godwin's Novels’, Essays in Criticism, 5 (1955), p. 215; J. T. Boulton, The Language of Politics In The Age of Wilkes And Burke (1963), pp. 227-30, 249.

  2. Page references to Caleb Williams are to the 1970 O. U. P. edition edited by D. McCracken, but volume and chapter references are also given.

  3. cf. E. A. Smith, ‘Earl Fitzwilliam and Malton: a Proprietory Borough in the Early Nineteenth Century’. English Historical Review, 80 (1965), pp. 51-69.

  4. T. H. B. Oldfield, The Representative History of Great Britain And Ireland (1816), vol. 4, p. 464.

  5. cf. An Impartial Report Of The Trial Of William Congreve Alcock, And Henry Derenzy, Esqrs. For The Murder Of John Colclough, Esq. (Dublin, 1808).

  6. C. K. Paul, William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries (1876), vol. 1, p. 78.

  7. cf. E. Rothstein, ‘Allusion And Analogy In The Romance of Caleb Williams’,University of Toronto Quarterly, 37 (1967), pp. 18-30. It is to these chapters that Rothstein is apparently referring when he alludes with glib dismissiveness to ‘Godwin's sporadic determinism’, though in fact the discussion of Free Will in Political Justice makes it difficult to accept Rothstein's claim that Caleb Williams ‘insists on moral action and choice’.

  8. W. Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), vol. 1, p. 285.

  9. Ibid. vol. 1, pp. 299-300.

  10. Ibid. vol. 1, p. 310.

  11. cf. R. F. Storch, ‘Metaphors Of Private Guilt And Social Rebellion In Godwin's Caleb Williams’, ELH, 34 (1967), p. 189; P. Cruttwell, ‘On Caleb Williams’, Hudson Review, 11 (1959), p. 93.

Alex Gold, Jr. (essay date summer 1977)

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SOURCE: Gold, Alex, Jr. “It's Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin's Caleb Williams.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 19, no. 2 (summer 1977): 135-60.

[In the following essay, Gold studies the issue of governmental control over private life in Caleb Williams.]

Equality fled and was no more; and love, almighty, perdurable love, came to supply its place.

—William Godwin, Thoughts on Man

The crucial scene in Godwin's Caleb Williams occurs, unfortunately, in a garden:

While I thus proceeded with hasty steps along the most secret paths of the garden, and from time to time gave vent to the tumult of my thoughts in involuntary exclamations, I felt as if my animal system had undergone a total revolution. My blood boiled within me. I was conscious to a kind of rapture for which I could not account. I was solemn, yet full of rapid emotion, burning with indignation and energy. In the very tempest and hurricane of the passions, I seemed to enjoy the most soul-ravishing calm. I cannot better express the then state of my mind, than by saying, I was never so perfectly alive as at that moment.

(pp. 129-30)1

Caleb is struggling to describe the sensationally eccentric exhilaration which overwhelms him at the moment he becomes convinced that his beloved patron is a hideous criminal; it is the most intense emotion he has ever experienced. Only here, in the midst of a discovery which will impel him into a life of suffering and anguish, does Caleb know the full rush of felt vitality, the exquisite sense of being “perfectly alive.” But in the original 1794 preface to Caleb Williams, Godwin implies that the novel dramatizes the principles of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) by exploring the destructive intrusion of “government” into every aspect of life. If this is so, Caleb's rapture suggests a question: what does it mean to feel so alive when both life and feeling may already be marked by the “spirit and character” of repressive political institutions? The extraordinary coherence of Caleb Williams is in its unfolding of the answer to just this question. Caleb, the narrating protagonist, is bound to his own suffering simply because he cannot see how “government” controls and determines not only his life, but his very sense of life as well.

The garden setting is unfortunate because it seems to announce an overworked and rather transparent symbolism. Caleb's garden looks like just another Garden; his ecstasy in discovering his master's evil secret seems sensational but familiar. The literary hortus symbolicus commonly has only a few variants—Original Sin or Primal Scene, flattering culprit or felix culpa, sex against lex or prudence versus pudens. So although nearly everyone who writes about Caleb Williams believes that Caleb's exultation marks a crucial moment in his history, most critics read that outburst as the usual brief and willfully guilty joy, the sign of a transgressing fall into the knowledge of good and evil, a personal fall in which political influence plays no part. P. N. Furbank, who argued a good case for Godwin's literary merit before many were willing to do so, still sees in Caleb's garden scene the confused outpouring of a “guilty-innocence” that can be “both a good and an evil” as it moves toward forbidden discovery.2 Rudolf Storch describes the ecstasy as “the result of the completed projection of guilt” which “conveys the moment of rejection of a revengeful God” and “anticipates the Romantic energy which has been liberated from guilt because it has faced the superego”; nonetheless, Caleb's curiosity “is in fact the Original Sin.”3 For Mitzi Myers, Caleb's tumult is primarily a venting of “guilty knowledge,”4 and for Robert Kiely it is curiosity with the power of “physical hunger” bursting in irrational “climax.”5 Christopher Small emphasizes the garden lure of “secret, hidden and forbidden knowledge” and sees Caleb in the grip of an infatuated, “highly irrational” rationality which heedlessly exults in intellectual discovery.6

In varying degrees each of these interpretations contravenes Godwin's philosophical account of the novel. If Caleb's potentially sinful curiosity, rebellion, or desire for dominion initiates his own tragedy, then human nature rather than institutional tyranny is at fault. Storch measures Godwin's claim that government is the villain of the piece against Caleb's convulsively guilt-ridden personal obsessions and concludes that “Caleb Williams undermines everything that the propagandist had thought up,” arguing that the novel succeeds as powerful fiction but only because Godwin's imagination “had to redress the crudities of his intellect.”7 This is a compelling analysis if the mental torments which Caleb eventually suffers originate in his guilty knowledge of his virtuous master's single crime, if those torments are reinforced by his belated, repentant knowledge of his own irrational transgression in uncovering that crime. Caleb himself finally sees his history this way, but Caleb is wrong. Caleb suffers most deeply because of what he does not know; he does not know why he felt so alive back in the garden.

Caleb comes closest to understanding when he continues his reflections on that moment of tempestuous vitality. “I felt, what I had had no previous conception of, that it was possible to love a murderer, and, as I then understood it, the worst of murderers.” Yet Caleb never fully realizes that an emerging, intensely sympathetic love for Falkland generated his sense of elevated spiritual vitality, and he never even begins to understand that his unique sense of being “perfectly alive” is a bitter political delusion precisely because that compassionate, almost religiously humane love is also a politically created delusion. Caleb's exhilaration reflects Godwin's most radical indictment of institutional tyranny; in his most passionate moment Caleb feels sympathetic love in its fullest sense, and for Godwin, all love is the product of repressive social institutions and the enemy of equality, independence, and harmony.

In Political Justice, Godwin argues that social equality is the natural condition of enlightened humanity; he writes in the hope that people may someday realize that “true freedom and perfect equity, like food and air, are pregnant with benefit to every constitution.”8 In Thoughts on Man, Godwin identifies love as the inevitable antagonist of “equity” and “independence.” Love, Godwin claims, “cannot exist in its purest form and with a genuine ardour, where the parties are, and are felt by each other to be, on an equality”; love requires and arises from a “mutual deference and submission” enforced by political institutions; the true devise d'amour should be the “apostolic precept, ‘Likewise all of you be subject one to the other.’”9 In The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson writes, “We cannot have love without lovers, nor deference without squires and labourers.”10 Godwin believes that we cannot have love without squires and laborers. This belief shapes the whole of Caleb Williams and works as a recurrent motif in Godwin's later novels. It is not the sort of conviction which will endear Godwin to posterity. Whatever we may think of such an aloof and chilling vision, however, that same vision led to the remarkable psychological insights which make Caleb Williams an inexorably coherent and movingly lucid study in repression, passion, terror, and tyranny. The novel chronicles the effects of love as tragedies of political life, and it is probably safe to call the story the best of its kind ever told.

Caleb's history begins when he becomes an orphan at the age of eighteen by the death of his peasant father. While his father's body still lies in the cottage, Caleb, a youth of “no practical acquaintance with men” who “had had no intercourse with the world and its passions” except through “books of narrative and romance,” enters the service of the elegant, jealously honorable, and benevolently cosmopolitan Lord Falkland. Caleb conceives the strongest admiration and “sympathy” for Falkland but soon discovers that some terrible inner pain torments his new benefactor. From Collins, Falkland's old steward, Caleb hears the story of the brutish, physical, and public humiliation inflicted on Lord Falkland by his fanatically envious neighbor, Barnabas Tyrrel, a swaggering hulk of a despotic provincial squire, “insupportably arrogant, tyrannical to his inferiors, and insolent to his equals” (p. 17). Tyrrel had already persecuted to her death his own dependent cousin, Emily Melville, merely because she had conceived a hopeless infatuation for Falkland. Horrified by Emily's death, the society which Tyrrel had once dominated turns away from him and accepts Falkland as its chevalier sans reproche. Tyrrel attempts to reassert his authority by crushing his rival; his public assault on Falkland, as Collins emphasizes to Caleb, could not have been more nicely calculated to sear the sensibilities of a delicate nobleman whose only god is “honour.” The desperate attack takes place at a “rural assembly” from which Tyrrel has been officially barred; he rushes in in a sotted fury:

… he had intoxicated himself with large draughts of brandy. In a moment he was in a part of the room where Mr. Falkland was standing, and with one blow of his muscular arm levelled him with the earth. The blow however was not stunning, and Mr. Falkland rose again immediately. It is obvious to perceive how unequal he must have been to this species of contest. He was scarcely risen, before Mr. Tyrrel repeated his blow. Mr. Falkland was now upon his guard, and did not fall. But the blows of his adversary were redoubled with a rapidity difficult to conceive, and Mr. Falkland was once again brought to the earth. In this situation Mr. Tyrrel kicked his prostrate enemy, and stooped, apparently with the intention of dragging him along the floor.

(pp. 95-96)

Collins's painfully unmodulated account of the incident—“it is obvious to perceive,” “apparently with the intention”—enforces the horror of the story Caleb hears. “To Mr. Falkland,” Collins tells Caleb, “disgrace was worse than death. The slightest breath of dishonour would have stung him to the very soul. What must it have been with this complication of ignominy, base, humiliating, and public?”

Caleb next hears that later this very night someone had stabbed Tyrrel to death, in the dark and from behind. He learns of Falkland's legal vindication from the suspicions that reluctantly but inevitably fell on him, and hears the story of the eventual confession and execution of one Hawkins and his son, two of the many victims of Tyrrel's tyranny. Collins tells Caleb that Falkland has never recovered from the disgrace of his public beating and that Falkland now suffers a doubly acute torment because Tyrrel's death has deprived him forever of the only “satisfaction” recognized by his own cherished code of honor.

Caleb, however, “broods” over this story and gradually finds it “mysterious.” He cannot help thinking, despite all evidence, that Falkland may have been the murderer after all. In Caleb's mind this “may” insensibly becomes a “must”; “I felt myself unable to discover any way in which I could be perfectly and unalterably satisfied of my patron's innocence” (p. 123). Possessed by this conviction and impelled by some “fascinating power,” some “irresistible” desire, Caleb sets himself to watch over his master's every change of mood and turn of mind, consciously playing on Falkland's grief and distraction and using his own status as favored confidential secretary to draw out evidence of what he has already decided is the truth. Caleb finds an aesthetically satisfying opportunity for emotional dissection when Falkland has to preside as magistrate in a case superficially similar to his own supposed crime. Caleb seizes the chance to play Hamlet to his patron's dumb-show Claudius. Falkland does not fail him; as the accused confesses, Lord Falkland staggers to his feet and “with every mark of horror and despair” rushes from the room (p. 129). At the first decent moment Caleb rushes into the garden, with one thought swirling in his mind: “It is out! It is discovered! Guilty upon my soul!”

From this thicket of exclamation marks Caleb's strange garden-exhilaration emerges. He writes, we remember, that “my blood boiled within me”; “I was solemn, yet full of rapid emotion”; “In the very tempest and hurricane of the passions, I seemed to enjoy the most soul-ravishing calm”; and then he declares, “I was never so perfectly alive as at that moment.” It is a bizarre emotion, and it does not seem less odd when Caleb adds the comment about loving a murderer.

Godwin, however, has provided a striking elucidation of Caleb's experience in his next novel, St. Leon (1799), the fabulous tale of a sixteenth-century knight who early in his life receives the knowledge of the philosophers' stone and the secret of immortal youth. Late in his well-intentioned but wildly disastrous career, St. Leon, exhausted, embittered, and on the run, reaches a moment of possible fulfillment and peace. He pauses to reflect on the waste and horror of his life and to give thanks that at last he has found the secret of joy. Looking back on his misfortunes, St. Leon says that “we are eternally apt to grow dead and insensible to the thing we have not,” that “half our faculties” can become “palsied” before we realize that “we are not what we were, and what we might be.” Then St. Leon describes the incomparable sensation that accompanies the recovery of one's most essential nature; he does so by using Caleb's words:

But now, that I have drawn the unexpected prize, I grow astonished at my former blindness; I become suddenly sensible of my powers and my worth; the blood that slept in my heart, circulates, and distends every vein; I tread on air; I feel a calm, yet ravishing delight; I know what kind of an endowment life is, to a being in whom sentiment and affection are awakened to their genuine action.

This was the effect of the mutual attachment produced between me and Charles. I looked into him and saw a man; I saw expansive powers of intellect and true sensibility of heart. To be esteemed and loved and protected by such a man; to have him to take one by the hand, to enquire into one's sorrows, to interest himself in one's anxieties, to exult in one's good fortune and one's joys; this and this only deserves the name of existence.11

St. Leon's “calm, yet ravishing delight” is Caleb's “soul-ravishing calm”; as Caleb says, “my blood boiled within me,” St. Leon echoes, “the blood that slept in my heart, circulates, and distends every vein.” St. Leon declares that “this and this only deserves the name of existence,” and Caleb believes that he was “never so perfectly alive as at that moment.” When St. Leon discovers that he can love another man and be loved in return he experiences the vital flow that Caleb felt in the garden and describes the sensation in nearly identical expressions.

There are problems. Caleb is a young man and, I think, an innocent young man. St. Leon is a very old man, and although he has always acted with benevolent intentions he has succeeded primarily in peopling the world with men who wish him dead, and he can hardly be called an innocent. Yet each crisis of exhilaration is a moment of impassioned delusion which leads to a life of suffered persecution. St. Leon attains his moment of felt vitality only by becoming, as he puts it, a loved and loving “younger brother” to his own son, for the “Charles” of St. Leon's “mutual attachment” is St. Leon's long-lost child now grown to manhood, a son who cannot recognize his father in the eternal youth who stands beside him, a son who despises the father he does remember. When St. Leon reflects further on his moment of rapture, he cries, “But I was all a lie; I was no youth; I was no man; I was no member of the great community of my species.” Caleb too will exclaim, “My life was all a lie” (p. 257). And as Falkland, when he finally admits his guilt, will commit himself to guard and pursue Caleb for the rest of his life, Charles will say to St. Leon, “I here bind myself by all that is sacred to pursue you to the death” (SL, p. 474). Both Caleb and St. Leon will end their narratives without realizing that the life which is a lie is entwined inextricably with the love that brings the fullest sense of such life; neither will realize that his own benevolent love ensures his oppression. But Godwin, as we shall see, shows the connections in both cases. The two novels explore different moments in the tragic binding of love and oppression, but the fundamental relation remains constant. And it is clear that Godwin has carefully pointed the context of Caleb's moment of exhilaration through the parallel with St. Leon's rapture. The motive force in each instance is compassionate, exalted love.

Caleb does give abundant indication that in pursuing Lord Falkland's secret he is in fact pursuing an intense and complex love. Caleb writes that even before he knew his patron's history the sudden penetrating sound of Falkland's “supernaturally tremendous” voice demanding, “Who is there?” affected him so strongly that he can say it “thrilled my very vitals” (pp. 7-8). After hearing Collins's narrative Caleb finds “a thousand fresh reasons to admire and love Mr. Falkland” (p. 106). A “magnetical sympathy” grows between them, or so Caleb believes. Even as he presses the emotional probing that so pains and angers Falkland, Caleb declares, “Sir, I could die to serve you! I love you more than I can express” (p. 121). The more deeply he intrudes into Falkland's grief, the more insistently he assumes the language of romance. “I thought with astonishment, even with rapture, of the attention and kindness towards me I discovered in Mr. Falkland, through all the roughness of his manner” (p. 121). Caleb describes intense moments of his pursuit in phrases borrowed from courtship: “we exchanged a silent look by which we told volumes to each other” (p. 126). During the great fire which gives Caleb his chance to break into the mysterious trunk that seems to contain the final evidence of Falkland's guilt, Caleb writes, “I know not what infatuation instantaneously seized me” (p. 132). The trunk itself is the “magazine which inclosed all for which my heart panted.”

All of this may seem obvious enough, but it is easy to avoid the force of such language by arguing that Caleb's narrative is an allegory for intellectual, political rebellion and that “the emotions that fill the novel are those which Godwin himself experienced in writing [Political Justice]”;12 or by saying that “Caleb's reverence can be analyzed into awe and rebellious hatred.”13 Such readings as these, by moving too quickly from passion to politics, overlook the politics of passion unfolded in the story. The intense power and the essentially romantic character of Caleb's attachment to Falkland constitute a crucial aspect of the novel. Godwin indicates the power and character of that attachment early in the narrative, through the story of Emily Melville, the woman who dies for her love of Lord Falkland, for Emily works in the novel as a prophetic emotional “double” for Caleb himself.

Caleb never meets Emily; he reports her story as he has heard it from Collins. But Emily, like Caleb, is an orphan; she is seventeen years old when she meets Falkland, and Caleb is eighteen. Both have their most passionate encounters with Falkland during fires: Caleb when Falkland discovers him about to pry open the mysterious trunk while the manor house burns; Emily when Falkland rescues her from another blazing building. Both are doomed from the moment of those fires: Caleb because Falkland angrily decides to disclose his secret and sets himself forever after to stand guard over the youth; Emily because here she first recognizes and declares the hopeless love for which Tyrrel hounds her to her death. In both scenes Falkland's actions are momentarily identical and are described in similar terms. Seeing the fire that threatened Emily, Falkland “ascended the house in an instant, and presently appeared upon the top of it as if in the midst of the flames” (p. 43). In the fire that proved fateful for Caleb, Falkland “ascended the roof, and was in a moment in every place where his presence was required” (p. 132). In the instant that Falkland appears in Emily's bedroom she experiences an emotional overleaping of time's boundaries, an extension beyond her own world of seclusion and shelter: “In a few short moments she had lived an age in love.” Caleb's determined pursuit of his patron's secret creates a similarly intoxicating effect of worldly knowledge stolen in an impossibly brief period: “It seemed to have all the effect that might have been expected from years of observation and experience” (p. 123).

Perhaps even more remarkably, Emily suffers on her deathbed from hallucinations in which Falkland appears, not as Emily has ever seen him, but just as he is described in his final confrontation with Caleb, many years after Emily's death. Emily has contracted a “distemper” which brings a “high fever.” Just before the end, “Her fever became more violent; her delirium was stronger” (p. 85). Caleb writes that just before his own last meeting with Falkland, “My mind was worked up to a state little short of frenzy. My body was in a burning fever with the agitation of my thoughts. When I laid my hand upon my bosom or my head, it seemed to scorch them with the fervency of its heat” (p. 318). In Emily's delirium, “the figure of Falkland presented itself to her distracted fancy, deformed with wounds and of a deadly paleness” (p. 86). In the last encounter with Caleb, Falkland's deadly paleness recurs; “His visage was colourless; his limbs destitute of motion, almost of life.” Caleb sees that Falkland bears “the appearance of a corpse”; Emily had cried out demanding “that they should restore to her his mangled corpse, that she might embrace him with her dying arms.” Caleb writes that the corpselike Falkland, “to my infinite astonishment—threw himself into my arms!” (p. 324). Caleb feels the last deathly embrace which Emily had deliriously imagined so many years before.14

The insistent parallels between the two sets of emotionally charged encounters with Falkland suggest that Caleb's involvement with Falkland has the same passionate basis as Emily's involvement. Caleb, however, narrates all the events; we hear the verbal echoes in his voice. So those echoes must indicate not only a structured revelation of meaning, but also something like a psychological identification in Caleb's mind, an identification which leads him to repeat the descriptions he has used in recording Emily's history when he reaches emotionally equivalent moments in his own history. The effect—verbal echoes in moments of heightened emotion—is psychologically consistent with the implicit cause—intense but repressed and thwarted love expressing itself in an unconscious identification. The psychological coherence of the relation between these verbal echoes and the structurally implied cause shows how accurately Godwin uses a rather daring emotional “doubling.”

Caleb's unconscious identification with Emily persists throughout his narrative and helps to explain some of his strongest emotional responses, including his sensational reaction in the garden to the supposed evidence of Falkland's crime. We remember that Caleb becomes convinced of Falkland's guilt just before his moment of exhilaration, when he sees Falkland's confused reaction to another confession of murder. In the original manuscript version of this trial scene Falkland sits as justice of the peace in the case of a “boorish peasant who had brutally killed his mother.”15 In the revised version the defendant is a peasant with an “ingenuous and benevolent” countenance who had been repeatedly insulted and provoked by “his only enemy,” a nasty country tough. The defendant had consistently disregarded the jeering slights to his honor, refusing to be drawn into a confrontation until the pursuing lout “thought proper to turn his brutality upon the young woman” who was the defendant's “sweetheart.” The young woman was “considerably terrified,” and at last, when every expostulation failed, the defendant challenged his harasser to a boxing match and, probably accidentally, killed him with the first blow (pp. 127-28). The actual parallels with Falkland's crime are quite tenuous. Falkland had not challenged Tyrrel over his persecution of Emily, and Emily was in no sense his “sweetheart.” Falkland let Emily's death pass by unavenged and was moved to retaliation only when his own personal dignity suffered a public affront. Godwin's revised case entirely reverses the order and relative importance of love and honor from Falkland's story and smoothes over the questions of intent and cowardice by presenting a boxer's blow in place of the assassin's knife. But the case represents quite well (perhaps excluding the actual death) what Emily herself would surely have wanted from Falkland as an expression of Falkland's love and championship, and the new case contains just those elements which Caleb wants to see in Falkland's crime. Caleb wants to believe that Falkland's act was a crime of passion in the romantic sense because he wants to be loved in just the same way Emily wanted to be loved. He writes, “I felt, what I had had no previous conception of, that it was possible to love a murderer,” because he reads that murder as a sign of Falkland's capacity for love, the sort of love the peasant had for his sweetheart, the love he wants to believe Falkland may come to feel for him. Rationally he knows that Falkland felt no passion for Emily but the trial details allow him to fantasize an affection which he may inherit.

Many readers have noticed that Caleb, as he records his flight from his patron, rarely alludes to what is certainly Falkland's blackest offense, his willingness to let the innocent Hawkinses be executed for a murder they did not commit. Again, the identification with Emily could reveal the reason. Caleb quickly loses any interest in that cowardly crime because only the murder of Tyrrel permits and actually forwards the passionate illusion.

Another apparently minor textual alteration works to a similar end. The effective “tool” that Tyrrel uses in persecuting Emily, the man he employs as an “odious Solmes” to his own role as James Harlowe, is an uncouth drudge named “Grimes.” In the second edition of the novel, Godwin changed the name of the man hired to dog Caleb's footsteps and carry out his persecution, from “Jones” in the original to “Gines.”16 Kiely notes that “Godwin refers to Grimes as Tyrrel's ‘instrument,’ his ‘engine,’” and claims a “common eighteenth-century” sexual euphemism which emphasizes the submerged eroticism at work in Emily's persecution.17 If that is the play, and Kiely's excellent chapter makes a sound case, then the play is even stronger with “Gines,” both in the name itself and in the fact that he too is called an “instrument” and an “engine.” In any event the shift from “Jones” to “Gines” seems to effect yet another pointing of the continuing parallels in the two stories of love and persecution.

Such finely threaded adjustments in tightening the exposition of Caleb's emotional life do not well accord with the usual view that Godwin, cool and thin-blooded insular philosophe, wrought he knew not how in creating the dark, explosively passionate Caleb Williams. (D. Gilbert Dumas, for example, quotes Angus Wilson's reference to Godwin's “schizophrenic tendency” and joins in lamenting the split between Godwin's rationalistic philosophizing and his involuntarily emotional fiction.18) Godwin apparently discovered possibilities for further tuning the resonances of his novel as he revised and rewrote, but the direction and implicit working of those resonances remains constant. Even Godwin's most often-ridiculed comment about the novel, that he had “amused” himself by tracing certain similarities between his subject and the tale of Bluebeard, begins to make sense if we take seriously the force of Caleb's passion and the parallels with Emily Melville. Storch sees the Bluebeard comment as evidence of the philosopher's overwrought condition during the creative act, arguing that Godwin “must have been in a state of high nervous excitation, for only thus can be explained his associating (a very free association indeed) the tale of Caleb and Falkland with the tale of Bluebeard.”19 The association need not seem so free. Godwin explains the parallel by saying, “Falkland was my Bluebeard. … Caleb Williams was the wife.”20 Just so; the wife that Emily died for daring to be in her fantasies, the wife in whom the world might officially, disastrously condone the binding, dependent love which both Emily and Caleb feel.

Caleb Williams explores tyranny and love through a story that probes the tyranny of all love, and Godwin has found a structure sufficiently complex to sustain a tragedy in which love, in its most powerful manifestations, transcends heterosexual boundaries. This does not mean that Caleb Williams is “really” a story about sexual passion between men, although any traditional psychoanalytic interpretation, as we shall see, would surely read the novel that way. Neither Caleb Williams nor Godwin's philosophy nor the details of his own life make it clear that Godwin had any special interest in the exclusive sexual attraction of a man to other men. Godwin sees love in all its forms as the product of nomos rather than phusis, so biological sexuality does not assume any independent significance in his work. Godwin's philosophical essays argue that “government” designates its chosen classes as the proper objects of various sorts of love and then instills the emotions which confirm and perpetuate the unequal relations of superior and inferior, protector and protected, venerated and owned.21 Love, as Godwin sees it, can be tyranny's greatest weapon, for through love vested inequality can enlist its victims in their own oppression. Both Emily and Caleb are caught in this net. Emily dies of love for one man and from the tyranny of another; Caleb carries on and deepens her tragedy by suffering for his love of a tyrant. So Caleb is a victim rather than a Promethean rebel or an Adamic transgressor when that sense of being perfectly alive wells within him in the garden. That delusive flush of vitality signals his tragedy, but not his willful guilt and not his rebellious confrontation with God or superego or conscience; “Love is too young to know what conscience is.”

By establishing Caleb's emotional identification with Emily, Godwin adds an unorthodox counterpoint to the dominant thematic line of Caleb's relations with Falkland. Godwin plays on our ability to hear Emily's continuing story in the structure and texture of Caleb's history; this allows Godwin to carry his “general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism” to the heart of the traditional domus in an allusive exposition of one of his favorite subjects—the politics of marriage. The sort of love which Emily feels when Falkland rescues her from the burning house runs into the harsh realities of power and jealousy during and immediately after Caleb's fire scene, when Caleb and Falkland become “engaged.” The hellish betrothal that so grossly mocks Caleb's affection occurs just following the conflagration in which Falkland discovers his servant breaking into the mysterious magazine which apparently contained all for which Caleb's heart “panted.” Falkland overcomes his first impulse to shoot Caleb through the head, storms from the room, then sends for the youth. “You must swear, said he. You must attest every sacrament, divine and human, never to disclose what I am now to tell you.—He dictated the oath,” and Caleb repeats it “with an aching heart.” It is a demonic oath of betrothal. With that oath, Falkland tells Caleb, “you have sold yourself,” for the pledge binds the two forever in a union of “jealousy,” “suspicion,” and denied affection (pp. 135-36).

This is the private engagement; the public ceremony follows when Caleb, who tries to escape, comes back to face the astonishing accusation that he has stolen some of Falkland's property. Before his flight, Caleb had been “unaccountably impelled” to leave behind his own personal belongings, removing his trunks to “a small apartment of the most secret nature” which he believes to be known to no other person (p. 155). To prove his innocence at the arranged hearing Caleb directs Falkland's servants to the hiding place to show that he had concealed no stolen goods at his departure. The trunks are brought forward. Two, as usual, show nothing; “in the third were found a watch and several jewels that were immediately known to be the property of Mr. Falkland” (p. 167). Incredulous, Caleb denies the fact, appeals to his “fellow-servants” for an “impartial construction.” For an instant the listeners seem swayed by the ingenuous fervor of his protestations, “but in a moment their eyes were turned upon the property that lay before them, and their countenances changed” (p. 169). In this way Falkland and Caleb are legally “wed,” for Falkland, as a magistrate and a supposed victim of theft, is now officially invested with complete power over Caleb, the sort of monopolistic power that Godwin, in Political Justice, saw unjustly conferred on the husband, the “copy of what monarchs are” in the household. The force and public proof of the union between Caleb and Falkland lies in the mingling of their property in Caleb's trunks, for “property” is the term by which the laws that Godwin detests conceive and consider the individual. In Political Justice, Godwin puts the case this way: “Marriage is law, and the worst of all laws. … Add to this that marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties.”22 Marriage, for Godwin, sanctions the absurd perpetual binding of two individuals considered as comingled property. Falkland acquires the personal oath, the force of public law, and the evidence of mingled property. So “Caleb Williams was the wife” after all, and Godwin did not leave out of his general review of domestic despotism the most domestic despotism of all.

Familiar aspects of the traditional marriage ceremony rather invite such an interpretation as the one suggested in Caleb Williams, as eighteenth-century novelists understood long before Godwin wrote. Moll Flanders marries her “Bath gentleman” very much in Caleb's fashion. The gentleman, Moll writes,

… bade me open a little Walnut-tree box, he had upon the Table, and bring him such a Drawer, which I did, in which Drawer there was a great deal of money in Gold, I believe near 200 Guineas, but I knew not how much: He took the Drawer, and taking my Hand, made me put it in and take a whole handful; I was backward at that, but he held my Hand hard in his Hand, and put it into the Drawer, and made me take out as many Guineas almost as I could well take up at once.

When I had done so, he made me put them into my Lap, and took my little Drawer, and pour'd out all my own Money among his, and bade me get me gone, and carry it all Home into my own Chamber.23

Line for line no one has ever surpassed Defoe's portrait of the blushing economic bride—“I was backward at that, but he held my Hand hard in his Hand.” Defoe even tips us a wink when he writes about Moll's drawers that is hard to forget when we read about Caleb's trunks. But Godwin, for better or worse, does not play this urbane game; he means to convey the full horror of personal bondage when he shows a sympathetic but impetuously binding love caught in the confounding of affection, property, and honor.

Those accusing “jewels” in Caleb's trunks symbolize the economic genesis and moneyed-class foundation of Falkland's “honour” and “reputation.” They are the hard little gems to which Falkland has devoted his life, into which his soul has crystallized. He has declared as much himself at an earlier trial. “Reputation has been the idol, the jewel of my life,” Falkland has said (p. 102). Caleb will later cry out in prison, “Of what value is a fair fame? It is the jewel of men formed to be amused with baubles” (p. 182). But Falkland has given over himself, as the “jewel” of reputation, to the spirit, if not the letter, of the law, for Falkland's legalistic honor knows character only as a conceded public power and an external possession. Caleb has now unwittingly bound himself, as property owned by his patron, through the transaction that converts love into goods, to lie beside that jewel. As Falkland tells him, “you have sold yourself.” “It is a dear bargain you have made.” It is indeed, for this selling, buying, and mingling constitute in Caleb Williams the legal intercourse of economic wedlock. That intercourse brings the first legal “knowledge” of the commercial marriage mysteries; that to know another and be known by another through and as real goods rather than through the real good of felt equality is to be riven, repressed, and alienated from self and other both, to know the brutal erotics of property. With this knowledge Caleb's con-sciens, his “knowing with,” is born. “Love is too young to know what conscience is / Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?”

Caleb sees the trap too late and reacts ineffectually. Defending himself against the charge of theft, he accuses his master of contriving the evidence. This convinces everyone present, including Valentine Forester, Falkland's stiffly moralistic half-brother, that Caleb is a wretched ingrate as well as a thief. Forester insists that Caleb be jailed and bound over for trial. From this moment Caleb moves in a nightmare of persecution and injustice. We see him shackled in prison, watching innocent men die of grief and disease; we see him escaping and hiding out with robbers, tormented by Falkland's secret even as he is hounded from village to city and back into the country by bounty hunters and hired pursuers, plotted against by the greedy and turned away with contempt by the compassionate. He shows untiring ingenuity in his disguises and hairbreadth evasions, yet at the same time he unwittingly increases his own suffering. He commits foolish acts that leave a clear trail for the hunters, and he senses in himself some destructive “bias of the mind … gratifying itself with images of peril” (p. 266). Throughout the narrative he declares that he was and still is unable to explain his most compelling feelings and impulsive actions. Even before the pursuit begins, Caleb tells Falkland, “I have been hurried along I do not know how. I have always tried to stop myself, but the demon that possessed me was too strong for me” (p. 119). His movements during the fire at the manor house “seemed like a dream”; he writes, “I have always been at a loss to account for my having plunged thus headlong into an act so monstrous” and can only add that there was “something” in his actions of “unexplained and involuntary sympathy” (p. 133). As he flees he continually misconstrues obvious events. Caleb knows that Forester, not Falkland, insisted on bringing him to a public trial; yet when someone posts a bounty for bringing him to court, he assumes that Falkland is the instigator. Eventually he reaches a state in which he interprets the most accidental distresses as if Falkland had somehow contrived them. Remembering a driving hailstorm which caught him on an open heath, Caleb writes, “There was no strict connection between these casual inconveniences, and the persecution under which I laboured. But my distempered thoughts confounded them together” (p. 251). Inexplicable motives drive him to uncover Falkland's secret, distempered thoughts increase his suffering, and irrational acts make him participate in his own pursuit.

The critics who argue that Caleb Williams shows “Godwin's failure to sustain the theoretical framework of Political Justice” have a good case.24 Caleb seems poorly conceived as a struggling victim meant to dramatize the argument that human beings are rational and perfectible. He looks more like a man obsessed, so weak and in need of expiation that his final victory in forcing a public confession from Falkland casts him into utter despair. Even if love is a political imposition the mind itself appears in this novel as essentially irrational, wildly and randomly emotional. Caleb's actions are believable, but are they believable and explicable in Godwin's terms? If we are to take Godwin's comments about the novel seriously we have to ask, is there a realistic and psychologically coherent pattern in Caleb's obscure urges, and does Godwin's philosophy provide a political explanation for that pattern? I think the answer is yes, and I think that Godwin understood the pattern so well that the way Caleb tells his story exactly conforms to the way he acts in that story. This novel is a powerful work of art because we can see the tragic structure of forces developing in Caleb's history, we can watch those forces still working to make the writing itself a part of the tragedy, and we can discover an imaginative but realistic necessity shaping the pattern. A strict psychological analysis can provide some convincing evidence of just how consistently Godwin maintains the pattern both in the telling and in the tale. Once we see the dynamic structure of the narrating consciousness in psychoanalytic terms, it will be possible to decide if Godwin's political aetiology can also account for that pattern.

Caleb tells a story about omnipotent persecution; that story reveals his deep affection for another man and emphasizes the trauma of brutal rejection by that man. Traditional psychoanalytic theory would suggest that Caleb's avowedly “distempered” preoccupation with persecution might indicate a paranoid dissociation issuing from Caleb's attempts to repress the homosexual impulses which became threateningly powerful during his residence at the manor. In the theory of paranoia the initial erotic fantasy is essential: “what lies at the core of the conflict in cases of paranoia among males is a homosexual wishful fantasy of loving a man.25 Caleb's own repeated assertions that before meeting Falkland he himself “had had no practical acquaintance with men,” that as a youth he had had “considerable aversion to the boisterous gaiety of the village gallants” and had avoided their society, that he had had “no intercourse with the world and its passions” (pp. 5, 4, 106), clearly corroborate the prognosis. In recording a case of paranoia, Freud writes that the patient's “homosexual position” included the typical element that he “had made no friendships and developed no social interests,” that the “development of [the patient's] relations with men” had been “neglected” until the outbreak of the paranoid “delusion” (SF, XVIII, 226). The fact that Caleb always sees Falkland as his omnipotent persecutor, even though Falkland's brother is actually the initial and fiercest avenging fury, again corresponds to the theory: “we know that with the paranoic it is precisely the most loved person of his own sex that becomes his persecutor” (SF, XVIII, 226). Falkland of course is a persecutor, but Caleb provides the most powerful binding energy. “The harshest thing about the prison is that it is made by desire, and that he who assists most in binding the prisoner is perhaps the prisoner himself” (Phaedo, 82e). To put it in a form that is only syntactically tautological, Caleb suffers repression because he is repressed.

According to Freudian theory, the paranoiac's attempt to repress the homosexual attraction takes the form of delusive perceptions which contradict the threatening affect: “the familiar principal forms of paranoia can all be represented as contradictions of the single proposition: ‘I (a man) love him (a man)’” (SF, XII, 63). One of these forms contradicts the subject of the “proposition” by fastening on the belief that “It is not I who love the man—she loves him.” Caleb's “she” is Emily. When he recounts Emily's rescue from the fire he finds an outlet in her story for the “energy of uncontrollable passion” which he felt during his fire scene; he can thus “perceive” and emphasize an attraction he cannot fully admit in himself. The parallel structure of the narrated scenes and the verbal repetitions mark the emotional linking in Caleb's mind. When he describes his last encounter with Falkland the projective identification persists; he connects the scene with Emily's erotic hallucinations of a final encounter, and his repressed desire expresses itself through echoes of Emily's delirious fantasy. There are also contradictions in Emily's story for which the theory might account. Caleb reports at length that Emily is physically unattractive, her person “trivial,” her complexion unappealingly “brunette,” her face “marked with the small pox” (p. 39). Yet when Falkland rescues her, she becomes his “lovely, half-naked burthen” (p. 44). Desire working through projective identification has apparently overridden factual consistency in the linked scene.

The most spectacularly observable delusion in the projective struggles of paranoia contradicts the verb of the threatening proposition: “I do not love him—I hate him.” Again conforming to the “mechanism of symptom-formation in paranoia” which requires that internal feelings “shall be replaced by external perceptions,” the final form is, “I do not love him—I hate him, because he persecutes me” (SF, XII, 63). Caleb experiences the persecution, he senses his own “distempered” and distorting preoccupation with that persecution, and he eventually feels that he hates Falkland. Often he uses phrases to explain the “abhorrence” he comes to feel which suggest projective rather than analytic perception, as when he says, “I now ascribed a character so inhumanly sanguinary to his mind … that henceforth I trampled reverence and the recollection of former esteem under my feet” (p. 274; my emphasis).

Psychoanalysis argues further that paranoid distortions regularly issue in “perceptions” with strong elements of megalomania. The sufferer senses an “indescribable grandeur” and an exalted significance in his torments; eventually he may believe that he is the only object of significant attention and that he is really a martyred “Redeemer” whose death the world demands (SF, XII, 68, 16-21). Caleb describes this perceptual state several times, as when he writes, “I could almost have imagined that I was the sole subject of general attention, and that the whole world was in arms to exterminate me,” or when he reports, “I thought myself allied to the army of martyrs and confessors” (pp. 238, 276).

A third paranoid transformation contradicts the object of the proposition and again maintains the “mechanism” of projected perception: “I do not love him—I love her, because she loves me.” Caleb never meets a woman whom he loves actively and simply but he does meet someone, the elegant Laura Denison, whom he comes to love substantially because she seems to love him. Caleb persistently casts the relation in passive form. “She soon distinguished me by her kindness and friendship”; “she delighted to converse with me”; Caleb becomes the “chosen intimate” in her home (pp. 292, 290; my emphasis). Even given these constructions, though, it is reasonable to wonder about the omnivorous quality of the contradiction-machine Freudian theory sets going. How can we know that Caleb loves Laura by “contradiction” and not simply as any man might love an admiring woman? The answer would be that a displaced or defensive love should show strong traces of the continuing tension between attempted projective resolution and the original underlying desire. Caleb's relation with Laura does show this tension. He needs to be loved by a woman to reinforce the repression of his love for Falkland, but the original attraction is still so strong that he cannot fully accept Laura, or any other woman, as a “beloved.” He expresses the conflict in the perception, “I honoured and esteemed the respectable Laura like a mother,” even though he has to admit that “the difference of our ages was by no means sufficient to authorize the sentiment” (p. 293). The distancing phrase, “like a mother” and that pompous “respectable” could indicate an emotional circumlocution arising from a tension between defense and desire.

Caleb, in fact, seems incapable of mentioning any woman at all without rather awkwardly emphasizing the certain absence of active romantic attraction. At one point he enjoys the company and assistance of a poor middle-aged spinster, Mrs. Marney, but for some reason he priggishly writes that the woman “was already of an age to preclude scandal” (p. 257). Moreover, the most terrifying creature in the whole story is a woman, the “swarthy sybil” Caleb encounters while hiding with a band of robbers. This “infernal Thalestris,” “extraordinary and loathsome” in appearance, whose figure “suggested an idea of unmitigable energy and an appetite gorged in malevolence,” outdoes even Tyrrel in brute physical vengefulness (p. 214). But the hag recalls Tyrrel's oppressive energy, and if Tyrrel and his cohort Grimes brought about Emily's death, this woman and her cohort Gines, “the object of her particular partiality,” are the only persecutors who actually attempt to murder Caleb. This woman attacks Caleb as he sleeps, just after his thoughts have drifted toward “entering once again into the world, and throwing myself within the sphere of [Falkland's] possible vengeance” (p. 230). Caleb dreams that some assassin approaches; he awakes and beholds “the execrable hag before mentioned standing over me with a butcher's cleaver.” So during a long wakeful night Caleb contemplates reentering Falkland's “sphere”; when he falls asleep a demonic denier rises to attack him, and that attacker, Caleb's Tyrrel, appears as a loathly embodiment of the “Amazonian” aggressor, what psychoanalysis might find a complex but predictable horror feminae vision launching a dream assault against the desire to enter Falkland's power. Caleb “awakes” and struggles with the creature; the ferocity of their battle represents the intensity of the conflict raging within Caleb throughout the history. He writes, “at no time had I ever occasion to contend with a more formidable opponent.” Even after Caleb subdues her she says, “You conquer me?—Ha, ha!—Yes, yes! you shall!—I will sit upon you, and press you into hell!”

The struggle continues as the unresolved desire persists throughout Caleb's flight, pulling him back towards Falkland with an insistence he cannot comprehend. Once he nearly stumbles into certain capture because he has neglected to change his disguise before going into a town where that disguise will surely be known. He writes, “Indeed it was a piece of infatuation in me for which I am now unable to account, that … I should have persisted in wearing the same disguise without the smallest alteration” (pp. 252-53). Gines first tracks him down because Caleb has published a flurry of magazine articles which fairly announce their author to anyone who might be on the hunt; they are all based on legends of infamous robbers, and Caleb by this time is himself cried up as the most brazen robber in England. Caleb can only say, “By a fatality for which I did not exactly know how to account, my thoughts frequently led me to the histories of celebrated robbers” (p. 259). Caleb remains his own best pursuer, deepening his suffering through the desire which seeks a resolution that conscience and consciousness forbid.

So Caleb suffers from paranoia. What is more, he suffers by the book, almost as if Godwin had plotted the details of Caleb's early life, of his reactions to Collins's narrative, and of his intercourse with Falkland as a case-history dramatization for some interdisciplinary seminar at the local Psychoanalytic Institute. He suffers deeply and movingly, but with a theoretical nicety observable in his language, his dreams, his relations with woman, in the direction of his irrational urges, in the repeated appearance of linked, overdetermined characters, and in the scenic resonances of his narrative. Psychoanalytic dissection seems to confirm what most critics believe, that despite Godwin's professed intentions, Caleb Williams is really a story of individual obsession which has little to do with institutional injustice or the tyranny of wealth, that the novel “undermines everything that the propagandist had thought up.”

Just the reverse is the case. The Freudian analysis of paranoia describes a sequence of fixation, repressed homosexuality, and delusion and insists that those who suffer from paranoia are endeavouring to “protect themselves” through their delusions from the threat of a “sexualization of their social instincts,” social instincts wounded by a social humiliation (SF, XII, 62). The threatening “sexualization” acts as a pathogenic and regressive force. Godwin, in Caleb Williams and recurrently through the rest of his career, presents all love as a regressive, disruptive, and pathogenic distemper, describing in his essays a sequence of historical fixation and institutional repression which prepares the way for the morbid outbreak of “love.” Such love, Godwin argues, continually threatens to “sexualize” the social instincts, to render them passionate and exclusive, with the disastrous consequences his novels detail. The theory of paranoia can account for the emotional patterning in Caleb Williams because Godwin is exploring a political theory of passion which contains all the dynamic elements described in purely internal terms in the psychoanalytic account. The novel is so insistently emotional and obsessive, and the theory of paranoia can describe its elements so clearly, because Godwin remained scrupulously faithful to his philosophy.

Love, for Godwin, begins with a repression forced on every child, when sanctioned parental domination seconded by authoritarian schooling represses the child's sense of independence and equality. The “affectionate parent,” Godwin writes, has learned to view his child “as a mine of power that is to be unfolded” (TM, pp. 281-82). The parent exercises his “vast power” without regard to the child's reason or sense of independence; the parent “is as a God, a being qualified with supernatural powers,” and the child forcibly learns “to receive everything with unbounded deference, and to place total reliance in the oracle which nature assigned him” (TM, p. 282). The child is told that the protective domination enforced by his parents proceeds from affection and love; as his independence suffers continued repression, he learns irrational deference and the sense of protected dependence and is told that the accompanying feeling is also “love.” “The great model of the affection of love in human beings, is the sentiment which subsists between parents and children,” Godwin writes, and “the original feature in this sentiment is the conscious feeling of the protector and the protected” (TM, pp. 274, 275). In school, as Godwin argued in 1783, the same unexplained domination continues; the child's status approximates that of “a slave” as his manly “dignity” is plucked away.26 At home, as a compensation which enforces the repression, the child learns to value the sensation called “love.”

In psychoanalytic theory, “fixation” defines a “failure to progress satisfactorily through the stages of libidinal development.” The concept assumes that the fixated person has a tendency to engage in “outmoded patterns of behaviour or to regress to such patterns under stress,” “to choose compulsively objects on the basis of their resemblance to the one on which he is fixated.”27 Godwin posits a “fixation” in the historical development of human emotional life at the period of feudalism, the period which developed, as an emotional expression of its political principles, the concept of “romantic” or “chivalric” love. This age taught a “love of God and the ladies” which “gave a new face to the whole scheme and arrangements of civil society” (TM, p. 294). This new “scheme,” enforced in emotional life by a peculiar “theory of the sexes,” rests, again, on the propagation of inequality through hierarchical subordination and the exchange of exclusive dependencies. If we examine “that which in all languages is emphatically called love,” Godwin writes, “we shall still find ourselves dogged and attended by inequality” (TM, p. 292). The feudal theory of the sexes, which replaces natural equality with the artificial relation of romantic love, persists as a socioeconomic ideal; this sanctioned ideal continually threatens to render passionate and exclusive the social instincts of rational regard and independent dignity. In Political Justice, Godwin repeatedly argues that “Indeed ‘the age of chivalry is’ not ‘gone’!” His novels explore the compulsive tendency to regress to the outmoded patterns of feudal emotional behavior. In Caleb Williams, Godwin unfolds the consequences of external repression and historical fixation with such imaginative rigor that both narrated history and narrative expression reflect the pattern of conflict, delusion, and distortion which Freudian theory interprets as paranoia. Freud and Godwin are both analyzing the effects of love when it threatens to “sexualize” the social instincts. Freud believes in a psychological analysis of social relations while Godwin believes in a social analysis of psychological relations, but they agree on the dynamic pattern of the phenomena.

Godwin does not ignore the spiritually elevating effects customarily accorded to humane passion. Love, says the converted misanthrope at the end of Cloudesley (1830), is “the true key of the universe,” and with this key “it is a beautiful world.”28 Love, Godwin writes in Thoughts on Man, has become the “poetry of life,” and with it the world wears “all the tints of the rainbow” (TM, p. 296). Godwin himself loved a woman, and near the end of his Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft (1798) he recalls her death as the event which “ravished from me the light of my steps.”29 Godwin's “Letter of Advice to a Young American” (1818) commends the “love of parent and child” as the “highest model” of affection; he also writes that the peculiar excellence of modern poetry is its spirit of “tenderness,” its ability to conjure up some beautiful “fairy vision,” and he claims that this excellence derives from “the times of chivalry.”30

Yet all this wondrous love represses and replaces equality, rationality, and independence, and it enters the mind only as a result of repressive institutions. If the family provides the “great model” for all love, the model persists only in defiance of reason: “No parent ever understood his child, and no child ever understood his parent” (TM, p. 281). The parent, in fact, acts as a political agent for the system of property and ownership. Ironically alluding to a Lockean foundation for parental affection, Godwin writes that the “point and finish to all the interest I take” in my child appears when “the sweat of my brow becomes mingled with the apple I have gathered” (TM, p. 278). Parental love rests on the parent's “vast power” to influence and direct the “mine” he has in his child. The most benevolent intent may not guard against the possessive character of the relationship. In Fleetwood (1805), the hero's grandfather shows every sign of sincere regard for the young Ruffigny, yet he says to him, “My son belongs to me, because I was the occasion of his coming into existence; you belong to me, because you were hungry and I fed you” (my emphasis).31 The child cannot see this; he sees only a “vast fund of love, attachment, and sympathy in the parent” but cannot know “the fountain from which it springs, nor the banks that confine it” (TM, p. 283). So the child accepts “the debt he owes to his father” by learning to call confused, passive dependence by its socially exalted name.

The feudal age carried the work of emotional subjugation into the very heart of relations between adult men and women. In themselves, “as they come from the hands of nature,” man and woman “are so much upon a par with each other, as not to afford the best subjects between whom to graft a habit of entire, unalterable affection” (TM, p. 292). But the feudal age, Godwin writes in the “Letter of Advice,” found a way to teach men to “adore” women. The effect was to give a “hue of imagination” to all intercourse, so that “a man was no longer merely a man, nor a woman merely a woman.” Women were subdued as adored, valued, and protected property; men were taught to feel and to offer a sensation “that partook of religious homage and veneration” (TM, p. 294). In this new scheme of society, life “was clothed in resplendent hues, and wore all the tints of the rainbow. Equality fled and was no more; and love, almighty, perdurable love, came to supply its place” (TM, p. 296). Love replaces equality by making emotional life an extension of political values. Romantic love is the mutual chauvinism of the sexes.

As early as Political Justice, Godwin argued against the traditional family structure, against marriage, and against what he saw as the continuing influence of feudal “inventions.” Later Godwin moderated his arguments against marriage, but only for the sake of furthering intermediate goals, never abandoning the underlying principles. And in his fiction he extended the political analysis of passion, presenting love, accumulated wealth, and religion as the three great threats to equity and harmony. St. Leon, endowed with the secret of multiplying gold and the secret of immortal life, thus possesses the wondrous prizes idealized in an economically acquisitive society and in a religion whose supreme promise is perpetual life with Father. St. Leon suffers the torments of hell as he learns the destructive power of possessions and the horror of immortality, but he remains blind to the meaning of love. When he falls in love with his own son, he thinks he knows at last “what kind of an endowment life is.” In the passage that echoes Caleb's garden ecstasy St. Leon cries out, “present me with some inestimable benefit, that my nature fitted me to enjoy, but that my fortune has long denied me to partake, and I instantly rise as from an oppressive lethargy.” Godwin returned ironically to this expression in Thoughts on Man. “But shew me a good thing within my reach; convince me that it is my power to attain it; demonstrate to me that it is fit for me, and I am fit for it; then begins the career of passion” (TM, p. 275). Even when his beloved Charles turns against him and vows to pursue him to the death, St. Leon consoles himself with the loving thought that, although he himself must continue to suffer, Charles will be made happy in his own love for a woman he adores. The woman's name is Pandora.

It may still be possible to argue that Godwin's philosophy rises from the same unconsciously determined sources that shape his fiction, that psychological analysis can explain the essays as well as the art. Presumably, Godwin's well-known habit of surrounding himself with young male admirers could be adduced as biographical evidence. It is true that one of those young men, “a lad named Patrickson,” suffered himself from apparently paranoid delusions. Patrickson wrote to Godwin in July 1814 about his indefatigable “persecutors,” describing mocking whispered conversations carried on outside his window. He also told Godwin that he had become “subject to fits of extreme depression,” and on August tenth young Patrickson shot himself through the head.32 But the disquieting power and the certain coherence of Godwin's strange visions discourages any easy reductions.

Caleb Williams reflects and dramatizes the theory of Godwin's essays with consistency and inventive energy. Caleb is raised by a father whom he honors; as a youth he avoids the society of his equals and develops an attachment to books of “romance”; he goes to live with a wealthy, benevolent patron whom he regards with reverence and affection. It is enough. The institutions of government have already left their mark on his innermost feelings, prepared him for the delusive exhilaration which emerges the moment love wells within him. Godwin later wrote that it was necessary to make Falkland “the tenant of an atmosphere of romance, so that every reader should feel prompted almost to worship him for his high qualities,” so that every reader should appreciate the necessity of the juxtapositions in Caleb's tragic avowal, “Sir, I could die to serve you! I love you more than I can express. I worship you as being of a superior nature,” should see how short a step leads from this deathly, worshipful love, from this regression to the outmoded patterns of romantic behavior, to the delusions which spring from passionate dependence and impassioned conscience. Even as Caleb flees he continues to look for parents and protectors, for someone who can shelter him and accept his loving dependence. He finds such people but never finds out that he is compulsively repeating his own damnation, that he is running through a childhood nightmare of dependency and bondage. Mr. Spurrel, the watchmaker, “appeared to love” Caleb with “parental affection,” but Spurrel hands him over to Gines. Caleb esteems Laura as a “mother” and she accepts him as part of her family; she will say to him, “You are a monster.” He finds Collins again and cries out, “My father! … I am your son!” Collins says, “I consider you as a machine.” Caleb cannot know how truthfully he chooses his words when he speaks of his “parent misfortune”; he cannot know the deeper meaning of his report that Falkland's troubles “took their commencement” when he set about “spending the rest of his days at the residence of his ancestors.”

Perhaps Caleb Williams has been neglected and undervalued because Godwin did so well what he meant to do. He tells about “Things as They Are” in a voice from within, a voice drugged with false values and imposed passions that amplify and perpetuate real terrors. Faithful to his insights, Godwin never permits that voice to speak its own salvation. His philosophy argues that humanity can grow up and shake off the delusions and the bondage; the methods he offers can no longer seem very sophisticated or convincing. The novel is still powerful; it imagines a present world made grotesque by full-grown men who imprison themselves in a child's bad dream. Godwin knew very well what he had done; in 1797 he wrote the following:

The usual mode of treating young persons, will often be found to suggest to children of ardent fancy and inquisitive remark, a question, a sort of floating and undefined reverie, as to whether the whole scene of things played before them be not a delusion, and whether, in spite of contrary appearances, they are not a species of prisoners, upon whom their keepers have formed some malignant design, which has never yet properly been brought to light.33


  1. William Godwin, Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970); further page references in parentheses are to this edition.

  2. P. N. Furbank, “Godwin's Novels,” Essays in Criticism, 5 (1955), 217-18.

  3. Rudolf Storch, “Metaphors of Private Guilt and Social Rebellion in Godwin's Caleb Williams,ELH, 34 (1967), 195-96.

  4. Mitzi Myers, “Godwin's Changing Conception of Caleb Williams,SEL [Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900], 12 (1972), 608.

  5. Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 90.

  6. Christopher Small, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1973), p. 88.

  7. Storch, pp. 190-91.

  8. William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influences on General Virtue and Happiness, ed. Raymond A. Preston, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1926), I, 10; bk. 1, ch. 2.

  9. William Godwin, Thoughts on Man: His Nature, Productions, and Discoveries (1831; rpt. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1969), p. 297; further page references in parentheses are to this edition, cited as TM.

  10. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Random House, 1963), p. 9.

  11. William Godwin, St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1972), pp. 447-48; further page references in parentheses are to this edition, cited as SL.

  12. Furbank, p. 216.

  13. Storch, p. 196.

  14. Godwin completely altered the manuscript version of Caleb's last confrontation with Falkland before he published the novel. (McCracken includes the manuscript ending as Appendix I in his edition of Caleb Williams.) The revised version increases the number of verbal allusions to Emily's delirious speech.

  15. McCracken, “Note on the Text,” in Caleb Williams, p. xxiv.

  16. Ibid., p. xxv.

  17. Kiely, p. 88.

  18. D. Gilbert Dumas, “Things as They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams,SEL, 6 (1966), 597.

  19. Storch, p. 206.

  20. William Godwin, Fleetwood, or the New Man of Feeling (1832 ed., “Preface,” rpt. in Caleb Williams, ed. McCracken), p. 340.

  21. The fullest single essay on this subject is the chapter, “Love and Friendship,” in Thoughts on Man, but elements of the argument appear throughout Godwin's political writings. A detailed discussion of the issue appears on pages 153-58 below.

  22. Godwin, Political Justice, II, 272; bk. 8, ch. 6.

  23. Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, ed. Edward Kelley (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), p. 88.

  24. Kiely, p. 95.

  25. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, gen. ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953-64), XII, 62; further page references in parentheses are to this edition, cited as SF.

  26. William Godwin, “An Account of the Seminary,” in Four Early Pamphlets, ed. Burton R. Pollin (Gainesville, Fla: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1966), p. 173.

  27. Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1972).

  28. William Godwin, Cloudesley: A Tale, 3 vols. (London: Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley, 1830), III, 342.

  29. William Godwin, Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. W. Clark Durant (1927; rpt. New York: Gordon Press, 1972), p. 133.

  30. William Godwin, “Letter of Advice to a Young American,” in Uncollected Writings by William Godwin, 1785-1822, ed. Jack W. Marken and Burton R. Pollin (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968), p. 436.

  31. William Godwin, Fleetwood, or the New Man of Feeling, 2 vols. (New York: I. Riley & Co., 1805), I, 239.

  32. C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, 2 vols. (1876; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1970), II, 198-200.

  33. William Godwin, The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (1797; rpt. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1965), p. 105.

Further Reading

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Edwards, Gavin. “William Godwin's Foreign Language: Stories and Families in Caleb Williams and Political Justice.Studies in Romanticism 39, no. 4 (winter 2000): 533-51.

Explores the relationship between politics and narrative through a comparison of Godwin's language in his two most famous texts.

Graham, Kenneth W. “The Gothic Unity of Godwin's Caleb Williams.Papers on Language and Literature 20, no. 1 (winter 1984): 47-59.

Suggests that despite the novel's apparent divisions, the work reveals a unity within emerging Gothic conventions that reconciles those divisions.

Gross, Harvey. “The Pursuer and the Pursued: A Study of Caleb Williams.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 1, no. 3 (autumn 1959): 401-11.

Considers Godwin's novel as a struggle between the individual and the social order.

Helfield, Randa. “Constructive Treason and Godwin's Treasonous Constructions.” Mosaic 28, no. 2 (June 1995): 43-62.

Examines Godwin's novel within the context of the eighteenth century's laws on treason.

Lang, Hans-Joachim. “Godwin's Caleb Williams as a Political Allegory.” In Literatur als Kritik des Lebens, edited by Rudolf Haas, Heinz-Joachim Müllenbrock, and Claus Uhlig, pp. 148-66. Heidelberg: Quelle & Meyer, 1975.

Attempts to provide a theory of the novel's central meaning that will unite the various competing interpretations.

McCracken, David. “Godwin's Caleb Williams: A Fictional Rebuttal of Burke.” Studies in Burke and His Time 11, no. 2 (winter 1969-1970): 1442-52.

Analyzes Godwin's novel within its historical and political context.

Myers, Mitzi. “Godwin's Changing Conception of Caleb Williams.SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 12, no. 4 (autumn 1972): 591-628.

Studies Godwin's evolving ideas about his novel during the composition process as evidenced by the different versions of the Preface and the novel's ending as well as by information contained in Godwin's unpublished papers.

Pesta, John. “Caleb Williams: A Tragedy of Wasted Love.” Tennessee Studies in Literature 16 (1971): 67-76.

Discusses Caleb Williams as a tragic novel that thwarts the possibility of love as well as hate between Caleb and Falkland.

Radcliffe, Evan. “Godwin from ‘Metaphysician’ to Novelist: Political Justice,Caleb Williams, and the Tension between Philosophical Argument and Narrative.” Modern Philology 97, no. 4 (May 2000): 528-53.

Considers the connections between Godwin's famous political treatise and his romantic novel.

Rajan, Tilottama. “Wollstonecraft and Godwin: Reading the Secrets of the Political Novel.” Studies in Romanticism 27, no. 2 (summer 1988): 221-51.

Studies the genre of romantic political fiction emerging at the end of the eighteenth century, particularly as practiced by Godwin and Wollstonecraft.

Reitz, Caroline. “Bad Cop/Good Cop: Godwin, Mill and the Imperial Origins of the English Detective.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 2000): 175-95.

Asserts that the detective genre, rather than being domestic and insular as is usually assumed, is in fact associated with contemporary debates on global imperialism.

Roemer, Donald. “The Achievement of Godwin's Caleb Williams: The Proto-Byronic Squire Falkland.” Criticism 18, no. 1 (winter 1976): 43-56.

Maintains that Godwin's characterization of the aristocratic Falkland anticipates the archetypal heroic figure associated with the work of the Romantic poets.

Rothstein, Eric. “Allusion and Analogy in the Romance of Caleb Williams.University of Toronto Quarterly 37 (1967): 18-30.

Praises Godwin's novel as an artistic endeavor apart from its political and psychological ramifications.

Scheiber, Andrew J. “Falkland's Story: Caleb Williams' Other Voice.” Studies in the Novel 17, no. 3 (fall 1985): 255-66.

Addresses the critical neglect of Falkland's point of view and discusses his account of events in relation to Caleb's version.

Scheuermann, Mona. “From Mind to Society: Caleb Williams as a Psychological Novel.” Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters 7, no. 2 (1977): 115-27.

Discusses Godwin's work as a bridge between rationalism and romanticism and Caleb Williams as the first English psychological novel.

Warren, Leland E. “Caleb Williams and the ‘Fall’ into Writing.” Mosaic 20, no. 1 (winter 1987): 57-69.

Analyzes the motivating forces behind the first-person narrator's decision to write his own story.

Wehrs, Donald R. “Rhetoric, History, Rebellion: Caleb Williams and the Subversion of Eighteenth-Century Fiction.” SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 28, no. 3 (summer 1988): 497-511.

Maintains that Godwin's novel serves as an act of rebellion against contemporary power structures, while simultaneously positing the futility of resistance and rebellion.

Additional coverage of Godwin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography 1789-1832; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 39, 104, 142, 158, and 163; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 14; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2

Jacqueline T. Miller (essay date fall 1978)

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SOURCE: Miller, Jacqueline T. “The Imperfect Tale: Articulation, Rhetoric, and Self in Caleb Williams.Criticism 20, no. 4 (fall 1978): 366-82.

[In the following essay, Miller examines Godwin's theory of language as set forth in his essay on political justice and his application of that theory in the novel Caleb Williams.]

Recent criticism of Caleb Williams generally concentrates on the theme of mastery and victimization, placing it in political, psychological, or theological contexts.1 These studies provide useful perspectives, but Godwin himself extended this concept of authority and oppression to include the domain of language and aesthetics, and it is here that we can locate a crucial but largely ignored dimension of the novel. From the book emerges an idea of language that equates words and things, defining the self and the world as basically linguistic constructs which are shaped, manipulated and controlled by those who possess the most powerful and persuasive language.2 In this paper I intend to examine the theory of language proposed in Godwin's essays, and then to explore the ways in which the principles of that theory inform the novel. For Caleb Williams is the “imperfect and mutilated story”3 of a man who cannot speak his own words and who thereby fails to “bring into being what he really is.”4 It is the history of a man whose problems with language defeat his attempts to impose his formulation of “things as they are”5 onto a world that has been organized by the principles of another man's rhetoric.

Caleb is writing his memoirs, and he does so for reasons that suggest not only that individual identity is realized in and through language, but also that in a world structured by language, the words that form the individual identity must, in order to survive, help shape a world which supports them. Caleb's motivations for constructing his narrative, as he frequently presents them, are two-fold. He wants to review his history to escape from the consciousness of his present condition, “to divert my mind from the deplorableness of my situation” (3). He also writes with the hope of “vindicating my character” to a world he assumes will be able to accommodate his story: “I conceived that my story faithfully digested would carry in it an impression of truth that few men would be able to resist” (303-04). The first reason suggests that Caleb is doing more than merely recording events; since his return to the past is motivated by a desire to avoid the present, his writing may be seen as an endeavor to recreate (rather than simply retrace) a history from which can emerge a new character in a new context. For as he repeatedly admits, Falkland has been the “author” of Caleb's life, and Caleb's own efforts to be the author of his own history and identity have been impotent. He has been so unlike his prison friend, the admirable Brightwell, in that he “cannot pretend to rival the originality and self-created vigour of his mind” (192). Caleb recognizes the self-creative power of language and of the artist that Tyrell often denies; he attempts in his memoirs to engage in the activity that Tyrell rejects when he says:

I am neither a philosopher nor a poet, to set out upon a wild-goose chase of making myself a different man from what you find me.


It is precisely in order to make himself “a different man from what you find me” that Caleb writes. His endeavor to create rather than report and record is suggested by the gradual change of his attitude towards his memoirs. When he has brought his story up to the present and finds himself in the same condition as when he began to construct his history, then “writing, which was at first a pleasure, is changed into a burthen” (304). The narrative apparently has not served its purpose.

Caleb's desire to vindicate his character indicates a similar attempt to create, control and possess his own identity through his narrative. Caleb must become his own artist and write his own story to replace the universally accepted “odious and atrocious falshood that had been invented against me, to follow me wherever I went, to strip me of character” (301). But this ambition also reveals that speech alone is not effective; words, even self-articulated ones, must be impressed upon a world that will both confirm and conform to them. Caleb at times blames his fate not on his inability to express himself, but, instead, on the world's response (resistance) to his expression:

I was destined to suffer an early and inexorable death from the hands of others, because none of them had penetration enough to distinguish from falshood what I uttered with the entire conviction of a full fraught heart! Strange, that men from age to age should consent to hold their lives at the breath of another. …


To successfully bring himself into being, to be the “creative poet of his own history,”6 Caleb's words must be uttered to a world which adapts to their formulations. Caleb learns that the vindication of his character cannot be achieved in isolation, and he understands that his words must be both given and returned, spoken and imposed upon a world which will hear, accept and reciprocate them:

I endeavoured to sustain myself by the sense of my integrity, but the voice of no man upon earth echoed to the voice of my conscience. ‘I called aloud; but there was none to answer; there was none that regarded.’ To me the whole world was as unhearing as the tempest. …


By the end of the novel, however, Caleb's sense of self and claims to authorship crumble, and he admits that “I have now no character that I wish to vindicate” (326). His endeavor to become and assert himself through the language of his narrative fails; the moment “pregnant with fate” when Caleb triumphantly decides “I will tell a tale—! The justice of the country shall hear me! The elements of nature in universal uproar shall not interrupt me!” (314) produces only a “half-told and mangled tale” (326) that denies the full and complete creation of its author.


A letter from Coleridge dated 22 September 1800, only six years after the publication of Caleb Williams, attests to and encourages Godwin's concern with the relationships among language, the individual and the world:

I wish you to write a book on the power of the words, and the processes by which the human feelings form affinities with them. … In something of this sort I would endeavour to destroy the old antithesis of Words and Things; elevating, as it were, Words into Things, and living things too.7

In writing to Godwin of “the power of the words,” Coleridge would have found a receptive audience; Godwin's interest in the politics of language is amply demonstrated both in his fiction and his non-fictional writing. As noted above, the dynamics of mastery and victimization that frequently form the basis of political, psychological or theological explications of Caleb Williams also provide Godwin with an appropriate context for examining and describing his theory of language. In his two books of essays, The Enquirer and Thoughts on Man,8 Godwin discusses the importance of studying the “art of language,” for without this knowledge and skill, man not only loses control of his words; he also loses command of himself and “will probably always remain in some degree the slave of language.”9 The man who has acquired ability in this “science of words” will be able to reverse the hierarchy: “Language is not his master, but he is the master of language.”10 Language, then, is a means of power, self-control and self-actualization. Skill or lack of skill in the science of words is a factor determining an individual's freedom or victimization, his self-possession and self-command, as well as his ability to effectively realize himself and his conceptions in the eyes of the world.

Godwin subscribes to the idea that language confers upon us our human identity: “that articulated air, which we denominate speech” is what “so eminently distinguishes us from the rest of animal creation.”11 Words, however, do more than differentiate men from beasts; they also differentiate the individual from other men. Godwin explicitly connects the ability to articulate with the assertion of the independence, identity and dignity of the self:

Man can never appear in his genuine dignity, but so far as he is capable of standing alone. …

… He should begin to stand by himself, and respect his own dignity, as soon as he is able to utter an articulate sound.12

Words both proclaim and create individuality. For the true artist, language becomes inseparable from the self; to deprive him of his words is to destroy the man:

The very words that occurred to these men … are part of themselves; and you may as well attempt to preserve the man when you have deprived him of all his members, as think to preserve the poet when you have taken away the words that he spoke.13

Each man's language is a personal statement of his identity, an inherent and vital part of himself. Practice does not always conform to theory, though, and Godwin does, at some points, question man's capacity for the self-generated articulation which forms the self (“Yet what is human speech for the most part, but mere imitation? … a servile repetition”), and suggests instead that “our tempers are merely the work of the transcriber.” Ultimately, however, he rejects this proposal. Men may often tend merely to accept and pronounce the words of another, but they do have different options; they are not forced to participate in an unending series of repetitions thrust upon them by what others have spoken:

It is the mistake of dull minds only, to suppose … that we … have no alternative left, but either to be silent, or to say over and over again, what has been well said already.14

Godwin considers language to be not only inseparable from the self, but also intrinsic to perception and comprehension. Words shape, rather than simply reflect, man's understanding; they are the source, not the product, of human conceptions. Godwin repeats, in various essays, the maxim that

[a man] does not write because he understands the subject, but he understands the subject because he has written.15

Language is thus indispensable to thought and productive of meaning for each individual (“the science of thinking … is little else than the science of words”16). Godwin ventures even further to explain that one man's words can shape and form the understanding of others as well. Since words are “part and parcel of all our propositions and theories,” man can, through language, form his thoughts and principles “into a regular system” which can then be “communicated to others.”17 Through words, a man can impose meaning—that is, an individual interpretation—on his subject. The artist shapes the world; he

changes the nature of what he handles … The manufacture he delivers to us is so new, that the thing it previously was, is no longer recognizable. The impression that he makes upon the imagination and the heart, the impulses that he communicates to the understanding and the moral feeling, are all his own.18

The artist, then, or the person who controls words, can control our conception of “things as they are.” The man deficient in the “science of words” is thus truly the slave of language, capable only of a “servile repetition”; if his own speech is impotent and lacking the self-creative and world-creative energy potentially available in words, then he will be subject to the shaping principles of a more powerful rhetoric. This is, in part, the story of Caleb Williams—a man who never succeeds in becoming his own author.


Caleb's initial relationship to Falkland is one which is never truly dissolved. Caleb is Falkland's “secretary” (5), and his employment

consisted partly in the transcribing and arranging certain papers, and partly in writing from my master's dictation letters of business, as well as sketches of literary composition. Many of these latter consisted of an analytical survey of the plans of different authors, and conjectural speculations upon hints they afforded, tending either to the detection of their errors or the carrying forward their discoveries.


Thus Falkland, well studied in the art of authorship, will later be capable of having “forged the basest and most atrocious falshoods, and urged them with a seriousness and perseverance which produced universal belief” (287). Falkland's control over Caleb and his language, and Caleb's own impotence as author both begin and are prefigured here; by “dictation,” Falkland becomes the origin and source of the words that Caleb merely reproduces and copies. Throughout his story, all of Caleb's attempts at creation trap him into forms of repetition and impersonation. Later, for example, we learn of Caleb's “facility in the art of imitation” (238) and his “talent of mimicry” (254). When Caleb becomes a writer through the proxy of Mrs. Marney, we find him again confronted and complying with a “literary dictator” (259). His poems are rejected and he then resorts to copying the work of other authors: he “attempted a paper in the style of Addison's Spectators” and “translated or modelled [his] narratives upon a reading of some years before” (259). Ultimately the hopeful author discovers that he has become the subject in another man's literary production; “The Wonderful and Surprising History of Caleb Williams” becomes the final vehicle by which Caleb is stripped of his character and created anew.

In Volume One of the novel, Caleb relates Collins' story of Falkland's past; it is, in part, a catalogue of incidents illustrating verbal ascendency and dependency—a history of relationships and events formed and defined by hierarchies of eloquence, culminating with a final picture of Falkland as a man with superior abilities in the art of language. Control of language becomes synonymous with control of self and control of others; if that ability is lost or overcome, men become subjected to the authority of those who retain verbal prowess. Falkland's return to England as a refined squire begins his confrontation with Tyrell, a local, uneducated man whose “proficiency … in the arts of writing and reading was extremely slender,” but who was endowed with a “considerable copiousness of speech” (17-18) and a “boisterous and overbearing elocution” (20). This mode of articulation grants him power over his neighbors, for “the tyranny of Mr. Tyrell would not have been so patiently endured, had not his colloquial accomplishments perpetually come in aid of that authority which his rank and prowess originally obtained” (18). Falkland, however, obtains the admiration of the public through his “delicacy of sentiment and expression” (20) which creates such a contrast to the more vulgar Tyrell. Tyrell is cognizant of Falkland's verbal power, and even defines the politics of their dispute with reference to the techniques and efficacy of their personal rhetorics:

Time was when I was thought entitled to respect. But now, debauched by this Frenchified rascal, they call me rude, surly, a tyrant! It is true that I cannot talk in finical phrases, flatter people with hypocritical praise, or suppress the real feelings of my mind! The scoundrel knows his pitiful advantages, and insults me upon them without ceasing.


Although Tyrell recognizes Falkland's superiority in this realm of “talk,” he consoles himself by denying the value and power of words:

We knew well enough that [Falkland] had the gift of the gab. To be sure, if the world were to be governed by words, he would be in the right box. Oh, yes, he had it all hollow! But what signifies prating? Business must be done in an other-guess way than that.


Despite Tyrell's statement to the contrary, however, the world does indeed seem to be “governed by words.” The corrective to Tyrell's contention is supplied by the figure of Mr. Clare, the poet, who is the most admirable character in Collins' story: the true artist, it seems, is the ideal man. His use of language is exemplary both in his literary productions and his conversation; it always produces its desired effect and “never mangled what it was intended to heal” (24). By demonstrating—even embodying—the value and potency of the artist's language, Clare stands as a refutation of Tyrell's denial of the power of the word. And to Tyrell's dismay and frustration, Clare not only instinctively befriends Falkland, seeing in him “a mind in a certain degree congenial with his own” (25), but he also publicly praises Falkland's poetic talents and commends his skill with words.

Clare's appraisal is confirmed; repeatedly, Falkland's language becomes his instrument of power over Tyrell, whose consequent inability to manipulate words becomes the indication of his subservient position. The pattern of one man's eloquence rendering another man inarticulate and therefore impotent becomes a motif throughout the book; and an important instance of this ends the first volume. After the death of Tyrell's cousin Emily, whom he had ill-treated, Tyrell intrudes upon the rural assembly which has ostracized him, and his “well-timed interruptions and pertinent insinuations” make the townspeople lose their capacity to speak: “first to hesitate, and then to be silent” (94). When Falkland enters, his pre-eminence is established by the eloquence of his speech, which in turn forces Tyrell into silence (“and his tongue refused its office” [95]). A hierarchy of verbal ability is thus erected. Tyrell's silence signifies his defeat; he is confronted with this inescapable evidence of Falkland's verbal superiority and his own failure to compete with it, and then relinquishes language as a tool of power. Without uttering a word, he attempts a purely physical comeback and assaults Falkland. Falkland is no match for this attack and is soundly beaten, but later that evening Tyrell is found murdered, and Falkland is accused of the crime. The final commentary made by Collins is more true than he may realize. The proper response for Falkland would have been that of Themistocles: “Strike, but hear” (98); that is, a verbal assertion which would have been more effective and valuable than physical retaliation. And yet Collins' narrative concludes with Falkland's eloquent vindication of himself at his trial; he converts accusation into adoration as he once more, like the true artist of Godwin's essays, calls upon and displays the power of his language “to change the nature of what he handles.”

A new opposition of rhetorics is instituted as Caleb enters the “scene”19: while Volume One ends by presenting a picture of Falkland's ability to express his story and impose it on the world, Volume Two opens with Caleb reasserting his own voice as narrator. Caleb's story begins with his attempt to discover Falkland's entire story: the truth about the murder. He suspects that Falkland is guilty, despite the eloquent acquittal of himself that Collins has described, and he is immediately attracted to the secrecy which surrounds a trunk that Falkland keeps under careful surveillance. As the story progresses, the contents of that trunk become symbolically connected with narrative art. Caleb convinces himself that this trunk, which contains “all that [he] sought” (132), is the key to the mystery. But as Forester later tells Caleb, “where there is mystery, there is always something at bottom that will not bear the telling” (148; my emphasis). Mystery itself seems to be founded upon the suppression of language and speech, and it is this prohibition on expression that Caleb tries to expose and repeal in his attempts to “publish those astonishing secrets” (275; my emphasis). By the end of the novel, when Caleb considers the “contents of the fatal trunk from which all my misfortunes originated,” he imagines that it does not contain the weapons used to murder Tyrell, but rather “a faithful narrative of that and its concomitant transactions, written by Mr. Falkland” (315; my emphasis). With this conception of the linguistic origins of all that has occurred, Caleb proceeds to determine the most appropriate and effective weapon for defense and revenge: “No, I will use no daggers! I will unfold a tale—!” (314). He decides that his own story, till now censored, shall be told and substituted for the one penned by Falkland; his tale is revealed as an attempt to replace Falkland as author.

The competition for verbal domination between the two men begins early, and Caleb at first seems to be an equal match for Falkland as he tries to uncover the “mystery.” As he learns to control both his and Falkland's remarks, Caleb's verbalization gains supremacy and he becomes adept at leading their conversations, “which by this time [he] well knew how to introduce, by insensible degrees to the point [he] desired” (116). Because Falkland is initially unwilling to suppress him by “a severe prohibition of speech” (109) or by “interrupting the freedom of [their] intercourse” (110), Caleb succeeds in manipulating his language and, through it, Falkland.

Yet as Caleb gradually extracts Falkland's story from him, he increasingly loses the ability to maintain control over his words and over himself. Falkland's language seems to annihilate and replace Caleb's; the ultimate consequence of Falkland's full narration of his history is the denial of the power and freedom of Caleb's speech. Falkland ends his confession by placing a prohibition on Caleb's language: “if ever an unguarded word escape from your lips … expect to pay for it by your death or worse” (136). And the final dissipation of Caleb's claim to articulation and self-assertion is pronounced: he will never be able to construct a history that will successfully proclaim his identity. The world, having accepted Falkland's persuasive words, will prove resistant to whatever words Caleb tries to impose on it:

Be still! If once you fall, call as loud as you will, no man on earth shall hear your cries; prepare a tale however plausible, or however true, the whole world shall execrate you for an impostor.


The only words with any currency are those sanctioned by Falkland. His language has defined a role for Caleb, and any attempt to tell a different story and create a different character is doomed to failure.

This begins for Caleb a life of forbidden intercourse, disjointed and incomplete expression, “imperfect and mutilated” storytelling. Deprived of his words, he cannot preserve his identity. He has become a prisoner—a slave—of Falkland's masterful language, and is thereby robbed of his own. It is a loss that constantly perplexes him:

Why was it that I was once more totally overcome by the imperious carriage of Mr. Falkland, and unable to utter a word?


Caleb realizes that his failure to assert his true character derives from his inability to articulate successfully, and while in prison he decides to develop the powers he has lost. He imagines all conceivable situations and teaches himself the verbal skills appropriate for each: “I cultivated the powers of oratory suited to these different states” (186). In thus resurrecting his powers of articulation, Caleb both becomes an artist and becomes himself, as evidenced in the curious but significant syntax of his statement, “I became myself a poet” (186). Caleb is aware that his silence has made him the victim of Falkland's art, and he declares that he will no longer surrender his verbal powers and succumb to an author other than himself:

I had hitherto been silent as to my principal topic of recrimination. But I was by no means certain that I should consent to go out of the world in silence, the victim of this man's obduracy and art.


But Caleb admits that he “improved more in eloquence in the solitude of my dungeon, than perhaps I should have done in the busiest and most crowded scenes” (186). He cultivates his power to speak in isolation, sustained and supported only by himself; he still lacks the ability to advance and impress his story onto his society. When he leaves prison he finds himself still at the mercy of another author's account; “The Wonderful and Surprising History of Caleb Williams” is widely circulated and accepted, and Caleb succumbs to this superior claim of originality and authorship that calls his own into question. It is here that his “talent of mimicry” is put to use. Rather than asserting himself, Caleb resorts to disguises; instead of performing an act of self-creation, he employs the “art of imitation” and engages “in the personating a fictitious character” (288). Ironically he reports that:

I persisted in this exertion of my faculties, through a sort of parental love that men are accustomed to entertain for their intellectual offspring.


The parental analogy is a poor fit; Caleb becomes the father not of himself, but instead of a “counterfeit character” (256) from which no one “could have traced out the person of Caleb Williams” (255). Eventually even the disguises fail, and Caleb retreats to a small rural town where he begins an “etymological analysis of the English language” (294). This apparently “accidental” choice of intellectual (and diversionary) exercise is not insignificant, for as Godwin elsewhere makes clear, this study can help to change man from the slave to the master of language.20 But when Falkland's story infiltrates even this rural area, and Caleb decides to tell his own story to Laura, who has befriended him, his speech is stifled. Once again he is silenced and “walked away without uttering a word” (297).

When Caleb is utterly despairing of extricating himself from Falkland's authorial and authoritative reign, he reaches a moment of resolution and decides “I will tell a tale—!” (314). Language has imprisoned him, but it can also free him; his own words are the only instruments that can defeat Falkland's control: “With this engine, this little pen I defeat all his machinations …” (315). And he predicts that his words will not only be spoken; they will also be heard and received: “The justice of the country shall hear me! The elements of nature in universal uproar shall not interrupt me!” It is at this point that Caleb imagines that the mysterious trunk from which all his misfortunes originated contains not the dagger that killed Tyrell, but words:

a faithful narrative of that and its concomitant transactions, written by Mr. Falkland, and reserved in case of the worst, that, if by any unforeseen event his guilt should come to be fully disclosed, it might contribute to redeem the wreck of his reputation.


Caleb now triumphantly claims that his words shall substitute for Falkland's; he will rewrite Falkland's story, “supply its place” (316), and impose his narrative on the world.

In the concluding scene, Caleb initially presents himself in an authorial position, as “the author of this hateful scene” (320). But when he confronts Falkland, the man whose words have defined and governed his being, Caleb tries to reject his own words and to reject his authorship: “Would to God it were possible for me to retire from this scene without uttering another word!” (320). Caleb thus becomes an unwilling author; it is, in fact, Falkland who ultimately imposes this position on Caleb: “The situation and the demands of Mr. Falkland himself forbid me. He … would compel me to accuse” (320). Although Falkland is physically debilitated, his control, his dictatorship over his secretary, is not yet relinquished.

Under this compulsion, Caleb tells his story, and seems to perform the act of self-articulation and self-assertion that has always eluded him. But, in the end, the act betrays itself and presents Caleb as the person Falkland always proclaimed him to be; he finally can only portray himself as that character which Falkland has constructed:

I came to accuse, but am compelled to applaud. I proclaim to all the world that Mr. Falkland is a man worthy of affection and kindness, and that I am myself the basest and most odious of mankind!


In the act of speaking, Caleb actually rejects his own history and delivers a story that accords with the one created by Falkland. Consequently, Caleb loses his sense of self—“I have now no character that I wish to vindicate”—and also surrenders his claim to authorship. His narrative is no longer an assertion of self; his words no longer tell his own story:

I began these memoirs with the idea of vindicating my character. I have now no character that I wish to vindicate: but I will finish them that thy story may be fully understood; and that, if those errors of thy life be known which thou so ardently desiredst to conceal, the world may at least not hear and repeat a half-told and mangled tale.

(326; my emphasis)

Caleb is now determined to tell “thy story,” turning his memoirs into Falkland's narrative. He will no longer speak for himself, create his own history, or articulate himself into being. Instead, he decides merely to resurrect and reproduce, rather than replace, that “narrative … written by Mr. Falkland, and reserved in case of the worst, that, if … his guilt should come to be fully disclosed, it might contribute to redeem the wreck of his reputation” (315). Caleb's sense of his own character has become, to use the terms of Godwin's essays, “the work of the transcriber”; defeated by his own language as well as by Falkland's, he succumbs to a position of “servile repetition.”

Falkland's response in this last scene is, however, almost identical to Caleb's: he embraces the picture of himself that his opponent has all along been trying to publish. He claims that Caleb's tale “has carried conviction to every hearer” (324), but we have little evidence for this other than Falkland's word, since in this closing episode the response of the rest of the world is for the most part ignored. It is as if Falkland and Caleb are telling their stories only to impress them upon each other. During this confrontation, the two versions of “things as they are” cross, but since they represent and try to impose individual formulations of the world, they do not cohere. This development is not an isolated phenomenon; by the time Godwin published Caleb Williams, eighteenth-century fiction had felt the impact of Sterne's Shandean world, where, as one critic explains, “a man is his expression,” and “everyone … has his peculiar rhetoric that organizes his private world.”21 Earl Wasserman uses Tristram Shandy as a symbolic line of demarcation, signalling a new conception of the world and the need for a new type of artist; and his explanation is relevant to this scene in Godwin's novel where the characters cannot maintain their hold on their versions of “things as they are.” “By the end of the eighteenth century,” writes Wasserman, “… each man now rode his own hobby-horse.” He adds:

In Tristram's world, meaning had become a function of each person's private, subjective concerns, which alone remained as an interpretive organization. … What is more, in this completely individualistic world none of these private principles ever succeeds in organizing life, and chaos is forever breaking in.22

In Caleb Williams, neither man is able to sustain his own account, his individual principles of definition and organization; and, furthermore, each “half-told” story denies and defies the complete creation of its author. For while Caleb accepts Falkland's tale, and presents himself as an “atrocious, execrable wretch” (325), Falkland in turn accepts Caleb's—he calls himself “the most execrable of all villains” (324) and labels Caleb a hero. The men simply exchange, rather than expand, the terminologies of their tales. Both storytellers succumb to the attitude exhibited earlier in the novel by Laura and Collins, who resist Caleb and his story because they fear it will introduce complexities that they are not willing to recognize; they do not want to surrender the reassuring clarity of their present conceptions for a more complicated construction.23 Although Laura maintains that “virtue … consists in actions, and not in words,” her arguments belie this assertion: she wants to maintain distinctions (“the good man and the bad, are characters precisely opposite, not characters distinguished from each other by imperceptible shades”) that are supported by the “plain and unadorned” tale she has heard; and she thinks that Caleb's rhetoric will dissolve these (semantic) categories and thereby create a moral ambiguity she refuses to accept: “Eloquence may seek to confound it; but it shall be my care to avoid its deceptive influence” (299-300). Collins similarly (though in a more sophisticated manner) does not want to “part with all [his] interior consolation,” and would prefer not to hear Caleb's story only to learn “that there was no criterion by which vice might be prevented from being mistaken for virtue” (310). Neither wishes Caleb to introduce a rhetoric that might “confound” or “perplex” the principles of Falkland's tale which have organized their world.

But Caleb finally, like Laura, Collins, and Falkland as well, refuses to engage the complexities of his story or of his character24—his story alienates him from himself because he alienates himself from his story. At the end of the novel Caleb and Falkland exchange restrictive, opposing character labels, but do not break away from them or extend their language beyond or between them. The world as it is in Caleb Williams is a world that resists new constructs when the old ones are no longer large enough to constitute and encompass a full portrait of man. Godwin's literary theory maintains that the poet (and his “fictitious history”) “is more to be depended upon, and comprises more of the science of man than whatever can be exhibited by the historian.”25Caleb Williams is thus the story of unsuccessful artists—poets who are unable to express and realize the full nature of human identity, and whose words thereby betray themselves and the world which receives their stories.

Language [wrote Godwin] is in reality a vast labyrinth, a scene like the Hercinian Forest of old, which, we are told, could not be traversed in less than sixty days. If we do not possess the clue, we shall infallibly perish in the attempt. …26


  1. For the political viewpoint see, for example, Harvey Gross, “The Pursuer and the Pursued: A Study of Caleb Williams,TSLL [Texas Studies in Literature and Language], 1 (1959), 401-11; D. Gilbert Dumas, “Things As They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams,SEL [Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900], 6 (1966), 575-97. For examples of the psychological see Patrick Cruttwell, “On Caleb Williams,Hudson Review, 11 (1958), 87-95; Rudolf Storch, “Metaphors of Private Guilt and Social Rebellion in Godwin's Caleb Williams,ELH, 34 (1967), 188-207. For the theological, see Joel Porte, “In the Hands of an Angry God: Religious Terror in Gothic Fiction” in The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, ed. G. R. Thompson (Pullman, Washington: Washington State Univ. Press, 1974). Some critics have tried to merge several of these approaches under the heading of “moral philosophy”: see Eric Rothstein, “Allusion and Analogy in the Romance of Caleb Williams,UTQ [University of Toronto Quarterly], 37 (1967-68), 18-30; and Mitzi Myers' fine study, “Godwin's Changing Conception of Caleb Williams,SEL, 12 (1972), 591-628. A recent essay which came to my attention after completion of this article, James Walton's “‘Mad Feary Father’: Caleb Williams and the Novel Form,” Salzburg Studies in English Literature, Romantic Reassessment Series, No. 47 (Salzburg: Institut fur Englische Sprache, 1975), 1-61, confronts some of the issues I intend to explore. Concerned primarily with the connection between “individualism and the novel form” (11) and their social and cultural contingencies, Walton perceptively discusses the analogy of the hero/heroine as novelist (4, 35) and of the story as potent weapon of self-preservation (36, 42). However, Walton's point is that the pen does unsuccessful battle with (in an attempt to reject) the “external world” (44), with what Godwin considered “the principle of reality itself” (3), with “things as they are”; whereas I will argue that for Godwin, both in the novel and in his essays, “things as they are” are themselves linguistic constructs, governed by the true artist whose powerful rhetoric shapes not only the individual but the world he confronts as well.

  2. This concept undoubtedly reflects the influence of contemporary views. See, for example, Gerald Bruns' Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1974), where he describes the “romantic” idea of language that emerged during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as one which insists upon the correspondence, almost the identity, of language, the “human interior,” and man's world as well, which is “fundamentally linguistic in character” (p. 66).

  3. Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 306. All further references to this edition will be cited parenthetically within the text.

  4. I borrow this phrase from Robert Kiely's discussion of the novel in The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 96.

  5. Things As They Are appeared alternately as title and as subtitle of the novel in different early editions.

  6. Rothstein, “Allusion and Analogy,” 21.

  7. Coleridge, quoted in William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, ed. Charles Kegan Paul (Boston: Roberts Bros., 1876), II, 10-11.

  8. All quotations are from the following editions: The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (London, 1797), and Thoughts on Man: His Nature, Productions, and Discoveries (London, 1831).

  9. Godwin, “Of the Study of the Classics” in The Enquirer, p. 43. Although Godwin makes these statements while speaking specifically of the need to learn more than one language, the essay places this in the more general context of its discussion of the importance of learning the “art of language.”

  10. Ibid., p. 44.

  11. Godwin, “Of Imitation and Invention” in Thoughts on Man, p. 183.

  12. Godwin, “Of Choice in Reading” in The Enquirer, pp. 142-43.

  13. Godwin, “Of Imitation and Invention,” p. 204.

  14. Ibid., pp. 183-84, 196.

  15. Godwin, “Of the Sources of Genius” in The Enquirer, p. 27; see also “Of Intellectual Abortion” in Thoughts on Man, p. 64.

  16. Godwin, “Of the Study of the Classics,” p. 47.

  17. Godwin, “Of Intellectual Abortion,” p. 65.

  18. Godwin, “Of Imitation and Invention,” p. 201.

  19. The theatrical metaphor, with its suggestions of impersonation and repetition, is pervasive throughout Caleb Williams. We should also note that in his essays, Godwin uses the stage as an analogy for the “servile repetition” to which men so often seem to succumb (see note 14).

  20. Godwin, “Of the Study of the Classics,” p. 44.

  21. John Traugott, Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophic Rhetoric (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1954), p. 114; and his Introduction to Laurence Sterne: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 2.

  22. Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1959), p. 170.

  23. In his discussion of Collins' attitude, Storch (“Metaphors of Private Guilt …,” pp. 201-02) nicely suggests that this view “sums up the superficiality of eighteenth century benevolence: its refusal to go deeply into the human condition, its reluctance to sacrifice its comforts. …”

  24. Kiely (The Romantic Novel) makes a similar point: “Even in this apparent act of justice and plain speaking, he has been unable to be true to the full complexity of his nature” (p. 95).

  25. Godwin, from the Introduction to Cloudesley (London, 1830), I. xi. Quoted by David McCracken, “Godwin's Literary Theory: The Alliance Between Fiction and Political Philosophy,” PQ [Philological Quarterly], 49 (1970), 124.

  26. Godwin, “Of Intellectual Abortion,” p. 61.

Marilyn Butler (essay date July 1982)

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SOURCE: Butler, Marilyn. “Godwin, Burke, and Caleb Williams.Essays in Criticism 32, no. 3 (July 1982): 237-57.

[In the following essay, Butler illustrates the centrality of politics in Caleb Williams, particularly in relation to the conservatism of Edmund Burke.]

Where politics appears in English novels, it is commonly at the margins; in Caleb Williams it is central. Godwin's most significant creative period was during the political crisis of 1791-6, when a native English radical movement first blossomed, warmed by events across the Channel, and then withered and died in the national crisis of full-scale war with France. He wrote continuously in these years: pamphlets, letters to newspapers, and the two most important books of his career, the treatise Political Justice (1793) and the novel Caleb Williams (1794). The two books both went into revised second editions by 1796, with Political Justice so materially changed that its second edition represents a new political statement.

This body of writing made Godwin the foremost intellectual among English radicals once the post fell vacant with Tom Paine's precipitate departure for France in 1792. Too much knowledge of Godwin's later years makes us pin on him Lamb's tag, ‘the Philosopher’, as though he was always chairbound and anything but practically dangerous. Despite his emphasis on reason and his disapproval of violence, Godwin was no mere bystander in this brief period when revolution seemed a practical possibility. The hue and cry against Priestley in Birmingham in 1791 and the clamour against Paine in 1792 showed how uncomfortable the role of radical spokesman could become. Godwin defined all the unpleasantness of the position, and yet volunteered for it, when he protested against the loyalist hysteria surrounding Paine's trial in absentia in December 1792. In one letter to the Morning Chronicle he claimed that those of the reform party were reduced to a state of ‘perpetual fear’,1 and in a second letter he complained of the hysteria that made a fair trial impossible:

We all know by what means a verdict was procured: by repeated proclamations, by all the force, and all the fears of the kingdom being artfully turned against one man. As I came out of court, I saw hand-bills, in the most vulgar and illiberal style distributed, entitled, The Confessions of Thomas Paine. I had not walked three streets, before I was encountered by ballad singers, roaring in cadence rude, a miserable set of scurrilous stanzas upon his private life.2

In the winter of 1793-4, as he was writing Caleb Williams, Godwin visited the two condemned Scottish radicals, Muir and Palmer, who were awaiting transportation to Australia on board the prison hulks in the Thames; in April and May he saw his London radical friend Joseph Gerrald in the same circumstances. On 12 May 1794 Thomas Hardy of the London Corresponding Society, and after him eleven other London radicals, including Godwin's close friend Holcroft, were arrested and charged with treason. At the time radicals believed that, if the twelve were found guilty, many others would follow them into the dock. Godwin nevertheless reacted by dating his provocative Preface to Caleb Williams 12 May, the very day of Hardy's arrest, and by alluding in it to the newly devised charge of ‘constructive treason’. In October, just before Hardy and the others were brought to trial, Godwin criticised the concept of this offence even more boldly in his Cursory Strictures on the charge delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, a pamphlet which played a part in obtaining their acquittal.

Godwin was hardly behaving like a theorist though, if he sought martydom through the Preface to Caleb Williams; he was saved by his publisher, Benjamin Crosby, who would not print it. The opening to the Preface conveys his anxiety that the reader might miss his contribution to current events: ‘The following narrative is intended to answer a purpose more general and important than immediately appears on the face of it’. The novel is designed to explore ‘the question afloat in the world respecting Things As They Are’, a debate inaugurated by Burke's warm defence of the old order, The Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). The case for change which Godwin previously made philosophically in Political Justice is now in Caleb Williams to be translated into a more popular language. The real oppressiveness of the order Burke idealised

is a truth highly worthy to be communicated to persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach. Accordingly it was proposed in the invention of the following work, to comprehend, as far as the progressive nature of a single story would allow, a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man.

The Preface finally appeared in the second edition of 1795, and in July of the same year, responding to an attack on him in the British Critic, Godwin wrote a reply which further amplifies the essentially political purpose of Caleb Williams:

[Your correspondent] presupposes that my book was written ‘to throw an odium upon the laws of my country’. But this is a mistake into which no attentive and clearsighted reader could possibly fall. The object is of much greater magnitude. It is to expose the evils which arise out of the present system of civilised society; and having exposed them to lead the enquiring reader to examine whether they are, or are not, as has commonly been supposed, irremediable; in a word, to disengage the minds of men from presupposition, and launch them upon the sea of moral and political enquiry … Your correspondent comes nearer the point when he … states my object to be: ‘the laws of this country, and the mode of their execution’; or rather, as he ought to have stated, the administration of justice and equity, with its consequences, as it exists in the world at large, and in Great Britain in particular.3

In later years Godwin ceased to emphasise what at the time he had boldly insisted on—the dangerous topicality of his book. His later glosses have to do with its novelistic qualities, and with the method of writing that helped to sustain suspense. The celebrated account he wrote in 1832 of the manner in which he composed the novel (beginning with its thriller-sequence, the hunting of Caleb in Volume III) indicates that he no longer saw his book as dealing with the social and public perspectives of the Enlightenment. Instead, he reinterpreted his own career retrospectively in the aesthetic and private terminology of Romanticism.

Post-Romantic critics have tended to concur with Godwin's later view of his 1790s novel. Leslie Stephen influentially remarked that the moral of Caleb Williams eludes its author: ‘How about the wickedness of government? The answer must be that it has passed out of sight’4; ‘the reader, unassisted by the preface, would scarcely perceive Godwin's doctrine between the lines’.5 David McCracken, the book's latest editor, agrees that the Preface has ‘by no means an obvious connection with the novel itself’.6 A. D. Harvey sums up the majority opinion when he separates Godwin's works from one another and from their context, with the novel ‘detached from the period of political upheaval in which it was written’, so that ‘Political Justice and Caleb Williams have very little subject-matter in common’.7

Karl Popper once protested at the practice of ‘not taking arguments seriously, and at their face value, at least tentatively, but of seeing in them nothing but a way in which deeper irrational motives and tendencies express themselves.’8 It has been a tendency at least as strong in literary criticism as in other disciplines, and the writers on Godwin's fiction who have attended to his argument9 have been, for all their weight of evidence, outweighed numerically by irrationalists. Even in the course of a critique sensitively open to nuances from real life and politics, P. N. Furbank insists on the novel's introverted mode. He reads it as ‘a highly dramatized symbolical picture of Godwin himself in the act of writing Political Justice’;10 at its most political, the action is merely ‘a psychological analogue’ to revolution and, thus internalized, nearer to Dostoevsky than to Holcroft.11 For Rudolph E. Storch, however, the very mention of Holcroft in connection with Godwin is a ‘critical error’;12 he argues that the novel is a Calvinistic study of the psychology of rebelliousness and the guilt it entails. Falkland comes to stand for Godwin's own father, a Calvinist minister, and for the God of the Old Testament. ‘Caleb's curiosity means disobedience … It is in fact the Original Sin’13; the action takes place in a stylized landscape of the mind, and ‘the story of Caleb Williams has no place in the society of eighteenth-century England’.14

Do the proponents of such interpretations realise how extraordinary they are? At the time Godwin insisted on his social meaning, and insisted moreover that the symbolism and stylization of his treatment supported his rational intention, by taking all societies into the critique rather than just England. For Godwin to have written a religious novel, even a novel unwittingly subverted by a religious consciousness, is incompatible with his role in radical politics. The year of Caleb Williams was also the year of Paine's anticlerical Age of Reason. Godwin noted in his Journal for October 1793, while he was working on Caleb Williams, a plan to write a ‘treatise on God’, which is presumably identical with the project he described elsewhere which would ‘sweep away the whole fiction of an intelligent former of the world, and a future state’.15 During the next two years, Coleridge's indignation with Godwin, as recorded in his Notebooks, reached its height, precisely because he associated Godwin with the atheism then current among English intellectuals. Anti-Godwin propaganda in The Antijacobin and in conservative polemical novels in 1797-8 concurs in portraying Godwin as the atheistical philosopher. His erstwhile friends James Mackintosh and Samuel Parr use his irreligion as the cornerstone of their attacks in 1799 and 1800. No-one seems to have sensed any backsliding from the cause of Reason in either Caleb Williams or in any other Godwinian writing of the first half of the revolutionary decade.

Storch's notion that Caleb's crime enacts Original Sin is surely a thought that occurs more readily in the late twentieth century than in the late eighteenth: in the post-Freudian era, the idea of the Fall is happily assimilated to a sense of guilt experienced for purely private reasons. It comes as no surprise to find a similar accommodation when a modern critic of Godwin's great opponent, Edmund Burke, investigates the origins of Burke's theological pessimism. Isaac Kramnick explains Burke's conviction of man's fallen nature and the supposed presence in his writing of an irrational sense of guilt as the product of a youthful trauma due to the absence of Burke's father, after which one part of Burke's nature found itself ‘worshipping the father, or longing for a father to worship’.16

A more historical type of explanation is available for the theme powerfully reiterated in the Reflections on the Revolution in France, that man cannot hope to redeem himself through his own efforts and his own fallible reason. Conor Cruise O'Brien, himself a politically minded Irishman, points to the legacy of Irish Catholicism which Burke inherited from both sides of his family. He suggest that Burke's attack on revolution in France was complicated by his suppressed sympathy with resistance in Ireland; in particular, when Burke urged the English to look with favour upon the Catholics now dispossessed in France, he subversively made the case for those Catholics the English themselves had deprived in Ireland.17 O'Brien's is an analysis which aims to account for Burke's complexity, for his emotionalism and of course for a style profoundly indebted to the scriptures. It helps to show why the Reflections were ideologically effective, as history suggests they were. Kramnick's hypothesis cannot do this for Burke, and Storch's remarks on Godwin represent the same difficulty in more acute form. How could a guilt-ridden, God-ridden author make the case for rationalism or radicalism? If Godwin is a tormented Calvinist, must he not also seem an incompetent polemicist? Guilt and fear, God and the Old Testament, are notions necessarily playing a more challenging and difficult part in Godwin's work than in Burke's, so that they cry out for explanation.

Burke and Godwin, living in revolutionary times, adopted strategies that would speak to the educated, uncommitted reader. For modern philosophers writing about Political Justice, as for modern critics of Caleb Williams, Godwin is the better for not being political. Yet for Godwin himself, as the Preface to Caleb Williams makes abundantly clear, both his major books were adversarial,—designed to achieve change and also designed to refute the case for the status quo familiarised, above all, by Burke. Political Justice has the reputation of rising above polemic to seek an objective (if unreal) blueprint of the just society, but this very appearance of lofty impartiality is dictated by its role as a reply to Burke's Reflections. If Godwin appears passionless, it is because Burke appears extraordinarily excited; if Godwin casts his eye forward to a perfect future, it is because Burke has grounded his arguments in an imperfect past. Burke pooh-poohs the insights of modern individualism (‘we know that we have made no discoveries’), and sonorously alludes to the great men of history, the warriors, the leaders and the poets; he emotively parades such topics as hearth and home, parents, the naturalness of obedience. Burke casts the reader in the role of a small child, dwarfed by the scale of the greater world, and he exploits the language in which the child is instructed, the rhythms of Bible, prayerbook and pulpit, to persuade his reader to respond with the child's implicit obedience.

The main theme of Political Justice is that all such lessons are pernicious lies. Society is not naturally virtuous at all. It exercises a strong power, previously little understood, over the lives of individuals. This power operates not merely through political institutions and the law, but through prejudice, prepossession and habit. ‘It [government] insinuates itself into our personal dispositions, and insensibly communicates its own spirit to our private transactions.’ (I.4)18 Obedience to authority is thus not a virtue, even in children; it is only by making us believe in obedience, through exhortation, fiction and other devices of imposture, that our governors maintain their position. The virtuous individual models himself not on the child but on the young adult, who, independent of parents, enquires for himself.

Long ago, in his Whiggish polemic writing of the 1780s (for example in A Defence of the Rockingham Party (1783)), Godwin had admired Burke as a man who had risen by merit, as a champion of liberty and a truthteller. His fall was therefore all the greater when, as the author of the Reflections, he barefacedly set out to defend and sanctify rule by an oligarchy. In a paragraph in his last chapter (to which he appended an obituary of Burke in 1798), Godwin imitated the rhythms of Burke's own celebrated eulogy of Marie Antoinette in order to evoke a similar regret:

‘We know … that truth will be triumphant, even though you refuse to be her ally. We do not fear your enmity. But our hearts bleed to see such gallantry, talents and virtue employed in perpetuating the calamities of mankind.’


Godwin is seldom so directly personal as this. Yet he does devote about two hundred pages of his treatise (a part of the work on which modern descriptions commonly fail to linger) to such topics as the rival social systems, amongst which the aristocratic system advocated by Burke is clearly the most salient. In Books III to V Godwin considers in turn the characteristics of the monarchical, aristocratic and democratic systems, together with the moral influence of each upon the individual citizen, and upon the relations between governors and governed. Under the monarchical system, virtue, he avers, ‘is, in their conception, arrogant, intrusive, unmanageable and stubborn.’ (II.56) Monarchy and aristocracy alike have a tendency ‘to undermine the values and understandings of their subjects … Implicit faith, blind submission to authority, timid fear, a distrust of our powers, an inattention to our own importance and the good purposes we are able to effect, these are the chief obstacles to human improvement.’ (II.119) In the crucial chapter V, xv, ‘Of Political Imposture’, Godwin again alludes specifically to Burke as an upholder of a system of necessary trickery, by which the population must be duped into obedience. In the Reflections, says Godwin sardonically, kings and leaders are represented ‘independently of their individual character, as deriving a sacredness from their office. They must be accompanied with splendour and veneration.’ (II.132) No-one should seek to reduce Political Justice to the status of mere polemic reply to Burke, but the core of Godwin's book,—the source of its energy and the main determinant of its rhetoric,—lies in Godwin's conception of it as the ultimate answer to the Reflections, the only answer to attack the great issues within the same generous frame of reference to man's history, his culture, his morality, and his personal relationships.

Burke and Burkean rhetoric also recur in Caleb Williams. The novel is built round the relationship of two men, Caleb Williams and Ferdinando Falkland, who are ‘servant’ and ‘master’ in the words of the first edition, ‘secretary’ and ‘patron’ in the second. Commentators agree that this relationship is all-important, even though the direct conflict between the two is reserved mainly for the second of the three volumes. What is less commonly remarked is the degree to which the two characters are not individuals but stereotypes. Instead of entering into unselfconscious intimacy with either, the reader is kept aloof and made aware of the factors that shape the two characters' views of one another, especially the notions of degree and authority within a paternalistic system.

The theme of the first volume is Falkland's past history, as narrated to Caleb by his fellow-servant Collins. The indirect narration establishes the awe Falkland exacts from others as virtually an element of his character. Though Collins leads the story up to the occasion when Falkland was accused of murder, he himself does not believe the charge; he never sees those implications in his tale which are discreditable to his master. Yet Collins's entire story throws a very harsh light on Falkland's class. Falkland, after all, was the competitor and peer of an unpleasant bully, Squire Tyrrel, who hounded down two victims—his cousin, Emily Melville, who, Clarissa-like, was subjected to an attempt to marry her off to a boor, and a local tenant-farmer, Hawkins, whom Tyrrel ruined. Both these victims began by expressing esteem and love for Tyrrel; when both crossed him and proved obstinate, he used the law to imprison and destroy them. Emily and Hawkins stand for the immediate social inferiors of the squirearchy; what happens to them in the first volume, a prolegomena to the main action, is meant to suggest the variety and range of circumstance in which the power of the upper orders can be felt by other citizens.

As a poor female relation in a system strictly given to male primogeniture, Emily has no economic independence, and her family feels little sense of moral obligation towards her. The imprisonment and attempted rape to which she is subjected is obviously an extreme case, but it follows coarse treatment and coercion which must have been very common. Hawkins first offends by declining to vote as another landlord bids him, but he loses Tyrrel's favour by refusing to let his son Leonard become Tyrrel's servant. Leonard breaks down gates set up on Tyrrel's order, and since he does it at night with his coat turned up, he commits a felony under the ‘Black Acts’ by which the eighteenth-century gentry maintained their absolute property rights in the countryside. Taken together, these offences by the Hawkinses constitute a rejection of the notion of subservience, which Tyrrel angrily sets out to punish.

As Collins's narrative makes clear, Falkland opposed Tyrrel in the latter's bullying both of Emily Melville and of the Hawkins family. If Tyrrel represents the unacceptable face of the English class system, Falkland is apparently its ornament. His refusal to fight a duel, in his youth in Italy, shows that he is critical of the brutish aspect of ‘chivalry’. But in practice Falkland's fastidiousness hardly runs deep. Though he begs Tyrrel to avoid quarrelling with him, he retaliates with interest when Tyrrel strikes him in public. At this insult Falkland reverts to the code of his caste and acts precisely in the manner (so we are told) of the haughtier type of Italian nobleman, when he felt insulted by an opponent he would not deign to meet on the field of honour: he waylays and murders him.

The opening passage of Volume II introduces Falkland and Caleb together in scenes which are closely observed and psychologically complex: this is a different quality of writing from the case-studies of the first volume. Nevertheless, Caleb and Falkland are carefully shown to represent their respective orders. Caleb, on hearing the story of Hawkins, does not share Collins's automatic assumption that Hawkins must be guilty of murder or Falkland innocent. Caleb is like Hawkins, another commoner, a man of self-respect and independence. It is unthinkable to Collins, the servant of aristocracy, that a gentleman might be guilty, but the possibility remains for the yeoman Caleb.

While Caleb resembles Hawkins, he also resembles Emily. As an inmate and dependent of Falkland's house, he relates to Falkland much as she did to Tyrrel, and he even recalls her artless, inexperienced character. Just as Emily approached Tyrrel direct, so Caleb tries to deal with Falkland: both give offence by not humbly keeping their distance, not observing the obedience due to rank. Caleb's resemblance to the two victims of Volume I prepares the reader for the strange, yet convincing, emergence of Falkland, formerly the champion of Emily and Hawkins, as the archetypal tyrant of Volumes II and III.

The fascination of the early chapters of Volume II, however, has less to do with archetypes than with Godwin's study of the psychology of his two principals within their respective roles. He ventures an exemplary moralistic dialogue in the Holcroft manner about whether Alexander is a great man or not. In the course of this conversation Falkland is tempted into a number of ‘aristocratical’ statements which put his supposed benevolence into a curious new light:

‘Let me hope that you will become more liberal. The death of a hundred thousand men is at first sight very shocking; but what in reality are a hundred thousand such men more than a hundred thousand sheep? … It was necessary to the realising his project that he should pass for a God. It was the only way by which he could get a firm hold upon the veneration of the stupid and bigoted Persians.’19

At times it is hard to see in Caleb's conversational tactics anything but a sort of adolescent slyness, a teasing, knowing provocation of a puzzled older man. Caleb oscillates between maddening Falkland with lower-class cynicism about Alexander's nobility, and buttering him up by pretending to despise the commonalty:

I replied: … ‘[The world's] affairs cannot be better than in the direction of the genuine heroes; and, as in the end they will be found the truest friends of the whole, so the multitude have nothing to do, but to look on, be fashioned and admire.’

… ‘Williams! said he, you instruct me well. You have a right notion of things, and I have great hopes of you.’

(p. 117).

When after this Falkland accuses Caleb of being a ‘base artful wretch’ who deals in ‘mystery and equivocation’, the charge is unfair without being ridiculous in the reader's eyes. Godwin makes Caleb immature, not merely a social inferior and dependant but the essential type of the son. He ‘grows’ in the course of the novel, without ever being allowed to reach an assured maturity. Godwin maintains his authorial detachment by stigmatizing Caleb's curiosity about his employer's secret as ‘inquisitiveness’, and by having Caleb stress (as Collins did before him), his admiration, even veneration, for Falkland. It is made to seem to the reader, as apparently to Caleb himself, that in the tussle between veneration and inquisitiveness, the latter is a defect or even a transgression (p. 122). Caleb has no vocabulary to justify what he does; even though he knows Falkland to be guilty of murder, he keeps using Falkland's loaded terminology. Indeed, Falkland exercises a powerful spell over everyone in the world of the novel, as a hero, a ‘beneficient divinity’, a human being of special value. Unfortunately, he has also exercised it over most critics, who continue to write of Falkland's greatness and attractiveness as though these were objectively established rather than obliquely reflected in the unreliable narrations of Collins and of Caleb.

As a literary achievement, the character of Falkland hardly deserves our high opinion. Gloomy, guilty, the terror of his subordinates, he derives too plainly from Garrick's celebrated Richard III, or Kemble's Coriolanus, or from the period's veneration for Milton's Satan; a literary cliché, he is about to be outdone by Lewis's Ambrosio and Radcliffe's Schedoni, by Scott's Marmion and Byron's Corsair. What subtleties there are in the writing derive from sociological observation, from generalised character-studies of the manners and morals of gentlemen. Falkland's over-valuing of honour and reputation is the characteristic of a type, and it is bluntly stated rather than traced with much refinement—‘This it was to be a gentleman! a man of honour! I was the fool of fame.’ (p. 135) More delicately drawn is the unconscious aristocratic hauteur which undercuts Falkland's effort to improve his relations with Tyrrel. (p. 31) Despite his willed benevolence, his role has taught him to be masterful and coercive. Early in the novel, the dying Mr. Clare, a spokesman for some of Godwin's opinions, expresses the Dissenters' abhorrence of seeking to bind another by an oath. As soon as Falkland discovers that Caleb has found out the truth, he tries to swear him to silence. ‘I charge and abjure you by everything that is sacred and that is tremendous, preserve your faith!’ (p. 136) Thereafter much of Falkland's language is religious—that of a divinity, perhaps, but hardly a beneficent one:

‘You might as well think of escaping from the power of the omnipresent God, as from mine! If you could touch so much as my finger, you should expiate it—hours and months and years of a torment of which as yet you have not the remotest idea! … I have dug a pit for you! … Be still! If once you fall, call as loud as you will, no man on earth shall hear your cries.’

(pp. 144-54)

David McCracken and B. J. Tysdahl have pointed out that, in using such language, Falkland alludes to Burke twice over.20 This Old Testament rhetoric certainly resembles that of the Reflections, with its hints of the authority of the Church, and the terrors to be experienced by the Church's disobedient sons. But the rhetoric of terror is accounted for more particularly in another of Burke's books that Godwin knew well, and re-read in the early 1790s, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). There Burke holds that terror, the source of the sublime, is the strongest feeling of which the human mind is capable, and it is evoked, characteristically, by contemplating power. Power may be invested in a figure of authority, a master or a king, but ultimately it derives from God; and there is no mistaking the fervour with which Burke sketches the terror inherent in the notion of omnipotence:

Whilst we contemplate so vast an object, … we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him … In the Scripture, wherever God is represented as appearing or speaking, every thing terrible in nature is called up to heighten the awe and solemnity of the divine presence.21

This is a concept not to be underrated by Godwin, who had known the rigours of an equally exigent Christian tradition; yet in the second edition of Political Justice Godwin was to declare specifically that Burke's aesthetic doctrines were inadequate, the mere pastimes of ‘a man of taste and refinement’:

The sublime and pathetic are barren, unless it be the sublime of true virtue, and the pathos of true sympathy … There is no delightful melancholy, but in pitying distress.

(I. 447)

Godwin is thus subjecting to critical and satirical analysis the extravagant rhetoric also typical of Falkland.

At the same time, Godwin's own early religious experiences undoubtedly gave him insight into the effect upon an impressionable mind when religious terror of this sort is invoked. Indeed, Godwin never obliterated from his memory the impact religious gloom and rigour had on his adolescence. It is felt in his later novel, Mandeville (1817), and most memorably here, in the hold Falkland has over Caleb. Clever and energetic, Caleb longs to become the friend of Falkland and of Falkland's cousin Forester, and is disappointed because both in the end can only think like gentlemen. Yet each relationship is stillborn in any case, because of Caleb's irrational reverence for Falkland, his ‘master’, an awe which makes him guilty, tongue-tied and impotent. Falkland threatens Caleb terrifyingly, invoking an ancient language of dominance,—temporal authority backed by religion,—and the youthful Caleb withdraws in silence, ‘irresolute, overawed and abashed’. (p. 154) It is because he cannot speak to Falkland that he decides to disobey him and run away. Afterwards he comes to see this as a wrong step, because it is dictated by emotion, the rising frenzy in Falkland matched by frenzy in himself. (p. 154) In suggesting that Caleb should have been able to master his emotions, Godwin—as frequently happens in his writing—maps out an ideal plan of behaviour for ideal conditions which are not, as he knows, remotely like the actual ones. Everyone, in this study of ‘Things As they Are’, behaves irrationally rather than wisely, driven by prepossession, interest or panic. Where the treatise Political Justice both analyses the present system and proposes alternatives, the novel Caleb Williams confines itself with intensity to the social conditions men are experiencing.

Thus, the quirks and unconscious compulsions of human nature conspire with social conditions to lead these two men, who originally viewed one another with sympathy and mankind with benevolence, to torment and finally to destroy one another. The leading instrument of their mutual aggression is the law, revealed here as un-justice. The courts can sometimes acquit the innocent, but they do not favour the small man's attempt to challenge, and so claim equality with, the great man. Hawkins went to law to challenge Squire Tyrrel, to the latter's glee. (p. 73) Eventually Caleb too challenges Falkland directly in a London magistrate's court, to the indignation of the justice: ‘There would be a speedy end to order and good government, if fellows that trample upon ranks and distinctions in this atrocious sort, were upon any consideration suffered to get off’. (p. 276) But the absurdity of Caleb's aspiration to achieve personal equality has already been proved by Falkland's easy manipulation of law to punish rebelliousness:

I was conducted to the same prison which had so lately inclosed the wretched and innocent Hawkinses. They too had been the victims of Mr. Falkland. He exhibited, upon a contracted scale indeed … a copy of what monarchs are, who reckon among the instruments of their power prisons of state.

(p. 177)

The relationship between Falkland and Caleb is, then, a political relationship, unequal despite a cultural tradition (‘free and equal in the eyes of the law’) that says otherwise; violent and destructive, despite the wish of both men that it should be otherwise.

Most of the characters in the novel are so used to the idea of hierarchy that they only really notice Falkland's behaviour when it is gracious. He can threaten and bully so that Caleb is in danger of his life, but he can also show a lordly compunction to him in prison, for which, absurdly but believably, he expects Caleb to feel grateful. The conventional and virtuous figures in the novel mostly see morality in the same light. Falkland's servants are so convinced of his goodness that they all sincerely abhor Caleb. So does the benign old man who guards him in Liverpool. So, in later editions, does the mother-figure he finds in Wales, Laura.

The last volume indeed becomes a study of the workings of ‘imposition’ at large, rather than a direct duel between Falkland and Caleb. Falkland no longer needs to lurk melodramatically, a Demon King, behind each of Caleb's misfortunes. ‘Things As They Are’, the System, ensures that he is hounded as in real life Priestley and Paine had been, and Godwin's friends, the accused in the Treason Trials, afterwards known in Windham's phrase as ‘the acquitted felons’. If the whole novel is judged as a purely personal drama, parts of Volume III are a falling off, because Falkland does not appear in them, but the common reaction to the plot is that it intensifies. The explanation for this lies in real-life politics: it is the last volume which conveys the mood of the beleaguered intellectual minority, the frustration, bitterness and fear of marked men, conscious of their own rectitude, who had become singled out as ‘constructive’ traitors, criminals and outcasts. In its picaresque, unfocused way, less apparently dramatic, yet cumulatively despairing and paranoid, the third volume matches the insight of the other two, while broadening the novel from a closed action which might be read personally to a more open fable of unequivocally political significance.

In general terms, then, Caleb Williams is about hierarchy. It shows how the representative relationship of Caleb and Falkland really works, because of the pre-conditioning of the two men and of those about them. More specifically, it reenacts and even verbally echoes the debate on the merits of the old system conducted since 1790 by Burke and his republican opponents. In Caleb Williams the central symbolic moment is the attempt to open the mysterious box, the ark kept in Falkland's private sanctum, an opportunity given to Caleb because of the (revolutionary) fire endangering the house. It is an analogue of the writing of Political Justice or the writing of Caleb Williams, although the box itself has no literal importance, since there is no one secret, no one piece of evidence, to uncover. Falkland's ‘secret’ is his evil wish to dominate or to be revered, and it is conveyed everywhere in the text's mimicry of Burkean language, its many moments of sardonic parody, like the near-quotation from both the Reflections and Political Justice with which the character of Falkland is introduced—‘My heart bleeds at the recollection of his misfortunes as if they were my own.’ (p. 10)22 The element of Burke in the portrayal of Falkland has been acknowledged by several of Godwin's most scrupulous and informed critics, including Boulton and Kelly, who do not of course maintain that Falkland ‘is’ Edmund Burke. Godwin himself avoided much direct mention of his opponent in the treatise and he would not have countenanced a personal caricature in the novel. But just as Peacock evoked the published Coleridge in Mr. Flosky of Nightmare Abbey, and Shelley surveyed the output of Wordsworth in Peter Bell III, in order to discredit their arguments, so Godwin reviews Burke's career as a political writer through having it re-enacted by Falkland. Volume I of Caleb Williams, with its sketch of Falkland's courageous liberal past, his opposition to duelling and to petty tyranny, stands symbolically for Burke's early career on the liberal wing of Whiggism. Falkland falls because, like Burke in Godwin's eyes, he proves not to be the corrector of the system but its dedicated servant, the more fraudulent and the more dangerous because he sees through his own lies.

The close correlation in Godwin's mind between Political Justice and Caleb Williams is demonstrated, finally, by the textual effects of the latter on the former. Soon after he had published the novel in May 1794, Godwin began work on a series of revisions to Political Justice which eventually appear in the second edition dated 1796. He lists, in a Preface, the most substantial of the changes, twelve entirely new-written chapters, and explains some of his amplifications by the need to bring the earlier chapters into line with his later thinking. Three of the complete new chapters in Godwin's list, ‘Of Obedience’ (III. vi), ‘Of forms of government’ (III. vii), and ‘Of Good and Evil’ (IV. xi), together with a number of passages in this part of the treatise (e.g., IV. i; IV. vi; V. xi; V. xv) have been little commented on, probably because they are not readily categorised in terms of politics or political theory. Here Godwin amplifies his discussion of the relations between the classes, and especially, the behaviour of the aristocracy or upholders of existing systems of government.

In keeping with his usual caution, Godwin in contemplating Obedience (III. vi) takes care not to recommend disobedience. ‘Government is nothing but regulated force’, but it is not wise for the governed to take on a power too strong for them. The citizen's main duty is to try to secure the freedom of his own understanding. ‘Obey; this may be right; but beware of reverence.’ Godwin contemplates the notion of civic duty propagated in existing society, by Burke above all others:

To a government, therefore, that talked to us of deference to political authority, and honour to be rendered to our superiors, our answer should be: ‘It is yours, to shackle the body, and restrain our external actions; that is a restraint we understand. Announce your penalties; and we will make our election of submission or suffering. But do not seek to enslave our minds … you can have no right to extort our deference, and command us not to see, and disapprove of, your errors.’

(I. 236-7)

A kind of violence overtakes the language as Godwin contemplates the very Obedience that to a Burke (or a Falkland) constitutes civic virtue.

When I make the voluntary surrender of my understanding … I annihilate my individuality as a man, and dispose of my force as an animal to him among my neighbours, who shall happen to excel in imposture and artifice … I am the ready tool of injustice, cruelty and profligacy.

(I. 232-3)

The same force sounds in the paragraphs added in 1796 to ‘Of Political Imposture’ (V. xv), where Godwin contemplates directly the intellectual crime of Burke:

It may not be uninstructive to consider what sort of discourse must be held, or book written, by him who should make himself the champion of political imposture … By whom is it that he intends his book should be read? Chiefly by the governed; the governors need little inducement to continue the system. But, at the same time that he tells us, we should cherish the mistake as mistake, and the prejudice as prejudice, he is himself lifting the veil, and destroying his own system. … It is not to be wondered at, if the greatest genius, and the sincerest and most benevolent champion, should fail in producing a perspicuous or very persuasive treatise, when he undertakes so hopeless a task.

(II. 139-40)

Thus Burke, as the author of the Reflections, the lapsed liberal, the tool of aristocracy and the propagandist of imposture, recurs again and again as the mystifier, the keeper of secrets in Political Justice, and as Falkland in Caleb Williams. But the figure, part real man, part emblem of the ideological position Burke was now identified with, is more interesting in the second edition of Political Justice than in the first, and more interesting in Caleb Williams than in either. The format of the novel, which treats individuals and their relationships, requires Godwin to study ‘imposition’ both as the trait of the aristocrat, and, more interestingly still, as the source of guilt and disturbance in the conditioned, vulnerable common man who is imposition's victim. Instead of generalising about how society ought to be, and summarising its present defects, Godwin in Caleb Williams enacts coercion, and the impulse to personal liberty, on a private level, and thus uncovers the psychological roots of political behaviour that in the first Political Justice philosophic abstraction had tended to conceal. The revisions to the treatise, though more limited, are dictated both by the insights won from the novel and by further thoughtful study of real men suffering actual political oppression. When all Godwin's writing of the 1790s is considered together, including the notebooks, letters and fragments of hard, analytic autobiography, he emerges as a powerful observer of the human psyche, who neither flattered nor simplified his own kind, Caleb's kind. An abrasive, punishing attention to unpleasant realities, rather than utopianism, is the literary characteristic of ‘the Philosopher’.

With all its symptoms of fraught times pressing in upon it, Caleb Williams finally emerges as an ambitious symbolic study of a political issue big enough to rise above mere topicality. In the early 1790s radicals like Godwin imaged for themselves an unprecedented power to think and act. To achieve it, they had to divest themselves not merely of the ancien régime and its institutions, but of the prepossession within their own minds in favour of those institutions—especially their veneration for hereditary leaders, and their vulnerability to the hypnotic rhetoric of paternal authority sanctioned by religion. Political Justice, even in its first version, said as much. The power of fiction to generalise through the particular enables Caleb Williams to enact metaphorically the relationship between hereditary government and governed. It shows the psychological traumas, the murdering of fathers, which the establishment of a non-hierarchical system would necessarily entail. It is, therefore, a psychological novel, but a psychological novel set in the special conditions of revolution. As such, it has affinities with the writing of Stendhal, Dostoevsky, or Conrad, when they deal with volatile political situations, but it is unlike most novels which have emerged from relatively stable England. In the heady circumstances, there could be no greater warrant of Godwin's integrity than the acknowledgement in his best writing that revolution will not, after all, easily be won; that even the war in the mind has only just started. The greatest of English literary republicans, Milton, wrote his masterpieces as he adjusted to the political failure of his revolution. Perfectibility, said Godwin in the second edition of Political Justice, does not mean the attainment of perfection, but only the unending capacity to improve. The gritty redefinition, the scaling down of hope, was worked out step by step in the writing of Caleb Williams.


  1. Godwin, Uncollected Writings, ed. J. Marken and B. R. Pollin (Gainesville, Florida, 1968), p. 113.

  2. Ibid., p. 116.

  3. Quoted by D. Gilbert Dumas, ‘Things As They Were: the original ending of Caleb Williams’, Stud. Eng. Lit., 6 (1966), p. 583.

  4. Studies of a Biographer, 2nd ser., 3 (1902), p. 148.

  5. Ibid., p. 140.

  6. Caleb Williams, ed. D. McCracken, Oxford English Novels (1970), p. xii.

  7. A. D. Harvey, Essays in Criticism 26 (1976), p. 243, p. 240.

  8. Quoted V. Bogdanor, ‘Conservatism Psychoanalysed’, Yale Law Journal 87 (1978), p. 1090. I am indebted to this review-article for the comparison between Kramnick and O'Brien on Burke.

  9. These include J. Middleton Murry, Heaven and Earth (1938), ch. xix; D. H. Monro, Godwin's Moral Philosophy (1953), pp. 207-49; James T. Boulton, The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke (1963), pp. 207-49; Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel, 1780-1805 (1976), pp. 179-208.

  10. ‘Godwin's Novels’, E in C, 5 (1955), p. 215.

  11. Ibid., p. 234.

  12. ‘Metaphors of Private Guilt and Social Rebellion in Godwin's Caleb Williams’, ELH 34 (1967), p. 189.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid., p. 204.

  15. C. Kegan Paul, Godwin: his friends and contemporaries (1876), l. 296.

  16. I. Kramnick, The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative (New York, 1977), p. 64.

  17. Introduction to Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Pelican Books (1968) pp. 34-47; see above, no. 8.

  18. Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, photographic facsimile of 3rd edition of 1798 corrected, ed. F. E. L. Priestley (Toronto, 1946); the sentence quoted first appeared in the 2nd ed. of 1796. Subsequent references in the text are to volume and page in this edition, though the passage cited appeared in the 1st ed. of 1793 unless otherwise stated.

  19. Ed. D. McCracken (see above, n. 6), p. 112.

  20. D. McCracken, ‘Godwin's Reading in Burke’, ELN [English Language Notes] 7 (1970), p. 266; B. J. Tysdahl, William Godwin as Novelist (1981), pp. 51-2.

  21. The Collected Works of Edmund Burke [ed. F. Laurence and W. King], 8 vols. (1826), i. 174-5.

  22. Cf. above, p. 244.

Michael DePorte (essay date spring 1984)

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SOURCE: DePorte, Michael. “The Consolations of Fiction: Mystery in Caleb Williams.Papers on Language and Literature 20, no. 2 (spring 1984): 154-64.

[In the following essay, DePorte discusses Godwin's use of standard mystery story elements in Caleb Williams.]

Caleb Williams has long been recognized as a prototype of the mystery story. It contains a notorious, supposedly solved murder; an amateur detective who gets more than he bargained for; a compelling sequence of capture, escape, and pursuit; and a climax in which the true murderer makes a public confession.1 Of course, the novel can also be read as a good deal more than a mystery story. It can be read as a powerful dramatization of the arguments Godwin had made a year before in Political Justice,2 or as a psychological novel, the intensity and insight of which anticipate Dostoevsky and Kafka.3

Much recent Caleb Williams criticism calls attention to the curious lack of resolution in the novel and to the way Godwin derives many of his most striking effects from that lack of resolution.4 For Caleb Williams is a kind of mystery story in reverse: as the facts become clearer, the meaning of those facts becomes more mysterious; the closer one gets to the truth, the more complicated truth seems. I view the mystifications of the narrative as devices of entrapment, devices which draw us ever more deeply into its moral and psychological complexities, and ultimately lead to revelations about the nature of fiction itself.

The opening sentence—“My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity” (3)—thrusts the reader into a puzzling and uncertain realm.5 One asks what has happened to make Caleb regard his life as a calamity. Other questions quickly follow: How does the account of Falkland's earlier years bear on Caleb's story? Did Falkland really kill Tyrrel? What will Falkland do to Caleb for having discovered his secret? The excitement of the novel stems from desire to see these mysteries solved, as by and large they are. Even if the reader never finds out what is in Falkland's trunk or how Hawkins got possession of the dagger that killed Tyrrel, the text at least offers plausible conjectures in each case. And though Falkland's uncanny ability to track Caleb down—no matter where he goes or what disguises he assumes—is never adequately explained, most readers can accept Falkland's extraordinary powers as one of the book's givens.

Yet a more elusive mystery remains: Why do the characters act as they do? As Caleb comes nearer and nearer to Falkland's secret, the reader focuses more on Caleb's almost sexually intense passion to know, and his sadistic delight in spying on his master, than on the secret itself. Questions about Caleb's state of mind are most pressing in the final pages, just as the last major issue of the plot is settled. Falkland admits to the murder, repents having “spent a life of basest cruelty,” and praises Caleb's heroic fortitude (324). Caleb, contrary to all expectations, feels no sense of vindication, no triumph, no relief that his long ordeal is over. He feels instead that by exposing Falkland's crime he himself has become a murderer, and more than a murderer, “the basest and most odious of mankind” (323).

In the original ending of Caleb Williams, Falkland adheres to his story, and Caleb is shut away in a madhouse. This ending is perhaps more credible than the published ending, and it is surely more horrifying for its haunting evocation of Caleb sinking into stuporous confusion, unable to remember who Falkland is, unable even to tell the difference between himself and his chair.6 Still, the original ending is less disturbing in two important ways. First, because it provides a definite, if unpleasant, resolution to the problems of justice posed by the narrative: in society as it is the rich do get away with murder. While those condemned to positions of unequal power can assert themselves by acts of open or covert defiance, in the end they—like Emily, the Hawkinses, and Caleb himself—will be destroyed for their audacity. This may not be a pleasing state of affairs, but the conflict between good and evil is clear-cut. The original ending gives Caleb Williams more force as a novel of social protest, thus allowing one to preserve the feelings Godwin cultivates in the latter half of his story: rage against Falkland as tyrant, sympathy with Caleb as a victim, and disgust for all aspects of the legal system. Secondly, the original conclusion is less disturbing because while Caleb's madness inspires pity, the reader remains securely outside that lunacy in the madhouse. We may shudder and put the novel down, leaving Caleb rotting in his cell. But the horror is locked away: Caleb is as good as dead.

The Caleb of the published ending, however, is very much alive. And the extremity of his remorse provokes questions not easily locked away. Why does Falkland's corpse-like appearance have such a profound effect on Caleb? Earlier Caleb has seen Falkland in a condition nearly as miserable—his face “haggard, emaciated and fleshless,” his body “thin to a degree that suggested … a skeleton” (280-81)—without being moved to repent. Since that time Falkland has shown himself merciless in denying Caleb any semblance of normal life. Caleb accuses him of being more unfeeling and implacable than Nero or Caligula (314). Even granting that the sight of Falkland moves Caleb to a change of heart, the violence of that change is unsettling. Is Caleb truly a murderer—“the basest and most odious of mankind”? Is it really likely, after what we have seen of Falkland's previous meeting with Caleb, that Falkland would have responded to “a frank and fervent expostulation” if Caleb had sought him out in private? What has happened to Caleb's loathing of officialdom if he can speak here of wishing he had heeded the “well-meant despotism” of the magistrate who warned him not to bring charges against Falkland? (320) Why does Caleb continue to envision Falkland—both in his dreams and in his waking hours—expostulating with him for his “unfeeling behavior” (325) when Falkland did nothing of the sort at the hearing? And why, after all he has been through, after his resourcefulness in prison and his survival as a fugitive, does Caleb decide that he now has “no character” to vindicate? (326).

Godwin wanted to write a book readers would never forget (338). What better way could he have accomplished this than by ending his novel on a mysterious note? Caleb's sudden contrition forces the reader to reconsider everything that has happened.

As he thinks over Caleb's story, his abrupt reversal at the hearing seems less surprising. From the beginning, Caleb's attitude toward Falkland has been intensely ambivalent. He idealizes Falkland as a superior being; still, to use his own metaphor, he lays out bait to trap him like a fish (109). He knows his stratagems cause Falkland exquisite pain, but despite his misgivings, he persists. When Falkland upbraids him he can scarcely abase himself enough: “For God's sake, sir … Punish me in some way or other, that I may forgive myself. … I cannot bear to think what I have done. … I could die to serve you!” Caleb swears “a thousand times” that he will “never prove unworthy of so generous a protector” (119-21). The more he feels he is hurting Falkland, the more he makes amends by admiring him; this admiration then promotes new thoughts of betrayal. “Is it not unaccountable,” he asks, “that in the midst of all my increased veneration for my patron, the first tumult of my emotion was scarcely subsided, before the old question that had excited my conjectures recurred to my mind, Was he the murderer?” (121).

Once certain of Falkland's guilt, Caleb recognizes that Falkland is not diminished in his eyes, that it is possible for him to “love a murderer” (130), and this surprises him. In fact, Caleb's devotion to Falkland is fueled by his sense of having injured him. That this devotion persists in prison is a measure of how much damage Caleb thinks he has caused. True, Caleb suffers no remorse after revealing Falkland's secret to the London magistrate. But this is mostly owing to the magistrate's refusal to believe the story, just as his failure to be swayed by Falkland's haggard appearance at the inn owes much to Falkland's assuming the initiative. Believing Falkland to have the upper hand, Caleb concentrates his energies on resisting Falkland's power. Anger proves a powerful anesthetic in this novel.

When Caleb meets Falkland for the last time, though, the initiative, is his. He works himself into a frenzy much like that which drove him to spy on his master years ago: He “pant[s]” for the hour of reckoning “with incessant desire” (318).7 Caleb feels that the power is his. The sight of Falkland—being carried in a chair and barely able to hold up his head—revives the old guilt about violating his patron's privacy. Caleb's final remorse seems to show the latest swing of his emotional pendulum. Again he longs to be punished so that he may forgive himself, but he is appalled that in winning his case he has lost the possibility of external punishment, so now he will have to punish himself. At the hearing, however, Caleb talks as much about his own undeserved misery as about his folly in giving evidence against Falkland, and the language is every bit as charged:

Where is the man that has suffered more from the injustice of society than I have done? … I will not enumerate the horrors of my prison, the lightest of which would make the heart of humanity shudder. I looked forward to the gallows! Young, ambitious, fond of life, innocent as the child unborn, I looked forward to the gallows! I believed that one word of resolute accusation against my patron would deliver me, yet I was silent, I armed myself with patience, uncertain whether it were better to accuse or to die. Did this show me a man unworthy to be trusted?


Yet Caleb's despair in the last scene may not, after all, be so absolute. One should not try to predict Caleb's future nor take his statements about losing his character and discovering misery, at face value. Caleb has repeatedly made extreme statements on Falkland's behalf. In finding a solution to one mystery—why Caleb reverses himself at the hearing—the door to another opens: why does his ambivalence run so deep? Here matters become truly problematical because Caleb's explanation of his motives is often suspect. When, for example, Caleb says that his object in trying to uncover Falkland's secret has been “neither wealth, nor the means of indulgence, nor the usurpation of power,” and that in all his toying with Falkland's conscience he has harbored “no spark of malignity” (133), the effect is surely to plant suspicions.

No wonder Caleb's treatment of Falkland has become the subject of lively critical debate. Is his obsessive curiosity merely the consequence of Falkland's evasions? “To curiosity,” Godwin wrote elsewhere, “it is peculiarly incident, to grow and expand itself under difficulties and opposition. … Many an object is passed by with indifference, till it is rendered a subject of prohibition, and then it starts up into a source of inextinguishable passion.”8 Or is his treatment of Falkland a response rather to social inequalities? An intelligent man when pressed into the role of an underling will soon find underground means of redressing the balance.9 Or is it possibly an expression of frustrated love for his master? Caleb seeks intimacy with Falkland by gaining possession of his deepest secret.10 None of these explanations really excludes the other or dispels the mystery of Caleb's obsession. Falkland, himself, is largely an enigma. Even though honor is more important to him than life, something is mysterious about his impulse to stab Tyrrel in the back. The killing itself is believable, but it affects Caleb, and the reader, with a certain wonder. There is, Godwin suggests, an element of mystery in all passion. The depth of Tyrrel's hatred for Falkland, and of Gines for Caleb, is in the end mysterious, as is the murderous fury of the old hag who attacks Caleb with a cleaver. The very words “mystery” and “mysterious” appear again and again.

Godwin's constant evocation of unearthly forces adds to the aura of mystery. Falkland insists that he was prevented from taking honorable revenge against Tyrrel by the “pestilential influence of some demon” (120); Caleb speaks of his curiosity as a possessing “demon” (119), complains that his woes pursue him with “demoniac malice” (184), calls Falkland a “devil” (174), Gines a “fiend” (313), and Spurrel's betrayal of him “diabolical” (273), a term he later fixes on his own decision to betray Falkland. Such language saturates the novel. Caleb's enemies repeatedly accuse him of being a devil,11 while the young peasant, who killed a man for love of his sweetheart, says the murder so haunts him that the very sight of the girl now brings a “tribe of fiends in its rear” (128). Tyrrel complains that Falkland torments him “like a demon” (31). He would like to leave the room when Falkland recites his “Ode to the Genius of Chivalry,” but cannot rise from his chair: “there seemed to be some unknown power that as it were by enchantment retained him in his place, and made him consent to drink to the dregs the bitter potion which envy had prepared for him” (25).

This is not to say that agencies of the supernatural have any real place in Caleb Williams. The “unknown power” that freezes Tyrrel in his chair, the “demon” that prompts Falkland to kill Tyrrel, or Caleb to provoke Falkland, are all internal impulses. Men cast their own spells of enchantment, yet Godwin's use of supernatural language calls attention to the mysterious forces latent in their most ordinary actions, thus undermining the reader's sense of certainty about who these characters are, what possesses them, and what they are likely to do next. Godwin's characters are noticeably inconsistent. Although Falkland and Caleb are the most obvious cases, Godwin also takes pains to show the complexity of other characters. Tyrrel is a crude, uneducated bully, but he is by no means stupid, nor altogether insensible to finer feelings. He is touched by music, sympathetic at first to Hawkins, and genuinely grieved by Emily's death. His stooge Grimes is unspeakably brutish, violent, and self-willed, but the reader is twice assured that Grimes has no spite or malice in his nature (47, 58). Even the depraved, vindictive Gines has virtues: he is called “enterprising, persevering and faithful” (217). Nor is the treacherous Spurrel merely a monster: he is a man torn between base and benevolent impulses. The balanced view of characters one might expect to be represented as outright villains may have a political aim, demonstrating how men are corrupted by the pressures and privileges of class. But this view also makes one less secure in his judgement by revealing how complicated and unpredictable men can be. Considered abstractly, issues of justice and morality are comparatively easy to resolve. Judging individuals is another matter.

The problem of judgment is almost impossible because Caleb Williams has no normative characters. Clare and Brightwel may be exemplary figures, but they are too detached from the central events of the narrative, and too fleetingly present, to serve as useful standards for measuring the aberrations of the others. Almost everyone in the novel is inclined toward extreme courses of thought or action. It is impossible to gauge the excesses of one character by weighing them against those of another. The more the reader compares characters, the more they seem like warped reflections of one another than like wholly discrete personalities.12 Falkland, Tyrrel, Caleb, Emily, Young Hawkins, Gines, the old hag, Mrs. Marney, and Laura are all described as having uncommon energy of mind and body. Falkland, Tyrrel, Forester, Spurrel, and Laura all encourage protégés they later abandon or betray. Most of the characters are trapped in some way: by the logic of a powerful obsession, by situations they feel helpless to alter, or by both. There are no fully developed relationships between men and women, no enduring friendships.13 Everyone in the novel seems very much alone.

The dizzying network of correspondences contributes to the reader's sense of disorientation. The original ending leaves a vision of Caleb disintegrating in a madhouse. By reconsidering the significance of previous events, the published ending makes the reader realize that Caleb's world is a kind of madhouse in which even the most normal inhabitants have fragile, highly selective perceptions of reality. The kindly old fellow who listens sympathetically to Caleb's story about falling into the hands of the thief-takers turns to ice the moment he learns Caleb's true identity. He has inflexible opinions about servants who defy masters. Laura's response is similar. Because her beloved father admired Falkland, she readily embraces Falkland's slanders about Caleb and refuses to let him defend himself. Both Laura and the old man react with what can only be described as panic.

When Caleb later meets his former mentor Collins on the road and makes the same appeal for a hearing, Collins does not refuse him directly. He asks instead an arresting question, one which illuminates the source of Laura and the old man's panic: What good will it do him to be convinced that Caleb is innocent and Falkland a murderer? “If you could change all my ideas, and show me that there was no criterion by which vice might be prevented from being mistaken for virtue, what benefit would arise from that? I must part with all my interior consolation, and all my external connections. And for what?” (310). Collins has always admired Falkland “as the living model of liberality and goodness” (310). Faith in Falkland's virtues underlies all his other beliefs. To resign that faith would be to set himself adrift on a sea of endless and ominous possibilities, a course Collins is unwilling to risk.

Falkland raises the issue of “inner consolation” in a different way during his encounter with Caleb at the inn. Urging Caleb to sign the false confession, he anticipates that Caleb may scruple to lie: “is truth entitled to adoration for its own sake, and not for the sake of the happiness it is calculated to produce? Will a reasonable man sacrifice to barren truth, when benevolence, humanity, and every consideration that is dear to the human heart require that it should be superseded?” (282). The question is barbed in one respect and ironic in another: Caleb has already made that very sacrifice in ferreting out Falkland's secret, but Falkland is hardly the person to appeal to benevolence and humanity given his treatment of Caleb. All the same, Falkland directly addresses what is most disturbing about Godwin's vision in Caleb Williams: Truth, more often than not, does injure all “that is dear to the human heart”.

In Political Justice Godwin says that “sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error.”14 In Caleb Williams, however, quite the reverse occurs whenever truth takes arms against a cherished notion of self. Clare explains to Falkland the danger of his passion for chivalry. He begs Falkland to be careful of his impetuous temper and his “impatience of imagined dishonor.” Falkland promises to take the warning to heart: “Your admonitions shall not,” he insists, “be lost upon me” (35). Yet, as subsequent events reveal, Clare's eloquent appeal has no more effect on Falkland than Falkland's own vigorous appeals to reason and moderation have on Tyrrel. The truth of Clare's warning reaches Falkland only after he murders Tyrrel and stands by while the Hawkinses are hanged for the crime.15 Then, he suffers terrible anguish, no longer entertaining illusions about his honor, but determined that others shall. The hope of sustaining public illusions becomes his sole consolation.

Caleb, on the other hand, is sustained through most of the novel by a private illusion: that he is a well-meaning, if reckless, innocent. Godwin presents Caleb's history as a strange collage of biblical archetypes. Caleb first commits the sin of Adam by trading obedience for forbidden knowledge and a moment of ecstasy in the garden: “[I] plunged into the deepest of its thickets. … I exclaimed in a fit of uncontrollable enthusiasm: ‘This is the murderer!’ … My blood boiled within me. I was conscious of a kind of rapture for which I could not account. … I was never so perfectly alive as at that moment” (129-30). He next seeks to atone for his disobedience by undertaking a Christ-like office—suffering for the sins of another. The vow never to betray Falkland's trust gives him strength and a sense of personal dignity. As he reflects late in the narrative, “that idea secretly consoled me under all my calamities: it was a voluntary sacrifice, and was chearfully [sic] made. I thought myself allied to the army of martyrs and confessors; I applauded my fortitude and self-denial” (276). He resolves that no prison hardship will get the better of him: “Every sentiment of vanity, or rather of independence and justice within me, instigated me to say to my persecutor, You may cut off my existence, but you cannot disturb my serenity” (187). Caleb's substitution of “independence and justice” for “vanity” is revealing, as is the mention of death which prompts him, in the very next paragraph, to think how he might cheat the hangman. For when Caleb is caught in London and sees no possibility of escaping the gallows he decides to break his own oath and inform the magistrate of Falkland's guilt. Caleb is willing to suffer for Falkland's sins, but is not, he finds, willing to die for them. After this breech of personal faith Caleb never mentions his innocence except in reference to the past, where private myths continue to hold sway. Though disenchanted with himself at the hearing, Caleb maintains that in prison he was “innocent as the child unborn,” and actually “looked forward to the gallows” (321). It is still essential for him to believe that he was ready to give his life for Falkland.

In a fine study of Caleb Williams, Jacqueline Miller maintains how Caleb and Falkland can be seen as failed artists, as men whose stories are ultimately defeated by a larger reality.16 Although this is sound, an argument can be made that the stories Caleb and Falkland tell themselves serve as exotic paradigms of stories all men tell themselves. For if Caleb Williams demonstrates the difficulty of seeing “things as they are,” it shows even more clearly the difficulty of knowing what to do once one has seen. Only Caleb and Falkland begin to acknowledge this difficulty. The rest go on believing their various tales: Tyrrel, that everything wrong in his life is owing to Falkland; Gines, that it is owing to Caleb; Emily, that Falkland will somehow marry her and put everything right; Raymond, that thieves are the freest and noblest of men. And lest one think delusions reserved for people living on the edge, there is Caleb's assessment of the stolid Forester: “As is usual in human character, he had formed a system of thinking to suit the current of his feelings” (139). The basis of what may pass in the novel for sanity is clearly irrational. Collins, Laura, Forester live by brittle fictions; they, too, struggle to preserve their equanimity by keeping truth at a distance. Only Caleb's despair remains. This despair, in its extravagant adulation of Falkland and hysterical accusation of self, seems far more like another fiction than a model for seeing things as they are.

Two years before he died, Godwin reflected on the narrative of his own life in the diaries he had been keeping for over forty years: “What a strange power is this! It sees through a long vista of time, and it sees nothing. All this at present is mere abstraction, symbols, not realities. Nothing is actually seen: the whole is ciphers, conventional marks, imaginary boundaries of unimagined things.”17 Without boundaries there is senseless vacuity. But those boundaries are themselves things of air. This is the dilemma Caleb Williams leads to in the end, its most ineluctable mystery. The novel shows how far short of truth are the fictions men live by. It shows, at the same time, how necessary those fictions are. And it exacerbates the dilemma by providing no personal fiction the reader might wish to appropriate for himself.


  1. The place of Caleb Williams in the evolution of the mystery story has been considered most recently by Ian Ousby in Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), pp. 20-42.

  2. For interesting discussions of the relationship of Political Justice to Caleb Williams see Alex Gold, Jr., “It's Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin's Caleb Williams,Texas Studies in Literature and Language 19 (1977): 135-60; David McCracken's introduction to his edition of Caleb Williams (London, 1970), pp. vii-xxii; and Mitzi Myers, “Godwin's Changing Conception of Caleb Williams,Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 12 (1972): 591-628.

  3. See, for example, P. N. Furbank, “Godwin's Novels,” Essays in Criticism 5 (1955): 214-28; Rexford Stamper, “Caleb Williams: The Bondage of Truth,” The Southern Quarterly 12 (1973-74): 39-50; and Rodolf F. Storch's provocative essay, “Metaphors of Private Guilt and Social Rebellion in Godwin's Caleb Williams,ELH 34 (1967): 188-207.

  4. Robert W. Uphaus has a brilliant chapter on the irresolutions of Caleb Williams, and their effect on the reader, in The Impossible Observer: Reason and the Reader in Eighteenth-Century Prose (Lexington, Ky., 1979), pp. 123-36.

  5. Citations are to the McCracken edition, cited in the text and notes by page.

  6. D. Gilbert Dumas argues for the superiority of the original ending in “Things As They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams,Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6 (1966): 575-97.

  7. When Caleb is about to pry open Falkland's trunk he describes it as “a magazine which inclosed all for which my heart panted,” p. 132, my italics.

  8. The Enquirer; Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (Dublin, 1797), p. 131.

  9. For discussions of Caleb's desire for power see Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), p. 91; Myers, pp. 608-11; Ousby, pp. 35-36; and Storch, p. 196.

  10. This possibility is variously advanced by Gold, especially pp. 143-44; Kiely, pp. 91-92; and Eric Rothstein, Systems of Order and Inquiry in Later Eighteenth-Century Fiction (Berkeley, Calif., 1975), pp. 215-25.

  11. Note the imprecations of Falkland, p. 8; Forester, p. 173; the old hag, p. 231; and the London magistrate, p. 317.

  12. Storch observes that Falkland, Tyrrel, Caleb, and Clare seem like “elements within the mind of one person who projects them warring one against the other,” p. 194.

  13. The absence of relationships between men and women is underscored by the treatment of Hawkins and Laura, the only married people in the novel: Hawkins is said to have a family, but no mention is made of a wife; of Laura's marriage we know only that “there was little congeniality” between her interests and those of her husband, p. 291.

  14. An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, ed. F. E. L. Priestley, 3 vols. (Toronto, 1946), 1: 86.

  15. McCracken suggests that Caleb's final speech bears out the doctrine of Political Justice that truth will prevail when properly articulated (Introduction to Caleb Williams, pp. xvii-xix). It should be noted, though, that Caleb tells Falkland nothing which Falkland does not already know about himself. Years before, he admitted to Caleb that in being the “fool of fame” he had become the “blackest of villains” (135-36). What appears to touch Falkland is not the logic of Caleb's speech, but the revelation that Caleb has continued to admire him through all his trials as a prisoner and fugitive, and that he speaks now less as an accuser than as a worshipful penitent.

  16. “The Imperfect Tale: Articulation, Rhetoric, and Self in Caleb Williams,Criticism 20 (1978): 366-82.

  17. Quoted by Charles Kegan Paul, William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, 2 vols. (Boston, 1876), 2:331.

Karl N. Simms (essay date fall 1987)

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SOURCE: Simms, Karl N. “Caleb Williams' Godwin: Things as They Are Written.” Studies in Romanticism 26, no. 3 (fall 1987): 343-63.

[In the following essay, Simms examines Godwin's use of first-person narration in Caleb Williams.]

In the “Preface” to Fleetwood (1805) Godwin writes: “One caution I have particularly sought to exercise: ‘not to repeat myself.’”1 This is a curious remark for him to make with regard to his own work, since in writings dated as diversely as 1793 and 1832, the gesture of becoming one's own historian appears several times. In the first edition of Political Justice (1793) this is seen as an effect of the decision of an individual always to employ “real sincerity”:

Did every man impose this law upon himself he would be obliged to consider before he decided upon the commission of an equivocal action, whether he chose to be his own historian, to be the future narrator of the scene in which he was engaging.2

In the third edition (1798) the position is reversed, and it becomes the cause of an effect of sincerity:

Did every man impose this law upon himself, did he regard himself as not authorised to conceal any part of his character and conduct, this circumstance alone would prevent millions of actions from being perpetrated, in which we are now induced to engage by the prospect of secrecy and impunity. We have only to suppose men obliged to consider, before they determined on an equivocal action, whether they chose to be their own historians, the future narrators of the scene in which they were acting a part, and the most ordinary imagination will instantly suggest how essential a variation would be introduced into human affairs.

(PJ 1: 327 f)

In Fleetwood this gesture re-emerges as a reflection by a fictional character on his decision to narrate the story which we are reading:

I hasten to the events which have pressed with so terrible a weight on my heart, and have formed my principal motive to become my own historian.

(Fleetwood 181)

In the preface to Bentley's “Standard Authors” edition of Fleetwood (1832) this gesture is revealed to have determined the production not only of Fleetwood, but also of Caleb Williams (1794), St. Leon (1799), and the subsequent novels:

I began my narrative [i.e. Caleb Williams] as is the more usual way, in the third person. But I speedily became dissatisfied. I then assumed the first person, making the hero of the tale his own historian; and in this mode have persisted in all my subsequent works of fiction.

(Fleetwood vii)

This complicity between an authorial creation of a subject being his own historian with that subject's supposed own choice in thus becoming, reveals another layer of repetition. The grammar of our grammar (the term “the first person”) is misleading, since it is really a second person, a repeated self, who is writing, with a trace of the first person (“William Godwin”) behind him, as is seen in the quotation above: “I then assumed the first person, making the hero of my tale his own historian.” In speech this would be a natural consequence of the duplex role of the personal pronoun: as Peirce pointed out, it both designates the speaking subject and functions in the conveyance of meaning of that subject's message. The position of the personal pronoun as a shifter has been well documented by Roman Jakobson,3 and some of the broader consequences of this have been developed by Jacques Lacan.4 Jakobson also cites, following Vološinov, reported speech as an example of a repetition of another sort: of a message referring to a message. By alluding to his own works in his Prefaces and other “non-fictional” works, Godwin is performing a similar function, with the important difference that his is a written message. This causes the linguistic duplices which Jakobson is at pains to distinguish to become inmixed with one another: to write about being one's own historian is to contain the problems of allusiveness of the shifter within a framework of repetition of one's message. Whilst Lacan identifies such allusiveness as productive of equivocation, the very word which Godwin uses to describe a duplicity he wishes to avoid, he shares with Jakobson a predisposition towards speech which disables him from considering the effects caused by framing one of these linguistic categories within another.

Already one might suspect, given that shifters can only refer within the context of their message, that since this reference is liable to be transferred from subject to subject both within and without the text's fictional matrix, we may be left in Caleb Williams with a history that is true in a fictional sense, a truth that is fictional in a historical sense and a fiction that is historical in a true sense. Furthermore, one might argue, following Derrida,5 that this contextual framing is both dependent on and a condition of (i.e. bears a supplementary relation to) the being-written of the text. If this is necessarily so, then epistemological as well as linguistic problems arise, and I wish to explore some of these in the following pages, thus approaching the awkwardness one feels when reading a fictional text which is claimed by its author to contain certain truths. Such truth-claims are themselves part of a textual framing, and so, in the spirit of repetition which seems to have been evoked by the act of writing about repetition, I shall begin (in so far as I have not already begun) at the beginning.

However, it is difficult to determine where the beginning of Caleb Williams is. Does the text begin with the title page—which bears the anonymous quotation

Amidst the woods the leopard knows his kind;
The tyger preys not on the tyger brood:
Man only is the common foe of man.(6)

—or with the first edition's Preface? Or with the explanatory note in the second edition, apologizing for the non-appearance of the first edition's Preface in the first edition? (If one wished to discuss only the first edition, would this Preface be under the rubric?) Or with the words “Chapter i”? Or with the words “My life has for several years …”? By now we have surely reached the beginning of Caleb's narrative, but there is no indication as to at which point we did so—is it William or Williams who has supplied the chapter headings? Perhaps we may assault this problem by means of an extra apostrophe, and call them “William's' chapter headings,” a written supplement revealing what might be disguised in speech.

To begin our deferred beginning at somewhere near the beginning, we find—another beginning. With Chapter ii, “Mr. Collins's story” begins, and Chapter i may be seen as prefatory to this. Collins' narrative occupies the whole of the rest of the first volume, and since Caleb makes it clear that it is a necessary piece of groundlaying for the rest of his history, it in turn may be seen as prefatory to the other two volumes. But beginning near the beginning, we find that not only is Caleb's narrative both determined and disrupted by framing, but that his own character, as he relates it, is caught in a textual frame: he enters into Falkland's household in a state of extreme naiveté and ignorance; and “[he] had not now a relation in the world, upon whose kindness and interposition [he] had any direct claim” (CW 5). Balanced against this absence, however, is a love of books, from which most of his knowledge of the world is derived. This is linked with an intense curiosity, and he sets out to fill the gaps in his knowledge by reading:

The spring of action which, perhaps more than any other, characterised the whole train of my life, was curiosity. It was this that gave me my mechanical turn; I was desirous of tracing the variety of effects which might be produced from given causes. It was this that made me a sort of natural philosopher; I could not rest till I had acquainted myself with the solutions that had been invented for the phenomena of the universe. In fine, this produced in me an invincible attachment to books of narrative and romance. I panted for the marvelling of an adventure, with an anxiety, perhaps almost equal to that of the man whose future happiness or misery depended on the issue. I read; I devoured compositions of this sort. They took possession of my soul. …

(CW 4)

Caleb's narrative is a result of his desire to trace a variation of effects, which in turn are to be found in other narratives. As we have already learned from Political Justice, variation is introduced into human affairs by the employment of sincerity, but whether this is a cause or effect of being one's own historian is dependent on whether we read the edition which precedes Caleb Williams, or the one which succeeds it.7 According to Caleb's own words, the tracing of effects produces narrative, and, his soul possessed, he becomes a narrative himself: Caleb Williams becomes Caleb Williams by the effect of a silent trace. Through the economy of this trace, it becomes evident that narration is the effect of which it is the cause, a nonsense rendered sensible by Caleb's spacing of temporality when, blind to his own insight, he expresses a liking for the kind of books of which he is himself a part.

It is therefore in perfect accord with this economy that Falkland should frame Caleb in his context, by installing him in the library, as a prelude to framing him in his text by fabricating a story about him:

My station was in that part of the house which was appropriated for the reception of books, it being my duty to perform the functions of librarian as well as secretary.

(CW 6)

Whilst Caleb's actions are governed by curiosity, those actions invariably take place in the library or its annex. This is true of the first discovery of the trunk, of the attempt at entry into the trunk, and of Caleb's first trial, in which events are claimed to have taken place in that same library. The library, Caleb's context, is made the location of a con-text, a place where a fabricated fiction is produced in order to con the law's representative. Within this fiction-within-a-fiction, Falkland recollects “the singular and equivocal behaviour of Williams” (CW 165). Singular and equivocal? Falkland may only say this because, for the moment, he is in control of what is otherwise Caleb's narrative. The unitary subject becomes disunified by being no longer in control of his signifiers, an effect of Falkland making the context a con-text, the frame a frame (-up).

Meanwhile, framing all of this, is Caleb's supposedly true text, the product of his being his own historian. The truth-claims he makes within this text are themselves verified only within the text. Lacking an extratextual referent, the reader is confronted with an aporia: is this history or his story? Caleb's truth is, nevertheless, asserted throughout—near the beginning, “My story will at least appear to have that consistency, which is seldom attendant but upon truth” (CW 3)—and near the end:

I will use no daggers! I will unfold a tale—! I will show thee for what thou art, and all the men that live shall confess my truth!

(CW 314)

The first of these quotations demonstrates that Caleb's story, consistency and truth go together only loosely: gaps, however small, being opened up by the words “appear” and “seldom.” In the first edition of Political Justice we are told that “No mind can be so far alienated from truth, as not in the midst of its degeneracy to have incessant returns of a better principle,” and that “truth is in all its branches harmonious and consistent” (PJ iii: 246). In the third edition is written:

Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error: Sound reasoning and truth are capable of being so communicated: Truth is omnipotent.

(PJ i: 86)

The whole of Godwin's doctrine of perfectibility hinges on this truth, but throughout Godwin's works, we are only told what truth does, or what its attributes are, not what it is. If truth is indefinable (another attribute), it is little wonder that Caleb allows in a possibility of his story not being true. Godwin implies that truth is capable of being communicated because it is omnipotent, but we may suspect that its omnipotence is derived rather from its capacity for communication. When the form of that communication is writing, the delay opened up between what would otherwise be a self-present voice and the reader, necessitates more writing—textual events, attributes—to fill the space, and the truth becomes always deferred.

This is shown in the second of my examples of Caleb's truth-claims by the fact of there being a negative equation of the narration with violence: Caleb uses no daggers, because his narrative will supply their place. It is just as much an incision into the train of events of which it is itself a description. Moreover, he does indeed un-fold a tale, or at least attempt to, by smoothing out into a uniform narrative with a uniform narrator, what is in fact an intertextual network glossed over by his editorship:

I shall interweave with Mr. Collins's story various information which I afterwards received from other quarters, that I may give all possible perspicuity to the series of events. To avoid confusion in my narrative, I shall drop the person of Collins, and assume to be myself the historian of our patron. To the reader it may appear at first sight as if the detail of the preceding life of Mr. Falkland were foreign to my history. Alas, I know from bitter experience that it is otherwise.

(CW 9 f)

Confusion is to be avoided, at the expense of rigorous adherence to the erased original text on which Caleb's palimpsestial text is based, namely the narrative of Collins, so that truth may be potent in it, but not omnipotent.

The position of superiority (towards the reader) that this enables him to adopt is one common to all writing bound by a linear progression across a page. Writing conceals what it reveals by the purely physical fact of the reader having to go through the process of reading it, and this allows Caleb not only to withhold the knowledge of that which he does not know (i.e. the content of the trunk—a point to which we shall return later) but to repeat, within the repetitive gesture of being his own historian, the words of others, appropriating them as his own:

I do not pretend to warrant the authenticity of any part of these memoirs except so much as fell under my own knowledge, and that part shall be stated with the same simplicity and accuracy that I would observe towards a court which was to decide in the last resort upon every thing dear to me. The same scrupulous fidelity restrains me from altering the manner of Mr. Collins's narrative to adapt it to the precepts of my own taste; and it will soon be perceived how essential that narrative is to the elucidation of my history.

(CW 106)

The narrative in question—that of the earlier life of Falkland—is essential to the elucidation of Caleb's history not only in terms of the information it gives for purposes of plot. Another doubling has taken place, in that the reader is put on the same level (“a court”) as those in the novel who judge Caleb; and by the same token that Caleb finds it necessary within the confines of that plot to re-affirm his claims to be speaking the truth, so such a reader can question his textual truth-claims. And at once, within this gesture, a contradiction appears: like an editor, Caleb is faithful to the style of Collins' narrative whilst at the same time usurping Collins and taking on his role. Caleb's “fidelity” is questioned by his own positing of simplicity over confusion (which suggests a loss of accuracy) but a confusion is already at work, in the amalgamating of Collins' character with Caleb's own.

It is through such a confusion that Caleb Williams is produced, and this confusion is itself an anterior repetition of that between Falkland and Caleb. In this it obeys the apparently paradoxical logic of the supplement: the supplement makes possible that which it supplements. The supplement's temporality is not linear, and the effect of spacing which this institutes is demonstrated by Maud Ellmann in an article entitled “Spacing Out: a Double Entendre on Mallarmé.”8 She quotes Paradise Lost:

Immediate are the acts of God, more swift
Than time or motion, but to human ears
Cannot without process of speech be told,
So told as earthly notion can receive.

(PL. vii. 176-79, cited in Ellmann 24)

to support her view that

The process of speech supplements, even in the tenuous garden, the full prelapsarian voice. Fallen nature asserts delay. A temporal space intrudes which turns the innocent love of our first parents into a licentious act of writing, repeated and deferred in the hymen between desire and its accomplishment, the eroticism of difference.

(Ellmann 24)

Caleb writes in a post-lapsarian state, whilst his Fall bears more than a passing resemblance to that more originary lapse. His curiosity knows no bounds, and whilst his patron, who assumes his patronage on the day after the death of Caleb's father, is prepared to satisfy that curiosity in most respects, the one knowledge which is forbidden Caleb is the knowledge of the being from whom his education is received. His transgression of these bounds takes the form of a loss of virgin innocence: having being discovered in the act of breaking open Falkland's mysterious trunk, Caleb soliloquizes: “In the high tide of boiling passion I had overlooked all consequences. It now appeared to me like a dream” (CW 133). Following Freud, who states that

Anyone … who has had a little experience in translating dreams will at once reflect that penetrating into narrow spaces and opening closed doors are among the commonest sexual symbols. …9

We see how Caleb's curiosity, which we have already identified as intimately linked with textuality, corrupts the writer's innocence by the eroticism of his writing: “This was the termination of an ungoverned curiosity, an impulse that I had represented to myself as so innocent and so venial!” (CW 133). In the repetitive gesture of representing to oneself, the innocent and the venial become compounded into a space at the level of signification. They become empty signifiers, the venal becoming venial by the supplement of an ‘i’, the I of the subject being his own historian, his own history filling the void of that signification.

A dreamlike trace such as that identified by Freud is also to be found in the trunk's introduction:

One day when I had been about three months in the service of my patron, I went to a closet or small apartment which was separated from the library by a narrow gallery that was lighted by a small window near the roof. I had conceived that there was no person in the room, and intended only to put any thing in order that I might find out of its place. As I opened the door, I heard at the same instant a deep groan expressive of intolerable anguish. The sound of the door in opening seemed to alarm the person within; I heard the lid of a trunk hastily shut, and the noise as of fastening a lock.

(CW 7)

The sexual symbolism is indistinguishable from the implicit textual eroticism. Caleb wishes to continue his editorial activity (of putting things in order) at the margins of his context, in a dubious location neither inside nor outside the library. There being “no person” there is necessarily a misconception, not on account of there being a person in the room, which would be a truism, but specifically on account of the person who is there being his patron. This is a prelude to the second episode of the trunk, in which the gestures are repeated, but in reverse: Caleb undoes the work of his patron, and the discoverer becomes the discovered. This discovery converts penetration into dissemination, and the history is conceived:

I snatched a tool suitable for the purpose, threw myself upon the ground, and applied with eagerness to a magazine which enclosed all for which my heart panted. After two or three efforts, in which the energy of uncontrollable passion was added to my bodily strength, the fastenings gave way, the trunk opened, and all that I sought was at once within my reach. I was in the act of lifting up the lid, when Mr. Falkland entered, wild, breathless, distraction in his looks!

(CW 132)

Shortly afterwards the gesture is repeated and reversed once again, when Falkland gives the motive for his confession: “It was better to trust you with the whole truth under every seal of secrecy, than to live in perpetual fear of your penetration … (CW 136). The content of the trunk is a lacuna, and we never do know its whole truth, since the trunk is effectively re-sealed here. The text fills the place of this lacuna as a constant deferral of representation of an impenetrable truth, and it is therefore no surprise that the final revelation of the text proper shall be that the trunk conceals—according to Caleb's conception—another text.

The content of the trunk is the supplement to the narrative which allows its writing to take place. But the temporality of this filling of a space, in that it is a deferral of representation, is not faithful to the Godwinian concept of sincerity. As we noted above, sincerity in Political Justice involves not only telling the truth as opposed to deceiving; but also not withholding that which one knows to be true. Always to tell the truth and never to withhold it is a law which one is to impose on oneself. When Caleb performs this action, he finds himself worthy of condemnation:

I could recollect nothing, except the affair of the mysterious trunk, out of which the shadow of a criminal accusation could be extorted. In that instance my conduct had been highly reprehensible and I had never looked back on it without remorse and self-condemnation. But I did not believe that it was one of those actions which can be brought under legal censure.

(CW 160)

In recollecting one single, unique incident, Caleb can condemn himself, because such condemnation is internally self-reflexive on his part. I identified this as performing an action: being his own legal representative, it is only the shadow of an accusation of which he can conceive, not the real thing. But it is precisely because it is an action, as Caleb says, that it can be brought under legal censure: Political Justice defines being one's own historian as being a “future narrator of the scene in which [one is] acting a part.” Following the law of sincerity, one can be one's own representative, and “equivocation” is removed from one's “actions.” Once he is brought before the law, not of sincerity but of the judicial system, other actors are brought into Caleb's scene of writing. The law becomes one of insincerity, since truth is the truth of direct representation,10 and the Law never represents itself, but always through someone acting on its behalf—in this case, Forester in the capacity of magistrate. And whilst the content of the trunk is acting as an empty signifier, its signification can be filled by anyone capable of appropriating it, such as Falkland, since Caleb, “under every seal of secrecy,” has no choice but to withhold the truth.

The use that Falkland makes of this signifier is to give it a new signified, namely “bank notes to the amount of nine hundred pounds, three gold repeaters of considerable value, a complete set of diamonds … and several other articles” (CW 164). A referent is then provided when some of these articles turn up, not in Falkland's trunk, but in Caleb's. The signifier is passed from trunk to trunk (the bodily metaphor is not inappropriate)11 and with it the designation of guilt. Caleb identifies Forester as “a man of penetration,” a quality which Falkland is afraid of as capable of revealing guilt. Caleb looks to Forester's penetration as a restorer of his innocence, but in his search for the signifier of the trunk, this Forester cannot see the wood (the thing itself) for the trees (its disseminated representatives, or, the trunks). He therefore finds evidence for Caleb's guilt in the fact that the nine hundred pounds is not present in Caleb's trunk, whilst the nine hundred pounds has only existed in Falkland's verbal account. Any direct appearance of Caleb's innocence is always already corrupted by the disseminating series of repetitions in which he is engaged.12 Forester, as Falkland's brother, is in a sense a repetition of Falkland himself: he is also a deferral of the Law who is more inclined to favour the deferred representations of verbal accounts against anything “penetration” might reveal. Caleb, by these repetitions, is forced to take part in a repetition himself. Within the narrative of Collins, which Caleb has related with “the same simplicity and accuracy that I would observe towards a court which was to decide in the last resort upon everything dear to me,” Falkland has been acquitted at his trial, in the face of all circumstantial evidence, by a plea of insufficient motive, and a character reference supplied by himself. Caleb employs exactly the same technique at his trial, but finds that the reversing effect of such a rhetoric is also repeated: Caleb's innocence is turned to guilt just as Falkland's guilt is turned to innocence. Moreover, Falkland has the advantage of being able to conceal his guilt behind writing: within Collins' narrative, which has already been framed twice (by “Caleb Williams” and “by” William Godwin) there is yet another narrative, in the form of a written defense, the author of which is Falkland. What Caleb presents us with is not a transcription of this narrative as such, but a transcription of what Collins says when he reads it out, after producing it from “a private drawer in his escritoire” (CW 100). Falkland's story of his innocence is therefore a written account of a spoken account of a written account, taken from a secret place within a place of writing, and (eventually) comes to us as a text within a text within a text. Caleb, meanwhile, does not have the same privilege: forced to give a spontaneous defense in the immediacy of speech, he repeats the gestures of claiming an inadequacy of motive and of giving himself a character reference, but he does not have the framework of deferral with which to carry it off.

Earlier, Forester has advised him to “Make the best story you can for yourself: true, if truth, as I hope, will serve your purpose; but, if not, the most plausible and ingenious you can invent” (CW 162 f). Whilst Caleb is the narrator who re-presents the narratives of others,13 his attempts at story-telling in direct speech are obviously insufficient to meet Forester's criteria. As the guardian of a knowledge contained in a trunk that he does not know he does not possess, Forester's judgement (and Caleb's fall) echoes the expulsion from Eden: Caleb is compared to a serpent who, having corrupted nature, should be placed outside it as an unwelcome adjunct:

Vile calumniator! you are the abhorrence of nature, the opprobrium of the human species, and the earth can only be freed from an insupportable burthen by your being exterminated!

(CW 174)

Such a conclusive termination cannot be brought to Caleb's existence, however, since the trial itself—like the earlier trial of Falkland—is only a deferral, a settling of the question of whether Caleb should be brought to trial or not. This delay within the plot is inseparable from the delayed nature of Caleb's intertextual narrative itself: his writing fills this space just as it fills the others. This textual inmixing is closely linked with an inmixing of the characters within the Falkland/Caleb discourse: that they are mutually dependent emerges towards the end of the novel:

Solitude, separation, banishment! These are words often in the mouths of human beings, but few men, except myself, have felt the full latitude of their meaning. The pride of philosophy has taught us to treat man as an individual. He is no such thing. He holds, necessarily, indispensibly, to his species. He is like those twin-births, that have two heads indeed, and four hands: but, if you attempt to detach them from each other, they are inevitably subjected to miserable and lingering destruction.

(CW 303)

Caleb has been able to feel the full latitude of the meaning of solitude precisely because his progress through his narrative has been like that of a twin-birth, his circumstances born out of the transcendence of the quasi-paternal authority of Falkland in the breaching of the trunk. This breach not only establishes a relationship between the characters but, although it is one of mutual persecution, allows the story of that persecution to be told. It is a breach which alters the terms of the relationship, but maintains intact the functional element of mutual dependence. In this is revealed the irony of Caleb's remark that to detach one half of a twin-birth from the other is to subject it to “miserable and lingering destruction.” Such is the passage of the text, which is shortly to be fulfilled in its drive towards death when the present time of writing (for Caleb) is caught up by the temporality of the narrative: “This is the latest event, which I think it necessary to record. I shall doubtless hereafter have further occasion to take up the pen” (CW 312). Blind as he is (must be, as an assumption of “William Godwin”), however, to the necessities of his own literary production, Caleb misplaces the cause of his misery in his detachment from society, provoking, after his condemnation of his solitary state, the following:

It was this circumstance [i.e. Caleb's “separation from the family of Laura”] more than all the rest, that gradually gorged my heart with abhorrence of Mr. Falkland. I could not think of his name, but with a sickness and a loathing that seemed more than human.

(CW 303)

It is not Caleb's detachment from society (he was, after all, completely alone upon entering Falkland's household) but his detachment from Falkland, by the spacing provided by the trunk, which has generated the narrative. It is this separation which has marked the decline of each character: each time Falkland makes an appearance in the novel, he is in worse health than the last; Caleb progressively surrenders his identity, becoming alternately anonymous and other than himself by the adoption of disguise.

But it is in the recognition, or perhaps misrecognition (since it is misplaced) of such a separation, that the path to oblivion and madness for Falkland and Caleb respectively lies. The irony of this is maintained in Caleb's reflection that it is Falkland's name that he cannot think of: upon Falkland's confession of his crime, he has told Caleb: “Though I be the blackest of villains, I will leave behind me a spotless and illustrious name” (CW 136). Caleb, throughout his course of disguise and deception in order to maintain his existence, is re-enacting the persona of Falkland, which otherwise is only approached by Caleb's curiosity. Falkland is not only identified by his name, but his identity is constituted by it. His honour, and inextricably his self, is dependent upon that name, and his existence is allegorical of the act of writing itself, in so far as the act of being written constitutes a deferral of representation of its subject. That Caleb, the writer of this name, should end his narrative with his destruction is therefore no surprise:

His fame shall not be immortal, as he thinks. These papers shall preserve the truth: they shall one day be published, and then the world shall do justice on us both.

(CW 315)

From this point onwards, Caleb's decline, and thus the end of the book in the fullest sense, is determined by madness in the original ending, permanent misery in the revised. In the original ending there is constituted the degeneration of a narrative no longer able to sustain itself in the loss of one half of the equation which enables one to be one's own historian. The only repetition left to draw on (in a double sense) is that of its own origin in lacuna:

I should like to recollect something—it would make an addition to my history—but it is all a blank!—sometimes it is day, and sometimes it is night—but nobody does any thing, and nobody says any thing—It would be an odd kind of a history!

(CW 333)

This supplement, whilst adding nothing, is yet indispensable in providing the possibility of Caleb's history coming to an end. Which in a sense it already has, since the episode of the supplement is within another supplement, that of a “Postscript.”14 That this shall be so (as a matter of necessity) is foretold in the last words of the main script to which this is post:

The pen lingers in my trembling fingers!—Is there any thing I have left unsaid?—The contents of the fatal trunk from which all my misfortunes originated, I have never been able to ascertain. I once thought that it contained some murderous instrument or relique connected with the fate of the unhappy Tyrrel. I am now persuaded that the secret it encloses is a faithful narrative of that and its concomitant transactions, written by Mr. Falkland, and reserved in case of the worst, that, if by any unforseen event his guilt might be fully disclosed, it might contribute to redeem the wreck of his reputation. But the truth or the falsehood of this conjecture is of little moment. If Falkland shall never be detected to the satisfaction of the world, such a narrative will probably never see the light. In that case, this story of mine may amply, severely perhaps, supply its place.

(CW 315)

The force of the rhetorical question near the beginning of this passage is derived from the irony of the unsaid. The possibility of the actions which have constituted the plot of the novel up to this point has depended on the said, namely the verbal confession by Falkland of his guilt. Meanwhile, the possibility of that plot being made story, being told to us, lies in the unsaid—in the graphic gesture of the breaking open of the trunk. The unsaid is the written, and writing is left off when it is brought to reflect its own glance. In this is revealed that the content of the trunk has been as much a mystery to Caleb as to the reader. His mastery over the text is dissolved by the breaking of the illusion that he has had access to a tangible truth. The truth of his narrative is contained not as an absolute, but as another writing, a pre-text the existence of which is only conjectural. Until this point his own historian, Caleb's history is now closed off by the realization that truth is dissolved in the empty supplement of writing. The verbal confession of Falkland—the logos of an other—as the truth-basis of the text, is found not to hold: after a constant delay throughout the novel, the reader is brought to the realization that there is nothing to authenticate Caleb's (written) report of Falkland's (spoken) confession. This opens up a threatening possibility, as Caleb himself realizes in the original version:

Perhaps all men will reason on my story as these men reasoned. Perhaps I am beguiling myself during all this time, merely for want of strength to put myself in the place of an unprepossessed auditor, and to conceive how the story will impress every one that hears it. My innocence will then die with me! The narrative I have taken the pains to digest will then only perpetuate my shame and spread more widely the persuasion of my nefarious guilt! How excruciating so much as to suspect the possibility of such an issue to the scene!

(CW 332)

After all his disguises and deceptions, the possibility emerges that he is deceiving himself. According to Lacan (181) hearing oneself speak is the guarantor of the production of a signifying chain. If Caleb cannot take his own place to hear himself, the signifying chain of his innocence, and hence of his narrative, is broken. His innocence would die with him were his self-presence not guaranteed. And it is not, absolutely, when we realize that the trunk contains no referent. After being passed around various characters in the story, the reader can at last play the game of appropriating it for herself. She could even conjecture that the trunk “really” did contain nine hundred pounds, three gold repeaters, and a complete set of diamonds. This would give an extra dimension to the narrative: it would not just be a fiction claiming to be true, but a fiction (of a fiction claiming to be true) claiming to be true. I am not suggesting that we make a conjecture here, since Caleb does enough when he raises the possibility of introducing such an issue to his scene of writing.

Whilst the trunk may contain a “faithful narrative,” that which is handed down to the reader is subjected to a palimpsestial mediation. This maps the act of writing itself, in that it is the repetition of an other which we must assume to be the same, and yet is made different by that other's inaccessibility to us. It is in this difference that Caleb's existence is played out within the confines of his own text, but to make this explicit is to break the spell, and the “played out” of Caleb's existence is determined in a more ontologically definite manner, in that his text is closed off. Closed off, but not yet ended, since the repetition involved in this playing out is an infinitizing gesture. The text continues as a Postscript, but it is—can only be—a blank!, or, in the case of the published version, a post-narrative, in which the stasis of an all-consuming despair forecloses any temporal development:

Meanwhile I endure the penalty of my crime. Falkland's figure is ever in imagination before me. Waking or sleeping I still behold him. He seems mildly to expostulate with me for my unfeeling behaviour. I live the devoted victim of conscious reproach. Alas! I am the same Caleb Williams that, so short a time ago, boasted that, however great were the calamities I endured, I was still innocent.

(CW 325)

The fact of textuality itself has created a reversal of position in that it is now Caleb who is guilty of a crime, the crime being murder, through the termination of the text, of the subject of his writing. “Why should my reflections perpetually centre upon myself?” he asks, yet what else would he expect to find his self reflect? And, being self-reflecting, what claim does he have to being the same Caleb Williams? In his main script, in a parallel movement to the presence of Falkland, he was still innocent—still so, as long as he was the “future narrator” of the scenes in which he was acting a part. Now, Caleb being the present narrator of a postscript, Falkland takes a place in the other self of Caleb's imagination, causing another temporal shift in that he is before him. The residue of these pairings of reflection, repetition, etc. is innocence, which is left as an empty signifier. Another repetition remains: “My despair was criminal, was treason against the sovereignty of truth” (CW 323).

If “the truth or falsehood” of Caleb's conjecture as to the content of the trunk “is of little moment,” what claim can Caleb Williams have to be a reflection of “Things as they Are”? Perhaps the answer lies (provisionally) in the quality of reflection, and Caleb Williams may prove—or at least speculate—to be more of a statement about Being than about Things. There is a graphism at work in the novel which impinges on the text's capacity for being spoken: the read-outable is made redoubtable by what is a purely written difference or, since this is created by spacing, differance. I am referring here to the written lacunae which pervade the work; the literal spaces within the text which play a part no less problematic than those less tangible gaps in the plot.

An example is the temporal placing of the novel, and by “placing” I mean a gesture it makes to an extra-textual reality: “In the summer of the year Mr. Falkland visited his estate in our county after an absence of several months” (CW 5). Here the lacuna is “irreducibly graphic,”15 yet elsewhere there are extra-textual references which help us—though not fully—to give the text some historical placing:

Mr. Tyrrel was determined to prosecute the offence with the greatest severity: and his attorney, having made the proper enquiries for that purpose, undertook to bring it under that clause of the act 9 Geo. 1, commonly called The Black Act, which declares that “any person, armed with a sword or other offensive weapon, and having his face blacked, or being otherwise disguised, appearing in any warren or place where hares or conies have been or shall be usually kept, and being thereof convicted, shall be adjudged guilty of felony, and shall suffer death, as in cases of felony, without benefit of clergy.”

(CW 74)

The precise quotation of the Act in question is a pointer to some justification outside the text, an appeal to “Things as they Are,” and it is no sacrifice of the rigour of textuality to enter into the same spirit and bring one's knowledge of The Black Act, namely that it was passed in 1723 and repealed in 1827, to the text. This dates the action of the novel at post-1723, if we are to take the text's own word that it is “Things as they Are.” Yet this is undermined at the beginning of the novel by a lacuna where a date should be. This is so, because the grammar of temporality always already subverts its own truth. For the statement “Things as they Are” to be true, the text must be undated: it must enjoy a time continuum which is always already the present, otherwise it would be “Things as they Were,” or “Things as they Will Be.” Yet the proof that the text is not lying, that it is an accurate reflection of real affairs, depends on a reaching-out to some historically ascertainable event, such as The Black Act. If it is historically ascertainable, it is datable, and the lacuna becomes the place where the contradiction is accommodated. The text's truth becomes purely textual, which explains my title Things as they Are Written. My supplement to the text's title is the “Written,” but this is located in the text as an unwritten, a lacuna. “Spacing is writing” (Ellmann 29).

The same argument may be constructed out of the lacunae which determine the spatial placing of the novel. Some place-names will be given whilst others will be missed out, so that an extra-textual correspondence is alternately held out to us and withdrawn. These lacunae are, of course, an application of a convention governing many eighteenth and nineteenth century novels, and in sharing in this tradition of protecting the guilty—lying and lying behind it—is the reflection that that which Coleridge characterized as the “suspension of disbelief”—fiction's claim to be other than it is (its claim to be true)—depends upon the extra-textual gesture that there is an existing and contemporary party to be protected, a protection which is also one of the author from libel.

This positing of an author is not a regression into a biographical inaccessibility, but an assault upon the problem of history from a textual perspective. The bridge between textuality and historicity in Caleb Williams is the gesture of making Caleb his own historian, and the gesture itself is found in the margins of the text. Located in these margins, in the Prefaces to the first two editions, is the affirmed motive by which Caleb Williams has been produced. These margins are the gap between the title page labelling the text “By William Godwin” and the beginning of the text narrated in the first person by one “Caleb Williams.” We have already noted the aporias introduced by Caleb's assertion that his story will at least appear to have that consistency, which is seldom attendant but upon truth. Meanwhile, the Preface tells us:

It is now known to philosophers that the spirit and character of the government intrudes itself into every rank of society. But this is a truth highly worthy to be communicated to persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach. Accordingly it was proposed in the invention of the following work, to comprehend, as far as the progressive nature of a single story would allow, a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man.

(CW 1)

A metaphysical claim (does “the government” have a “spirit”?) by “philosophers,” based on a judgmental interpretation, is here set up as a “truth” to be communicated. This is a movement which repeats that which it criticizes: the intrusion of despotism is despotically asserted as a point of truth, then used as a means of intervention in the social scene in the vehicle of a novel. But to convey this “truth,” an “invention” is required. It is not surprising that Caleb's story only has the appearance of truth, since, through the medium of fiction, it becomes a “review,” a truth which is re-seen through the writings of philosophy and science: Caleb's story may be a “single” one, but his truth is second-hand, just as his writing is in a second hand, the first being Godwin's. This is a “truth” we can see but not grasp, since we are always one step removed. We can see more clearly, however, in considering the form of the Preface itself. It is a re-move, as Godwin points out in using the past tense (“it was proposed”) to refer to “the following work.” As Hegel points out, prefatory to a philosophical text a Preface may involve a norm of truth whilst being nevertheless an insertion of a fiction into a supposedly true discourse.16 But Godwin, in introducing “persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach,” is implying a distinction between the philosophical and the literary. This reverses Hegel's position, in that we now have a supposedly fictional work with a supposedly true Preface. The Hegelian point still holds, however, that a preface qua preface necessarily conceals a lie: namely “A pretense at writing before a text that one must have read before the preface can be written.”17 It would appear that Godwin has led himself into a contradiction by claiming his preface as a truth, when we know it to contain a fiction, and by claiming Caleb's narrative to be a fiction which contains a truth. We should not be deceived by appearance, though:

The following narrative is intended to answer a purpose more general and important than immediately appears on the face of it. The question now afloat in the world respecting things as they are, is the most interesting that can be presented to the human mind.

(CW 1)

If the inmixing of truth and fiction leaves us still with the “question” of what claim the book has to be a reflection of Things as they Are, at least the lie inherent to prefacing is made explicit, thus questioning the question:

This preface was withdrawn in the original edition, in compliance with the alarms of booksellers. Caleb Williams made his first appearance in the world, in the same month in which the sanguinary plot broke out against the liberties of Englishmen, which was happily terminated with the acquittal of its first intended victims, in the close of that year. Terror was the order of the day; and it was feared that even the humble novelist might be shown to be constructively a traitor.

(CW 1 f)

This is not only a referral back to its own writing, but a referral back to a writing outside the text: the preface is wholly “Prae-Fatio” in that it distinguishes itself, by a gesture to an extra-textual real world, from the fictional world of the text proper. It is not Caleb who labels his text “Things as they Are,” but William Godwin, and the assertion of an author over his text has consequences for the act of making Caleb his own historian: the title of the work has become confused with that work's narrator and subject. Caleb Williams and Caleb Williams are as indistinguishable in writing as they are in speech, by the removal of a graphic difference which this personification entails. This suppression of difference is the means by which the claim of representing Things as they Are is supported. The claim of accuracy of reflection of the truth by the text not only appeals back to the title, but mimics the process of titling itself: both inside and outside the text, the title is a summary of what it does not tell. (This is paralleled within the text by the trunk.) Meanwhile, the note beginning “This preface …” has a similar status. Since it is untitled, we might assume it to share the title “Preface” that the main Preface comes under. But is “This preface” the one we see above, so that the note labels it as one would a picture in a catalogue; or is it this preface, making the note a part of it? The note was not withdrawn in the original edition, because it was not, as the underwritten dates tell us, written then. On the other hand, both pieces of text made their first appearance in the second edition, under the one title of “Preface.”

The frames to the text—the titles which are both inside and outside and both by and not by William Godwin; the second Preface which both is and is not part of the first Preface, the whole coming before a text it was written after—are, faithful to the logic of differance, different from themselves. This differance accommodates the two otherwise mutually exclusive titles: Things as they Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams. I suggested above that we call the chapter headings “William's' Chapter Headings.” Now, “If the author shall have taught a valuable lesson” (CW 1), and since the author is “himself” within an avowed exposition of his fiction, may we not call him Caleb Williams' Godwin?


  1. William Godwin, Fleetwood: or, the New Man of Feeling (London: Richard Bentley, 1832) vii. Further citations appear in the text as Fleetwood.

  2. William Godwin, Enquiry concerning Political Justice and its influence on Morals and Happiness, photo. fac. of 3rd edition, ed. F. E. L. Priestley, 3 vols. (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1946) iii: 292. Volume iii contains variant readings of the 1st and 2nd editions. Further citations appear in the text as PJ.

  3. Roman Jakobson, “Shifters, Verbal Categories, and the Russian Verb” (1957) in Selected Writings II: Word and Language (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1971) 130-47. Peirce is cited on 132; Vološinov on 130. Jakobson proposes that “Any message is encoded by its sender and is to be decoded by its addressee,” and that “Both the message … and the underlying code … are vehicles of linguistic communication, but both of them function in a duplex manner; they may at once be utilized and referred to (= pointed at)” (130). He accordingly distinguishes four duplex types: message referring to message, code referring to code, message referring to code and code referring to message. Reported speech is an example of the first, and implicit in this is that whatever is denoted is known to the speaker only from the testimony of others, even if that other is oneself at a former time. An example of the second is proper names: they have an obvious circularity in that they mean anyone to whom the name is assigned, whilst no general meaning could be abstracted from them. “A message referring to the code is in logic termed an autonymous mode of speech” (131) as in “‘Pup’ is a noun which means a young dog.” The fourth type is the shifter, which is “distinguished from all other constituents of the linguistic code solely by [its] compulsory reference to the given message” (132): it combines both the functions of utility and of index. Hence the word “I” both designates the utterer (and is existentially related to his utterance) and is also representative of its object “by a conventional rule.” In other words, “I” has both a particular and a general meaning: it is both “I, myself” when I use it, and “you” when you use it. The apparent paradox of these mutually exclusive positions has given problems alike to children learning language and philosophers studying it, but it is sufficient to say that the meaning of “I” depends on the context in which it is uttered. At least, this is true of speech: I wish to show that writing involves further problems, because it allows the possibility of an inmixing not only within this fourth category of Jakobson's, but also between it and the others (most notably the message/message one).

  4. Jacques Lacan, “On a Question Preliminary to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis” (1958) in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977) 179-225. Lacan sees inability to come to terms with the paradoxical nature of the shifter as a cause of verbal hallucination. Hearing a word “loaded with invective” the subject (patient) will recognize that it is allusive, but be unable to say to whom it alludes. The word will, in fact, have been drawn from the subject's imagination to supply the place of the word “I” which the subject finds unspeakable: “In the place where the unspeakable object is rejected in the real, a word makes itself heard, so that, coming in the place of that which has no name, it was unable to follow the intention of the subject without detaching itself from it by the dash preceding the reply: opposing its disparaging antistrophe to the cursing of the strophe thus restored to the patient with the index of the I … it employs the crudest trickery of the imaginary” (183). Obviously, Lacan depends upon an oral/aural relationship between addresser and addressee, whilst our “William Godwin” bears a textual relation to us and an intertextual relation to his texts.

  5. On framing and “the frame” as an undecidable, see Jacques Derrida, “The Purveyor of Truth,” trans. Willis Domingo, James Hulbert, Moshe Ron and Marie-Rose Logan, in Yale French Studies 52: Graphesis: Perspectives in Literature and Philosophy (1975): 31-113; and Jacques Derrida, “Parergon,” in La verité en peinture [Truth in Painting] (Paris: Flammarion, 1978) 19-168, esp. 44-94. On undecidables see Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1981) 39-47.

  6. William Godwin, Things as they Are; or, the Adventures of Caleb Williams, published as Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970) xxxi. This edition, which I have used throughout, is based on the ms and the 1st edition (London: B. Crosby, 1794) and incorporates variant readings from the subsequent four editions revised by Godwin. Further citations appear in the text as CW.

  7. i.e. the third: there are few substantial revisions in the second (1796).

  8. Maud Ellmann, “Spacing Out: A Double Entendre on Mallarmé,” in Oxford Literary Review iii 2 (1978): 24. Hereafter cited as Ellmann in the text.

  9. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey, ed. James Strachey, Alan Tyson and Angela Richards, “Pelican Freud Library” iv (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976) 521.

  10. Forester refuses to listen to Falkland's accusations until Caleb “is within reach of a hearing” (CW 162).

  11. David McCracken, in a “Note on the Text” to his edition, remarks that “Falkland's mysterious ‘chest’ becomes a ‘trunk’ throughout the second edition” (CW XXV).

  12. (Co)incidentally, there is a chain of furniture showrooms in the UK named Court's, whose advertising slogan in 1984-85 was “Seeing is believing.”

  13. And of himself: during the trial he has produced a letter which he had written to Falkland previously.

  14. This is true both of the ms and of the published versions.

  15. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976) 92: “[Fenellosa's] influence upon Ezra Pound and his poetics is well-known: this irreducibly graphic poetics was, with that of Mallarmé, the first break in the most entrenched Western tradition.”

  16. G. W. F. Hegel, “Preface” to The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (New York: Harper, 1967).

  17. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Translator's Preface,” x, in Derrida, Of Grammatology ix-lxxxvii.

James Thompson (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Thompson, James. “Surveillance in William Godwin's Caleb Williams.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham, pp. 173-98. New York: AMS Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Thompson discusses Godwin's novel within the historical context of England in the 1790s.]

A functioning police state needs no police.

William Burroughs

There is a wealth of documentary evidence surrounding the composition and intention of William Godwin's Caleb Williams, or Things as They Are. We have several of Godwin's own statements from different stages of his life about the composition of the text, his own theoretical work from the same period, his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, along with abundant evidence of his political engagement at this time. However, if we take Godwin's own statements too literally, or if we try to systematize these various texts into one whole vision, such an abundance of material can lead us into obvious trouble. Political Justice, it can be argued, does provide a utopian vision of Things as They Ought to Be, while Caleb Williams or Things as They Are analogously offers a counter or dystopian vision of the present state of corruption. Nevertheless, as continuing critical arguments demonstrate, neither vision is unambiguous, nor can either work be presented as a simple explanatory model of the other, in some sort of closed system. The crux on which all interpretations of Caleb Williams seem to turn is the degree of ambiguity in the novel, particularly at the close; that is to say, how much is Caleb/Godwin “taken in” by the tragic figure of a decayed and defeated Falkland at the end, and to what degree does this sympathy represent Godwin's betrayal of his political principles? To put this crux in the simplest terms, readings of Caleb Williams are, with few exceptions, divided between politics and psychology: is the novel a fictionalized account of Godwin's systematic analysis of oppression and class conflict in Political Justice, or is it a work in which the creative imagination transcends its doctrinal or dogmatic origins?1 Put in these oppositional terms, interpretation of Caleb Williams raises fundamental questions about the relationship between literature and history, and, as a consequence, this wealth of material offers us an exemplary opportunity to practice literary history, to consider Godwin's novel in the context of the 1790s.

Raymond Williams offers a suggestive beginning to this undertaking, outlining the relationship among political theory, literary practice, and actual, lived experience: Godwin held that

by patient explanation and rational enquiry you could uncover the cause of vice and injustice, and thereby enable their reform with a change of institutions. What Godwin and the others [other radicals of the 1790s] had to live with was the negation of their position by brute authoritarian power—the response, not of rational discourse as assumed by them, but of prosecution, imprisonment, and transportation. Caleb Williams, or as I prefer to call it, Things as They Are, was written within the pressure of this experience. The exertion of maximum state power against that version of rationality enforced a reconsideration of the consequences of that formula. Things as They Are seeks at the outset to illustrate the original argument and then throughout the rest of the book is driven to challenge and to deny it.2

The place where I would like to start examining this interaction is with Godwin's retrospective remarks from 1832 on the composition of Caleb Williams, particularly that remark on his reading of tales of Providential intervention in God's Revenge against Murder: “I turned the pages of a tremendous compilation, entitled ‘God's Revenge against Murder,’ where the beam of the eye of Omniscience was represented as perpetually pursuing the guilty, and laying open his most hidden retreats to the light of day.”3 It is not difficult to show the relevance of this passage to Caleb Williams, for Falkland is envisioned as just such an omniscient god/avenger:

I now took it for granted that I was once more in the power of Mr. Falkland, and the idea was insupportably mortifying and oppressive to my imagination. Escape from his pursuit, freedom from his tyranny, were objects upon which my whole soul was bent; could no human ingenuity and exertion effect them? Did his power reach through all space, and his eye penetrate every concealment? Was he like that mysterious being, to protect us from whose fierce revenge mountains and hills we are told might fall on us in vain? No idea is more heart-sickening and tremendous than this.

(CW, 240)

Why, we may ask, should this passage hold such power for Godwin? David Marshall, Godwin's biographer, connects the pattern of “flight and pursuit” (CW, 337) with the rigorous Calvinism of Godwin's upbringing and education.4 Similarly, in “Metaphors of Private Guilt and Social Rebellion in Godwin's Caleb Williams,” one of the principal psychological interpretations of the novel, Rudolf R. Storch claims that the fear of divine surveillance is generated by Oedipal guilt: “The psychic energy for social criticism is derived from rebellion against parental authority, which in its turn is linked with guilt finding its expressive language in Calvinist obsession with divine persecution.”5 From this biographical and/or psychoanalytic point of view, Godwin's fascination with persecution—a kind of Gothic paranoia—can be seen as a secularization or remystification or psychologizing of the Providential topoi found in traditional, didactic collections such as God's Revenge against Murder. In other words, the fear of and flight from surveillance common to Gothic fiction is but a version of the universal phenomenon of superego, as exemplified in Freud's description of a “group of patients as suffering from delusions of being observed. They complain to us that perpetually, and down to their most intimate personal actions, they are being molested by the observation of unknown powers.”6 What Godwin attributed to a self-conscious political program of exposing the injustice of inequality and class oppression thus has been privatized, at once transformed into private, individual guilt (Godwin's) and universal, eternal guilt (superego).

As plausible and persuasive as this psychological explanation is, many historians have demonstrated, most notably E. P. Thompson, that in the 1790s the feeling of being spied upon was not necessarily a paranoid fantasy.7 As Ian Ousby points out, the word “spy” in Caleb's exclamation, “To be a spy on Mr. Falkland! That there was a danger in the employment served to give an alluring pungency to the choice” (CW, 107), would have had immediate and special reverberation in these times of political trial.8 Godwin's involvement with the sedition trials initiated by Pitt's government against the English Jacobins and the general atmosphere of political siege is well known.9 Of particular interest is the trial of London Corresponding Society member Joseph Gerrald which took place while Godwin was composing Caleb Williams. Godwin knew Gerrald well, corresponded with him, and advised him during the trial. After he was convicted, Godwin visited Gerrald in prison and in the hulks awaiting transportation to Botany Bay where Gerrald died soon after. In the later editions of Political Justice, where Godwin writes about the oppression of trials, “no man ever seriously wished for this ordeal who knew what a trial was,” there can be little doubt that he has Gerrald in mind.10 Furthermore, Habeas Corpus was suspended in May of 1794 for the next eight years, and Thomas Hardy, secretary to London Corresponding Society, Horne Tooke, Thomas Holcroft, and John Thelwall, all friends or associates of Godwin, were arrested and tried on charges of High Treason. Godwin regularly visited them in Newgate and published a pamphlet in their defense. Finally, as Marilyn Butler notes, the inflammatory preface to the first edition of Caleb Williams, which Godwin's publisher suppressed, is dated the day Hardy was arrested.11

These facts have been rehearsed again and again in the debate over whether this is a political or a psychological novel, and providing specific contemporary analogues to the fiction of Caleb Williams still does not explain the lasting power or continued interest in this novel. As more than one commentator has pointed out, whatever Godwin may have thought he was writing, its doctrinal content may still be its least interesting and least effective feature: the novel is read now for its evocation of the psychology of its characters, not for its reference to Joseph Gerrald. Nevertheless, such a distinction is alien to Godwin's thought. The opposition of psychological states and political conditions is not one which Godwin would have accepted, for he argues in both his philosophy and his fiction that psychological states are determined by political conditions. In his study of Jacobin writers, Gary Kelly has shown that one of their contributions to the novel is their notion of necessity: “the ‘Doctrine of necessity’ [was] expressed in the principle that ‘the characters of men originate in their external circumstances’ thus integration of character and plot is essential to the true novel.”12 As Mr. Collins tells Caleb, “I consider you as a machine: you are not constituted, I am afraid, to be greatly useful to your fellow men; but you did not make yourself; you are just what circumstances irresistibly compelled you to be” (CW, 310). Thus it is not so much that the political climate of England in the early 1790s explains Caleb Williams, but rather that these conditions create a climate of fear and suspicion which Godwin recreates in his novel.13

The preceding argument is, I think, as plausible and as persuasive as the psychological argument we rehearsed earlier. To move forward from this impasse, however, we need to distinguish between the collection of facts and incidents, and a larger sense of history. That is to say, correlating several specific incidents with some theoretical points from Political Justice, along with analogous passages from Caleb Williams, the traditional procedure of literary history, still does not make Caleb Williams a political novel. Rather than proceeding by way of cumulative evidence, as if history itself was straight-forwardly chronological, causal, and cumulative, we should turn to a different kind of history. In order to see Caleb Williams within the larger historical moment, and in order to show that the novel shares the essential political discourse of the period, we need to employ Foucault's concept of surveillance from Discipline and Punish. Godwin is not only reflecting particular instances of repression, but more significantly Caleb Williams evidences Godwin's sense of the larger political crisis of the new bourgeois state, and the continuing power of the novel owes much to Godwin's uncanny recognition of the new form of the state and state punishment. To put this as simply as possible, surveillance in Caleb Williams should be seen not merely in terms of the counter-revolutionary sedition trials, but also in larger terms of the function of an authoritarian state, the professionalization of the police force, and the development of the penitentiary. Foucault observes that constant presence of police in society represents the cost we are willing to pay for social order, and in the early 1790s, Godwin can only look on with horror at the police state he envisions lying just around the corner.14 As an anarchist, Godwin was vitally interested in the mechanisms by which the state extended its influence or power into the lives of individual subjects, which is, in turn, the subject of Foucault's investigations—“the mechanisms of power that frame the everyday lives of individuals.”15

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault studies the transformation of systems of punishment across eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe, particularly “the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle” and as an acceptable mode of social correction (DP, 7). Why is it, Foucault asks, that punishment ceases to function as a public “theatre of horror” (DP, 49), as an open exhibition of royal power, but instead becomes hidden, moving indoors, performed by an anonymous bureaucracy in the name of the state. No longer inflicting pain on the body, the new form of punishment works on the soul.16 The new form of punishment takes place within the “punitive city,” (DP, 113), a penitentiary in which the guilty are kept isolated from one another, yet under constant surveillance by the authorities: “it was more efficient and profitable in terms of the economy of power to place people under surveillance than to subject them to some exemplary penalty.”17

There are two images, then, of discipline. At one extreme, the discipline-blockade, the enclosed institution, established on the edges of society, turned inwards towards negative functions: arresting evil, breaking communications, suspending time. At the other extreme, with panopticonism, is the discipline-mechanism: a functional mechanism that must improve the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come. The movement from one project to the other, for a schema of exceptional discipline of generalized surveillance, rests on a historical transformation: the gradual extension of the mechanisms of discipline throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their spread throughout the whole social body, the formation of what might be called in general the disciplinary society.

(DP, 209).

For Foucault, the exemplary representation of this new disciplinary society and its mechanisms of surveillance is Jeremy Bentham's plan for a new model prison, the Panopticon. (In September of 1793, Godwin was introduced to Gilbert and Maria Reveley; Gilbert Reveley is the architect who designed Jeremy Bentham's model prison, the Panopticon. This plan was already completed, for Jeremy Bentham's Postscript to the Panopticon dates from 1791.)18 According to Michael Ignatieff, a historian of prison reform in the industrial revolution, the Panopticon is based on an “inspection principle,” of constant surveillance; he sees it as “a symbolic caricature of the characteristic features of disciplinary thinking in his age … In both [the Panopticon and the penitentiary] the criminal was separated from the outside world by a new conception of social distance epitomized by uniforms, walls, and bars. The ruling image in both was the idea of the eye of the state—impartial, humane, and vigilant—holding the ‘deviant’ in the thrall of its omniscient gaze.”19

These developments within the prison are paralleled outside the prison by the professionalization of the police force. Though the major reforms of Sir Robert Peel do not take place until after the period we are interested in, in the 1820s and 1830s, the early 1790s appears to witness the final transition from an old style police force, which consisted primarily of unpaid parish constables, to a new style of professional police. The Metropolitan Police Force Act of 1829 set up the first paid uniformed police for the London area, and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 made police forces mandatory for all incorporated boroughs. (The first detective force was not established until 1842.) London instituted paid, professional magistrates in 1792.20 George Rudé observes that one of the contributions of the new police force was to keep the criminal [and we might add for the 1790s, the politically suspect] element “under constant and stricter surveillance.”21

We are now in a better position to understand why that passage from God's Revenge against Murder held Godwin in such thrall: again, “Did his power reach through all space, and his eye penetrate every concealment?” (CW, 240). The horror of surveillance runs throughout Caleb Williams:

A resolution was taken to spare neither diligence nor expense for my discovery and apprehension, and … they were satisfied, if I were above ground and in the kingdom, it would be impossible for me to escape them.

Every new incident that had occurred to me, tended to impress upon my mind the extreme danger to which I was exposed. I could almost have imagined that the whole world was in arms to exterminate me.

(CW, 238)

The terror that readers of Caleb Williams experience derives from the vigilance of this surveillance, the fear that flight from Falkland's agents is impossible; as Falkland tells Caleb: “You might as well think of escaping from the power of the omnipresent God, as from mine!” (CW, 144). Storch writes that in Caleb Williams, “England becomes one huge prison”: we should amend this to suggest that Great Britain becomes one huge Panopticon.22 Just like the new prison, Caleb is kept under constant watch by “the Lynx-eyed jealousy and despotism of Mr. Falkland” (CW, 146); “Falkland preferred to govern me by terror, and watch me with unceasing anxiety” (CW, 145). At the same time, the subject under surveillance is kept isolated from other human beings: “I was shut up a deserted, solitary wretch in the midst of my species” (CW, 255). This isolation, “Solitude, separation, Banishment” (CW, 303) as Caleb puts it, is as terrifying as the constant surveillance: “I have dug a pit for you; and, whichever way you move, backward or forward, to the right or to the left, it is ready to swallow you. Be still! If once you fall, call as loud as you will, no man on earth shall hear your cries” (CW, 153-54).23 Caleb is condemned to alienation from any community, the fate of those sentenced to the new prison: “The greatest aggravation of my present lot was that I was cut off from the friendship of mankind” (CW, 308). Isolation and surveillance are conjoined in the continuing flight from Falkland:

Whithersoever I removed myself, it was not long before I had occasion to perceive this detested adversary [Falkland's agent or detective, Gines] in my rear. No words can enable me to do justice to the sensation which this circumstance produced in me. It was like what has been described of the eye of omniscience pursuing the guilty sinner, and darting a ray that awakens him to new sensibility, at the very moment that, otherwise, exhausted nature would lull him into a temporary oblivion of the reproaches of his conscience. Sleep fled my eyes. No walls could hide me from the discernment of this hated foe. Every where his industry was unwearied to create for me new distress. Rest I had none: relief I had none: never could I count upon an instant's security: never could I wrap myself for a moment in the shroud of oblivion.

(CW, 305-6).

The theme of being watched, that is, the thematization of paranoia, is common to the Gothic novel, with its noumenal world constantly on the verge of interpenetration with non-human agency. But the eeriness found in a Walpole, Reeve, Radcliffe, Lewis, or Maturin novel is nothing like the anguish of isolation which Caleb experiences in his world as prison.24 The passage just quoted is often cited to illustrate the power of Caleb Williams, with its terrible, Benthamite combination of isolation and surveillance, the terror of exclusion and separation that Georg Lukács analyzes as the objectification of social relations under capital.25 If surveillance is central to this novel, then the passages exposing the brutal condition of the prisons, and the interpolated episodes from the Newgate Calendar, and the notes to John Howard's State of the Prisons are not mere social protest dragged into an otherwise psychological novel out of the reformer's sense of duty: on the contrary, Caleb's vision his society as a vast prison is Godwin's central insight:

For myself, I looked around upon my walls, and forward upon the premature death I had too much reason to expect; I consulted my own heart, that whispered nothing but innocence; and I said, “This is society. This is the object, the distribution of justice, which is the end of human reason. For this the sages have toiled, and the midnight oil has been wasted!”

(CW, 182).

Again, my point is not merely that William Godwin is rehearsing scenes from Thomas Gerrald's cell in Newgate, but rather he suggests that such scenes adumbrate the coming state of surveillance and discipline. In this harsh view of penal authority, Godwin was not alone; David Punter demonstrates that in almost all respects, in the representation of lawyers, justice, punishment, and prisons, fictional portrayals of the English legal system get darker and more terrifying as the century progresses; we have only to compare Defoe's Moll in prison with Caleb Williams in prison to see how much harsher the institution seems.26 We can also attribute in part the concern with spies and surveillance to the politically charged atmosphere of the 1790s, a concern which penetrates even Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey: as Henry Tilney reminds Catherine Moreland, “Remember the country and the age in which we live … where every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open.”27 It is not clear whether such references reflect the anti-Jacobin mood of England, or whether the law had, in fact, grown harsher and more corrupt, or whether it was the reform movement which “exposed” or threw into bold relief the conditions of the legal system. With Godwin, though not with such writers as Goldsmith and Sterne, concern with the penal system has less to do with the present repression by the government, or with the actual brutality of prison conditions, or with the work Jonas Hanway, Patrick Colquhoun, John Howard, and other reformers, but rather with his sense of the changing function and power of the state.

One crucial feature of surveillance in Caleb Williams which we have yet to examine has to do with the fundamental locations of power and its agency.28 In the light of Foucault's work, Caleb Williams is particularly interesting because of its contradictory or in between representation of punishment and penal institutions: does punishment proceed from the anonymous body of the state or from a particular figure who embodies the just vengeance of the sovereign? Eric Rothstein, for example, argues that there is little or no political repression in Caleb Williams: “as the novel goes on and his misery deepens, he [Caleb Williams] meets almost no oppression from legally constituted authority, a force that Falkland never uses.”29 How then can we present Falkland's individual persecution of Caleb Williams as a type of the penitentiary or Panopticon, the power and discipline of the state? Examination of this point should help to situate Caleb Williams and explain its peculiar power, and it also should help to explain the contradictions between the novel and Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, as well as the internal contradictions within both works.

Foucault argues that by the end of the eighteenth century the penal system was ceasing to function in the name of the monarch and beginning to function for an anonymous state. In his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Godwin sees both of these old and new forms of government functioning side by side. In particular, Godwin represents the ideological figure of the monarchy as an “imposture,” a disguise for an empty, moribund, displaced authority: “Hence the inflated style of regal formality. The name of the king everywhere obtrudes itself upon us. It would seem as if every thing in the country, the lands, the houses, the furniture, and the inhabitants were his property … Our courts of law are his deputies. All magistrates, throughout the land, are the kings officers … He is the prosecutor of every criminal” (PJ, 441). So too, he sees a contradiction in that the exemplary force of public torture only serves when it is performed in the name of the injured king, yet at the same time it is also supposed to be answerable to the community:

We first vindicate political coercion, because the criminal has committed an offence against the community at large, and then pretend, while we bring him to the bar of the community, the offended party, that we bring him before an impartial umpire. Thus, in England, the king by his attorney is the prosecutor, and the king by his representative is the judge. How long shall such inconsistencies impose on mankind? The pursuit commenced against the supposed offender is the posse comitatus, the armed force of the whole, drawn out in such portions as may be judged necessary, and, when seven millions of men have got one poor, unassisted individual in their power, they are then at leisure to torture or to kill him, and to make his agonies a spectacle to glut their ferocity”

(PJ, 641).30

At other times, Godwin makes it clear that England is no longer a feudal monarchy but rather is governed by a plutocracy, the wealthy squirarchy:

In many countries justice is avowedly made a subject of solicitation, and the man of the highest rank and most splendid connections almost infallibly carries his cause against the unprotected and friendless … A consciousness of these facts must be expected to render the rich little cautious of offence in his dealings with the poor, and to inspire him with a temper overbearing, dictatorial, and tyrannical. Nor does this indirect oppression satisfy his despotism. The rich are in all such countries directly or indirectly the legislators of the state; and of consequence are perpetually reducing oppression into a system, and depriving the poor of that little commonage of nature which might otherwise still have remained to them

(PJ, 91-92).

In Caleb Williams this state is represented in the institutionalized despotism of Tyrrel, of whom, Godwin writes, “Wealth and despotism easily know how to engage those laws [the notorious Black Act] as the coadjutors of their oppression … law was better adapted for a weapon of tyranny in the hands of the rich, than for a shield to protect the humbler part of the community against their usurpations” (CW, 72 and 73). So too, Falkland succumbs to the same institutionalized despotism, as a system of inequality and injustice necessarily transforms a naturally generous man into a brutal, Tyrrel-like despot. Though Rothstein asserts that Falkland never oppresses Caleb with the abuse of legal power, nevertheless Falkland has all the power of the state at his disposal because he embodies the power of the state. That is to say, Rothstein is correct in that the state does not initiate the persecution of Caleb, but he is wrong in that the state plainly serves the wealthy squire. Again, that all-important notion of agency or causality or necessity remains unclear in this novel. What is the cause of Caleb's unhappiness: is it some transgression or original sin against the father, Falkland, Tyrrel, aristocratic class structure, or inequality per se? What role does the juridical mechanism play in this tragedy, the bumbling, all but indifferent state, a government which seems to take no interest in the conflict between Falkland and Caleb, though the state lends to the landowner all of its power? For Godwin the anarchist, the state is a paradox, at once a terrible “brute engine” and an abstraction which has no real existence beyond the collection of individuals. Again, this matter needs further clarification, for one of the central contradictions of the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice as well as of Caleb Williams concerns Godwin's attitude toward individualism and privacy—the ideology of the individual subject.31

It is clear that as an archist, William Godwin is primarily concerned with minimizing the encroachments of the state on the liberties of individual subjects: “individuals are everything, and society, abstracted from the individuals of which it is composed [is], nothing” (PJ, 529), and, it therefore follows that “the most desirable state of mankind is that which maintains general security, with the smallest encroachment upon individual independence” (PJ, 76). He envisions the individual subject as a sovereign state which must not be invaded: as Godwin puts it at the very beginning, “How may the security each man ought to possess as to his life, and the employment of his faculties according to the dictates of his own understanding be most certainly defended from invasion?” (PJ, 79).32 In short, writes Godwin, “individuality is of the very essence of intellectual excellence” (PJ, 757). (Godwin at one point draws a very clear and telling analogy drawn between his anarchist principles and the economics of laissez-faire: “It is now generally admitted by speculative enquirers that commerce never flourishes so much as when it is delivered from the guardianship of legislators and ministers” (PJ, 562). And yet it is equally clear that individuals do not have unlimited rights in Godwin's scheme, but can only act insofar as they do not harm others: “Few things have contributed more to undermine the energy and virtue of the human species than the supposition that we have a right, as it has been phrased, to do what we will with our own” (PJ, 194; see also 227 where he spells out responsibilities for others). Additionally, Godwin has nothing but scorn of the emerging structures of bourgeois individualism, the family and marriage (see PJ, 756-67 for his attack on marriage). It is as if Godwin is able to recognize the objectification of social relations under market capitalism, with its reification and alienation, and the consequent loss of the sense of community, and finally its replacement with a legalistic notion of society. Nevertheless, for all of this, Godwin is still unable to envision an alternative community, other than the vaguest notion of universal benevolence and brotherhood. It is as if his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice is caught exactly betwixt and between, in the middle of an ideological contradiction, despising the false bourgeois solutions to alienation—romantic love, marriage, and the sacrosanct family, but at the same time, his vision is at the origin of the most extreme bourgeois vision of hyper-privatization and withdrawal.33

The same contradiction is at work in Caleb Williams as well, for while Godwin ascribes the root causes of “Things as They Are” to abstractions such as inequality and insincerity, his procedure is to work backwards to an inevitably individual explanation, albeit an individualism tinctured by external circumstance or necessity. The novel is a systematic working out of the doctrine of necessity: how can an innocent Caleb be transformed by circumstance into a miserable Falkland, who in turn has been transformed by circumstance into a despotic brute like Tyrrel? Like a police detective, then, Godwin's procedure in Caleb Williams is fundamentally etiological, explaining criminal activity and injustice by working backwards to social inequality. In his discussion of the present penal system in Political Justice, Godwin considers Beccaria's proposal to reform the penal code by making the punishment infinitely variable or appropriate to the crime, (a proposal which, according to Foucault, leads to the inevitable application of the human sciences to the penal system and its surveillance and investigation and taxonomic procedures for each individual criminal):

What a vast train of actual and possible motives enter into the history of a man, who has been incited to destroy the life of another? Can you tell how much in these there was of apprehended justice, and how much of inordinate selfishness? How much of sudden passion, and how much of rooted depravity? How much of intolerable provocation, and how much of spontaneous wrong? How much of that sudden insanity which hurries the mind into a certain action by a sort of incontinence of nature, almost with any assignable motive, and how much of incurable habit?

(PJ, 653).

These are the questions of the police detective, the judge, the court psychologist, and also the novelist—an archeology of motivation. This archeological or etiological movement is exactly what Godwin claims to have followed in the composition of Caleb Williams:

I invented first the third volume of my tale, then the second, and last of all the first. I bent myself to the conception of a series of adventures of flight and pursuit; the fugitive in perpetual apprehension of being overwhelmed with the worst of calamities, and the pursuer, by his ingenuity and resources, keeping his victim in a state of the most fearful alarm. This was the project of my third volume.

I was next called upon to conceive a dramatic and impressive situation adequate to account for the impulse that the pursuer should feel … I felt that I had a great advantage in thus carrying back my invention from the ultimate conclusion to the commencement of the train of adventures upon which I purposed to employ my pen.

(CW, 337).

Starting with the “adventure,” the outward circumstance or plot, Godwin's retrograde procedure interiorizes, works backwards and inward to individual motivation, starting with Caleb and working backwards through Falkland to Tyrrel, only partially by way of the institution of aristocracy. One might say that the outward “biographical form” of the novel, as Lukács puts it, is invariably at war with the class explanation of Political Justice: that is, while the philosophical treatise can lead backwards in its analysis of causality to abstraction, to the idea of inequality, the form of the novel limits explanation to individual motivation.34 Furthermore, the novelist's investigation into individual motivation has the effect of legitimating surveillance: his questions are, according to Michel Foucault, the questions of the penologist—what led the subject to commit these crimes? Godwin is similarly ambivalent towards Becarria's reforms in Political Justice, for he cannot reject altogether this new system of surveillance and investigation. And so, despite his objection to all systems of punishment, discipline and surveillance nevertheless reenter his plan by the back door:

But suppose, secondly, that we were to take the intention of the offender, and the future injury to be apprehended, as the standard of infliction. This would no doubt be a considerable mode of reconciling punishment and justice, if, for reasons already assigned, they were not, in their own nature, incompatible. It is earnestly to be desired that this mode of administering retribution should be seriously attempted. It is hoped that men will one day attempt to establish an accurate criterion, and not go on for ever, as they have hitherto done, with a sovereign contempt of equity and reason. This attempt would lead, by a very obvious process, to the abolishment of all punishment.

(PJ, 651-2).

Compared to Godwin's other writings, Caleb Williams remains a surprisingly rich novel, one that can be fruitfully examined in any number of ways, political, psychological, or other. It can be glossed as a Lukácian allegory of alienation, the objectification of social relations under capital and exclusion from community. So too, following Marilyn Butler's assertion that “In general terms, then, Caleb Williams is about hierarchy,” we could profitably discuss Caleb Williams in terms of Nietzschean resentment in master/slave relations.35Caleb Williams can be treated equally well through the work of René Girard, as a tale of triangular desire—notice that all of the struggles between Falkland and Tyrrel, Falkland and Count Malvesi, Falkland and his brother, or Falkland and Caleb involve some desired other; additionally, Caleb Williams works through a pattern of repetition, doubling, and revenge, in which an original act of violence, Tyrrel's striking Falkland, is repeated and indefinitely extended to the destruction of all.36 Each of these readings accounts for the generative pattern of some social formation, some social transgression, rather than locating the source of agency within the representation of psychological disorder of a character. Robert Uphaus writes, “It is true, as some critics have shown, that Caleb Williams may be read to some extent as an analysis of the corrupting influences of social and political institutions, but such a reading is unable to account for the compelling psychological reverberations of the novel.”37 On the contrary, we have seen that these compelling reverberations are in fact the consequence of Godwin's insight into the corrupting influences of social and political institutions. As has been argued for some time, by Harvey Gross, among others, and most recently by Ronald Paulson, Gothic fiction is inevitably political, though the relationships have often been sketchily drawn—the Gothic everywhere deals with the young overthrowing or resisting tyrants, and is filled with ruins, ruined castles, ruined people, ruins of the ancien régime.38 The work of Michel Foucault enables us to see “the mechanisms of power that frame the everyday lives of individuals”: the Gothic novel and above all Caleb Williams dramatizes the real source of terror in the industrial age of discipline and surveillance: the penetration of state apparatus into the everyday lives of individuals.


  1. Mitzi Myers characterizes the secondary literature as an opposition between politics and psychology in “Godwin's Changing Conception of Caleb Williams,SEL [Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900] 12 (1972), 592. Reading through the accumulation of criticism on Caleb Williams gives one a disconcerting sense of the sedimentary nature of literary criticism. In the 1950s and 1960s, positivistic historicists argue for Godwin's self-conscious political agenda against the New Critical claims of the independent and creative imagination of the artist: the exchange between A. D. Harvey and Marilyn Butler in the pages of Essays in Criticism is representative, with Butler insisting upon the topicality of Caleb Williams in “Godwin, Burke and Caleb Williams,EIC [Essays in Criticism] 32 (1982), 237-57, while Harvey claims that “Political Justice and Caleb Williams have very little subject matter in common” in EIC 26 (1976), 240. In response to this bifurcation, more recent writers such as Meyers, Robert Uphaus, The Impossible Observer (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1979), pp. 123-136, and Kenneth Graham “The Gothic Unity of Godwin's Caleb WilliamsPLL [Papers on Language and Literature] 20 (1984), 47-59, have suggested various strategies for demonstrating that Caleb Williams is really both a political tract and a profound psychological novel. More recently yet, post-structural readings have come to focus on the ideology of the subject and textuality in the novel, from Jacqueline Miller's examination on narrative: “Caleb's desire to vindicate his character indicates a[n] … attempt to create, control, and possess his own identity through his narrative” in “The Imperfect Tale: Articulation, Rhetoric, and Self in Caleb WilliamsCriticism 20 (1978), 368, to Gay Clifford's “misgivings about the apotheosis of self in first-person narrative,” in “Caleb Williams and Frankenstein,Genre 10 (1977), and on to Jerrold E. Hogle's deconstruction: Caleb Williams “dissipates any attempt … to refer to anything besides textuality,” in “The Texture of the Self in Godwin's Caleb Williamsboundary 2, 7 (1979), 269. As is predictable, deconstructive readers are as adept at repressing politics and history as were new critics.

  2. Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters (London: New Left Books, 1979), pp. 123-4.

  3. This passage comes from Godwin's preface to the 1832 edition of Fleetwood, which is included as an appendix to David McCraken's Oxford English Novel edition of Caleb Williams (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 340. Page numbers refer to this edition.

  4. Peter H. Marshall, William Godwin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 23. Harvey Gross anticipates this Calvinist explanation in “The Pursuer and the Pursued: A Study of Caleb Williams,TSLL [Texas Studies in Literature and Language] 1 (1959), 401-411. Marshall also connects the privatization of Godwin's later thought with his Calvinistic upbringing: “Indeed, Godwin's anarchism, with its rejection of all forms of established authority, is little more than a strict application of the Dissenters' ‘sacred and indefeasible right of private judgment’.” (the quotation comes from Political Justice, 3rd ed., II, 449. (Marshall, p. 43).

  5. Rudolf R. Storch, “Metaphors of Private Guilt and Social Rebellion in Godwin's Caleb Williams,ELH 34 (1967), 189.

  6. ”The Dissection of the Psychical Personality,” in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1965), p. 53.

  7. See The Making of The English Working Class (New York: Vantage Books, 1966), pp. 17-185 for the classic evocation of the volatile state of England in the early 1790s.

  8. “Caleb Williams thus reflects not only the general hostility to spying, but also the fear of the spy in the acutest form.” Ian Ousby, “My Servant Caleb: Godwin's Caleb Williams and the Political Trials of the 1790s,” UTQ [University of Toronto Quarterly] 44 (1974), 48.

  9. Pp. 133-143 of Marshall concern the political atmosphere in 1790s.

  10. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, ed. Isaac Kramnick (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 657. This is based on the third edition, from 1798.

  11. Butler, p. 238.

  12. Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel 1780-1805 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976); for the general features of the Jacobin novel, see also Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

  13. Alex Gold, “Its Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin's Caleb Williams,TSLL 19 (1977), 135-160 is an excellent study of how the psychological is determined by the political in Godwin's work. Caleb is bound to his own suffering simply because he cannot see how “government controls and determines not only his life, but his very sense of life as well” (p. 135). For Godwin's observations along this line, see the chapter “Of Education, the Education of a Prince,” in Political Justice where Godwin demonstrates the inevitable brutality of princes: “What is the result of such an education? Having never experienced contradiction, the young prince is arrogant and presumptuous. Having always been accustomed to the slaves of necessity or the slaves of choice, he does not understand even the meaning of the word freedom. His temper is insolent, and impatient of parley and expostulation. Knowing nothing, he believes himself sovereign, informed, and runs headlong into danger, not from firmness and courage, but from the most egregious willfulness and vanity. … In no case can the education of a friend and benefactor of human kind … by any speculative contrivance be communicated” (pp. 415-7).

  14. “What makes the presence and control of the police tolerable for the population, if not fear of the criminal? This institution of the police, which is so recent and so oppressive, is only justified by that fear. If we accept the presence in our midst of these uniformed men, who have the exclusive right to carry arms, who demand our papers, who come and prowl on our doorsteps, how would any of this be possible if there were no criminals?” Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1977), p. 47. These questions are very helpful in remembering the widespread hostility to both standing armies and professional police in eighteenth-century England.

  15. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), p. 77.

  16. For the function of hanging as a spectacle of horror and a public display of royal power in eighteenth-century England, see Douglas Hay, “Property, Authority, and the Criminal Law,” in Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh, John G. Rule, E. P. Thompson, and Cal Winslow, Albion's Fatal Tree, Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Pantheon, 1975), pp. 17-63.

  17. Power/Knowledge, p. 38.

  18. Marshall, William Godwin p. 145. For a brief history of Bentham's Panopticon, published in 1791, see Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain, The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (New York: Pantheon, 1978), pp. 109-113.

  19. Ignatieff, pp. 111 and 113. According to Foucault, “The Panopticon functions as a kind of laboratory of power. Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men's behaviour; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised.” Discipline and Punish, p. 204.

  20. See David Philips, Crime and Authority in Victorian England (London: Croon Helm, 1977), pp. 53-95. See also M. Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century (1925, rpt. Chicago: Academic Chicago, 1984), pp. 17-23, for the earlier history of police reform in the hands of the Fieldings, through Patrick Colquhoun, for the establishment of proto-police forces.

  21. George Rudé, Criminal and Victim, Crime and Society in Early Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 110.

  22. Storch, “Metaphors of Guilt,” p. 191.

  23. Notice that William Godwin rejected John Howard's notion of solitary imprisonment as the solution to prison reform—to Godwin, Howard's plan was too cruel, which is consistent with Caleb Williams, in that the ultimate punishment is complete isolation. See Political Justice, pp. 676-78.

  24. It might be argued, however, that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer evoke a similar terror of surveillance.

  25. Foucault connects surveillance and discipline with the historically concurrent perfection of factory discipline and efficiency, or Taylorism: “the utilitarian rationalization of detail in moral accountability and political control” (DP, 139). And of course Bentham's Panopticon was conceived first and foremost as a workhouse, a perpetual motion machine running on endlessly exploitable labor. In his chilling conclusion, Foucault asks, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (DP, 228). For the connection between factory discipline, capital, and alienation, Lukács writes, “In this environment where time is transformed into abstract, exactly measurable, physical space, an environment at once the cause and effect of the scientifically and mechanically fragmented and specialised production of the object of labour, the subjects of labour must likewise be rationally fragmented. On the one hand, the objectification of their labour-power into something opposed to their total personality (a process already accomplished with the sale of that labour power as a commodity) is now made into the permanent ineluctable reality of their daily life. Here too the personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle and fed into an alien system. On the other hand, the mechanical disintegration of the process of production into its components also destroys those bonds that had bound individuals to a community.” “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), p. 90. Frank Lentricchia examines the Marxist implications of Foucault's argument in Discipline and Punish: “Foucault does for the theory of discipline in the twentieth century what Marx did for the theory of capital in the nineteenth, and … these two theories, far from being antagonistic, are necessary complements within a fully articulated theory of historical materialism.” “Reading Foucault (Punishment, Labor, Resistance),” Raritan 1 and 2 (1982), p. 13; see particularly Lentricchia's connection of (factory) discipline/reification with Taylorism, pp. 44-52.

  26. David Punter, “Fictional Representations of the Law in the Eighteenth Century,” ECS [Eighteenth-Century Studies] 16 (1982), pp. 47-74.

  27. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, ed. R. W. Chapman (1923, rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 197-8.

  28. We should note that in the first volume of the novel, Caleb keeps Falkland under surveillance: he too functions as an “ever so incessant observer” (CW, 122).

  29. Eric Rothstein, Systems of Order and Inquiry in Later Eighteenth-Century Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), p. 228.

  30. Godwin again refers to public punishment and torture as “rendering the spectacle impressive and horrible” (PJ, p. 647).

  31. On the post-structural critique of the ideology of the subject, See Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), pp. 124-5.

  32. Compare Godwin's notion of the rights of the individual subject with his portrayal of their counter force, state superintendence of opinion, in Book VI, pp. 555-69: he writes of the government's superintendence of opinion, “It is now more evident than it was in any former period that government, instead of being an object of secondary consideration, has been the principal of extensive and permanent evil to mankind” (PJ, p. 556). This fear of repression should be connected with the reference to the present repression in the preface (PJ, p. 70), as well as to his remarks about France and its “army of spies” (PJ, p. 438).

  33. When reading Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, it is hard to say whether it finally serves the right or the left side of the political spectrum. Certainly Godwin's struggles and splits with the more radical Jacobins, Thelwall in particular, and his rejection of almost any sort of practical political action is indicative of deeply rooted ambivalence in Godwin.

  34. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), p. 77.

  35. Marilyn Butler, “Godwin, Burke and Caleb Williams,” p. 252; Robert Kiely also discusses the will to power in Caleb Williams. The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 81-97. For the role of resentment in master/slave relations, see The Genealogy of Morals, trans. Frances Golffing (Garden City: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 170-180.

  36. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), and Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).

  37. Uphaus, The Impossible Observer, p. 123.

  38. Ronald Paulson argues that the terror of Gothic novels is a fictional representation of real terror, in France, “Gothic Fiction and the French Revolution,” ELH 48 (1981), 532-554, and Representations of Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

Robert J. Corber (essay date July 1990)

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SOURCE: Corber, Robert J. “Representing the ‘Unspeakable’: William Godwin and the Politics of Homophobia.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1, no. 1 (July 1990): 85-101.

[In the following essay, Corber examines Godwin's participation in the homophobic atmosphere of the late eighteenth century with his novel's association of effeminacy and homosexuality with aristocratic privilege.]

Despite the impact of the new historicism on Romantic studies, the virulently homophobic climate of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has been all but ignored by scholars interested in situating Romantic writers in relation to the political debates of the period. As a number of scholars working in the field of gay history have recently shown, sodomites were subjected to a virtually unprecedented persecution in Georgian England.1 The number of sodomy convictions rose dramatically, antisodomitical pamphlets warning against an “epidemic” of sodomy proliferated, and the popular press gloated over the appallingly brutal treatment of sodomites sentenced to the pillory.2 Moreover, members of Parliament who protested the widespread violence against sodomites were themselves subjected to vicious attacks. When Edmund Burke, for instance, spoke out against the physical and verbal abuse to which the pillory exposed men convicted of sodomy, several London newspapers insinuated that he himself was a sodomite.3

The only scholar to date who has explored this homophobic climate and its impact on the literature of the period is Louis Crompton. He has shown that the persecution of sodomites not only precipitated Lord Byron's self-imposed exile abroad but also inspired his use of tropes such as the “unspeakable.”4 Crompton's book is certainly an important contribution to Romantic studies. His careful reconstruction of the homophobic culture of Georgian England brings to light a hitherto ignored aspect of the Romantic movement. Still, his minoritarian approach to the cultural production of “the sodomite” provides little insight into the mechanisms of antisodomitical violence. According to Crompton, the men arrested for sodomy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries constituted an oppressed minority with their own distinct identity. He sees little difference between the aristocratic Byron with his history of pederastic involvements and the working-class men tried in 1810 as the “Vere Street coterie.” For this reason, he minimizes the degree to which homosexual experience varied according to class. Widely denounced as an aristocratic vice imported from the Continent, sodomy was simply not tolerated in the middle and working classes.5 Whereas aristocratic males accused of sodomy were allowed to escape to the Continent, the artisans, soldiers, and unskilled workers (the men most often arrested for sodomy in Georgian England) could look forward to the pillory, a punishment that usually resulted in death. Crompton, then, overlooks the way in which incidents like the Vere Street scandal participated in the production and reproduction of the class system. Not only were the effeminate mannerisms of the men who frequented the White Swan on Vere Street “unnatural” but their same-sex practices violated the class structure as well. Their brutal suppression reinforced aristocratic privilege and made clear the distinctions between the classes.

But Crompton, in avoiding a class analysis of the surge in antisodomitical violence, does more than elide the differences that militated against a common homosexual identity in Georgian England; his reification of the sodomite also overlooks the political complexities of antisodomitical violence. For the radicals of the period, despite an otherwise progressive agenda advocating the political and sexual emancipation of women as well as the enfranchisement of the poor, did not hesitate to exploit the surge in homophobia. Contributing to the persecution of sodomites allowed the radicals to exacerbate the tensions between the aristocracy and the middle class. They tried to increase middle-class resentment of the class system by claiming that aristocratic privilege encouraged men to behave effeminately. Tom Paine, for instance, in The Rights of Man (1791-92), complained that aristocratic privilege inspired a “sort of foppery in the human character” that reduced men to “the counterfeit of woman.”6 He argued as well that the class system emasculated middle-class males by robbing them of their initiative and self-sufficiency. Only by abolishing the aristocracy would England develop a “gigantic manliness” truly compatible with democratic reform.7 In this way, he insinuated that aristocratic privilege encouraged sodomy. Effeminate behavior in men was considered one of the defining characteristics of “the sodomite.”8

This willingness on the part of the radicals to deploy homophobia raises troubling questions about their political agenda. Why would writers otherwise committed to the rights of the oppressed contribute to the persecution of sodomites? If, as Crompton claims, the men arrested for sodomy in Georgian England did indeed constitute an oppressed minority, then why did the radicals refuse to extend their political claims to them? After all, the very Enlightenment principles to which the radicals appealed when vindicating the rights of women and the poor could also be used to critique the homophobic structures of the Georgian legal system. Jeremy Bentham, for instance, in a series of unpublished essays, emphasized the irrationality of antisodomitical violence and advocated the decriminalization of sodomy.9 Although they are not wholly devoid of homophobia and thus we should be careful not to exaggerate their significance—Bentham's opposition to sodomy laws reflected his concern that the persecution of sodomites would only encourage the development of a distinct homosexual subculture—his essays nevertheless demonstrate that radical politics could include a commitment to sodomy law reform.

Why, then, did the radicals avoid following Bentham's example and refuse to speak out against the persecution of sodomites? One way of explaining this very different application of Enlightenment principles is by situating it in relation to the growing debate over women's rights. For if the radicals tried to provoke the middle class by reinforcing the widespread belief that sodomy was an aristocratic vice, they did so in part to join forces with the feminists in their critique of the Georgian sex-gender system. Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), attacked the very aristocratic practices stigmatized by the radicals as sodomitical. According to her, gallantry, a vestige of the “age of chivalry” religiously adhered to by all those with pretensions to the rank of gentleman, was condescending to women and reinforced their oppression. She claimed in the Vindication that women are “systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions, which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority.”10 Thus she considered gallantry one of the principal mechanisms of women's oppression: “If love have made some women wretched—how many more has the cold unmeaning intercourse of gallantry rendered vain and useless!”11 William Godwin, in perhaps the most famous of the so-called Jacobin novels, Caleb Williams (1794), reinforced this critique. His novel identified gallantry as one of the aristocratic practices that encouraged sodomy. He made Falkland, the most chivalrous of the novel's characters, a sodomite. In this way, he discouraged men from paying women the “trivial attentions” denounced by Wollstonecraft. His novel associated such attentions with the “unspeakable,” or the crime that could scarcely be named.

But Godwin's novel indicates that the radicals had other reasons for contributing to the persecution of sodomites. For it shows that if the radicals contributed to the discursive construction of “the sodomite” as an aristocratic male with effeminate mannerisms, they did so to discourage middle-class men from entering into relations that helped sustain aristocratic privilege. Godwin's novel promotes a radical redistribution of power. It stigmatizes aristocratic patronage as an especially pernicious form of male bonding. According to Godwin, aristocratic patronage threatened to undermine the growing hegemony of the middle class. Despite Caleb's remarkable abilities, Falkland, the “country squire of considerable opulence” who engages him as his secretary, refuses to acknowledge his right to equality.12 Caleb's discovery that Falkland murdered Tyrrel, a rival squire, and his subsequent attempts to expose his patron only reinforce this rigidly hierarchical relationship. The authorities refuse to believe that a man of Falkland's rank committed murder, and thus Caleb falls prey to Falkland's relentless persecution.


Godwin's novel has usually been read in relation to his political philosophy. Traditionally, critics have tried to demonstrate the novel's inconsistency with the utopianism of his Enquiry concerning Political Justice. They have regarded the novel's emphasis on the irrational as a modification of, if not a departure from, the Enquiry's rationalistic claims.13 Recently, however, critics have tried to demonstrate the novel's consistency with Godwin's utopian claims by arguing that it too exalts reason at the expense of the other faculties.14 Godwin's novel does seem to confirm rather than refute his political utopianism. It abounds with examples of characters who lack control over their passions. Falkland, Tyrrel, and Caleb all behave irrationally. In each case, this lack of self-control leads to tragedy: Falkland murders Tyrrel, Tyrrel persecutes his cousin Emily, who dies in jail, and Caleb uncovers Falkland's secret. Still, readings that stress the consistency of Godwin's work do not adequately consider the novel's shift in emphasis. For the novel adopts a more pragmatic approach to the epistemological issues addressed in the Enquiry. Unlike the Enquiry, it emphasizes the interrelation of the social and the psychological. Godwin himself noted this shift in the novel's preface. There he distinguished the novel from his more theoretical work. A representation of “things as they are” rather than as they should be, the novel avoids the “refined and abstract speculation” (p. 1) typical of the Enquiry. It shows instead how the “spirit and character of the government intrudes itself into every rank of society” (p. 1).

That the novel does indeed differ from the Enquiry in stressing the psychological consequences of social structures is obvious in its representation of aristocratic patronage. Although one would expect Caleb who was born of “humble parents” (p. 3) to appreciate Falkland's patronage, he feels deeply ambivalent about it. On the one hand, he expresses an admiration for Falkland bordering on infatuation; on the other, he betrays a virtual antipathy to him. His wildly contradictory statements about him in the novel's final courtroom scene are typical. In the very same breath that he denounces Falkland as a heinous murderer, he pays tribute to him for possessing “qualities that partook of the divine” (p. 321). Nor can he bring himself to expose his former patron without first bitterly reproaching himself. He regrets that he did not open his heart to him sooner and recalls that “from the very first moment I saw him, I conceived the most ardent admiration. He condescended to encourage me; I attached myself to him with the fulness of my affection” (p. 321). Yet this self-reproach seems inconsistent with, if not outright contradictory to, his constant references to his own sufferings. Despite his misgivings, he does not hesitate to point out his own merits. He not only pays tribute to his former patron but to himself as well: he too possesses qualities that partake of the divine. He has borne Falkland's relentless persecution with “patience and endurance” (p. 322) and thus amply demonstrated his “constancy and fidelity” (p. 322).

These extremely contradictory statements are puzzling. Why would Caleb feel even the least ambivalent about Falkland's patronage? After all, it enables him to overcome his humble parentage. Yet it also limits the extent to which he does so. As his patron, Falkland, and not he, determines whether he gains recognition for his abilities. Ironically, the very qualities that Falkland admires in Caleb make Caleb an unsuitable object for his patronage. Precisely because Caleb has distinguished himself from the other peasant boys, he proves “ill-prepared for the servile submission [his patron] demanded” (p. 143); he has even grown used to considering himself “much [his] own master” (p. 143). Caleb, then, should feel ambivalent about Falkland's patronage: it thwarts rather than promotes his interests. He does not realize that his very dependence on Falkland marks him as inferior. He interprets Falkland's interest in him as confirmation of his abilities. Directly comparing himself to his patron at one point in the novel, Caleb remarks: “I was not born indeed to the possession of hereditary wealth; but I had a better inheritance, an interprising [sic] mind, an inquisitive spirit, a liberal ambition” (p. 255).

The institution of patronage provides Falkland with a mechanism for containing Caleb's ambitions. From the very beginning, Caleb appears to recognize this. He has difficulty upholding the terms of his relations with his patron. He repeatedly violates the implied contract between them by seeking more intimate relations with him. In this way, he hopes to redefine their relations. He goads Falkland into confessing his guilt by constantly alluding to Tyrrel's murder. Caleb attributes this obvious violation of his contractual obligations to his inexperience. He claims that because of his boyhood obscurity he has only a limited knowledge of society; therefore, he should not be expected to understand the implications of patronage. As a child, he developed a “considerable aversion to the boisterous gaiety of the village gallants” (p. 4) that supposedly prevented him from developing a “practical acquaintance with men” (p. 5). Thus he hardly knows what to expect from Falkland, whose aloofness he misinterprets as “the inheritance of the great, and the instrument by which the distance between them and their inferiors was maintained” (p. 5).

But Caleb's violation of his contractual obligations cannot be wholly attributed to inexperience. He knows full well that his desire for more intimate relations with Falkland is inappropriate to the terms of patronage. For he pursues greater intimacy in the hopes of undermining Falkland's power over him. The more Falkland confides in him about his past, the more dependent he is on Caleb for his peace and security. Caleb takes perverse pleasure in Falkland's angry outbursts over his curiosity about his past: “I thought with astonishment, even with rapture, of the attention and kindness towards me I discovered in Mr. Falkland through all the roughness of his manner. I could never enough wonder at finding myself humble as I was by my birth, obscure as I had hitherto been, thus suddenly become of so much importance to the happiness of one of the most enlightened and accomplished men in England” (p. 121). Caleb's astonishment here suggests that he deliberately violates his contractual obligations. Greater intimacy with his patron promises to reduce the inequalities between them. Falkland's angry outbursts leave Caleb feeling empowered rather than rebuffed. As his patron's confidant, he is no longer a humble and obscure peasant subject to Falkland's arbitrary control, but the intimate acquaintance of one of England's most enlightened and accomplished men.

But Caleb has seriously miscalculated his own importance. Greater intimacy with his patron only reestablishes the inequalities between them. All along he has assumed that Falkland would reward his fidelity by granting him greater autonomy. Although he will continue to fulfill his obligations to Falkland, he will no longer be treated as a mere secretary: “I expected in return that I should suffer no incroachment [sic], but be left to the direction of my own understanding” (p. 144). But here he misunderstands things as they are. In confessing his guilt, Falkland not only reasserts but consolidates his power over him. Caleb's relations with his patron are now more intimate but not more friendly. He can look forward to the benefits of patronage but not its privileges. Falkland warns him, “You shall continue in my service, but can never share in my affection. I will benefit you in respect of fortune, but I shall always hate you” (p. 136).

This reinstatement of Caleb's contractual obligations is surprising. Falkland's confession should empower Caleb rather than consolidate his dependence on his patron: he alone knows Falkland's secret. Yet Falkland's control over him is not limited to their contractual agreement. Indeed, in one of the novel's many ironic twists, Caleb comes to desire the very man who oppresses him. As a number of critics have pointed out, he constantly borrows from the language of courtship to describe his relations with his patron.15 He claims that there was a “magnetical sympathy between me and my patron” (p. 112) and that at one point they exchanged a look “by which we told volumes to each other” (p. 126). But more important for our purposes are the decidedly sexual overtones of his curiosity about Falkland's past. He first notices the trunk containing the evidence against Falkland when Falkland accuses him of spying on his “privacies” (p. 8). This accusation arouses Caleb sexually. He recalls that it “thrilled my very vitals” (p. 8). As a result, he projects his desire for his patron onto the trunk: he associates the trunk with Falkland's “privacies.” He eventually steals into Falkland's chamber and pries the trunk open with “the energy of uncontrollable passion” (p. 132), convinced that he will find in it “all for which my heart panted” (p. 132).

This displaced desire for Falkland's “privacies” provides Falkland with a mechanism for controlling Caleb. He uses it to initiate a complex play of desire that solidifies the hierarchical terms of their relations. Although he repeatedly warns Caleb that “it is very improper in you to lead the conversation to any thing that relates to my personal concerns” (p. 119), he encourages Caleb's desire for greater intimacy. Caleb has little difficulty inducing him to “lay aside his usual reserve and relax his stateliness” (p. 109). Nor does he discourage Caleb's curiosity about his past. When he addresses Caleb, “every muscle and petty line of his countenance seemed to be in an inconceivable degree pregnant with meaning” (p. 5). In this way, he virtually seduces Caleb into violating his “privacies.” His allusions to his past reveal more than they conceal. Exercising every petty line, his facial expressions convey what his words do not. More to the point, however, by inciting Caleb's desires, Falkland obtains Caleb's compliance with their contractual agreement. As we have seen, Caleb can only gratify his desire by displacing it.

Because of their relatively overt homoeroticism, Caleb's relations with his patron do not conform to the usual pattern of male homosocial bonding in the novel. Relations between the novel's male characters usually take the form of Girardian triangles; male homosocial desire should lead to deadly rivalries rather than to mutual infatuations.16 Perhaps the most obvious example of this pattern is the rivalry between Falkland and Tyrrel. They compete over a series of characters, both male and female, in whom they take little interest except as the object of each other's desire. In this way, they solidify and define their relations. Falkland, for example, insists that he does not show Tyrrel's cousin Emily more attention out of concern for her welfare: “He should have been glad to be more particular in his notice of her, had he not been apprehensive of doing her a prejudice in the suspicious mind of Mr. Tyrrel” (p. 41). Yet his concern for her welfare does not prevent him from distinguishing her from his other acquaintances: “There was a particular complacency in his looks when directed toward her” (p. 41). Surely if he truly cared about her welfare he would avoid noticing her at all since he knows that doing so will only turn his rival against her. But instead he uses her as the structuring third term of his relations with Tyrrel. His attentions to her help define their relations as a rivalry. Tyrrel considers Falkland's complacency with regard to Emily the ultimate provocation. Whereas before their rivalries were limited to the community, they now extend into their own households: “The scoundrel knows his pitiful advantages. … He is my rival and my persecutor. And at last, as if this were not enough, he has found means to spread the pestilence in my own family” (p. 54).

This rivalry in which Falkland uses Emily as a pawn in his struggle with Tyrrel, a struggle that does not really concern her but that nevertheless ultimately destroys her, helps to clarify the way in which Caleb's and Falkland's relations deviate from more normative male homosocial bonding. Unlike the novel's other male characters, Caleb and Falkland are determined not to triangulate their desire for each other. Caleb in particular resists mediating their relations. Rather than involving Falkland in a murderous test of male wills that would consolidate their relations, he tries to increase their intimacy by forcing Falkland to confess his guilt. Thus where he can be accused of inexperience is in his misunderstanding of appropriate and inappropriate male bonding. His desire for Falkland leads to persecution rather than rivalry. Without a structuring third term, his relations with his patron remain unmediated, and thus they are forced to resort to persecuting each other, for only by persecuting each other can they position themselves with respect to each other.

There are two possible explanations for the lack of a triangular relation between Caleb and Falkland. First of all, the differences in their class positions seem to preclude more normative male bonding between them. Triangulating his desire for Caleb would require Falkland to compete with him in the way in which he competes with Tyrrel. Since this would amount to acknowledging that he and his young dependent actually are equals, he refuses to do it. But this does not explain Caleb's resistance to triangulating his desire for Falkland. According to the triangular logic of competition in this text, mediating his relations with his patron would give him the very leverage he desires. Competing with Falkland rather than persecuting him would undermine the inequalities between them. Why, then, does Caleb submit to an unmediated relation with his patron? We can perhaps best explain this submission in psychoanalytic terms.

Scholars of gay studies have (with good reason) shown considerable reluctance to embrace psychoanalytic theories of homosexuality. They have been particularly suspicious of Freud's famous case history of the delusional Dr. Schreber because they feel it reduces same-sex desire to a paranoid structure. David Van Leer, for instance, in a recent critique of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's contributions to gay studies, claims that Sedgwick's “equation of paranoia and homosexuality builds … on the very analysis of Dr. Schreber that gay scholars find problematic.”17 Though he misrepresents Sedgwick's work on the paranoid Gothic tradition, Van Leer is quite right to suggest that scholars of gay studies should find the Schreber case history problematic. For while Freud identifies Schreber's inability to accept his homosexuality as the determining factor of his illness, he refuses to analyze Schreber's paranoid delusions as a form of internalized homophobia.18 As a result, his famous case history has tended to reinforce rather than undermine the pathologizing of same-sex eroticism that first gained medical currency in the late nineteenth century and that has persisted in contemporary psychiatric discourse with its recent attempts to isolate and define a “sissy boy syndrome.”19

But if we avoid Freud's mistake of treating Schreber's paranoia as a purely psychological construct, then it seems to me that we can recuperate the famous case history for gay studies. Its description of the potentially devastating impact on the gay male psyche of the discursive construction of “the homosexual” as a self-hating, feminized male is simply too valuable for us to ignore. According to Freud, Schreber falls ill because he feels feminized by his desire for Dr. Flechsig. Freud concludes that “the exciting cause of the illness was the appearance in him of a feminine (that is, a passive homosexual) wish-phantasy, which took as its object the figure of his physician.”20 According to Freud, then, we should interpret Schreber's delusions of persecution as attempts to protect his masculine self-esteem. In the course of repressing his homosexuality, Schreber transforms his love for Dr. Flechsig into hatred and projects it onto him: he does not love Dr. Flechsig but hates him because Dr. Flechsig persecutes him.

But why should Schreber's desire for Dr. Flechsig result in a “feminine” or passive wish-fantasy rather than a “masculine” or active one? This question apparently did not occur to Freud. We can rectify this omission by examining Schreber's own account of his illness more closely. Judging from Schreber's description of his delusions, the intrapsychic pressures that prevented him from accepting his homosexuality were ultimately social in origin. Because of the polarization of male and female roles in the nineteenth century, he experienced his desire for Dr. Flechsig as a contradiction—only women should love men. His delusions helped resolve this contradiction by constructing a reality more compatible with the established norms of male and female behavior. According to his delusions, he was not really a man but a woman. Thus his paranoia enabled him to regard his behavior as perfectly consonant with social convention. Obviously, loving Dr. Flechsig as a woman was more acceptable than loving him as a man.

This reading of the Schreber case history is particularly useful when applied to Godwin's novel. By mapping Godwin's novel onto Schreber's own account of his illness, we can locate more precisely the source of Falkland's power over Caleb. Like the delusional Schreber, Caleb experiences his same-sex desires as a contradiction. He too apparently believes that only women should love men. Significantly, he experiences Falkland's persecution as a test of male wills. He claims that in order to protect himself from Falkland he must resort to expedients “which man, who never deserves the name of manhood but in proportion as he is erect and independent, may find it necessary to employ for the purpose of eluding the inexorable animosity and unfeeling tyranny of his fellow man!” (p. 238). In other words, Caleb feels feminized by Falkland's persecution. He fears that he may be forced to relinquish the very qualities that make him a man: real men do not succumb to tyranny but are erect and independent. Caleb's belief in his own equality only exacerbates this fear. Rather than acting on his “inheritance” and pursuing his rights, he remains attached to the very man who persecutes him. Caleb, then, by submitting to an unmediated relation with his patron, defends himself against his own intolerance of same-sex eroticism. He cannot possibly love Falkland because Falkland persecutes him, and if he does not love Falkland, then he has preserved his masculinity.


Even when it has been recuperated for gay studies, the Schreber case history has only a limited application to Godwin's novel. Although it can help us understand why Caleb would submit to Falkland's persecution, it cannot help us understand why Godwin would make erotically charged relations between men the focus of an avowedly topical novel intended to reach the widest possible audience. For Godwin turned to the novel because he considered it the most suitable vehicle for conveying his ideas to readers not ordinarily interested in politics. In the preface, he defended his use of the novel by explaining that his insights into things as they are deserved “to be communicated to persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach” (p. 1). For this reason, his choice of the Gothic was particularly appropriate. Coupled with his homophobic representation of aristocratic patronage, the Gothic promised to construct a unitary reader highly receptive to his critique of the class system. The ability of the Gothic to reach a mass audience had been amply demonstrated by Ann Radcliffe's novels, and thus Godwin's use of the genre served to reinforce the homophobic appeal of his novel.

Still, this tells us very little about what Godwin hoped to accomplish by stigmatizing aristocratic patronage as an especially pernicious form of male bonding. Was he merely trying to mobilize as many readers as possible against aristocratic privilege, or was his agenda more ambitious? Surely he thought his deployment of homophobia would do more than enhance his novel's appeal; he no doubt wanted it to discourage the sort of male bonding that helped sustain aristocratic hegemony. But this ignores an even more basic question. For if Godwin sought to promote forms of male bonding more compatible with middle-class interests, how did he represent the “unspeakable” truth about Caleb's relations with Falkland when by its very definition it could not be spoken? As we have seen, the homophobic discourse of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries tended to identify sodomy with effeminate male behavior rather than with the delusional psychosis described a century later in Freud's famous case history. Thus if Godwin's readers would not have attributed Caleb's paranoid delusions to repressed homosexual desire, then how would they have known that his relations with his patron were “unnatural”? Or to put the question another way, what characteristics identified him and his patron as sodomites?

One way in which Godwin's novel represents the “unspeakable” truth about aristocratic male bonding without referring to it by name is by describing Falkland in terms reminiscent of the antisodomitical pamphlets of the period.21 Initially, Falkland acquires much of his education in Italy, the country most often denounced at the time for “exporting” sodomy to England.22 As a result, he is widely regarded as a “foreign-made Englishman” (p. 20) whose tastes are a bit too refined. More incriminating, however, is his behavior. He displays all of the characteristics then attributed to the sodomite. Not only does he possess an “extreme delicacy of form and appearance” (p. 19) but his manners are “particularly in harmony with feminine delicacy” as well (p. 19).

Here the relation of Godwin's novel to more popular representations of sodomy becomes quite explicit. Like the antisodomitical pamphlets of the period, Godwin's novel reifies the sodomite as a species of individual. Falkland's form and appearance are extensions of his sexuality. Thanks to his “unnatural” desires, he is more female than male. Moreover, his patronage undermines Caleb's “interprising [sic] mind” and “liberal ambition,” qualities that tended to define middle-class masculinity. In this respect, Godwin's novel does more than confirm the popular representation of sodomy as an aristocratic vice: it underwrites middle-class norms of male behavior. All male bonding in the novel leads to feminization, even mediated male bonding. The novel constantly deconstructs its own distinction between rivalry and persecution. From the very beginning, Falkland's rivalry with Tyrrel borders on persecution. Tyrrel, for instance, views his cousin Emily's infatuation with Falkland as “the last persecution of a malicious destiny” (p. 146). At one point, he even denounces Falkland as “my rival and my persecutor” (p. 54; italics added). What is more, his feelings of persecution reach the level of a delusion. Not unlike Caleb, Tyrrel begins to see himself as the victim of a general conspiracy. He thinks that the poet Clare's affection for Falkland is “expressly intended as an insult to him” (p. 25), and he complains that “this Falkland haunts me as a demon” (p. 31).

The shifting configuration of Tyrrel's relations with Falkland helps to reinforce Godwin's critique of aristocratic norms of male behavior. Godwin problematizes Tyrrel's paranoid delusions by making him the sexual antithesis of Falkland. A “true model of an English squire” (p. 16), he is from birth “muscular and sturdy” (p. 17). Thus his sexuality is decidedly not “foreign-made” but homegrown: “Every daughter regarded his athletic form and his acknowledged prowess with a favourable eye” (pp. 18-19). Here Godwin's novel makes its strongest claims for the legitimacy of middle-class norms of male behavior. Even aristocratic male bonding between equals proves problematic. Tyrrel's masculine “prowess” fails to protect him from Falkland's feminizing control. Significantly, he resorts to insinuating that Falkland is a sodomite. “A puny bit of a thing” (p. 27), a “Frenchified rascal” (p. 54), a “Frenchified fop” (p. 67)—all are epithets used by him at various points in the novel to refer to Falkland. By stigmatizing Falkland in this way, he tries to reclaim his masculinity—it is not he who has been feminized by their relations, but Falkland.

Godwin's representation of aristocratic male bonding does more than legislate a sexual norm more compatible with middle-class values. Recent gay historiography has tended to see the homosexual as a construct of the labeling and categorization of peripheral or “deviant” sexualities that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century.23 It has shown that the designation of same-sex eroticism as a condition afflicting certain individuals constituted a turning point in the development of a distinct homosexual identity. No longer a mode of sinful behavior in which anyone might engage, sodomy suddenly acquired a unique specificity. Yet Godwin's novel indicates that sex between men had acquired a unique specificity earlier in the century under the guise of “the sodomite.” As we have seen, Godwin's novel participates in a homophobic discourse in which the locus of guilt has already shifted from a specific act (sodomy) to particular individuals (men with certain recognizable traits). Following the example of the antisodomitical pamphlets of the period, Godwin's novel constructs the sodomite as an aristocratic male with effeminate mannerisms. But Godwin's novel also goes beyond contemporary homophobic discourse, for it pathologizes same-sex eroticism. It treats same-sex eroticism as a “condition.” According to Godwin, “the sodomite” is not only feminized but self-hating. The prey of a forbidden desire, Caleb eventually repudiates his rights: he does not deserve to be treated as an equal. Ironically, his “triumph” over Falkland at the end of the novel reinscribes the hierarchical terms of patronage. When he exposes Falkland as Tyrrel's murderer, he protests that Falkland “is a man worthy of affection and kindness, and … I am myself the basest and most odious of mankind” (p. 323). Caleb's self-reproach here ratifies the very categories that he has refused to acknowledge throughout the novel. Compared to Falkland, he is base and odious, a mere peasant unworthy of patronage.

Godwin's novel, then, legitimates middle-class notions of appropriate male behavior by invoking certain popular myths that, although they never refer to sodomy by name, nevertheless specify it as their referent. A question still remains, however: what did Godwin hope to accomplish by equating aristocratic norms of male behavior with the “unspeakable”? Recent discussions of homophobia have tended to emphasize its impact on the social formation as a whole rather than on those against whom it is primarily directed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, for example, in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, rejects the totalizing definition of homophobia popular with gay liberationists in the 1960s. Refusing to reify the social forces that oppress gays in our culture, she argues that the power to suppress homosexuality is a site of constant struggle.24 According to her, the deployment of homophobia makes it possible to control the entire spectrum of male bonds, not just those between gay men; as a result, it opens up a space of power that invites appropriation by competing social forces, each of which has something to gain by regulating the way in which men bond. Craig Owens has recently adapted this definition of homophobia to Foucault's analysis of the rise of disciplinary power in the West. He suggests that homosexuality became problematic in the nineteenth century because intense male bonding threatened to disrupt the “smooth functioning” of modern bureaucratic institutions.25 He argues that the deployment of homophobia helped avert this potential crisis by imputing a homosexual motive to all male bonds. Thus, although it lacks the theoretical rigor of Sedgwick's work (Owens reifies disciplinary power in the same way that gay liberationists reified society), Owens's discussion also stresses the impact of homophobia on society as a whole.

These discussions of homophobia seem particularly applicable to Godwin's novel. They enable us to locate it in a protracted struggle in eighteenth-century England among competing class interests to determine the structure of the male homosocial spectrum. Obviously, Godwin's male readers were especially susceptible to the sort of blackmail described by Sedgwick and Owens. After all, in Georgian England effeminate behavior alone could lead to sodomy charges. Thus Godwin's invocation of the “unspeakable” was opportune. The surge in antisodomitical violence provided him with leverage over the entire range of male bonds. In particular, it allowed him to discredit male homosocial structures that helped perpetuate aristocratic hegemony. By associating aristocratic patronage with the “unspeakable,” he promoted forms of male bonding more conducive to middle-class ambitions. His novel renders middle-class men who rely on patronage rather than on their own industry and talent vulnerable to stigmatization as sodomites.

This reading does not mean, however, that definitions of homophobia that treat it as a strategy for containing same-sex eroticism cannot also be applied to Godwin's novel. Indeed, where the Schreber case history can help us situate the novel in relation to the antisodomitical violence of the 1790s is in providing an especially graphic example of the psychological damage caused by homophobic structures that locate “the homosexual” at the threshold between genders. As we saw above, plotting Godwin's novel onto the Schreber case history helps to clarify the psychology of Caleb's compliance with his own oppression. Like the delusional Schreber, Caleb falls prey to desires that conflict with middle-class norms of male behavior and that provide Falkland with a mechanism for controlling him. Succumbing to a homophobic self-hatred, Caleb repudiates his rights. In this respect, aristocratic patronage is merely one among a number of male homosocial bonds signified by Caleb's relations with Falkland. Caleb's capitulation to the class system at the end of the novel dramatizes the problems inherent in all male bonding, not just that between the aristocracy and the middle class. According to Godwin, in a society in which power is unevenly distributed, there can be no male bonding that is not hierarchical and undemocratic. Because of the way things are, Caleb's desire for equality can only express itself illicitly as a desire for sexual intimacy with his patron. For this reason, it is doubly prohibited: it violates the social as well as the political order. But this also makes it easier to regulate. In relinquishing his claims to equality, Caleb polices himself.

I realize that in stressing Caleb's compliance with his own oppression as a form of internalized homophobia, I am deviating from the usual reading of the paranoid Gothic and its thematization of same-sex eroticism.26 Sedgwick, for instance, in Between Men, quite pointedly shifts her discussion from the homosexual to the homophobic content of the paranoid Gothic. She defends this shift by claiming that it enables us to read novels like Godwin's as “explorations of social and gender constitution as a whole, rather than of the internal psychology of a few individual men with a ‘minority’ sexual orientation.”27 Moreover, she worries that stressing the homosexual content of the paranoid Gothic will only encourage the sort of psychoanalytic criticism that has traditionally dominated literary discussions of homosexuality. She explains that criticism that speculates about the author's sexuality or that of his or her characters “disguises or denies the importance of much more fundamental and entirely unanswered questions about the constitution and social meaning of male homosexuality itself.”28 While she regrets that in shifting her discussion in this way she may be appropriating the literary heritage of an oppressed minority, she does not feel qualified as an outsider to define a distinctly gay male literary tradition. In her view, “it is apt to be a critic able to read and speak as a participant in gay male culture who can recognize and situate [homosexual] thematic arrays most authoritatively.”29 According to Sedgwick, then, stressing the homosexual content of the paranoid Gothic leaves the critic with only two alternatives: either to name names, or else to locate novels like Godwin's in a distinctly gay male literary tradition.

Although I think Sedgwick is quite right to situate novels like Godwin's in the larger social formation, I also think she dismisses their “homosexual” content much too easily. It is certainly true that Godwin's novel can be read as an exploration of social and gender constitution “as a whole”—my own reading adopts this approach—but it is also true that it can tell us a great deal about the construction of sodomy in Georgian England. Emphasizing this aspect of Godwin's novel does not require us to name names or even to locate it in a distinctly gay male literary tradition—an approach fraught with problems whether one speaks from within gay male culture or from without. Rather, it enables us to use Godwin's novel to clarify the constitution of same-sex eroticism in the Romantic period. For Godwin's reification of “the sodomite” as a category of individual suggests that Georgian England developed new and more sophisticated technologies for regulating sex between men. Practicing sodomy in the eighteenth century entailed more than committing a sin or breaking the law. It involved negotiating an identity that set the sodomite apart and that may or may not have corresponded to his lived experience. Godwin's novel, then, indicates that the antisodomitical violence of the 1790s created new strictures on same-sex eroticism, strictures that, in confining sodomy to types of individuals, went beyond the preexisting religious and legal ones. Obviously, how individual sodomites negotiated these strictures depended on their own personal history, but the self-imposed exile of figures such as Byron suggests that in at least some they led to homosexual panic.


  1. See in particular Arthur Gilbert, “Sexual Deviance and Disaster during the Napoleonic Wars,” Albion 9 (1977): 98-113; and A. D. Harvey, “Prosecutions for Sodomy in England at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century,” Historical Journal 21 (1978): 939-48. See also Gilbert's “Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,” Journal of Social History 10 (1976): 72-98.

  2. My use of the term “sodomite” should not be confused with Michel Foucault's. According to Foucault, the sodomite was a temporary aberration rather than a species of individual. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, 1980). Although I think Foucault is quite right to stress the historicity of same-sex eroticism, I do not agree that the sodomite was a temporary aberration. As we will see, the discursive construction of sodomy in Georgian England attributed a unique specificity to “the sodomite.” Thus the antisodomitical violence of the period ultimately went beyond a specific act (sodomy) to a type of individual (aristocratic men with effeminate mannerisms). Moreover, incidents such as the so-called Vere Street scandal indicate that sodomites were developing a distinct subculture with their own institutions and rituals. The White Swan on Vere Street, for example, was put under surveillance because it catered specifically to sodomites and because police spies had witnessed male same-sex marriages and other “disgusting and abominable conduct” there. For a detailed discussion of this incident, see Gilbert, “Sexual Deviance and Disaster,” pp. 108-10.

  3. For a discussion of these incidents and the subsequent trials for slander, see Isaac Kramnick, The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative (New York, 1977), pp. 84-87.

  4. Louis Crompton, Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985).

  5. The anonymous pamphlet Satan's Harvest Home published in 1749, for example, charged that sodomy was “imported from Italy amidst a train of other unnatural Vices. Have we not Sins enough of our own, but must eke 'em out with those of Foreign Nations, to fill up the cup of Abominations, and make us yet more ripe for Divine Vengeance?” (quoted in Crompton, p. 55).

  6. Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, ed. Henry Collins (Harmondsworth, 1983), p. 102.

  7. Ibid., p. 162.

  8. Crompton cites considerable evidence of this. See especially his quotations from Hester Thrale's letters and diary (Crompton, pp. 36-37 and passim).

  9. Crompton has recently published these essays in Journal of Homosexuality. See Jeremy Bentham, “Offences against One's Self: Paederasty,” Journal of Homosexuality 3 (1978): 389-405, and also “Jeremy Bentham's Essay on ‘Paederasty,’” Journal of Homosexuality 4 (1978): 91-107.

  10. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston (New York, 1975), p. 57.

  11. Ibid., p. 97.

  12. William Godwin, Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (New York, 1977), p. 4; subsequent references will appear in the text and are to this edition.

  13. See especially Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, MA, 1972), pp. 82-97; see also Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel, 1780-1805 (Oxford, 1975), pp. 179-208.

  14. See especially Alex Gold, Jr., “It's Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin's Caleb Williams,Texas Studies in Language and Literature 19 (1977): 135-60; see also Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford, 1976), pp. 57-75.

  15. See especially Ronald Paulson, Representations of Revolution (1789-1820) (New Haven, CT, 1983), pp. 231-36; see also Gold.

  16. For a feminist revision and application of Girardian theories of triangulated desire, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York, 1985), pp. 21-27; see also Toril Moi, “The Missing Mother: The Oedipal Rivalries of Rene Girard,” Diacritics 12 (1982): 21-31.

  17. David Van Leer, “The Beast of the Closet: Homosociality and the Pathology of Manhood,” Critical Inquiry 14 (1989): 600; see also Craig Owens, “Outlaws: Gay Men in Feminism,” in Men in Feminism, ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York and London, 1987), pp. 219-32.

  18. This is not to suggest that Freud wholly discounted the psychic consequences of homophobia. In his famous “Letter to an American Mother,” for instance, he makes clear that the persecution of homosexuals can have a devastating impact on their ability to accept their sexuality and that psychoanalysis should focus on making homosexuals more comfortable with their sexual orientation rather than on “curing” them of their homosexuality. For the full text of the letter, see Ronald Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis (Princeton, NJ, 1987), p. 27.

  19. See Richard Green's The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality (New Haven, CT, 1987).

  20. Sigmund Freud, Three Case Histories, ed. Phillip Rieff (New York, 1963), p. 147.

  21. Also relevant here is the antimasquerade discourse recently described by Terry Castle. The masquerade came under increasing attack in the eighteenth century for permitting crossdressing, which was considered a sodomitical practice; see Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford, CA, 1986), pp. 45-50.

  22. See, for example, the passages from the antisodomitical pamphlet Satan's Harvest Home cited in Crompton (n. 4 above), pp. 55-56. For a good discussion of the connection between English xenophobia and the persecution of sodomites, see Ed Cohen, “Legislating the Norm: From Sodomy to Gross Indecency,” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 181-217.

  23. This is not to suggest that there is a consensus among scholars of gay studies as to the birthdate of “the homosexual.” For recent gay historiography that treats the gay male identity as universal and transhistorical, see John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago, 1980); see also his “Revolutions, Universals and Sexual Categories,” Salmagundi 58-59 (1982-83): 89-113; see as well George Chauncey, Jr., “From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualization of Female Deviance” in the same issue (pp. 114-46). For recent gay historiography that stresses the historicity of the gay male identity, see Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (London, 1977); and Jonathan Katz, A Gay/Lesbian Almanac (New York, 1982). See also Cohen.

  24. See Sedgwick, pp. 83-96.

  25. Owens, p. 221.

  26. Gold, for instance, cautions against placing too much emphasis on the homoeroticism of Caleb's and Falkland's relations. According to him, there is nothing in Godwin's life or work to suggest that he “had any special interest in the exclusive sexual attraction of a man to other men” (Gold [n. 14 above], p. 145). Thus we should be careful not to read Godwin's novel as “really a story about passion between men” (Gold, p. 145). Like Sedgwick, Gold feels that Godwin's interests are ultimately “larger” than the construction of sodomy in Georgian England.

  27. Sedgwick, p. 115.

  28. Ibid., pp. 115-16.

  29. Ibid., p. 116.

Kenneth W. Graham (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Graham, Kenneth W. “‘Domestic and Unrecorded Despotism’: The Politics of Caleb Williams.” In The Politics of Narrative: Ideology and Social Change in William Godwin's Caleb Williams, pp. 13-48. New York: AMS Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Graham discusses Godwin's treatment of class and gender inequalities in Caleb Williams, maintaining that the novel is a product of Godwin's most radical period.]


Caleb Williams and Political Justice represent Godwin during his most radical period. Soon after their publication Godwin was to be a helpless witness at the death of Mary Wollstonecraft and, a little later, he was to see his ideas and his marriage held up to ridicule and his supporters desert him. Works written after such experiences continue to exhibit his philosophical rigor and creative powers, as well as his extraordinary industry, but they lack the fire and audacity of the publications of 1792-95 that attacked the repressions fostered and encouraged by government: the MUCIUS letters of 1792-93, Political Justice (1793), Caleb Williams (1794), Cursory Strictures and A Reply to an Answer to Cursory Strictures (1794), and Considerations on Lord Grenville's and Mr Pitt's Bills (1795). Just as Godwin blunted some of the contentious edges in subsequent editions of Political Justice, so in later works he did not to the same degree challenge received and cherished ideas or defy the power of government and public opinion.

Godwin wrote Caleb Williams in a fervor of indignation and conviction, indignation at the fundamental selfishness and injustice built into the foundations of government itself, and conviction in the approach of a succession of revolutions, increasingly frequent and increasingly benign, carrying societies towards equality, liberty and political justice. The fine concluding chapter of Political Justice expresses an assurance of a better future, a confidence that the steady operation of rational choice will lead to conditions of liberty and equality that will “free the peasant from the inequity that depresses his mind, and the privileged from the luxury and despotism by which he is corrupted.”1 That chapter is entitled “Reflections” but might as well be called “Things As They Shall Be,” so firm and assured is its focus on the future.

Caleb Williams focuses on the present and its original primary title, Things as They Are,2 points to its reformist aims. It directs indignation at existing conditions that restrict rational choice, impede the growth of liberty and equality and maintain the peasant in ignorance and inequity and the privileged in luxury and despotism. Most of the comfortable prejudices of British conservatism come under withering examination: that women are protected by the gallantry of chivalry, that the class system is benign, that the law is impartial. When a correspondent exclaimed to The British Critic that Caleb Williams was intended “to throw an odium upon the laws,” Godwin responded with a disagreement both audacious and unhesitating. “The object is of much greater magnitude. It is to expose the evils which arise out of the present system of civilized society; and, having exposed them, to lead the enquiring reader to examine whether they are, or are not, as has commonly been supposed, irremediable; in a word, to disengage the minds of men from prepossession, and launch them upon the sea of moral and political enquiry.”3 Godwin's response reveals one of his purposes for writing Caleb Williams. His two works are to operate in a present-future tandem. Reading Caleb Williams is to lead to reading Political Justice: an indignation with the present will direct the reader to political enquiry and reforms that will alter the future.

Political Justice and Caleb Williams, then, are stages in a program of reform. Indeed, probably no novel was written with such sweeping purposes. As the response in The British Critic indicates, Godwin's intentions did not stop at the reform of the legal system but extended to a general emancipation of the mind. The Abinger Papers include some pages of reflection as Godwin in 1824 looked back to this period of intense creativity.

When I first took up my pen in 1791 to write … Political Justice, one of my leading principles was, to tell the truth & the whole truth … & to shrink from no obloquy or persecution in the pursuit of that purpose. My enthusiasm was so great, that I often thought it shall scarcely be possible for anyone to advocate narrow principles … after my book is published … [I]n a spirit something analogous to this I wrote Caleb Williams. I said to myself a hundred times, the impression of my tale shall never be blotted out of the mind of him upon whom it has once been produced: he that reads it shall never again be as if he has not read it … what I say shall be incorporated with the very fibres of the soul of him who listens to me.4

From the beginning Godwin linked the two works in content and in spirit. In both he sought to undermine fundamental prejudices and open the mind to change. Political Justice teaches that conduct should be regulated by “a consideration of the greatest general good” (PJ I 121). It insists that all conduct is moral and urges the devotion of “our property, our time, and our faculties” to contributing “to the well-being and happiness of every intellectual and sensitive existence” (PJ I 159). While Political Justice advocates a general unselfishness, Caleb Williams represents the consequences of a general selfishness perpetrated by government. It focuses on the effects of inequality, giving explicit and vivid form to the arguments of Political Justice. It demonstrates how inequality operates on both peasant and privileged, victim and tyrant, and shows that no one gains from a system of selfishness and injustice.


The 1794 Critical Review was surprised that the newly-published Caleb Williams did not include a love interest, heretofore “considered as an essential adjunct to the composition of a novel.”5The Monthly Review applauded this departure from conventionality, asserting the inappropriateness of “the energetic mind of Mr Godwin” employing itself “in the framing of a whining love tale.”6 If one considers that almost no novels published after Pamela exclude a significant element of heterosexual love interest, then Godwin's unconventionality deserves comment. Why he would omit what is found in virtually every other novel and what he substitutes in its place are questions worth examining.

Godwin was no friend to marriage. For him it was a contractual relationship motivated by irrational sentiments and fleeting considerations. Courtship is unlikely to result in a rational decision. “[F]or a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex, to come together, to see each other, for a few times, and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow eternal attachment” (PJ II 507), was a likely prelude to misery. When with the passing of time the sentiments of the parties change, they find themselves fixed indissolubly in an unhappy or fraudulent union. Like any contract, marriage inhibits individual development.

Moreover he viewed marriage as a means of perpetuating the linked inequalities of sex and property. In the outspoken first edition of Political Justice he calls marriage “an affair of property and the worst of all properties.” It demands the sole possession of a woman, “the most odious of all monopolies” (PJ III 220), and it encourages that rational loyalties be supplanted by family loyalties. Godwin's strictures on marriage are fundamentally revolutionary since they undermine the foundation of his society. In institutionalized monogamy, law and religion ratify the identity of offspring and sanction property settlements.7 Dr. Johnson regarded a woman's adultery as far more criminal than a man's since, in addition to being a moral transgression, it is a crime against property if a woman imposes a bastard on the husband.8 For the Godwin of that revolutionary first edition, property settlements and marriage contracts artificially prolong inequities in the social and political establishment. He anticipates with some satisfaction an unpatrician and democratic future in which surnames are abolished (PJ III 221).

Godwin does not entirely eschew love interest in Caleb Williams, but the little he includes reveals his antipathy to the sentimental delusions encouraged in the conventional novel. He attacks the ideologies inherent in the novel of sensibility in the brief story of Emily Melvile, the ward of Barnabbas Tyrrel.

Godwin presents the story of Miss Emily with a quietly ironic interweaving of illusion and reality. The illusions are those of an ingenuous seventeen-year-old infatuated with a charming, wealthy, older man, Mr. Falkland. He is the repeated subject of her reveries. Her ardent imagination exaggerates the little attentions his politeness pays to her, and she is drawn into a delusive hope that he reciprocates her attraction. When he gallantly rescues her from a fire, she is in retrospect excited at the thought of his carrying her, only partly clad, out of the burning house and is almost convinced that the rescue is evidence of Falkland's love—just as it would be in novels. A love that overcomes social and economic barriers is, after all, the recurring subject of novels of sensibility from Pamela on.

Her illusions extend to her relationship with another man, her guardian Barnabbas Tyrrel. One suspects her illusions are fed by both sentimental novels and courtesy books like John Gregory's A Father's Legacy that encourage in women “a warm, open and ingenuous heart.”9 Godwin paints a picture of the complex relationship between Tyrrel and Emily, almost father-daughter, almost brother-sister, without sexual attraction owing to their near kinship and Emily's lack of personal beauty. Emily is the pleasant and soothing ministering angel to the morose and gloomy Tyrrel, playing music when he returns weary from the hunt, softening his gloom and anger with her cheerfulness and artless familiarity. She is comfortable under Tyrrel's protection, assured of its firm foundation in sentiments of family and chivalry.

These dreams of sensibility are soon shattered. The sequel to her delusions of possessing Falkland's love and enjoying Tyrrel's indulgent affections is the experience of a harsh and destructive reality. With Falkland, the reality is the wisdom that novels of sensibility may not be over-scrupulous in inculcating, but that Godwin has no hesitation in expressing: “the insuperable distance that custom has placed between the opulent and the poorer classes.”10 The thought of marrying Emily is far from Falkland's mind, but her artless passion for Falkland does not escape Tyrrel. Unknowingly she presumes on her innocence and tempts Tyrrel's anger with ingenuous remarks of admiration for Falkland. Admiring Falkland, she insenses Tyrrel. Oblivious to the effect she is having, she praises Falkland but lacerates Tyrrel's sense of inferiority and exacerbates his dislike for the neighboring squire.

Tyrrel turns on Emily with a series of acts that underline her total defencelessness. Motivated by dislike for Falkland, resentment at Emily's love for Falkland, and anxiety lest Emily's innocence extend to a lack of control over her libido, Tyrrel tries to force her to marry. If it lacks love interest, Caleb Williams is unusually outspoken in its presentation of sex. As Emily's mate, Tyrrel chooses young Grimes, the son of a tenant farmer, one “accustomed to consider women as made for the recreation of the men” (CW 51). When she resists Tyrrel's choice, he accuses her of “always hankering after the men” (CW 48), of preferring to be “Mr Falkland's miss, than the wife of a plain downright yeoman” (CW 49). He demonstrates his power over her by locking her up; then he arranges her rape by the intended husband. When Falkland rescues her, Tyrrel has her arrested for the debt of fourteen years' room and board. She dies of fever and shock in prison.

The episode of Emily Melvile occupies few pages in the three volumes that comprise Caleb Williams. It is merely one of several episodes created to establish the motivations of Falkland and Tyrrel. Yet Godwin took great pains with the episode. The manuscript gives evidence of some careful rewriting to increase economy, force and realism. It is an amendment in the manuscript that replaces “a mere household convenience” with “made for the recreation of the men,”11 a phrasing that forcefully reveals the glandular imperatives behind the inequality of the sexes. Between the second and third editions, Godwin revised further, introducing the Emily episode three chapters earlier and adding some passages that underline her sexuality. This brief and ironic adumbration of a love interest plays up the contrast between illusion and reality: Godwin departs from convention in order to portray honestly women's sexuality and vulnerability in a world where chivalry is not to be trusted.

It would be pleasant to find an influence of Mary Wollstonecraft in Godwin's treatment of Emily, but when they met in 1791 and 1792, the two were not much taken with each other. Godwin had still his reputation to make as the chief philosopher of English radicalism, and Wollstonecraft had four years of adventure and heartbreak to experience before the two could cement a relationship in the spring of 1796. Godwin's diary records his reading of two works by Mary Wollstonecraft. On March 9, 1792 he read a “Story of Mrs Wolstencraft,” a reading he seems to have completed or suspended on the same day. On June 13 he read sixteen pages of “Wolstencraft” and on the following day a further 148 pages. In each case he seemed to be preparing himself for meetings for tea at Joel Barlow's. In all probability, the “Story” is Mary, A Fiction, a work slight enough to be read at a short sitting, and the other, the work that engaged Godwin's attention a second day, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. What Godwin might have noticed in the two works is a change in attitude to sensibility. In Mary it is “the foundation of all our happiness.”12 In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, sensibility is a source of dependence and subjection.

It is hard to see that Wollstonecraft's vision proceeded much further. In a perceptive article, Margaret Poovey observes that sentimental novels aroused women's sexuality yet supported the restrictions of bourgeois marriage by condoning no other outlet. She points out that Mary Wollstonecraft recognized in The Rights of Woman that men encouraged in women a soft and feeling heart in order to perpetuate their power over them. Yet in her last work of fiction, Maria, despite all its Jacobin outspokenness on the oppression of women, Mary Wollstonecraft still seeks a resolution between things as they are and as they might be within the conventions of the sentimental novel in the institution of an enlightened marriage, ignoring the systematic oppression integral to the legal and economic institution of eighteenth-century marriage.13

Godwin's treatment of Emily reflects a more comprehensive vision that woman's sensibility must ever be the victim of the realities of economics and class. Emily's sensibilities lead her to expect love where there are only the polite formulae of chivalry and the insubstantial bonds of habit, familiarity, and kinship. Burke wrote in support of “the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal.”14 Godwin reveals the selfishness behind those illusions, the self-gratification of participation in the attractive insincerities of a chivalric tradition, and the pleasures of receiving habitual obedience. He reveals also the violent side of that selfishness through the angry outbursts of Tyrrel and Falkland when each finds his authority defied. Encouraged by her environment to believe in a world of sensibility, Emily discovers a world of inequality where a conflict of interest between weak and strong results in the crushing of the weak. There is a parallel awareness in Caleb Williams and in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman that women who limit their roles to bringing pleasure to another cannot reach full humanity.


In view of the events of the early 1790s that engaged his attention, it should be no surprise that Godwin's concern with “Things as They Are” focuses repeatedly on the legal system. His recent experience showed the law used as an instrument of governmental tyranny. The penalty, assessed in January 1793, against Daniel Crichton for utterances against the monarchy was three months' imprisonment. Thomas Muir, the founder of the first Edinburgh society of the reformist association, Friends of the People, was found guilty of treason on negligible evidence and the testimony of paid informers and in August 1793 he was sentenced to fourteen years' transportation. Seven years' transportation was the sentence received by Fyshe Palmer at Perth on similar evidence a few weeks later. In early 1794 three others were put on trial in Edinburgh for advocating reform and sentenced to fourteen years' transportation.15 In Book IV of the first edition of Political Justice, Godwin dismissed government as “nothing more than a scheme for enforcing by brute violence the sense of one man or set of men upon another” (PJ III 279). Surrounded by evidence of the persecution of reformers, Godwin had strong grounds for this conclusion.

While writing Caleb Williams, then, Godwin was experiencing stark evidence of government's employing the legal system as an instrument of repression. Other instances of tyranny taking place around him were not receiving the same attention as these great public issues. He had speculated in his introduction to Political Justice that perhaps the influence of government “insinuates itself into our personal dispositions, and insensibly communicates its own spirit to our private transactions” (PJ I 4). This more extensive influence of government is the subject of Caleb Williams.

It is worth remembering that in Godwin's time the country gentleman ruled England. All the major constitutional triumphs of Whig tradition—Magna Carta, Petition of Right, Declaration of Right—represent stages in the consolidation of his power. He ruled the House of Lords. The House of Commons represented land rather than population, so there he dominated as well. In the provinces he directed parish affairs from his seat on the vestry, and he occupied the magistrate's bench. Despite the strictures of the civic humanist tradition,16 an independent income did not necessarily assure an impartial vote. Government in England in the eighteenth century was very much of the country gentleman, for the country gentleman and by the country gentleman.

Godwin had demonstrated in Political Justice that law is employed fundamentally to foster inequalities and favor the rich over the poor, and that each stage of the legal system—legislation, administration and punishment—serves this central function. Thus, game laws, passed to restrict hunting rights to a small minority of privileged,17 taxes on consumption rather than land, the outlawing of unions, all oblige the rich at the expense of the poor. In matters of administration and punishment, Political Justice observes that the cost of a law suit effectively denies to the poor the protection of the law. When sentences are passed, the severest penalties are enacted for crimes the rich are not tempted to commit (PJ I 21).

Caleb Williams documents the operations of law when ordinary people come under the displeasure of country gentlemen. Emily, Caleb, and the Hawkinses, father and son, all test the power of the law to protect them from country gentlemen. In each case the law fails the test. We are led to perceive exploitation in laws themselves as well as in their administration. Young Hawkins falls afoul of one of the game laws by stealing out at night, his face muffled in his cloak, to break the locks on a gate that Tyrrel had erected on a traditional right of way. Because the gate is coincidentally near a rabbit warren, he is arrested under the Black Act of 1723 for poaching while disguised, the penalty for which is death. He is committed to prison to await the next assizes. The administration of justice is tested by his father who, with convincing evidence, charges Tyrrel with poisoning his cattle. Tyrrel simply arranges to impoverish his opponent by employing legal procedures to prolong the action from term to term and court to court. Thus the novel demonstrates inequities in the legislation and administration of justice, underlining its observation that “the law was better adapted for a weapon of tyranny in the hands of the rich, than for a shield to protect the humbler part of the community …” (CW 223).

The novel bears out David Punter's observation that in the eighteenth-century novel “there is a consistent discrediting of English legal mechanisms and institutions.”18 We see the law upholding inequality when Caleb attempts formally to accuse Falkland of murder. The magistrate responds: “A fine time of it indeed it would be, if, when gentlemen of six thousand a year take up their servants for robbing them, those servants could trump up such accusations as these, and could get any magistrate or court of justice to listen to them!” (CW 276) Emily, the Hawkinses, Caleb, all are victims of the law's readiness to credit the accusations of the rich rather than the grievances of the poor. We see the law as an instrument of terror with arrests and threatened arrests intimidating Caleb throughout. Punter observes that one of the fearful aspects of the law is the destructive combination of ignorance and power that resides in the justices of the peace. It is a combination that Caleb experiences when trying to escape England. Apprehended on a warrant for an Irish mail robber and bearing no correspondence to the thief's description, he cannot convince the justice of the peace to release him.

The history, the fiction, and the philosophy of the 1790s blend in condemning the legal system in England. Godwin received a letter from Samuel Parr recounting an experience with the law in Warwickshire:

… I attended what is called a Court of Justice. I heard what is called the Law, I saw what is called a Jury of twelve honest and competent men. Oh! Mr Godwin, my heart recoils from scenes so inconsistent with Justice & common sense, so shocking to Humanity, so pernicious to Society … I am quite weary of all the panegyricks upon the criminal law of this Country & to tell you the truth long have I thought, & often have I maintained that a Reform of that Law would be far more useful to Mankind than a Reform in Parliament.19

When attending the trial of Hardy of the London Corresponding Society, Charles Grey, later Lord Grey, reported to his fiancée Elizabeth Ponsonby: “if this man [Hardy] is hanged, there is no safety for any man. Innocence no longer affords protection to a person obnoxious to those in Power.”20 The robber captain in Caleb Williams expresses, as the novel so often does, a blending of simple practicality and philosophical vision: “… wherever there are laws at all, there will be laws against such people as you and me. Either therefore we all of us deserve the vengeance of the law, or law is not the proper instrument of correcting the misdeeds of mankind” (CW 223). The power of law is pervasive and inescapable. Caleb's interludes of freedom are all only temporary. The landscape seems informed by the spies and minions of the law. The inexorable Gines, a forerunner of generations of police detectives like Inspector Bucket of Bleak House and Javert of Les Misérables, represents the power of the law to hound the individual.

The legal system is a central fact in the world of Caleb Williams. The novel is punctuated with instances of the legal system in action with arrests, the placing of charges, hearings, trials, depositions. Much of the central volume of the novel records Caleb's prison experiences, and throughout the final volume he is arrested, fleeing arrest, or in prison. Indeed, the very narrative that is the novel is to a large degree testimony addressed by Caleb to posterity to render the justice his contemporaries refuse him (CW 3). The novel shows unfair laws unfairly administered.


One of the ultimate expressions of governmental tyranny, together with the powers to impress for war and the power of corporal punishment, is the power to imprison. In some of the earliest and most cogent discussions of the subject, Political Justice questions the purposes of punishment and demonstrates the inability of jails to reform prisoners. Godwin cites John Howard's studies to support his rejection of jails as “seminaries of vice” (PJ II 387-9). Caleb Williams offers specific applications of some of the ideas of Political Justice. For Caleb the prison is an instrument of Falkland's power, an arm of the government that encourages and protects him. It is a symbol of the tyranny, corruption and heartlessness of the state that created it.

After the hearing before Mr. Forester at which Falkland's falsified evidence convinces all of Caleb's guilt of theft, Caleb is confined in a provincial prison to await trial at the next assizes. His reaction to his environment results in the most thorough account of prison experience in eighteenth-century fiction. Defoe, Fielding, and Smollett describe aspects of prison life, and the Gothic novel begins to investigate some of the psychological effects of confinement, but Caleb Williams presents the experience of prison with unprecedented understanding and vividness by interweaving in its account three levels of experience, the physical, the psychological and the political.

Caleb's physical description of the prison at the beginning borrows a little from Gothic convention. Godwin was reading The Mysteries of Udolpho while writing Caleb Williams, and Godwin supplies the expected accounts of “massy doors … resounding locks … gloomy passages … grated windows.” Instead of offering the sublime word painting that Radcliffe employs in her justly famous description of the castle of Udolpho,21 the account quickly turns from the literary to the physical with an uncomfortable realism unsoftened by aesthetic distance.22 Caleb notes, with horror and revulsion, the “squalidness and filth”; he is not repelled by dirt, but here the dirt carries a threat of disease with its “putridity and infection” (CW 177).

The vividness of description results from Godwin's first-and second-hand experience of prisons. Godwin's diary records his progress in writing Caleb Williams in terms of manuscript pages completed. When that information is applied to the existing holograph manuscript it reveals quite precisely the dates of composition of the various incidents of the narrative. Godwin wrote the account of Caleb's first prison experience on October 10, 1793, within days of consulting John Howard's State of Prisons and less than two months after a visit to Newgate, probably to bring comfort to Thomas Muir, awaiting transportation to Botany Bay. Howard had written of the fearful incidence of jail-fever, known to attack even “stout robust young men” after they have been “thrust into close offensive dungeons, and there chained down … sixteen or seventeen hours out of the twenty-four, in utter inactivity, and immersed in the noxious effluvia of their own bodies.”23 The novel recounts similar conditions; it carries us into the realities of prison life, to the cold and tyrannical jailers, the noise and confusion of the day common-room where there is much “laboured hilarity” and much quiet despair (CW 180). Caleb takes us to the sleeping accommodation, a narrow, damp, subterraneous, dark dungeon where prisoners are confined during the night hours. The physical account resonates with integrity.

The physical description is intensified by Caleb's account of the psychological effects of confinement in such a place. To the ordinary, sensitive person, prison is a form of torture. We experience through Caleb what it is like to be treated by jailers as an inhuman object. We know his frustration, helpless to remedy the injustice of his own participation in a scene of misery. The pain is increasingly psychological in his account of the horror of the tedium, the lack of exercise, of any change, the nightmare lists of injustices and grievances that fill and haunt the mind unremittingly (CW 184). Caleb demonstrates that torture need not be physical: “Alas, he that has observed the secrets of a prison, well knows that there is more torture in the lingering existence of a criminal, in the silent, intolerable minutes that he spends, than in the tangible misery of whips and racks!” (CW 180). The solitary hours in a black dungeon with no light, no activity, no escape from nightmare thoughts, are presented by one with insight into the effects of sensory deprivation: “My sleeping, still more than my waking thoughts, were full of perplexity, deformity and disorder … Here I had neither books, nor pens, nor any thing upon which to engage my attention; all was a sightless blank. How was a mind, active and indefatigable like mine, to endure this misery? … A thousand times I could have dashed my brains against the walls of my dungeon; a thousand times I longed for death, and wished with inexpressible ardour for an end to what I suffered …” (CW 184). Again, Caleb's experience makes vivid the ideas of Political Justice. There Godwin had regretted the “misguided philanthropy of Mr Howard” that “consisted in the erecting of gaols of solitary confinement.” Solitude, Godwin argues, creates “madmen and idiots,” not “useful members of society” (PJ II 388). Through Caleb's despair, Godwin demonstrates the effects of enforced solitude on human beings by nature social and gregarious.

The prison episode becomes political when it undermines the orthodox conviction that citizens are protected by a tradition of freedom from the kinds of tyranny common in Europe. Confronted by a further example of the falseness of such assumptions, Caleb grows indignant: “Thank God, exclaims the Englishman, we have no Bastille! Thank God, with us no man can be punished without a crime! Unthinking wretch! Is it a country of liberty where thousands languish in dungeons and fetters? Go, go, ignorant fool! and visit the scenes of our prisons! witness their unwholesomeness, their filth, the tyranny of their governors, the misery of their inmates! After that show me the man shameless enough to triumph, and say, England has no Bastille!” (CW 181). Prison experience forces Caleb to reflect on the nature of the government that would employ such places in the administration of justice. It must be both vicious and tyrannical. To force one to exchange “health and gaiety and serenity” for “the wanness of a dungeon and the deep furrows of agony and despair” is an act of “depravity” (CW 181). It offends against humanity. To Caleb's growing realization, the tyranny of the state, the tyranny of Falkland, and the tyranny of the jailors are all interrelated: all partake of a single, central tyranny, in their inclination to control, exploit and oppress those without power.

The prison episodes provided Godwin with opportunities to reveal social, psychological, and political realities—realities perhaps uncomfortable to the ordinary complacent citizen. He was able to render with compelling vividness the physical realities of British prisons and extend awareness of the shameful conditions brought to light in John Howard's studies. He demonstrates the effects of prison life on the inmates and explores imaginatively the tortures of sensory deprivation. Finally, he encourages reflection on the nature of any political and social organization that maintains itself through a prison system. With Caleb's shocked indignation at the betrayal of his confidence in British liberty and justice, Godwin invites an investigation of the sources of false opinion.


Legislation, adjudication, and punishment, the three stages of the legal process, are the three most obvious methods used by government to control the populace. A fourth method, less obvious and more insidious, begins to grow in Caleb's awareness during his prison experience. In Political Justice Godwin calls the condition confidence, a power more effective than overt tyranny in enacting obedience. As has been mentioned, Godwin suspected that government “insinuates itself into our personal dispositions, and insensibly communicates its own spirit to our private transactions” (PJ I 4). It maintains an environment of gross property inequalities, class privileges, and legal inequities that encourages flattery and servility from all levels of the population. Confidence is the voluntary compliance with the wishes of superiors or experts or authorities; it assumes that they know best. It grows out of servility and diffidence. In Political Justice Godwin draws an important distinction between forced and voluntary obedience: “… obedience flowing from the consideration of a penalty, is less a source of degradation and depravity, than a habit of obedience founded on confidence” (PJ I 229). The habit of delegating independent judgment is a major source of calamity. Godwin puts the point strongly in the first edition of Political Justice: “Man, while he consults his own understanding, is the ornament of the universe. Man, when he surrenders his reason, and becomes the partisan of implicit faith and passive obedience, is the most mischievous of all animals” (PJ III 269).

One of the roles of minor characters is to demonstrate how easily people permit themselves to be imposed upon. Falkland's footman, Thomas, believing the charges against Caleb, had dismissed him from all sympathy. But visiting him in prison and seeing him in his dungeon, chained to the wall and in handcuffs, Thomas experiences a recognition:

Zounds, how I have been deceived! They told me what a fine thing it was to be an Englishman, and about liberty and property, and all that there; and I find it is all a flam. Lord, what fools we be! Things are done under our very noses, and we know nothing of the matter; and a parcel of fellows with grave faces swear to us that such things never happen but in France, and other countries the like of that. Why, you han't been tried, ha' you?


And what signifies being tried, when they do worse than hang a man, and all beforehand?

(CW 202)

Had Godwin written a comedy, his novel would have been dotted with such anagnorises as a succession of characters come to recognize the tyranny around them. But the class of human being who thinks and reasons independently is small: in the novel it includes Caleb, Thomas (but only briefly), and the robber Raymond—those who have experienced the imposture. Much the larger class are those who take on trust the conclusions of their superiors. They are like Grimes who, in the ironic phrasing of the narrative, “reverenced the inborn divinity that attends on rank, as Indians worship the devil” (CW 79). Like Laura, like Collins, like a multitude of servants, they repose confidence in report and in authority, rather than drawing conclusions by amassing and weighing evidence. They are accomplices in the forging of manacles on their own minds.


In Caleb Williams, as in many of Godwin's writings of this time, the tribunal seems to have become an emblem of the open society he advocated, an environment where truth may emerge despite confusion and prejudice. The third letter of MUCIUS of March 30, 1793, protesting the trial of Daniel Crichton, deplores the government's action, warns of the dangers to freedom of speech and the press, and enjoins each juryman to take the opportunity of the trial to convince his fellows to proceed leniently against the victims of malicious spies and prosections. “One upright and intelligent juryman might put a close to that scene of persecution which is the disgrace of Britain.”24 His “Considerations on Lord Grenville's and Mr. Pitt's Bills Concerning Treasonable and Seditious Practices and Unlawful Assemblies” of 1795 imagines an action against a book or pamphlet of his authorship prompted by a malicious minister of the king. His hope rests on a legal tribunal. “The only security I have against the infliction of these penalties, the moment a prosecution is commenced against me, consists in the hope, that the judge may be unbiassed and impartial; that the arguments of my counsel may be found in the experiment to be irresistible; or that my jury in whole or in part may be persons of a firm, independent, and intrepid temper.”25 It is a hope which recurs in his writings. In Political Justice, while attacking the uncertainty of the law and the subtlety of lawyers, he places some confidence in “the plain unperverted sense of a jury of my neighbours, founded in the ideas they [entertain] of general justice” (PJ II 401). Godwin's mind returns repeatedly to the idea of a tribunal, not out of a naive confidence but a desperate acknowledgment: a legal hearing was the one forum in an atmosphere of repression where opposing positions could be heard. In a chapter of the 1793 version of Political Justice he writes, “The only substantial method for the propagation of truth is discussion, so that the errors of one man may be detected by the acuteness and severe disquisition of his neighbours” (PJ III 276).

The emblematic significance of the tribunal is reflected in Caleb Williams in the recurrence of at least ten tribunals. They vary in importance, in formality and in corruptness. It should come as no surprise that a work concerned with inequality, injustice, tyranny and false opinion should revert repeatedly to the tribunal as a forum of truth. Trials and hearings introduce the plot's most important turning points. The results of trials place Falkland's conscience and Caleb's independence at the mercy of Falkland's reputation. A succession of tribunals builds toward a climactic trial near the end of the narrative. That final trial was so important to Godwin that he rewrote the episode completely and, from at least one point of view, reversed the entire tendency of the novel.

Sometimes hearings result in a correct judgment, as when Falkland dismisses the suit for murder against the peasant. In this instance the conclusion is correct although the procedure is irregular since Falkland listens to evidence in camera. In another instance, a correct method leads to a wrongful result, as when Forester, after a patient hearing of all evidence, concludes Caleb to be guilty of theft and commits him to the county jail. We have a similar instance of a correct method and incorrect result when a hearing of magistrates finds Falkland innocent of the death of Tyrrel. Despite frequent demonstrations that courts of law are centers of perjury and prejudice, the novel reverts to them repeatedly because they continue to represent a potent ideal. Hearings are forums of truth. They formalize and institutionalize and symbolize the procedures of weighing evidence, speaking sincerely, and making judgments—processes fostered by Political Justice.

Many have wondered to what extent Godwin's own frankness was affected by the threat of governmental repression. Two significant alterations to the published form of the first edition took place in May 1794 just before publication. The preface to the second edition, dated October 1795, tells us that Godwin withdrew an outspoken preface “in compliance with the alarms of booksellers” (CW 1). The withdrawn preface, dated May 12, 1794, is supplied. A more significant and, perhaps, ominous change is Godwin's substitution of a completely rewritten ending. That extensive revision also took place in May 1794. The original ending in Godwin's holograph manuscript is preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and comparison with the published version reveals Godwin's extensive rethinking of his conclusion. As Godwin first wrote it, the final trial is not the forum for vindication that Caleb so ardently desires. He tells his story to an unsympathetic magistrate and Falkland convincingly debunks it as the clever fabrication of a thief, prison-breaker, and master of disguise. The trial is a victory for Falkland, who resumes control over Caleb. Caleb, imprisoned and harassed, declines into mental and physical debility and death, leaving behind only his manuscript to proclaim a final condemnation of “Things as They Are.”

In the rewritten conclusion, that final trial at first seems to contradict the novel's reformist tenor. British justice seems vindicated in an apparently conventional dénouement as Falkland responds to Caleb's fervent declaration of innocence: “… the artless and manly story you have told, has carried conviction to every hearer” (CW 324). He confesses his crimes and Caleb is exonerated. Weakened by age and struggles with his conscience, Falkland dies three days later.

Discussions of the revised ending engage one or more of three separate approaches. The first is historic, to look at the revision in terms of the political situation in 1794 at the time of the revision. Gary Kelly adopts this approach when he ties Godwin's revision to the needs of English Jacobins for an optimistic ending that asserts the power of truth at a time of increasing repression.26 The second approach is to see it in terms of the dynamics of the fictional narrative, an approach that usually includes some element of comparison of the original and the revised endings. Marilyn Butler, for instance, prefers the second ending because the dénouement arises not from external actions but from internal conflict.27 The third approach assesses Godwin's revision in terms of his philosophy in Political Justice. D. Gilbert Dumas, Robert Kiely, and Gary Kelly, with differing emphases, regard the revised ending as a departure from the principles of Political Justice. In accounting for Godwin's revision, this chapter will examine each of the three approaches and will raise reservations about arguments that separate the aesthetic from the philosophical.

Godwin's deference to the wishes of booksellers should not encourage the conclusion that he censored his expressions out of personal fears, despite the threatening political environment. D. Gilbert Dumas was the first to call attention to the manuscript's ending.28 Cross-referencing the manuscript with a microfilm of Godwin's working diary, he dated the revision of the ending as taking place between May 4 and 8, 1794. With access to the Abinger Collection now in the Bodleian, he would have found independent confirmation of his conclusion. A folio in Godwin's hand entitles these pages the “new catastrophe.”29 Dumas sought evidence connecting the rewritten ending with the political arrests of the officers of the London Corresponding Society that began on May 12. He could find none. Since Godwin rewrote the ending before the arrests and given Godwin's consistent demonstrations of courage and defiance in the face of government threats, it is unlikely that his changes were motivated by external events. When the treason trials began the following October, Godwin attended as a friend of the accused and would probably have shared their fate if they had been found guilty.30 Since political timidity as motivation neither accords with the date of composition nor with Godwin's known demeanor, we must find other reasons for that revised trial scene.

Part of the answer may be found in the uses Godwin put to tribunals in the novel. Caleb's quest and the drive of his narrative are towards an ideal forum where truth will be revealed. Forums are corrupted by false testimony or subverted by class inequalities, but the tribunal of truth remains a potent ideal.

Godwin's problem was to conclude his novel effectively and appropriately with a culminating forum. Three possibilities of closure were open to him, two apparent but the third less so. The apparent alternatives are signalled in the double title of the novel. Things as They Are points to the doctrinaire closure of Godwin's first version with the triumph of tyranny and the defeat of innocence. The Adventures of Caleb Williams, the second title, reverses the terms of the doctrinaire closure with a victorious conclusion to Caleb's adventures with Caleb exonerated and Falkland punished. At first glance, this describes the rewritten ending. But Caleb's attitude at the end is closer to defeat than triumph. Godwin's chosen closure rejects the demands of doctrine and adventure in favor of an intertwining of psychology and aesthetics that is unusually complex, assuringly realistic, and subtly true to Godwin's philosophy.

Much of the narrative momentum results from the narrator's psychological need for a forum. Caleb longs to be vindicated, “to redeem my future life from endless woe” (CW 319). We are led to anticipate the closure that Caleb so ardently desires. In that final hearing, the ideal forum for truth is almost realized. Earnestly Caleb affirms his respect for Falkland, admits to an impudent and imprudent curiosity, asserts his essential innocence, and recounts the undeserved calamities he has endured. Falkland replies with an admission of guilt and a generous acknowledgment of Caleb's sincerity and innocence. The longings of the novel's narrator should be satisfied in that final forum. It is a medium for the communication he has wished for: “a frank and fervent expostulation … in which the whole soul was poured out” (CW 323). It is a forum that seems to respond to Caleb's double need, for justice and for therapy.

Godwin refused to oversimplify the interaction of private and public worlds: the dénouement brings neither the satisfaction of justice nor of therapy. The novel cannot respond to Caleb's needs and the logic of the narrative at the same time or in the same way. Indeed, the novel recognizes a fundamental difference between the demands of justice and the demands of therapy and points in different directions for their satisfaction.

As a demonstration of British justice, that last hearing does not arouse any more confidence than the previous ones, which have shown the law to be an instrument of the gentry and their interests. The magistrate is reluctant to entertain Caleb's accusation and accedes only when Caleb's clear knowledge of the law offers some threat of liability. Even then the magistrate takes liberties in deference to Falkland's rank. The hearing is ambiguous in the way it is constituted and might easily be repudiated on appeal. It is neither formal nor informal, public nor private. It takes place in the magistrate's residence before a small invited audience. Falkland is not arrested but sent a notice of the charge and asked to appear. He is not treated as an accused felon: this final tribunal does not demonstrate equality before the English law. The administration of law continues irregular and inequitable. While Marilyn Butler asserts that Caleb “succeeds in making others believe him,”31 the text is more equivocal. Caleb records in his hearers a balance of sympathy for “the great qualities of Falkland” and “the tokens of my penitence” (CW 324). Fortunately for the cause of justice, this final tribunal does not have to decide between Falkland's “great qualities” and Caleb's “penitence.” Only one member of his audience is convinced unreservedly by Caleb's honest eloquence, and that member is Falkland, who knows the truth already. The final forum permits us to draw no comfort from British justice; the only change is in Falkland. His resolution to protect his reputation has weakened with the decline of his health and the approach of his death. Falkland's guilt is not established in Caleb's eloquent testimony but in Falkland's own confession. Thus, institutionally, things remain as they are. The courts continue to be biased by social division.

The revelation of truth is also not satisfyingly therapeutic. Caleb's forthright pleading wins Falkland's sympathy, and Falkland's emaciated condition gains Caleb's compassion. In each case, fellow feeling gives rise to remorse rather than healing: Falkland's remorse is for the crimes he committed to protect his reputation; Caleb's is for subjecting the debilitated Falkland to yet another ordeal. In his remorse Caleb begins to doubt the very foundation of justice in reason. When he analyses his own motivations he finds reason undermined by passion. His concern for “equity and justice” becomes merely “fine-spun reasonings.” He thought he had entered the action coolly and rationally but now acknowledges that “passion in a state of solemn and omnipotent vehemence always appears to be coolness to him in whom it domineers” (CW 319). Overwhelmed by the recognition of the distortions of his own self-absorption, Caleb cannot perceive any value in that final tribunal.

Godwin's rewritten conclusion makes no concessions to the picture of the corruption of justice that he paints throughout the novel. Nor does it satisfy Caleb's need for vindication. What Godwin added to the novel with his new ending is a series of reversals that, if not sensitive to the demands of justice and therapy, do satisfy requirements of aesthetics and philosophy. Godwin's chosen closure fulfills an aesthetic principle praised by Aristotle in ancient times and employed by Fielding in modern ones, the principle of fashioning a climax where recognition and reversal coincide. There is in fact a series of recognitions and reversals in that final confrontation of Caleb and Falkland. In the debilitated Falkland, Caleb recognizes frail humanity where before he had seen a monster and tyrant. In the patient and compassionate Caleb, Falkland discovers a magnanimity that reveals by contrast the baseness of his own passion for reputation. The final tribunal provides an opportunity for a confrontation that overcomes jealous self-absorption and enacts change. Before the hearing, Falkland is firm in his resolve to protect his reputation, indignant at Caleb's defiance, and full of hatred. With the trial, he confesses his guilt, submits to truth, and throws his arms around Caleb. Before the hearing Caleb is determined to expose Falkland, assured of his own innocence, and convinced his accusation is justified. With the trial, he realizes he has made a dreadful mistake and concludes himself to be Falkland's murderer. Nothing happens as expected and Caleb, freed from Falkland's persecutions, becomes the prisoner of his own remorse. The reversals are dependent on recognitions that could not have taken place without the hearing.

Not only is that ending with its recognitions and reversals, its energy and surprises, aesthetically more satisfying than the original one, it is more just to human complexity and to Godwinian philosophy. The tribunal of truth remains an ideal and the novel demonstrates how the ideal may be corrupted and how it may be approached. The sources of corruption in the judicial process are not limited to prejudice and class difference. Corruption enters whenever reason is tainted by passion, objectivity by subjectivity. Falkland and Caleb are changed towards each other by openness and sincerity. For a brief moment at a real trial, truth is spoken because a tribunal at least provides a forum that permits truth to be heard. The enemies of change are mysteries, secrets, and concealments. A forum, however corrupt, offers at least an occasion when concealment is resisted, when speaking may be frank, and truth may emerge. Political Justice demonstrates the possibility of the individual to effect small changes. Godwin's philosophy is full of admonitions to improve our worlds by exercising our understanding, speaking truth, and overcoming prejudices. Godwin invites his readers to be moved by the spectacle of “a solitary individual, bearing his undaunted testimony in favour of justice” (PJ I 220). That image of the individual, sincere and solitary, recurs in the novel with Caleb at that final forum. At the end of the novel, the world has not improved except infinitesimally, but the reader is left with a sense of the direction that improvement will take—through honesty and openness, and through the conquest of passion by reason.

Seventeen ninety-three and 1794 were years of growing nervousness for British radicals. After the “annus mirabilis”32 of 1792 with the founding of the London Corresponding Society and the general growth in membership of societies for political reform, various responses by government and the supporters of the social order constituted a disturbing backlash. When Godwin completed his final corrections of the first edition of Political Justice in January 1793, the gentry had begun to organize their tenants into a yeomanry for purposes of drill and propaganda, John Reeves had founded the anti-reform Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, and Pitt's Attorney General, Sir Archibald Macdonald, had just achieved a conviction of Thomas Paine in absentia for seditious libel in authoring The Rights of Man Part II and had prepared two hundred indictments for the most part against publishers of radical opinions.33 Government, gentry, and ordinary citizens alike were becoming increasingly intolerant of reformist ideas: as support grew for Reeves's association, it diminished for the London Corresponding Society. Godwin's preface to Political Justice reflects his awareness of the change in atmosphere: “… it is the fortune of the present work to appear before a public that is panic struck, and impressed with the most dreadful apprehensions respecting such doctrines as are here delivered. All the prejudices of the human mind are in arms against it” (PJ I xii). When Godwin started to write Caleb Williams six weeks after completing Political Justice, relations with France had made the atmosphere more threatening. Godwin's journal records that during those weeks Louis XVI had been tried, sentenced to death, and executed. The very day that Godwin presented a copy of Political Justice to Chauvelin, the French ambassador was directed to leave the country. Soon Britain and France were at war. When Godwin finished Caleb Williams in late April 1794, the government was about to arrest the officers of the London Corresponding Society, some of whom were Godwin's friends and all of whom were acquaintances. In an atmosphere of tension, Godwin wrote, revised, and published Caleb Williams. The result is a novel that engages the controversies of the time yet holds itself aloof from them. Godwin imposed on the thematic structure of Caleb Williams a binary pattern fraught with ambiguity. The two titles signal a tension between a Tendenzroman entitled Things as They Are and a thriller called The Adventures of Caleb Williams. A normal superficial reading has the title point towards two realms of external action, politics and adventure. We have examined some of the focuses of the political action and the next chapter will assess the work as a novel of adventure. But the rewritten conclusion demonstrates Godwin's suspicion of simplistic interpretations of any human action. Godwin consciously rejected a politically programmatic structure: a sequence of episodes culminating in a ringing condemnation of “Things as They Are.” The next chapter will demonstrate how Godwin drew patterns and motifs from the novel of adventure without being limited by any formula. The rewritten conclusion, by substituting reason for compassion and objectivity for subjectivity, reexamines the central tension of the novel between the external and the internal, and locates the novel's resolution in the internal.


  1. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, ed. F. E. L. Priestley, 3 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946), II 538. Future citations to this edition will be abbreviated PJ and included in the text. Volumes I and II of the Priestley edition comprise a photographic facsimile of Godwin's third edition of 1798. Volume III contains variant readings from the first and second editions of 1793 and 1796.

  2. I have followed convention and Godwin's own habitual usage by employing a short form of what became the principal title with the appearance of the fifth edition in Colburn and Bentley's Standard Novels format in 1831, The Adventures of Caleb Williams.

  3. The British Critic 6 (1795), 94-5.

  4. Abinger Papers, [Bodleian Library, Oxford] Dep c.537.

  5. Critical Review Series 2, 11 (1794), 290-1.

  6. The Monthly Review 15 (September 1794), 145-6.

  7. Tony Tanner underlines the importance of eighteenth-century marriage in bringing passion and property into “harmonious alignment” with the expression, “the all-subsuming, all-organizing, all-containing contract.” See Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 15.

  8. James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R. W. Chapman (London: Oxford University Press, 1953; rpt. 1965), pp. 393-4, 1035.

  9. John Gregory, A Father's Legacy to His Daughters (Edinburgh, 1788), p. 63.

  10. William Godwin, Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (London: Oxford University Press, 1970; rpt. 1977), p. 41. Subsequent citations from this edition will be abbreviated CW and included in the text.

  11. William Godwin, Holograph MS of Caleb Williams. 3 vols. in 1, I 74. The manuscript is shelfmarked F.47 C.1 of the Forster Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum Library.

  12. Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Fiction, ed. Gina Luria (New York: Garland, 1974), p. 147.

  13. Mary Poovey, “Mary Wollstonecraft: The Gender of Genres in Late Eighteenth-Century England,” Novel 15 (1982), 111-26.

  14. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Thomas H. D. Mahoney (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955), p. 87.

  15. G. D. H. Cole and Raymond Postgate, The Common People 1746-1946 (London: Methuen, 1938; rpt. 1966), pp. 152-57.

  16. J. G. A. Pocock, “Civic Humanism and Its Role in Anglo-American Thought,” in Politics, Language and Time (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 80-103.

  17. Chester Kirby, “The English Game Law System,” American Historical Review 38 (1932-33), 240-62.

  18. D. Punter, “Fictional Representation of the Law in the Eighteenth Century,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 16 (1982), 47.

  19. Abinger Papers, Dep b. 215/2.

  20. Rosalie Glynn Grylls, William Godwin and his World (London: Oldhams Press, 1953), p. 13.

  21. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed. Bonamy Dobree with notes by Frederick Garber (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966; rpt. 1980), pp. 226-28. Coral Ann Howells subjects the passage recounting Emily's first sight of the castle of Udolpho to witty and penetrating analysis in her Love, Mystery and Misery (London: Athlone Press, 1978), pp. 33-40.

  22. Here we may be perceiving the influence on the son of a dissenting minister of The Pilgrim's Progress. Christian and Hopeful are confined also for an offence against property in the “dark … nasty and stinking” dungeon of the Giant Despair.

  23. John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1792), rpt. in Prisons and Lazarettos, 2 vols. (Montclair, N. J.: Patterson Smith, 1973), I 467.

  24. Uncollected Writings (1785-1822), [Eds. Jack W. Marken and Burton R. Pollin. Gainsville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968,] p. 124.

  25. Uncollected Writings (1785-1822), p. 220.

  26. Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 185-6.

  27. Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 68.

  28. D. Gilbert Dumas, “Things as They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams,Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 6 (1966), 575-97.

  29. Abinger Papers, shelf mark Dep f.66.

  30. Kegan Paul quotes Mary Shelley's certainty of that result. See William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, 2 vols. (London, 1876; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1970), I 129.

  31. Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975,] p. 68.

  32. Marilyn Butler, “Introductory Essay,” Burke, Paine, Godwin and the Revolution Controversy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 7-8.

  33. The Morning Chronicle of January 14, 1793 reminded its readers:

    There are no fewer than two hundred indictments prepared by the Crown Officers, to be presented to the Grand Juries throughout the kingdom for libels and seditious words. They are of all kinds, some against newspapers, some against pamphlets, handbills, &c. and of the seditious words some were uttered from the pulpit, and some in the ale-houses, in moments of jollity and inebriation. On the slightest computation, the trial of these indictments in law costs, and the value of the time of the imprisonments that may follow conviction, cannot be less [for the indictees] than 50,000 [pounds] to say nothing of the utter extinction of free opinion.

    Lucyle Werkmeister, A Newspaper History of England 1792-1793 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967), p. 199

Gerard A. Barker (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Barker, Gerard A. “The Narrative Mode of Caleb Williams: Problems and Resolutions.” Studies in the Novel 25, no. 1 (spring 1993): 1-15.

[In the following essay, Barker examines Godwin's original purpose in writing Caleb Williams, his initial use of third-person narration, and the changes he made to accommodate the shift to first person.]

The inherent limitations of first-person narratives in which the hero recounts his own story have often been described.1 Character analysis in memoir novels is usually limited both by the narrator's inability to view himself with the detachment of a privileged third-person narrator as well as enter the minds of other characters. As Mrs. Barbauld long ago observed, “what the hero cannot say, the author cannot tell.”2 Or, to quote a more recent critic, “the author using the I-narrator deliberately goes forth to battle with one hand tied behind his back.”3 We know that Dostoevski abandoned his first-person version of Crime and Punishment for the third person4 and that Henry James decided against making Strether “at once hero and historian” of The Ambassadors.5

Curiously enough, William Godwin took precisely the opposite direction in creating Caleb Williams (1794). Looking back in 1832, he recalled in his preface to Fleetwood: “I began my narrative, as is the more usual way, in the third person. But I speedily became dissatisfied. I then assumed the first person, making the hero of my tale his own historian.”6 While it would be empty speculation to try to imagine what shape Caleb Williams would have taken if he had preserved its original form, we can examine the effect his change had on the novel. Though confronting Godwin with a number of problems inherent in first-person narratives (a form he was inexperienced in),7 many of these challenges enriched Caleb Williams, leading to innovations that significantly modified the eighteenth-century memoir novel.

The real reason why Godwin abandoned the third for the first person may never be known with certainty. What is clear, however, is that the Fleetwood Preface, written “nearly forty years” (p. 338) after the novel was composed, needs to be approached with some skepticism. Godwin claims, for example, that after his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) had been written and favorably received, he was “unwilling to stoop to what was insignificant” (p. 336). Yet in an autobiographical fragment, he notes: “In 1793 I commenced my ‘Caleb Williams,’ with no further design than that of a slight composition, to produce a small supply of money, but never to be acknowledged: it improved and acquired weight in the manufacture.”8 In other words, Caleb Williams was originally intended to be merely another “narrative of fictitious adventure … of obscure note” (pp. 335-36), such as the three short novels written ten years before; however, during its composition, the story may have taken on new significance in Godwin's imagination as a potential vehicle for the doctrine espoused in his Enquiry: “it improved and acquired weight in the manufacture.”

This of course would make the composition of Caleb Williams more fortuitous than Godwin's account of 1832 would have us suppose: “I formed a conception of a book of fictitious adventure, that should in some way be distinguished by a very powerful interest. Pursuing this idea, I invented first the third volume of my tale, then the second, and last of all the first” (pp. 336-37). Using the same reverse order, he claims next to have “devoted about two or three weeks to the imagining and putting down hints for [his] story, before … engag[ing] seriously and methodically in its composition” (p. 338).

While these “hints” or “memorandums” are no longer extant, most of the holograph manuscript of Caleb Williams remains in existence. Although it contains no evidence of a change in narrative person (probably because the first thirty-six pages are missing), a significant deletion appears only six pages into the extant manuscript. After the dying Mr. Clare tells Falkland that he has made him his executor and referred to “some legacies,” there follow four sentences later crossed out: “I have left a daughter. I do not desire any thing in her behalf because she is mine, but because she is a human creature. She stands in need of a protector. Be you that protector.”9

Since there is no other reference to Clare's daughter later in the manuscript, one may conclude that here was a potential strand of the story that Godwin decided to discard. Given the conventions of the sentimental novel, he may have been toying with the idea of creating a love plot between Falkland and Clare's daughter. He could, in fact, have derived his idea from Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791), where a similar situation takes place when the dying Mr. Milner requests Dorriforth to become his daughter's guardian.10 What this deletion suggests, in any case, is that the outline of his story was less predetermined than Godwin would have had us later believe since he could still, a third of the way into the first volume, entertain a possibly radical shift of emphasis in his novel.

More seriously, the Fleetwood Preface conveys the unfortunate impression that Godwin's sole purpose was to create a “book of fictitious adventure” capable of arousing an “overpowering interest.” But such an objective cannot be reconciled with the novel's preface of 1794, not to mention its ironic original title, Things as They Are.11 Believing “that government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of the individual intellect” but that such a truth cannot be conveyed to the “multitude” through philosophical discourse,12 Godwin resorted to fiction as a means of persuasion: “it was proposed in the invention of the following work, to comprehend, as far as the progressive nature of a single story would allow, a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man” (p. 1). One is reminded of Samuel Richardson, more than forty years earlier, proposing to “investigate the great doctrines of Christianity under the fashionable guise of an amusement.”13 And like his great predecessor, Godwin faced the problem of integrating his didactic theme into his novel without undermining its “overpowering interest”: “If the author shall have taught a valuable lesson, without subtracting from the interest and passion by which a performance of this sort ought to be characterised, he will have reason to congratulate himself upon the vehicle he has chosen” (p. 1).

To have preached his “lesson” through a privileged narrator or authorial mouthpiece would likely have diminished the novel's “interest and passion.” It was necessary, he repeatedly advised his fellow-novelist Thomas Holcroft to keep “characters in action, and never [suffer] them to sermonize.”14 Under the circumstances, Godwin's dissatisfaction with a third-person narrator, once he envisioned his story as teaching “a valuable lesson,” is not surprising. “Making the hero … his own historian” gave him an opportunity to voice his political beliefs through his first-person narrator's gradual education.

Thus he argues in his Enquiry against the punishment of wrongdoers not only because, as a necessitarian, he believed that “the characters of men originate in their external circumstances,” but also because “the only measure of equity is utility.”15 Hence “there is no such thing as desert; in other words … it cannot be just that we should inflict suffering on any man, except so far as it tends to good,” namely, “preventing future mischief.”16 And such sentiments find expression in his novel as well when Caleb, convinced of his master's guilt by Falkland's reaction to the peasant murderer, is surprised to discover that “it was possible to love a murderer”:

I felt, what I had had no previous conception of, that it was possible to love a murderer, and, as I then understood it, the worst of murderers. I conceived it to be in the highest degree absurd and iniquitous to cut off a man qualified for the most essential and extensive utility merely out of retrospect to an act which, whatever were its merits, could not be retrieved.

(p. 130)

The passage is effective didactically because Caleb's realization appears to be the natural outcome of his experience rather than merely an artificially contrived interjection. The integration of the novel's narrative and didactic elements (“overpowering interest” and “valuable lesson”) thus succeeds because the “secret murder” Godwin devised “to account for the impulse that the pursuer should feel, incessantly to alarm and harass his victim” (p. 337), also enabled him to voice his “Doctrine of Punishment” through that victim.

As the Fleetwood Preface, however, makes clear, Godwin's ambition went beyond merely teaching a “valuable lesson.” While composing Caleb Williams, he had vowed “a thousand times” to “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” (p. 338). Such an effect is brought about, as he later explained, by the “intellectual tendency” of a literary work, by its ability to “increase the powers of the understanding” and change the reader from “what he was.”17 Responding to the true intellectual tendency of a novel depends for Godwin upon incident: “an event that occurs, & which is related with a sufficient number of particulars, to make the reader feel it as a reality. An incident to produce its effect in a work of fiction, must be accompanied with an exhibition of the successive feelings it inevitably creates in the person that is the subject of it.”18

A first-person narrative is particularly suited to make “the reader feel it as a reality” because, by its very nature, it can authenticate not merely its subject matter but also the means by which that subject matter is narrated. It gains that power because, in a sense, its creator has abdicated the function of storyteller to someone inside the fictional world he himself created.19 As Franz Stanzel observes, “The incorporation of the narrative process into the realm of the fictional world causes the reader to forget the division into a presenting and a presented reality. Everything, even the narrative process, appears with a fictive claim to a quasi-real existence.”20 Godwin's decision of “making the hero … his own historian” thus offered him two advantages that he had lacked in his three earlier works of fiction: it provided him with a viable means not only of inculcating his “valuable lesson” but also of strengthening his reader's intellect by “increas[ing] the powers of the understanding.”

In creating a first-person narrative, one invariably deals with a narrating self (Godwin's historian) who addresses the reader directly and an experiencing self (Godwin's hero) whom we meet indirectly through the recollections of the former.21 In many memoir novels, such as Roderick Random (1748) and The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), this distinction is difficult to infer because the narrating self only infrequently uses his obvious advantages, foreknowledge and maturity, to separate himself from the experiencing self. In pure “consonant self-narration,” to use Dorrit Cohn's useful term, the narrator “identifies with his earlier incarnation, renouncing all manner of cognitive privilege.”22 He is essentially a storyteller, preoccupied with describing events in the way they originally occurred rather than modifying them through hindsight. On the other hand, in a “dissonant self-narration”23 such as Moll Flanders (1722), the distinction between narrating and experiencing selves obtrudes upon us not only from the foreknowledge of the narrating self but also from her presumable maturation during the time interval (the narrative distance) separating her from the experiencing self. This type of narrator is more autobiographer than storyteller, for he/she is usually preoccupied with the discrepancies existing between the way an event is perceived when it occurs and when it is recalled.

Didactic considerations, relying on Caleb's progress from innocence to experience as a means of voicing his own political sentiments, led Godwin in the direction of Moll Flanders rather than Roderick Random. Claiming, after his imprisonment, that he “had for some time learned not to judge by appearances” (p. 201) implies Caleb's education, something already confirmed earlier by his disillusionment upon being imprisoned and expecting to be executed: “My resentment was not restricted to my prosecutor, but extended itself to the whole machine of society. I could never believe that all this was the fair result of institutions inseparable from the general good. I regarded the whole human species as so many hangmen and torturers” (p. 183).

Yet, strictly speaking, only the last two volumes of Caleb Williams are dissonant. In the first volume, merely the opening chapter can be viewed as part of Caleb's history. Cut off from Falkland's past, Caleb can only report Collins's account with the assurance that “scrupulous fidelity restrains me from altering the manner of Mr. Collins's narrative to adapt it to the precepts of my own taste” (p. 106). But if Godwin wants us to believe that the observations, which exploit didactically Tyrrel's brutal treatment of the Hawkinses and Emily Melville, are Collins's own reflections, why did he not give the old steward's account of Falkland directly, as he does in the last chapter of the first volume? The truth is that Godwin is deliberately ambiguous on this question: “To avoid confusion in my narrative,” Caleb announces in a sentence added to the third edition, “I shall drop the person of Collins, and assume to be myself the historian of our patron” (pp. 9-10).

Such equivocation stems from the inherent problem of integrating the first volume with the rest of the novel. Essentially, the initial third of Caleb Williams is expository, giving us an account of the “secret murder” that will arouse the hero's curiosity in the second volume and lead to a “series of adventures of flight and pursuit” (p. 337) in the third. It is the weakest part of the novel, as Elizabeth Inchbald quickly recognized after reading Godwin's manuscript: “Your first volume is far inferior to the two last. Your second is sublimely horrible—captivatingly frightful.”24 James Marshall, after reading the “nearly three-fourths of the first volume” then written, was even tempted to burn his friend's manuscript: “The incidents are ill chosen; the characters unnatural, distorted; … the style uncouth; everything upon stilts; the whole uninteresting; written as a man would make a chair or a table that had never handled a tool.”25

Filtering Collins's account through Caleb's retrospective point of view rather than letting Falkland's steward tell his own story may have been an effort to arouse interest in what was essentially a weak but, for Godwin, a necessary introduction to his hero's story.26 It may, in fact, have been a factor in his decision to switch from a third to a first-person narrative. Caleb tends to vitalize Falkland's aloof and rather improbable character by relating his master's tragedy to his own: “To his story the whole fortune of my life was linked; because he was miserable, my happiness, my name, and my existence have been irretrievably blasted” (p. 10).

There was, however, another more important reason for avoiding Collins's direct narrative perspective. Had Caleb, as in the last chapter of Vol. 1, given us Collins's own words, an accepted convention in eighteenth-century novels, we would have had to assume that we were hearing essentially the same account the experiencing self had long ago heard from Collins. Under the circumstances, it would be hard to believe in Caleb's later progression from innocence to experience. Had he at the outset been enlightened about “things as they are” by directly hearing, for example, not only Collins's account of Tyrrel's cruel treatment of Hawkins but also the sardonic moral drawn from it, “wealth and despotism easily know how to engage those laws as the coadjutors of their oppression which were perhaps at first intended [witless and miserable precaution!]27 for the safeguards of the poor” (p. 72), his own later disillusionment would have lost much of its credibility: “Since my escape from prison, I had acquired some knowledge of the world; I had learned by bitter experience by how many links society had a hold upon me, and how closely the snares of despotism beset me. I no longer beheld the world, as my youthful fancy had once induced me to do” (p. 277). Instead, by offering Collins's story indirectly, it is the narrating self looking back on the events he had long ago heard who now comments about them in a manner that would have been completely foreign to the naive experiencing self, for whom Tyrrel is merely “that devil incarnate” (p. 107) rather than the manifestation of an inherently unjust society.

Significantly, the narrating self is temporarily suspended in the last chapter of the first volume: “I shall endeavour to state the remainder of this narrative in the words of Mr. Collins” (p. 97). It occurs right after the murder of Tyrrel is reported because, as in the best tradition of the detective story, Godwin wants to lure the reader into believing, as long as possible, that his murderer is innocent. Hence his decision to use temporarily as narrator the man who has “always admired him [Falkland] as the living model of liberality and goodness” (p. 310). To have continued to use Caleb's retrospective point of view here would have proven awkward since the narrating self of course knows the real truth.

Godwin's dilemma of having to switch narrators for one chapter points up, moreover, an inherent weakness in dissonant self-narration: there is no simple, unobtrusive means of silencing for a whole chapter the narrating self in the way a privileged narrator, its third-person equivalent,28 can be controlled. In Pride and Prejudice (1813), for example, Jane Austen can at will suspend access to her narrator, leaving us momentarily dependent on Elizabeth Bennet's limited point of view. Probably, it was, in fact, this flexibility that attracted Austen to the third-person narrative and led her to abandon the epistolary versions of her early novels.29 Godwin, on the other hand, after his own early experiment in epistolary fiction (Italian Letters), rejected the third-person for the first-person narrator, though thereby limiting his own authorial freedom.

Abdicating one's narrative function to someone inside the fictional world can, as was said earlier, enhance a novel's verisimilitude, but it comes at a high price. Switching to Mr. Collins's direct point of view calls attention to an underlying clash of interest between the author and his created narrator: while Godwin, desiring to gain “a powerful hold on the reader” (p. 337), deliberately withholds information about Tyrrel's murder, Caleb is penning his memoirs in the hope “that posterity may by their means be induced to render [him] a justice which [his] contemporaries refuse” (p. 3). Winning posterity's sympathy and trust, needless to say, is unlikely to be enhanced by temporarily switching to an unreliable narrator.

If Godwin, moreover, withholds information from the reader by gagging his narrating self, there are other times when, on the contrary, the narrating self gives away information to the reader before the experiencing self has learned about it. After Caleb, for example, has fled to London and before he is warned by Mrs. Marney that someone is searching for him, we are given a detailed account of how Gines came to pursue him as well as how he accidentally found his trail through Mrs. Marney (pp. 259-65). The experiencing self, at this point, knows only that he is in danger and does not realize that Gines is his pursuer until his appearance some seven pages later. Likewise, we discover that Gines is in Falkland's employment before Caleb learns about it (p. 304), just as the narrating self tells us about Laura's connection with Falkland, through her dead father (p. 294), seven pages before the experiencing self confronts Laura with a statement that is bound to seem inconsistent to us: “I see that you have by some means come to a hearing of the story of Mr. Falkland” (p. 300). Presumably, these are Godwin's means to sustain his reader's “overpowering interest” by substituting anxiety for mere surprise but, since the narrating and experiencing selves are essentially different facets of the same character, such instances tend to be awkward despite his efforts to account for them: “I shall upon some occasions [Caleb cautions the reader] annex to appearances an explanation, which I was far from possessing at the time, and was only suggested to me through the medium of subsequent events” (p. 118).

Here again it is Godwin's use of a narrator who is part of the fictional world rather than outside of it that complicates what would have been an easy maneuver for a privileged third-person narrator. One gets the impression that Godwin embraced the first-person narrative as his mode of fiction without also being willing to accept what David Goldknopf calls its “generic limitations”—“a lower potential of discernment and expressiveness than his creator.”30 He does not, in fact, hesitate to endow Caleb with the ability to give us an inner view of his fellow-characters. Inexplicably, we are made privy to the thoughts and feelings of Falkland, Tyrrel, Emily, Forester, Gines, even Spurrel and Gines's brother. Yet somehow we accept such inconsistency, just as we do in Tristram Shandy, largely, I suspect, because it is the narrating self, detached by his retrospective vantage point, that takes such liberties. Our reaction is far less tolerant when it is the experiencing self who assumes such a privilege; as when Caleb, having magnanimously decided not to seek Mr. Collins's help against Falkland, gives us his thoughts: “Mr. Collins was deeply affected with the apparent ingenuousness with which I expressed my feelings. The secret struggle of his mind was, Can this be hypocrisy? The individual with whom I am conferring, if virtuous, is one of the most disinterestedly virtuous persons in the world” (p. 311). Caleb's involvement, having, like Pamela, to report his own praise, calls attention to the incongruity of his privileged role, whereas his detachment as narrating self tends to blur it.

While this scene underscores one of the limits of self-narration Godwin had difficulty overcoming, he proved much more resourceful in managing another potential trouble spot—the novel's ending. Having one's hero not only be imprisoned but also go insane, as occurs in the original unpublished ending, creates problems in the memoir novel since the narrating self normally begins to write his story sometime after the events he relates have concluded. Under the circumstances, there is obviously little time or opportunity, not to mention capacity, for Caleb to pore over his past life and create a coherent history. Nor is the dissonant self-narrative well equipped to handle the radical shift in attitude that Caleb undergoes towards Falkland in both the original and published endings. However, if most of the actual composition takes place earlier, such problems recede. Godwin thus abandoned the traditional self-narrative written retrospectively from one temporal point, what I will call its narrative present, by shifting its position a number of times, in the process creating an unexpectedly complex but effective narrative form.

At the beginning of the penultimate chapter, after Caleb's hasty departure from Wales, the narrating self announces: “I hasten to the conclusion of my melancholy story. I began to write soon after the period to which I have now conducted it” (p. 302). There follows his reason for “writing of these memoirs … for several years”:

I conceived that my story faithfully digested would carry in it an impression of truth that few men would be able to resist; or at worst that, by leaving it behind me when I should no longer continue to exist, posterity might be induced to do me justice, and, seeing in my example what sort of evils are entailed upon mankind by society as it is at present constituted, might be inclined to turn their attention upon the fountain from which such bitter waters have been accustomed to flow.

(pp. 303-04)31

This, the narrating self tells us in retrospect, is what motivated him to compose his history. By now, however, having written three hundred pages and lost the support of his only true friends, first Laura Dennison and now, in “what remains to be told,” Mr. Collins, Caleb's desire to tell his story has waned: “But these motives have diminished in their influence. I have contracted a disgust for life and all its appendages. Writing, which was at first a pleasure, is changed into a burthen. I shall compress into a small compass what remains to be told” (p. 304).

Caleb's surprise encounter with Collins thus terminates the role of the primary narrating self since he has told everything he knows about.32 As he announces in a passage added to the second edition: “This is the latest event, which at present I think it necessary to record. I shall doubtless hereafter have further occasion to take up the pen. Great and unprecedented as my sufferings have been, I feel intimately persuaded that there are worse sufferings that await me” (p. 312). He can only vaguely speculate about the future because what will happen in vol. 3, ch. 15 and the Postscript has at this point not yet occurred and, therefore, cannot be part of the knowledge he possesses when recording past events.

The narrator who introduces vol. 3, ch. 15 is thus a new or what I will call a secondary narrating self, having not been involved in recording the previous events: “It is as I foreboded. The presage with which I was visited was prophetic. I am now to record a new and terrible revolution of my fortune and my mind” (p. 312).33 What he characterizes as an “instantaneous revolution in both my intellectual and animal system” (p. 313) stems from his surprise encounter with Gines. Learning through him that his “last consolation,” escaping Falkland's persecution by leaving Great Britain, is denied him, Caleb is overcome with uncontrollable anger. Where before, prior to losing interest, he wanted to tell his story to vindicate himself, he now comes to see his memoirs as a weapon against his adversary: “With this engine, this little pen I defeat all his machinations; I stab him in the very point he was most solicitous to defend!” (p. 315). Where, in the previous chapter, he promised Collins “not [to] hurt a hair of his [Falkland's] head, unless compelled to it by a principle of defence” (p. 310), he is now openly vindictive: “Thou hast shown no mercy; and thou shalt receive none!” (p. 314). Helping to make such an abrupt shift believable is the presence of a secondary narrating self whose vengeful attitude has not been able to color the recording of earlier events or, to view it from another angle, whose very presence infers curtailment of the primary narrating self's foreknowledge.

Equally important is the fact that the secondary narrating self, in contrast to the primary, is too close to what he is describing to objectify the inevitable subjectivity of the experiencing self:

It is now three days since I received it [Gines's warning], and from that moment to the present my blood has been in a perpetual ferment. My thoughts wander from one idea of horror to another with incredible rapidity. I have had no sleep. I have scarcely remained in one posture for a minute together. It has been with the utmost difficulty that I have been able to command myself far enough to add a few pages to my story. But, uncertain as I am of the events of each succeeding hour, I determined to force myself to the performance of this task.

(p. 313)

Throwing doubt on his objectivity helps to make plausible Caleb's new role as Falkland's inexorable accuser. To call his antagonist an “unfeeling, unrelenting tyrant” and identify him with “Nero and Caligula” (p. 314) is to exaggerate Falkland's failings and underline Caleb's present exasperation, foreshadowing his loss of sanity during his later imprisonment. As he admits in resuming his pen: “All is not right within me. How it will terminate God knows” (pp. 313-14).

At the same time, such temporal proximity to the experience being described lends a sense of immediacy to the events reminiscent of an epistolary novel: “The pen lingers in my trembling fingers!—Is there any thing I have left unsaid?” (p. 315). With the narrating self deprived of most of his prescience, it is the experiencing self who comes to dominate much of vol. 3, ch. 15, encouraging that suspense and involvement on the part of the reader, that “overpowering interest” Godwin was striving for.

Chapter 15 marks the end of the second narrative present, with Caleb assuring Collins that he “has taken care to provide a safe mode of conveying them [his papers] into your [Collins's] possession” (p. 315). A new secondary narrating self thus introduces the Postscript, the third narrative present: “All is over. I have carried into execution my meditated attempt. My situation is totally changed; I now sit down to give an account of it. For several weeks after the completion of this dreadful business, my mind was in too tumultuous a state to permit me to write. I think I shall now be able to arrange my thoughts sufficiently for that purpose” (p. 316).34 Although Godwin radically changed his ending before publication,35 he managed to utilize the first eight paragraphs of the Postscript for both versions, which only diverge after Caleb catches sight of the emaciated figure of Falkland. In the above passage, “dreadful business” originally referred to Caleb's defeat, his accusation against Falkland having been peremptorily dismissed by the magistrate; while in the published version, what has ironically become “dreadful” is that Caleb has unwittingly triumphed over his former foe.

Difficulties arise in trying to establish where the third narrative present originally ended. We possess only an incomplete manuscript version of the first ending, two holograph pages being missing that cover the end of the trial and a “period of insanity” during Caleb's ensuing imprisonment by Jones.36 Most likely, there was another temporal break between these two events and hence a fourth narrative present. This can be deduced not only because the subsequent heading, “Postscript No. II,” infers the existence of a prior Postscript No. I within the missing pages but also because of a significant change within the extant manuscript. Originally, “For several days” opened the fourth sentence of the above quotation, though Godwin later changed it to “For several weeks.”37 “Several days” obviously could not have sufficed for Caleb to regain his composure after the trial, his imprisonment and subsequent “period of insanity” unless another temporal break existed somewhere within the two missing manuscript leaves.

What follows the gap in the manuscript thus takes place in the fourth narrative present, whereas the third, covering the trial and the circumstances leading to Caleb's imprisonment, presumably ended with his insanity. Now, with the “dawn of returning reason,” also recurs the wish “of recording these recent and tragical transactions which had occurred subsequently to my putting out of my possession the body of my memoirs. Surely, said I, such a story is worth recording!” (pp. 331-32). But what we get is less a “story” than journal entries, impressions and musings of an impaired intellect: “I am subject to wanderings in which the imagination seems to refuse to obey the curb of judgement. I dare not attempt to think long and strenuously on any one subject” (p. 331). With the experiencing self, rather than the enfeebled narrating self, thus dominant for much of the original ending, Godwin's self-narrative becomes more and more consonant where before it had been dissonant. The fourth narrative present ends with Caleb sensing that he is being drugged and managing somehow to smuggle out his additional papers through a female attendant: “I feel now a benumbing heaviness, that I conceive to have something in it more than natural. I have tried again and again to shake it off. I can scarcely hold my pen. Surely—surely there is no foul play in all this! My mind misgives me. I will send away these papers, while I am yet able to do so” (p. 333).

Finally, there is the vaguely defined fifth narrative present during which Postscript No. II is written. By now the secondary narrating self has been nearly effaced by the experiencing self since Caleb's memory is so weakened that he can no longer recall past events: “I should like to recollect something—it would make an addition to my history—but it is all a BLANK!” (p. 333).

Although rejecting this ending before publication eliminated Godwin's problem of having to deal with an imprisoned and eventually insane first-person narrator, not only did he preserve his system of multiple narrating selves but also, as we have seen, improved it in the second edition by adding temporal breaks between Chs. 14 and 15. The fact is that the introduction of a new narrative present, though fulfilling different functions, proved as useful for the new Postscript as it had for the old. Describing events only “several weeks after the completion of this dreadful business” now throws doubts on Caleb's reliability in condemning himself. He can, at this point, no longer accept his own very human failings: “Why should my reflections perpetually centre upon myself? self, an overweening regard to which has been the source of my errors!” (p. 325). The truth is that it would have been humanly impossible to have avoided developing hostility and vindictiveness towards Falkland when we consider the suffering he inflicted directly or indirectly on Caleb.38

Had this, moreover, been the ending of a traditional memoir novel written retrospectively from a single narrative present, Caleb's final sense of guilt and remorse would presumably have affected and transformed the narrating self and hence also the novel. As it stands, for example, the narrating self of the Postscript cannot report Falkland's praises of himself without deflating them: “I record the praises bestowed on me by Falkland, not because I deserve them, but because they serve to aggravate the baseness of my cruelty” (p. 325). Yet this present sense of guilt has had no effect on earlier parts of the memoirs since they were recorded before the events that originally caused his guilt had occurred. Had it been otherwise, had there existed only a single narrative present, Collins's reflection about Caleb as “one of the most disinterestedly virtuous persons in the world” (p. 311) could not easily have gone unchallenged. Nor, for that matter, could Caleb's professed purpose have been the vindication of his character if the self-reproach expressed at the end of the novel had existed from the outset: “I began these memoirs with the idea of vindicating my character. I have now no character that I wish to vindicate” (p. 326).

Although Godwin had begun Caleb Williams merely “to produce a small supply of money,” it had obviously “improved and acquired weight” as its author came to envision his “adventures of flight and pursuit” as a potential “vehicle” for a “valuable lesson.” It was, however, his decision to make “the hero of [his] tale his own historian” that had, as I have tried to show, the most profound effect on the novel, challenging him to experiment and improvise in an effort to give his constraining first-person narrative sufficient flexibility to fit his story. He may, as he claims in the Fleetwood Preface, have invented the general outline of his plot in reverse order before commencing “to write [his] story from the beginning” (p. 338).39 But despite such preparations, it is doubtful whether Godwin could have anticipated the technical obstacles he would face, particularly since his decision to replace the third person, “the more usual way,” with a first-person narrative came only after he had already begun his story. More likely, such problems were faced and resolved as they confronted him, converting Caleb Williams in the process into one of the most innovative works of eighteenth-century fiction.


  1. See Leon Surmelian, Techniques of Fiction Writing (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969), pp. 74-75; Bertil Romberg, Studies in the Narrative Technique of the First-Person Novel (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1962), pp. 59-60; Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), p. 259.

  2. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, “Life of Samuel Richardson,” The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, 6 vols. (London: Printed for Richard Phillips, 1804), 1:xxv.

  3. David Goldknopf, “The Confessional Increment: A New Look at the I-Narrator,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 28 (1969): 19.

  4. The Notebooks for “Crime and Punishment,” ed. and trans. Edward Wasiolek (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 98-148.

  5. The Art of the Novel (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937), p. 320.

  6. William Godwin, Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 339. All further references to the Fleetwood Preface as well as to the novel and its original ending are to this edition and will be cited in my text.

  7. Of Godwin's three early works of fiction, all published in 1784, Damon and Delia and Imogen: A Pastoral Romance utilize a privileged third-person narrator, while Italian Letters is an epistolary novel.

  8. C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, 2 vols. (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1876), 1:361.

  9. Holograph MS. Forster 47. C. 1; 1:42. Permission to quote granted by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

  10. Godwin “read and criticised” an epistolary version of A Simple Story in manuscript in 1790. See my Grandison's Heirs (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1985), p. 104, n. 18.

  11. Mitzi Myers focuses attention on this same problem in “Godwin's Changing Conception of Caleb Williams,Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 12 (1972): 597-98. See also Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel, 1780-1805 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 180-83.

  12. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, ed. F. E. L. Priestly, 3 vols. (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1946), 1:viii; 3:241.

  13. Clarissa: Preface, Hints of Prefaces, and Postscript, Augustan Reprint Society Publication No. 103 (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1964), p. 350.

  14. Paul, 2:25.

  15. Enquiry, 1:24; 2:324; see also 2:323.

  16. Enquiry, 2:327.

  17. William Godwin, “Of Choice in Reading,” The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners and Literature (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1965), pp. 138, 140.

  18. Part of Godwin's unpublished critique of Mary Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman, quoted in David McCracken, “Godwin's Literary Theory: The Alliance between Fiction and Political Philosophy,” Philological Quarterly 49 (1970): 128. I am indebted to McCracken's valuable essay.

  19. See David Goldknopf, The Life of the Novel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 25.

  20. Franz Stanzel, Narrative Situations in the Novel (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1971), p. 91.

  21. Dorrit Cohn, Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 143-45.

  22. Cohn, p. 155. See also Stanzel, pp. 64-65.

  23. Cohn, pp. 145-53.

  24. Paul, 1:139.

  25. Paul, 1:89-90.

  26. Given Caleb's inordinate curiosity, it seems improbable that he had never heard of the events arising from Tyrrel's violent death (p. 100) “in the very neighbourhood where [Caleb] lived” (p. 106). As a remedy, Godwin had his hero in the third edition of 1797 claim that “village anecdotes and scandal had no charms for [him]” (p. 4).

  27. Brackets inserted by Godwin.

  28. Cohn, p. 143.

  29. Just as Sense and Sensibility (1811) was originally composed as an epistolary novel called Elinor and Marianne, so First Impressions, an early version of Pride and Prejudice, may also have been written in letter form. Apart from her juvenilia, Austen's only extant epistolary work, Lady Susan, ends abruptly with a “Conclusion” that mocks the very letter form heretofore utilized. See B. C. Southam, Jane Austen's Literary Manuscripts (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 54-59.

  30. Goldknopf, Life of the Novel, p. 38.

  31. Though Caleb is recalling the original reason for writing his memoirs, curiously he is more optimistic and didactic here than when he actually began its composition “several years” before: “a faint idea that posterity may by their means be induced to render me a justice which my contemporaries refuse” (p. 3).

  32. For Kenneth W. Graham, the first narrative present, or what he calls “the first narrative moment,” ends with vol. 3, ch. 13, although the role of the primary narrating self does not actually terminate until the end of vol. 3, ch. 14, The Politics of Narrative: Ideology and Social Change in William Godwin's “Caleb Williams” (New York: AMS Press, 1990), p. 84.

  33. Added in the second edition of 1796.

  34. Three deleted sentences follow in the manuscript that make the presence of a new secondary narrating self more explicit: “I have not now the narrative already written in my possession. But I will relate what has lately occurred upon separate leaves. Perhaps they will one day be joined to the principal story” (MS. Forster 47. C. 1; 3:104).

  35. D. Gilbert Dumas, “Things As They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams,Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6 (1966): 575-97.

  36. Changed to Gines in the second edition.

  37. MS. Forster 47. C. 1; 3:104.

  38. See my “Justice to Caleb Williams,” Studies in the Novel 6 (1974): 385-86.

  39. Charles Dickens's misconception that “Godwin wrote it backwards—the last Volume first” (Letter to E. A. Poe, March 6, 1842, Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Madeline House et al., 3 vols. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974], 3:107) has been perpetuated by a surprising number of scholars. See, for example, A. A. Mendilow, Time and the Novel (London: Peter Nevill, 1952), p. 26; Peter H. Marshall, William Godwin (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984), p. 146.

Gary Handwerk (essay date winter 1993)

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SOURCE: Handwerk, Gary. “Of Caleb's Guilt and Godwin's Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb Williams.ELH 60, no. 4 (winter 1993): 939-60.

[In the following essay, Handwerk studies the relationship between Godwin's novel and his political treatise, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.]

For a moralizing solution, like any essentializing gesture, serves the ideological function of masking the more difficult cultural and ethicopolitical issues.

—Dominick LaCapra, History, Politics, and the Novel


Despite a recent resurgence of interest in his life and in certain of his works, William Godwin remains an elusive and little-noticed figure of English literary and intellectual history. Known as much for his personal links to other figures—to Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth, or Shelley—as for his own writing, Godwin remains largely unread except by specialists in the Jacobin period. At best, other critics may identify Godwin with the eccentric anarchism of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice or the Gothic histrionics of Caleb Williams. Even if one gives full credit to work by more recent critics, literary criticism is still very far from doing justice to his work as a whole or overcoming long-nurtured suspicions about the quality and significance of much of his writing.

It may in fact be true that Godwin's novels show flashes of dramatic intensity rather than any sustained technical brilliance; his imaginative gifts may indeed be somewhat narrow in scope. Yet because literary history has often relied upon evaluative criteria that fit Godwin's fictional practice poorly, it has tended to reinforce the marginalizing of his work accomplished by the anti-Jacobin reaction in England. That tendency seems all the more regrettable in that Godwin's work has tremendous bearing on issues central to contemporary criticism, such as the relation of ideology to ethics in literature, or the relationship of subjectivity to interpretation and to history. Its narrative anomalies are themselves instructive about the complexity of the problems with which Godwin struggled in trying to shape an aesthetic form adequate to his political and ethical concerns.

To be sure, the past few years have seen a renaissance of Godwin studies that has produced some outstanding analytical work—a renaissance traceable to the seminal work of Burton Pollin on the intellectual coherence of Godwin's ideas, to David McCracken's work on Godwin's literary theories and reedition of Caleb Williams, as well as to the discovery in 1966 of the original, previously unknown ending to Caleb Williams.1 Since then, however, critical attention has focused almost exclusively on Political Justice and Caleb Williams, virtually neglecting Godwin's other fiction and essays.2 That focus, though regrettable for the narrow image it gives us of Godwin's lifetime work, does rest on plausible premises, since much of the fascination of Godwin's writing lies in his attempt to reconcile his vision of justice with highly realistic portraits of political psychology, a struggle most evident in the proximity of these two works to each other. Any reestimation of Godwin as a novelist, then, needs to begin by turning our attention back to Caleb Williams. Of particular interest is the way in which Godwin's narrative choices, especially the revised ending, provide a developing commentary on his political values that takes him beyond the assumptions of Political Justice.

My primary argument here is that the tendency of Caleb Williams, and indeed of all of Godwin's fiction, runs fundamentally contrary to the explicit political assumptions and expectations of Political Justice—but, for that very reason, they need to be read in a complementary fashion as parts of a comprehensive perspective. Though Godwin may well have begun this novel hoping to exemplify his political ideals in dramatic form, his own narrative and psychological realism transformed the fiction into a much more sceptical mediation on the possibilities for political amelioration through reason. His careful attention to the working of ideology in an individual mind, Caleb's, led him to complicate his rationalist model of political justice and political change, anticipating the internal critique of his own political theory that comes more and more into evidence in his subsequent writing. To perceive this, however, we need to bear in mind the diverse tendencies present in the novel, and in fact, to read past the moral overtly proffered by Caleb himself.3 If we attend to its multiple resonances, Godwin's reformulated conclusion has the unexpected effect of abruptly reopening the gulf between politics and ethics, between power and justice, that Godwin's political writings had sought to bridge. It reveals Political Justice as Godwin's most perfect fiction, one whose credibility continues to seduce Caleb even at the moment that he tells us he has ceased to delude himself. Caleb Williams does not so much repudiate that fiction, however, as measure its limits within an existing political and social order.

Recent literary criticism, more so than philosophical and biographical treatments of Godwin, has shown an increasing awareness of the tensions between his novels and his political doctrines.4 Yet there is still considerable critical work to be done in exploring the complex patterns of this novel if we wish to see exactly how Caleb goes astray, or why the novel, even as revised, fails to carry through Godwin's project of explicating and demonstrating the accessibility of political justice. We can best begin by examining the direct relation of Political Justice to Godwin's reworked ending, the point where he tried hardest to fuse his theoretical and fictional practice. How we choose to interpret Caleb's status there—whether we see Caleb freeing himself from or still deeply entangled in the meshes of political ideology—may well be the single most important feature in shaping our understanding of the text. Though rather less than a hero, Caleb serves as our best measure for how Godwin was transforming his own vision of the possibilities for political change.


Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness suggests already in its title that the author's interest in political matters had a fundamentally ethical basis. As the chapter entitled “Of Justice” states, “morality is the source from which its fundamental axioms must be drawn, and they will be made somewhat clearer in the present instance, if we assume the term justice as a general appellation for all moral duty.”5 Indeed, the central claim of Political Justice is that politics—questions of power and government, of ideology and interests, which are rooted in historical circumstances—can be subordinated to ethical considerations—those questions of justice and fairness that ought to be determined objectively by abstract reason. Arguing vigorously against the absurdities of social contract theory, Godwin distinguishes politics from ethics by pointing out that politics inevitably involves the use of force to override countless reservations of particular individuals about specific communal decisions. “Government in reality, as has abundantly appeared, is a question of force, and not of consent … the best constituted government that can be formed, particularly for a large community, will contain many provisions that, far from having obtained the consent of all its members, encounter even in their outset a strenuous, though ineffectual, opposition” (PJ, 1:225-26). We may go along with such decisions, says Godwin, but this adherence demonstrates only indifference, not assent, and we should not allow our private judgment to be silenced. “Obey; this may be right; but beware of reverence. … Government is nothing but regulated force; force is its appropriate claim upon your attention. It is the business of individuals to persuade; the tendency of concentrated strength, is only to give consistency and permanence to an influence more compendious than persuasion” (PJ, 1:230).

For these reasons, Godwin argues that we need to reformulate our perception of justice, not so much what it is, but how we can best go about defining and realizing it. This means discovering how human reason might be able to circumvent politics as it has traditionally been understood. Although Political Justice shares the Enlightenment confidence in an eternal, immutable law of reason, it remains sceptical of any invocation of coercive reason in political affairs; its essential political principle asserts the absolute priority of private judgment as that which government needs most urgently to foster. “It may be granted, that an infallible standard, if it could be discovered, would be considerably beneficial.” Yet since this cannot be guaranteed, “the conviction of a man's individual understanding, is the only legitimate principle, imposing on him the duty of adopting any species of conduct” (PJ, 1:181).

Why should we assume, however, that rational behavior will actually lead toward social justice without governmental efforts to enforce it? Here lies the crucial assumption of Godwin's argument: that two features intrinsic to rational human motivation, benevolence and impartiality, will ultimately prove able to override considerations of power. Justice requires both capacities, not only a readiness to act in ways that enhance the general welfare, but also the ability to judge in an unbiased way which actions best achieve that aim. Godwin's ethical bias is perhaps most evident in his assumption that these capacities exist and naturally conform to the laws of reason—the sort of analytical move that has driven political theorists to distraction in dealing with him and to frustrated accusations that his philosophy is absurdly utopian and inattentive to practical mechanisms for reform, relying upon the simple “euthanasia of government” for entry into an anarchist paradise. From Godwin's perspective, however, government can never be an appropriate mechanism for social change, for not only can it not foster political virtues, but it actively works against their development by constricting the progressive movement of reason within fixed, traditionally sanctified, institutional ways of determining justice.

In his political writing, Godwin goes so far as to insist that the very idea of political rights as things distinct from moral duty is unreasonable. “Morality is nothing else but that system, which teaches us to contribute upon all occasions, to the extent of our power, to the well-being and happiness of every intellectual and sensitive existence. … If then every one of our actions fall within the province of morals, it follows that we have no rights in relation to the selecting them” (PJ, 1:159).6 Our duty to behave in a benevolent fashion is absolutely overriding, although this remains a personal and internal compulsion, not one that government ought to enforce. Private judgment does remain practically and politically preeminent for Godwin, yet it exists essentially to help us understand how we should serve the general good.

Political Justice argues that our reason is sufficient to determine what will foster the general welfare, that is, we can attain a position of intellectual impartiality that lets us see beyond self-interest and prejudice. Justice rests upon impartiality for Godwin (PJ, 1:126), so that, “the soundest criterion of virtue is, to put ourselves in the place of an impartial spectator, of an angelic nature, suppose, beholding us from an elevated station, and uninfluenced by our prejudices, conceiving what would be his estimate of the intrinsic circumstances of our neighbour, and acting accordingly” (PJ, 1:133).7 Impartiality thus complements benevolence; the former involves an intellectual capacity to attain the objectivity necessary for determining the general good, while the latter embodies an affective impulse to benefit others, to put the judgments of impartiality into effect. Political Justice, with its rationalist bias, does tend to conflate the two; in the 1796 version, Godwin explicitly justifies benevolence as the highest of pleasures, desirable in an impersonal way in any utilitarian calculation (PJ, 1:421-38). Hence making an impartial, rational calculation is for him the same as putting it into effect.8 His celebrated example of whether one should save Fénelon or his maid (who happens to be one's mother) from a fire, for instance, really focuses on the choice between two sorts of benevolence, as if the thought of simply saving neither person were not an option.

As Godwin moves into fiction and as he comes to be influenced by discussions with Mary Wollstonecraft, he takes increasing account of affective elements in his equation; benevolence becomes more and more a distinct problem of its own.9 Still, his commitment to a sentimental rationalism persist programmatically throughout his works, which take as their first aim the arousing of emotional indignation against the irrationality of things as they are and have been in political society. At the same time, Godwin's fiction shows him to be a more canny analyst of political psychology than any literal-minded perusal of Political Justice might suggest, someone quite aware, as William Hazlitt astutely noted, of the limits of reason. It is through Godwin's fiction, in fact, that we may best be able to weigh the practical application of his political ideals, what this fantasy of reason (as Don Locke aptly terms it) entails. To gauge Godwin's position, I want to turn to what seem to me three distinct alternatives sketched by Caleb Williams—in its original, manuscript version, and in two contradictory movements within the actually published text.


In beginning, we would do well to recall the judgment of Mitzi Myers about this novel:

CW is neither a simple exemplification nor an unacknowledged repudiation of his philosophical tenets. The moral concerns at the heart of Godwin's treatise inform his novel as well, not as a positive program of set doctrines, but as the exploration of a moral problem. The numerous political reflections and the brilliant psychological analyses cannot be considered in isolation from the basic moral pattern that forms the core of the novel.10

Caleb William's narrative structure is obviously allegorical; it translates the larger terms and conditions of political justice into the personal relationship of power between Caleb and his master and mentor, Falkland.11 Recognizing this, however, does not provide a precise answer for just how the allegory works, especially for how Godwin's choice to foreground psychology and to put issues in moral terms affects the political message (if any) of the text.

The original ending of Caleb Williams had provided a conclusion to the novel that underscored in a very predictable way the political critique behind the narrative, wringing the maximum emotional anguish from the potentially oppressive use of political power. Caleb's ethical integrity proves unable to alter the structure of “things as they are.” Although he does get the chance to accuse his former master, Falkland, of having committed a murder and of having shifted the blame and punishment onto an innocent tenant farmer, the legal system continues to operate as it has throughout the novel. Despite the eloquence of Caleb's appeal, society refuses to give his case a serious hearing; Falkland successfully defends himself by pointing out that, in the absence of real evidence, the judges' determination of who is speaking the truth must rest on their judgment of the respective characters of himself, a respected local landlord, and Caleb, an accused thief and escapee from prison—that is, on the very differences of status that Caleb has tried to make subordinate to the ethical claims of rational justice.

Falkland goes further, having Caleb imprisoned and ultimately poisoned, thus revealing himself as an absolute villain, consciously using his access to political power for his private benefit. Impervious to any appeal to benevolence or impartiality, he exploits what Caleb had earlier astutely described as “the power which the institutions of society give to one man over others” (225; emphasis added). Godwin clearly meant for the reader to condemn a political-social system that enhances the power of individuals to manipulate truth for personal advantage. Caleb struggles as a righteous individual against the system whose representative or agent is Falkland, but he finds no opportunity for justice within politicized institutions. Any moral here, to borrow Rajan's apt categories, would have to lie beyond the text itself, in the supplementary production by the reader of an alternative ending that political reform might have made possible.12 Yet two problems remain that may well have led Godwin to rewrite the ending. First, this conclusion makes it all too easy to take Falkland's villainy as personal in nature, a consequence of his character rather than endemic to the political system. Second, this original version puts into question the efficacy of any appeal to benevolence or impartiality in bringing about change in an arena conditioned by considerations of power. Caleb's death, though dramatically plausible and effective, might well lead the reader, like Caleb, to fatalistic despair.

In revising the ending of Caleb Williams, Godwin created one of his most brilliant and memorable narrative passages, its psychological complexity intensified by the way that it startlingly reverses the previous momentum of the novel not just once, but twice—first by Caleb's triumph in court, then again by his sense of the emptiness of that victory. The rewritten conclusion exploits the narrative subtleties of his fictional text much more fully, above all in its treatment of the complicated interaction between ideological and ethical concerns. In revising the ending, Godwin dramatically raised the stakes involved in his portrayal of Caleb. For once Caleb is not simply a victim, his own capacity to understand and articulate political justice becomes a central concern of the text. Reading his own past, he becomes much more obviously a surrogate for the reader, a model for our own struggles to realize the conditions of political justice. So it matters a great deal that the very success of Caleb's appeal to ethical norms and virtues, his triumphant enactment of the principles of political justice, somehow generates a paradoxical and paralyzing sense of culpability about his own character and behavior. At the exact moment when Caleb seems to circumvent historically conditioned differences of status and power, they rewrite themselves within the personalized ethical narrative that he is constructing, leaving behind as narrative surplus an excessive feeling of guilt.

Still, the initial movement of this conclusion is optimistic. The surface logic of the trial scene had originally placed Caleb between the alternatives of a raw, brutal justice and an uncomfortable sense of sympathy for Falkland. As if quoting from Political Justice, Caleb first says: “It appeared therefore to my mind to be a mere piece of equity and justice, such as an impartial spectator would desire, that one person should be miserable in preference to two [that is, Falkland alone, once his guilt was revealed], that one person rather than two be incapacitated from acting his part, and contributing his share to the general welfare” (319). Caleb has all along pictured himself as that ideal spectator, yet the physical decline of Falkland irresistibly arouses his sympathy and makes him doubt his utilitarian calculation. “Shall I trample upon a man thus dreadfully reduced? … There must have been a better and more magnanimous remedy to the evils under which I groaned” (319-20). Caleb's moving speech manages to chart a third course, one that allows him to maintain his benevolence and impartiality towards Falkland. Even as he accuses Falkland, he vindicates his master's character and intentions, rebuking his own “folly and cruelty” in choosing to confront Falkland in court and publicize his guilt. Not truth alone, but Caleb's magnanimity towards his tormentor, persuades the listeners of his veracity and transforms Falkland. In confessing and asking for Caleb's forgiveness, Falkland vindicates the claim of Political Justice, at least in modified form; sentimental rationalism, manifested in a personal ethical appeal, triumphs over institutions, interests and ideology.

Yet there is more than sentiment involved here. Although his trial speech remains factual and focused on the personal dimensions of his relationship with Falkland, Caleb's restored admiration of Falkland is really made possible by a shift in his perspective that becomes clear only at the end of the postscript. Caleb can absolve Falkland of personal enmity towards him because he suddenly comes to understand him as the product of a corrupt political system—more precisely, as a victim of socially conditioned chivalric ideals. Caleb's final words translate the personal contest between himself and Falkland back into allegorical terms, relocating Falkland's behavior within a socio-historical context that largely erases his personal guilt. “Thou imbibedst the poison of chivalry with thy earliest youth; and the base and low-minded envy that met thee on thy return to thy native seats, operated with this poison to hurry thee into madness” (326).

Numerous critics have argued that Caleb here reaches a form of political and historical self-consciousness by indicting those chivalric ideals, resurrected by Burke and others, that were major impediments to social progress.13 Such historical understanding does indeed seem to motivate and explain Caleb's newly felt sympathy and magnanimity at the trial. His benevolence and impartiality flow directly from a hermeneutic revisioning of his situation, from his capacity to adopt a wider view of the historical circumstances that transcend and condition personal relationships. For the first time, he makes a direct link between Falkland's ideological biography and his personal behavior towards Caleb himself.

Paradoxically, this reading suggests that Caleb's error is his failure to step outside those circumstances and outside the legal system in order to seek a personal reconciliation with Falkland: “The direct and private confrontation of truth with error, testing the power of truth, is what Caleb should have attempted, but did not.”14 Indeed, Caleb interprets his own behavior in these terms, as a failure to believe in the power of personal ethical relationships to transcend or circumvent historically determined differences of power and status. He endorses a mode of relationship that he claims would let us evade the ongoing repetitions of power, appealing to an ideal of frankness and mutual understanding that he contends would have been accessible to him at any time, had he been able to recognize it: “I now see that mistake in all its enormity. I am sure that, if I had opened my heart to Mr. Falkland, if I had told to him privately the tale that I have now been telling, he could not have resisted my reasonable demand” (323). This fault is Falkland's as well; Caleb's one remaining accusation is that Falkland likewise failed to trust him: “You began in confidence; why did you not continue in confidence?” (321).

In this appeal, Caleb Williams reiterates the political prescription of Political Justice; personal dialogue can transcend social differences and restore a genuinely impartial justice. The text seems to claim that knowledge of history allows us to erase its effects, to step outside relations of power, in part because all are equally victimized by circumstance. The dramatic irony of the ending discloses our universal entanglement in political injustice, a state we as readers implicitly share with Caleb. In Uphaus's concise terms, the revised ending moves Caleb from self-vindication to “an acknowledgment of complicity.”15 Failing to recognize the allegorical resonance of his own life, Caleb allowed his impartiality to be corrupted by his sense of self and by his emotional reactions to Falkland. Despite his belief in his own purity of purpose, he fell short of an adequate faith in the efficacy of his own appeal to reverse the predominance of power over ethics.


And yet—appealing though this reading is in some ways, especially since Caleb himself seems to embrace it (323), it resolves the narrative in essentially sentimental terms, ones that fit neatly with Political Justice's faith in the power of sincerity, but elide certain problematic features of the novel. For Godwin's revised ending produces a counter-movement against its own ethical prescriptions, a contrary interpretive force marked by Caleb's excessive feeling of guilt. The end of Caleb Williams remains bizarre, as unsettling in its own way as the original nightmarish version. Its uncanny logic and emotionally overwrought tone are far removed from utilitarian rationalism; Caleb's acknowledgement of complicity is strangely detached from any political context such as that provided for Falkland's behavior.

The conclusion seems awry first in its utilitarian logic. The purely rational question here is whether it would have been better for Falkland's crime not to be revealed, an issue raised both in an early dialogue about the crimes committed by Alexander the Great (110) and in the one face-to-face interview of Caleb with his persecutor (282). The response implied by the text, shocking to the moral neatness of Godwin's theory, is that revelation is not the best solution, that utility does not coincide in this case with speaking the truth publicly. Yet if Caleb was indeed as wrong in making his accusation as he now seems to think, if Falkland did not deserve to be publicly accused, then utilitarian calculations would apparently justify concealing a murder (as Caleb himself reflected earlier, 130). And if they justify concealing murder, then why not committing one as well? Not only might the murder of Tyrrel seem rationally justified, but likewise the deaths of the falsely accused Hawkinses, since Falkland's potential ability to contribute to society clearly exceeds that of a tenant farmer and his son.

But the narrative is even more profoundly awry in its tone. Caleb's postscript exposes much more than a reasoned catalogue of his errors and implied solutions for them. It becomes an increasingly frenzied defense of Falkland's virtues and an almost frantic exercise in self-abasement. Caleb implausibly elevates Falkland to heroic stature, as if his actual guilt had somehow ceased to matter. “Mr. Falkland is of a noble nature. Yes; in spite [of all he did], I affirm that he has qualities of the most admirable kind” (323). In fact, “a nobler spirit lived not among the sons of men” (325). As Falkland rises in Caleb's esteem, his own self-image suffers a proportionate degradation. “I proclaim to all the world that Mr. Falkland is a man worthy of affection and kindness, and that I am myself the basest and most odious of mankind!” (323). Having absolved Falkland of any personal guilt, Caleb projects an incredible degree of benevolence onto his earlier behavior, and takes upon himself the guilt that must evidently lie somewhere. Caleb blames himself alone for their communicative failure. “I despaired [of my ability to persuade Falkland] … my despair was criminal, was treason against the sovereignty of truth” (323).

Its emotional tone makes Caleb's sympathy for Falkland extremely suspect, for it derives less from a detached, historical understanding of their relation than from a problematic identification with Falkland and even with his power to oppress. As the postscript continues, Caleb virtually becomes Falkland; he inherits his role as ruthless oppressor, passing on to him the role of innocent victim.16 Caleb sees himself as all that he has accused Falkland of being, a murderer (323) and an execrable criminal (325), even claiming that he should more mercifully have “planted a dagger in his heart” (as Falkland did to Tyrrel) than humiliated Falkland in court (325). By making Falkland and Caleb interchangeable in this way, the novel undercuts its own effort at an historical explanation of events. If Caleb is somehow guiltier than Falkland, then the ideological explanation he provided for Falkland's behavior seems irrelevant in accounting for his own guilt. Caleb's guilt is extraordinary, excessive, far disproportionate to any reasonable moral calculus. How can he be guilty if Falkland is not? How can his treatment of Falkland be worse than Falkland's behavior toward Tyrrel and Hawkins? Why should Caleb take up Falkland's burden of guilt, his sense of self-abasement, his melancholic egoism, his misery?

Clearly, even at the moment when his integrity has been vindicated by the legal system, his truth with respect to Falkland established, Caleb is in important respects more deluded than ever—because he applies to himself in a naive and uncompromising way the standard of impartiality from which he has absolved Falkland. He remains a victim of the system at the moment when he thinks he has seen fully into it, for he now takes himself as its intentional, culpable accomplice. The resulting sense of guilt blocks any application to himself of the sort of ideological analysis he has used to liberate Falkland. He continues to read his own actions strictly within a code of personal ethics that blinds him to their wider ideological implications. He repersonalizes the guilt for the tragedies of the text, turning back on himself the wrath that he had gradually come to feel for Falkland. Caleb understands his error as an ethical flaw in his personal identity, as egoism, a wholly personal aspiration for power: “Why should my reflections perpetually centre upon myself? self, an overweening regard to which has been the source of my errors! Falkland, I will think only of thee, and from that thought will draw ever fresh nourishment for my sorrows!” (325). This sort of reasoning implies that social violence stems from human nature, not from circumstances or inequities of political power; it empties out the historical awareness that let Caleb absolve Falkland. Rather than being an uplifting manifestation of political justice, Caleb's response replicates Falkland's reaction to his own “crime,” generating a degree of self-hatred that can only prove debilitating and ethically corrosive, a self-hatred that seems just as likely as in Falkland's case to eventually find an outlet, a new victim.

Caleb does recognize his complicity, but in exactly the wrong way, in a way that permits ideology to continue to function invisibly behind a facade of personal psychological agency. Caleb remains locked in an obsessive identification with Falkland because he can find no place for himself within the historical narrative he has constructed to vindicate Falkland. Rather than becoming an impartial spectator or a reliable narrator, Caleb simply exchanges roles with Falkland in an ongoing ideological spectacle. Earlier in the novel, he seemed to recognize this dangerous social dialectic: “I thought with unspeakable loathing of those errors, in consequence of which every man is fated to be more or less the tyrant or the slave” (156). Now, however, his language exhibits fundamentally similar distinctions, even using a Biblical “thee” and “thy” to address Falkland. He reverts to the role of servant, abased before a divine Falkland whose “intellectual powers were truly sublime” and whose “bosom burned with a godlike ambition” (325). The formal structure of this relationship of unequals overrides any attempt to step outside of it into ethical impartiality, to deconstruct it into its circumstantial origins.17 Caleb's praise of Falkland and his own self-abasement are the sole new elements at the trial; Caleb's reassertion of status differences doubtless contributes to producing the conviction in his hearers that his earlier attempts to defend himself had failed to achieve.18

To see in the revised ending a case where “a flawed Caleb achieves moral self-recognition and acceptance of his guilt,” is to ignore the intense emotional ambivalence of Godwin's revised conclusion.19 It places Caleb and us in the position of accepting Falkland's own earlier reading of events, where he presents his intentions towards Caleb only in positive terms: “I meditated to do you good. … I would yet have found a way to reward you” (281). But Falkland's words reveal an aberrant ethical perspective on the events of the text as we have seen them, and can hardly begin to justify his vindictive pursuit of Caleb. As Tysdahl more persuasively notes: “Caleb has seen through one set of false assumptions, but this new version of his own history is at best only a curious mixture of newly acquired insight, misunderstandings and uncertainties.”20

The curiousness of that mix, I would argue, stems from Caleb's excessive confidence in the power of rational ethics to circumvent deeply embedded relationships of power. He attains only a partial impartiality, for while his sympathetic rationality elevates him above self-interest, it does so only by substituting another self in which to be interested. As guardian of Falkland's reputation, Caleb reinscribes differences of power along traditional lines and allows ideology to reassert itself in and through the very ethical categories on which he relies to extricate himself. As readers, we have to weigh his justice towards Falkland against his injustice towards himself.


The reservations that Caleb Williams forces us to raise about impartiality and confidence are characteristic of Godwin's developing thought. Both political and personal events in the 1790s led Godwin to doubt his easy faith in ethical absolutes—not their existence, but how operative they might become in human affairs.21 The Enquirer essays of 1797 share with most of Godwin's novels considerable scepticism about the sort of ideal ethical standards so confidently anticipated in Political Justice. “Of Difference of Opinion” specifically questions our ability to maintain the impartiality that could lead us, through dialogue, towards consensus: “Alas! impartiality is a virtue hung too high, to be almost ever within the reach of man!” (E, 305-6). It requires, in fact, a seemingly superhuman effort: “The causes of this pertinacity [in adhering to first impressions] are closely interwoven with the nature of man … We ought … to regard those who conquer it as having lifted themselves above the level of almost the whole mass of their species” (E, 308). Godwin ultimately concludes, as he urges us not to blame others for their partiality, “that there is not a man that lives, of whom it can be affirmed that any one of his opinions was formed with impartiality” (E, 311).

Still, it is Godwin's novels, rather than his philosophical writings, that undertake the most probing analysis of this political and ethical problem. They explore his concern that there may be no moral economy of the psyche from which vanity and self-gratification can be excluded, that there is no ethics of benevolence apart from and therefore able to monitor and regulate our interests, passions, or will. As they explore the conditions of possibility—or impossibility—for rationalist virtues, their Romantic psychological realism reveals a will to power behind even the most altruistic of motives, thus implying an irreducibly political dimension in social interaction. Over and over, Godwin's characters show us how the desire for truth—to be right, at any cost—itself derives from and intensifies the desire for power. Hence the radical anarchism of Political Justice gives way to the pragmatism of The Enquirer: “All men love independence. … All men love power. … From these passions taken together, united with the actual imperfections of the human mind, arises the necessity of political restraint” (E, 320).

Caleb himself recognizes this truth by the end of the novel, though he still tends, as throughout the text, to consider his current position to be impartial. Yet his ethical categories fall short of an explanatory power that would be genuinely liberating for him, because he fails to connect his ethical terms to any context beyond himself. In fact, the materials necessary for an adequate reinterpretation of his own past are simply not available to him—a curious structural anomaly in one sense, probably not even intended by Godwin, yet brilliantly right in another sense for illuminating the complex interlocking of ethics and politics. Caleb Williams never provides the same sort of explanatory context for Caleb as it does for Falkland. So Caleb's inability to reread himself is, oddly but accurately put, a function of Godwin's inability to rewrite the whole text (the earlier chapters of which were already being printed as he completed the novel) and to give Caleb a past comparable in contextual depth to Falkland's. Caleb remains a remarkably isolated individual, literally an orphan, inhabiting a world free of conscious ideological resonances.

Partly for these reasons, Caleb had portrayed himself from the start as someone who could provide a reliable, impartial version of events: “I am incited to the penning of these memoirs, only by a desire to divert my mind from the deplorableness of my situation, and a faint idea that posterity may by their means be induced to render me a justice which my contemporaries refuse” (3). He retains that ambition to the end, even as his purpose shifts from self-vindication to vindication of Falkland. Yet his interpretive project demonstrates its weakness in its failure to provide a compelling rereading of earlier events in the text; it constantly overlooks factors that it lacks any ideological framework to explain.

Instead, Caleb writes over the past in ways that make its errors seem curiously inexplicable. Caleb's fundamental accusation against Falkland in the final trial focuses on an ethical error—that his master failed to have sufficient faith in him: “You began in confidence; why did you not continue in confidence?” (321). Yet his behavior gives us little reason to think that Falkland could have relied on Caleb's disinterested justice in pursuing his secret. Even Caleb had been aware of how his observation and conversation were quite obviously aimed at forcefully penetrating Falkland's confidence: “There was still an apparent want of design in the manner [of my remarks], even after I was excited accurately to compare my observations and study the inferences to which they led … Mr. Falkland's situation was like that of a fish that plays with the bait employed to entrap him” (108-9). For anyone with secrets—that is, virtually everyone in Godwin's fiction—fully divulging oneself to such an interlocutor must seem like folly.22

Caleb retrospectively sees his curiosity as a “mistaken thirst” (133), driven as much by passion as by an impartial love of truth and something in which he takes a “strange sort of pleasure” (107). Still, his reiterated insistence to himself of his disinterestedness (proved for him by his refusal to accuse Falkland until the end) allows him to conceal from himself any awareness of his own will to power or to his own need to know. As Uphaus perceptively notes, the desire to learn Falkland's secret has clear, revolutionary political implications, ones that Caleb never understands: “Caleb wishes to reenact Falkland's torment, not merely to discover and experience Falkland's feelings, but to raise himself—at least psychologically, if not socially and politically—to the level of Falkland's coequal.”23 Yet it seems less true that “affective tendency supplants political moral” than that Caleb's affective obsession with truth itself provides the mechanism through which political ideology surreptitiously works, an “insanity” whose ideological logic escapes his awareness, and perhaps the reader's as well.24 For despite Caleb's self-recriminations at the end, he never examines the mysterious madness of his wish to know the truth about Falkland. His acceptance of guilt, in fact, seems to absolve him from further self-examination and from applying to himself the historicizing analysis he has applied to Falkland.

As many critics have remarked, Caleb's curiosity expresses and reveals an attraction to the power that knowledge can provide. “Every man,” Caleb says, without noticing his own inclusion in the category, “is in some degree influenced by the love of power” (245). His own language accuses him of this long before he comes to accuse himself at the trial. As he contemplates his state of mind when first imprisoned, for instance, his desire for truth slides syntactically into a frank, if unacknowledged, expression of more questionable motives: “Every sentiment of vanity, or rather of independence and justice within me, instigated me to say to my persecutor, You may cut off my existence, but you cannot disturb my serenity” (187; emphasis added). Even as he asserts his inviolability and moral superiority, Caleb tellingly reveals his personal stake in “impartial” truth. Later, as his rage against Falkland mounts, he says: “I will show thee for what thou art, and all the men that live shall confess my truth” (314; emphasis added). The language of Falkland's confession reveals a similar tendency to see in their struggle a personal struggle for power. “You have conquered” (324), he says—not persuaded or been vindicated, but conquered. It is neither truth nor impartiality, but Caleb's person and reputation that triumph over Falkland, an opposition that Caleb can try to reverse in writing his text, but cannot hope to dissolve. In a text where every important relationship offers only two psychological alternatives—egoism or absorption by the other person—knowledge of anyone else becomes just one more counter in a struggle for control. To the end Caleb continues to see that struggle—at least from his side—in essential personal terms, failing to acknowledge the ideological factors that condition it. Caleb lacks any of the terms that Godwin might have provided for reinterpreting his own past as he does Falkland's, a lack that is profoundly telling about how ethical categories, for all the power of their internal coherence, may still go astray.


By transforming the end from a series of events that lead inexorably to Falkland's guilt, as in the first version, into Caleb's still partial interpretation of the trial itself, Godwin underscored the difficulty of subordinating issues of power and historical circumstance even to his own ethical ideals. Caleb accepts the role of villain in this revised tragedy, re-enacting Falkland's melancholy mourning for the other as victim and for himself as the unwilling agent of political injustice. He does revise Falkland's script in one respect by publicly announcing his responsibility, which might suggest that a more positive balance results. Yet the residual imbalance in the text argues against this. As the first murder left an interpretive surplus exceeding utilitarian ethical calculations—the Hawkinses's unmerited deaths for Falkland's crime (which Caleb's eulogy of Falkland cannot explain and must therefore erase)—so does the “murder” of Falkland by Caleb leave us with the remainder of Caleb's guilt, its excess the sign of the limits of his self-recognition.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Caleb remains convinced by his myth of impartiality, both about his own essential rightness in uncovering Falkland's secret and about the accuracy of his final accounting. He embodies the aspirations of Political Justice, sharing its conviction that he like any rational being, ought to have been able to trust the power of ethical concerns to sweep aside political ones. Yet his interpretive struggles and his residual guilt in Godwin's revised ending convey a more complex message about the intersection of ethics and politics. First, his ethical capacity to estimate Falkland impartially and to pardon him derives from his comprehension of historical circumstances, his recognition of the degree to which character may be shaped by ideological factors that need to be understood in their full specificity. His own self-estimation, however, reveals a second sort of connection. His guilt and his skewed effort to reread his own past demonstrate the tendency of ethical categories to drift away from their historical grounding, a shift that contributes to the re-emergence of ideological forces within them. His ideological relation to Falkland can thus reassert itself within his ethical language, aided in crucial ways by the universalizing, essentializing nature of its terminology. Too confidently adhering to ethical absolutes, Caleb cuts short his interpretation of events and blinds himself to his own place in the narrative he constructs around Falkland. Ironically, Caleb's recourse to an ethics “purified” of ideology has the effect of erasing his own identity. “I have now no character that I wish to vindicate” (326), he concludes, echoing Falkland's despair. Though he can clearly see the ideological factors that corrupted Falkland, he perceives his own case in terms of ethical universals. Here again he mimics his master, for Falkland, too, may well have understood Tyrrel's motives and justifications better than his own (what else should those years of solitary brooding have led him to?).

Having failed to enact political justice, Caleb imagines that his own narrative will provide a clear and consistent truth, so that the world will “at least not hear and repeat a half-told and mangled tale” (326). That very telling, however, tempts us to repeat the mangling we have seen, for Caleb's dilemma is very much the reader's as well. Recalling that Godwin's own aesthetic theory stressed tendency as the crucial component of narrative, we must finally turn our attention to his text's effect on the reader. “Of Choice in Reading” emphasizes the power of literature to “increase the powers of the understanding,” suggesting our intellectual distance from and potential superiority to the partial visions that entrap fictional characters (E, 138). But Godwin's own comments on Caleb Williams and other novels emphasize the affective dimensions of reading, how its power derives from an appeal to our feelings.

His 1832 Preface to Fleetwood speaks of his efforts to create a tale of “powerful interest” whose unity of plot would give it a “powerful hold” over the reader.25 Godwin's critique of Wollstonecraft's draft for Maria similarly argues that an author needs to depict not only incidents, but the feelings they arouse in the characters themselves. “An incident, to produce its effect in a work of fiction, must be accompanied with an exhibition of the successive feelings it inevitably creates in the person that is the subject of it.”26 Nor can we, Caleb Williams implies, easily imagine ourselves exempt from the ethical partialities that go along with such affective involvement, as if we were embodiments of the fairness that these characters never quite manage to maintain.

The extent of this aesthetic identification, its approximation of Caleb's own position, becomes clearest when Godwin describes his creation of the figure of Falkland:

Nor could my purpose of giving an overpowering interest to my tale be answered, without his appearing to have been originally endowed with a mighty store of amiable dispositions and virtues, so that his being driven to the first act of murder should be judged worthy of the deepest regret, and should be seen in some measure to have arisen out of his virtues themselves. It was necessary to make him, so to speak, the tenant of an atmosphere of romance, so that every reader should feel prompted almost to worship him for his high qualities.27

The reader, as much as Caleb, seems called here to an affective identification where the ethical imbalance of Falkland's indirect murder of Hawkins and his son, done to cover up his first, simply vanishes. Curiously, Godwin comments on the novel focus exclusively on Falkland rather than Caleb replicating Caleb's identification with him, but not helping us locate ourselves in relation to Caleb.

How, then, should we respond to this text? Perhaps better than identifying with Caleb, and ultimately with his own identification with Falkland, we might respond with some measure of aversion to the vehemence of Caleb's own self-abasement and self-contempt. The affective excess at the end of Caleb Williams ought to remind us of the ways that ideology can be reinscribed within ethical categories. Yet we should not therefore conclude that Godwin is undoing, consciously or not, his own rationalist ideals simply because his fictional text confronts more directly the difficulty of the path leading to them. His rationalist ethics both require and are threatened by the identificatory processes that Caleb enacts; they depend upon a sympathetic identification with other persons that constantly risks becoming an ideological identification with reactionary values that those persons may represent.

In the way that it positions Caleb both within and outside of history, Caleb Williams looks forward to Godwin's subsequent examination of the conditions for political justice. The question of why historical understanding proves hardest to turn back upon one's own life supplies a dominant theme in many of Godwin's later texts, from his Memoirs of Wollstonecraft and his historical novels to numerous essays in The Enquirer and elsewhere. Caleb Williams asks, then, to be taken not alone and in isolation as definitive Godwinian philosophy, but as the first step in Godwin's analysis of the complex interdependence of affective apprehension and a rational, yet historically conditioned, sense of justice.


  1. Burton Ralph Pollin, Education and Enlightenment in the Works of William Godwin (New York: Las Americas, 1962); William Godwin, Uncollected Writings: 1785-1822, ed. Jack Marken and Burton Pollin (Gainesville: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1968). David McCracken's “Godwin's Literary Theory: The Alliance between Fiction and Political Philosophy,” Philosophical Quarterly 49 (1970): 113-33, remains one of the best pieces available dealing with Godwin's little noted but highly interesting remarks on the purposes and functioning of literature. On the discovery of the original ending, see D. Gilbert Dumas, “Things as They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams,Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6 (1966): 575-97. The original conclusion is published as an appendix in David McCracken's edition of the novel: William Godwin, Caleb Williams (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970). All Caleb Williams quotations are taken from the McCracken edition; page numbers cited parenthetically within the text.

  2. Godwin's three recent biographers have unfortunately been sometimes the readiest to write off Godwin's later fiction as mere repetition of Caleb Williams or as aesthetically inept. Yet each biography has distinctive merit and together they have contributed to shaping a much fuller and more nuanced view of Godwin. Don Locke, A Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of William Godwin (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), is a probing intellectual biography, one of the best treatments of the evolution of Godwin's philosophical thinking. William St. Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989), provides a wealth of anecdotal information about Godwin's life, drawing heavily on his detailed diary and extensive correspondence. Peter Marshall, William Godwin (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984), stresses the importance of Godwin's Dissenting background and provides by far the best analyses of the novels. Most successful treatments of Godwin's fiction attend carefully to its allegorical features, restoring to his psychological portraits a depth that critics with a realist bias can simply overlook. B. J. Tysdahl, William Godwin as Novelist (London: Athlone, 1981), highlights religious dimensions of the novels; Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel: 1780-1805 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), carefully draws out their historical and political dimensions; Marilyn Butler, “Godwin, Burke, and Caleb Williams,Essays in Criticism 32 (1982): 237-57, focuses specifically on Godwin's reaction to Burke.

  3. The terms “tendency” and “moral” are Godwin's own, set out in an essay in The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1797); hereafter abbreviated E. In “Of Choice in Reading,” Godwin defines “moral” as “that ethical sentence to the illustration of which the work may most aptly be applied,” in other words, some clear and explicit message. Such morals are interpretively subordinate to “tendency,” defined as “the actual effect it is calculated to produced upon the reader, and [which] cannot be completely ascertained but by experiment” (136-38). As used by Godwin, tendency refers not to something an author can consciously control, but instead to the influence a work has over time in altering its readers' powers of understanding or dispositions of heart. McCracken's essay (note 1) provides a good overview of the terms, which are brilliantly deployed in Tilottama Rajan's “Wollstonecraft and Godwin: Reading the Secrets of the Political Novel,” Studies in Romanticism 27 (1988): 221-51. Rajan's essay is particularly valuable because of the rigorous way that it locates Godwin's and Wollstonecraft's novels generally against the intellectual shift from Enlightenment to Romantic modes of interpretation and more particularly in terms of emergent hermeneutic theories.

  4. Most commentators in the last fifteen years have, in fact, focused in one way or another on the interpretive ambiguity of the text, although their readings diverge widely according to where they locate the source and significance of this ambiguity. The indeterminacy of motivation and the complexities of Caleb's identification with Falkland are central to Michael DePorte's “The Consolations of Fiction: Mystery in Caleb Williams,Papers on Language and Literature 20 (1984): 154-64, and Robert Uphaus's fine close reading “Caleb Williams: Godwin's Epoch of Mind,” Studies in the Novel 9 (1977): 279-96. The epistemological ambiguities of Caleb's avowed aim of knowing the truth predominates in Andrew Scheiber's “Falkland's Story: Caleb Williams's Other Voice,” Studies in the Now 17 (1985): 255-65, and Donald Wehrs's “Rhetoric, History, Rebellion: Caleb Williams and the Subversion of Eighteenth-Century Fiction,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 28 (1988) 497-511. The role of writing in undermining Godwin's conversational model of truth is highlighted by Karl Simm's deconstructive reading, “Caleb Williams' Godwin: Things as They Are Written,” Studies in Romanticism 26 (1987): 343-63, and Leland Warren's “Caleb Williams and the Fall into Writing,” Mosaic 20 (1987): 57-69. These readings all reflect a common reaction against the tendency of earlier interpretations—such as these by McCracken, Mitzi Myers and Eric Rothstein—to see Godwin advocating a sentimental humanism in this novel and to take Caleb's own interpretation of his life in the closing pages as indicative of Godwin's narrative aims. See Mitzi Myers, “Godwin's Changing Conception of Caleb Williams,Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 12 (1972): 591-628, especially 624-28; McCracken's introduction to his edition ([note 1], xv-xx); Eric Rothstein, Systems of Order and Enquiry in Later Eighteenth-Century Fiction (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press 1975), especially 238-39.

  5. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, ed. F. E. L. Priestley, 3 vols. (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1946), 1:125. Except where indicated, quotations from this text refer to the third edition of 1798, cited parenthetically and abbreviated PJ. Priestley himself is clear about the “fundamentally ethical nature of Godwin's purpose” (PJ, 3:5). Both St. Clair ([note 2], 75) and Marshall ([note 2], 103) provide useful discussions of the meaning given by Godwin to “justice.” Don Locke (note 2) gives an exceptionally clear and thorough analysis of Godwin's revisions of Political Justice, noting how the second edition emphasizes the moral dimension of Godwin's argument on perfectibility (93). Mark Philp's fine study, Godwin's Political Justice (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986), stresses the priority of perfectionist ideas over utilitarian ones in Godwin's thinking, a perspective that would align Godwin in interesting ways with contemporary German reflections about Bildung.

  6. Passages like this one strongly echo the arguments of Kant's Foundation to a Metaphysics of Morals, although it does not seem that Godwin had any extensive acquaintance with Kant's work.

  7. Godwin's image anticipates certain features of contemporary liberal theory, performing a role similar to John Rawls's “veil of ignorance,” for instance, in A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971).

  8. Godwin's argument for how our actions cannot but be done according to our reason are actually quite compelling. See book 1, chapts. 4 and 5.

  9. The profound effects of their relationship can be traced in Godwin's own Memoirs of the Author of ‘The Rights of Woman’ and is especially evident in Godwin's portrayal of Marguerite and ongoing debate with Rousseau (whose works Wollstonecraft persuaded him to read more sympathetically) in Godwin's second novel, St. Leon. The discussions by Marshall (note 2), Locke (note 2) and St. Clair (note 2), as well as their analyses of the Wollstonecraft-Godwin correspondence, underscore the intellectual impact of Wollstonecraft on Godwin's thinking.

  10. Myers (note 4), 594. For Myers, the basic moral pattern here is redemptive. Though I disagree with Myers's interpretation of how politics and ethics intersect in the novel, in particular with her emphasis on personal agency and her reading of the ending as a triumph of moral self-recognition, her article provides a coherent and compelling statement of that position.

  11. Critics have often complained, however, that the political allegory becomes obscure because the political and historical backdrop lacks real specificity. See A. D. Harvey, “The Nightmare of Caleb Williams,Essays in Criticism 26 (1976): 236-49.

  12. In her readings of Caleb Williams and Wollstonecraft's Maria, Rajan (note 3) describes with great precision how different hermeneutic models create different roles for a reader to play in creating narrative truths. Novels like Maria (or Caleb Williams, with its original ending) rely on a rhetorical hermeneutic that expects the reader to simply reverse the terms of the text and to see that revolutionizing the social and political conditions described would allow one to unwrite the tragic ending. “We are invited to practice a negative reading that unfolds a meaning shadowed in the text but not yet contained in it as either manifest or latent content” (230). “But the revolution effected is entirely abstract by virtue of being wholly dependent on a future reader” (242). In contrast, Caleb Williams as revised moves towards a divinatory hermeneutics, setting out “a ‘romantic’ ideology of truth and love in which opposites are reconciled through the dialectic of experience, and in which evil is simply error” (245). In its self-consciousness about the act of interpretation, however, Rajan sees Caleb Williams already moving towards a historical hermeneutics that seeks to change political conditions as well as personal values, a reading that seems to me to underplay the limitations and internal contradictions of Caleb's role as surrogate for the reader.

  13. McCracken, “Godwin's Caleb Williams: A Fictional Rebuttal of Burke,” Studies in Burke and His Time 11 (1970): 1442-1452. Rajan (note 3) sees this novel as still locked in the myth of a personalized, “divinatory” hermeneutic, with St. Leon first realizing Godwin's move towards a historical hermeneutic (245-51).

  14. McCracken, Caleb Williams (note 1), xviii.

  15. Uphaus (note 4), 291.

  16. Rothstein (note 4) discusses the pervasive repetitions in Caleb Williams, as does George Sherburn in “Godwin's Later Novels,” Studies in Romanticism 1 (1962): 80-82. In his careful reading of Caleb Williams, Uphaus provides an extensive catalogue of these repetitions, as well as insightful comments on how they shape the overall meaning of the text.

  17. The text's most telling symbol may be Falkland's agent, Gines, who passes easily between his roles as violator and enforcer of the laws (259), another fact that Caleb notes without really comprehending.

  18. DePorte (note 4), though he does not pursue the point, aptly notes that Falkland is changed not by the revelation of truth, but by seeing that Caleb has continued to admire him, a curious intrusion of personal vanity into political justice (162).

  19. Myers (note 4), 602-3.

  20. Tysdahl (note 2), 40.

  21. With his usual sensitivity for historical context, Kelly (note 2) relates Godwin's concern with questions of truth to political conditions in England in 1793 (189-90). Simms (note 4) gives a poststructural twist to the absence of referents that might ground truth in the text (358-63). Kenneth Graham's The Politics of Narrative: Ideology and Social Change in William Godwin's Caleb Williams (New York: AMS Press, 1990) provides an interesting discussion of how Gines's broadsheet description of Caleb creates an anti-narrative within the text itself (70). One effect of Caleb's loss of confidence is to distance him more effectively from Collins, who insists on our need for moral absolutes regardless of their ultimate truth (310), and from Laura, a figure added in the third edition of the novel who substitutes in a certain sense for the Caleb of the first ending (297).

  22. Godwin's comments on confidence in Political Justice give the term a strongly negative flavor. “Confidence is in all cases the offspring of ignorance” (PJ, 2:237) he asserts, finding it a poor substitute in most cases for personal judgment. “Man is the ornament of the universe, only in proportion as he consults his judgment. … But, where I make the voluntary surrender of my understanding and commit my conscience to another mans keeping, the consequence is clear. I then become the most mischievous and pernicious of animals. I annihilate my individuality as a man” (PJ, 1:232). Hence reverence even to our superiors in wisdom is strictly qualified (PJ, 1:234). Caleb's reverence for Falkland seems all the more excessive by this account, since he has little ethical basis for his reestimation of his master.

  23. Uphaus (note 4), 284.

  24. Uphaus, 285.

  25. William Godwin, Fleetwood: or, the New Man of Feeling (London: Richard Bentley, 1832), vii-viii.

  26. McCracken, “Godwin's Literary Theory” (note 1), 128.

  27. Godwin, Fleetwood (note 25), viii.

Peter Melville Logan (essay date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Logan, Peter Melville. “Narrating Hysteria: Caleb Williams and the Cultural History of Nerves.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 29, no. 2 (winter 1996): 206-22.

[In the following essay, Logan discusses Godwin's use of the nervous condition of his narrator as a way of engaging in criticism of the social and political conditions of British life.]

England experienced an epidemic of nerves in 1800. As one physician noted, “nervous diseases make up two-thirds of the whole with which civilized society is infested” (Trotter, View viii).1 He could make such a claim because “nerves” was a broad, undifferentiated disease that took on the appearance of other diseases. Every complaint was potentially nervous in origin, and so nerves became the leading category of illness in the late-Georgian period. The explanation for this epidemic was social. Since the physician George Cheyne, in The English Malady (1733), had tied the stereotypical gloom of the English aristocracy to England's “wealth and abundance,” rather than to an intrinsic defect in the upper-class body, the nervous complaint was viewed as the disease of civilization (i).2 The late-Georgian epidemic was explained in similar terms. Medical writers pointed to the continued accumulation of British wealth since Cheyne's day, and its diffusion among the growing middle class explained the apparent growth in nervous disorders.

Because of this linkage between nervous bodies and social conditions, nervous complaints became a useful tool for writers engaged in social criticism. The nervous body functioned like a canary in a mine shaft, singing its warning song, and so an author could credibly use the health or sickness of the body to ground a commentary on the British way of life, or more precisely on the structure of British social power that brought the nervous body and its protean complaints into being. William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) uses the nervous body of the narrator to naturalize social criticism in precisely this way. When Caleb Williams complains, “[a]ll is not right within me” (313), he is describing a consequence of what is not right without, and it is this causation that the novel attends to in its detailed representation of the particular social conditions that literally make Caleb into the nervous character who narrates the story of his nervous incarnation.

One of the central characteristics of the nervous body was its tendency to talk. This quality, while the opposite of current thinking about hysteria within psychoanalytic discourse, is clearly described in the medical literature of the period.3 Indeed, as I will argue, the relationship between nervous conditions and narrative was crucial to the cultural conceptualization of the nervous body, and nervous disorders could not be thought without an implicit, privileged association with narrative.

This association of nerves with narrative makes problematic many narratives in the period that, like Caleb Williams, depend on a nervous narrator to testify, from personal experience, to the injustice of society. Linking the critic's narrative with the nervous body on which criticism is grounded undoes any stable subject-position from which to criticize. Godwin's two opposite endings to Caleb Williams directly respond to this problem and, because of their sharp contrast, they exemplify the paradoxical position of the nervous narrator.

Godwin was at the opposite extreme of the political spectrum from the medical writer, Thomas Trotter, whose writing will form the basis of this analysis of the nervous body. While Godwin was a political radical and supporter of the French Revolution, Trotter was a “King and Country” physician who served in the Channel Fleet during the naval war with France. One could hardly imagine two middle-class professionals more distinct in their political views. And yet both operate within the same fundamental assumptions about the nervous body and its relationship to the world around it, assumptions that grow in significance because of the political distance between these two writers.4

Nervous conditions in 1800 were variously called hysteria, hypochondria, excess sensibility, spleen, vapours, lowness of spirits, biliousness or simply nerves. Despite the variety of names, nervous conditions were all structurally identical, and in practice their names were interchangeable.5 The primary difficulty in defining hysteria was the absence of any reliable symptoms. Because the nerves touched all of the organs in the body, a disruption of the nervous system could manifest itself in any organ and thus take on the appearance of any disease.6 Nevertheless, doctors writing on nervous disorders frequently listed a few, tentative or impressionistic symptoms, gleaned from their years of practical experience with nervous conditions. The following list is taken from Thomas Trotter's A View of the Nervous Temperament. He does not consider it definitive and distances himself from it, noting that he wrote it for an earlier work, “when cursorily treating of these diseases” (xv). But he includes it “for want of a better” and limits it to only five symptoms, the most consistent signs of an inconsistent disease. The signs of the nervous body are:

An inaptitude to muscular action, or some pain in exerting it; an irksomeness, or dislike to attend to business and the common affairs of life; a selfish desire of engrossing the sympathy and attention of others to the narration of their own sufferings; with fickleness and insteadiness of temper, even to irrascibility; and accompanied more or less with dyspeptic symptoms.


Each of these five symptoms deserves comment, but the one at the center of the list stands apart. For while Trotter otherwise refers to physical sensations, his claim that nervous people are forever demanding “the sympathy and attention of others to the narration of their own sufferings” describes an act of speech. As an act, it differs qualitatively from the other symptoms. For while an “inaptitude” to action, a “dislike” for it, or an “insteadiness” in its performance, all indicate constrained or inhibited actions, this narrative act is not only uninhibited but actually in need of constraint. While a nervous condition impedes most actions, it enables the act of narration. The type of narration it generates is remarkable, too, in its specificity, for Trotter describes not just any narrative, but one with an identifiable form, a specific content and a distinct rhetorical function.

This symptom is far from being an eccentric element in Trotter's list. Indeed, the idea that nervous disorders could cause one to talk excessively about her or his bodily condition continues to exist today. Such people are still popularly called “hypochondriacs,” the term used for male hysteria in the eighteenth century.7 But while hypochondria, like all nervous disorders, originally had an endless parade of symptoms, only this particular narrative act has survived to become the primary meaning of the term in current usage.8 This observation, first, suggests that this narrative act has had a lengthy and an intimate connection with nervous conditions. Secondly, it allows one to glimpse the centrality of this narrative act in the construction of nervous disorders and thus to see that its appearance within Trotter's list, far from being idiosyncratic, is a foregone conclusion. It was, to him, so much a matter of common sense that it occurs within his most cursory thoughts about the disease.

Hysteria today is more generally associated with aphasia than with speech and often privileged as an index of the imaginary, which exists outside the symbolic system of language.9 But in confronting the physiological premises for pre-Freudian ideas about hysteria, the cultural logic they embody, and the boundaries for the fluid implications that can follow from them, strange bodies come into view, and the association of hysteria with a compulsion to speak is one of the most foreign, since it is the point on which hysteria in 1800 differs most dramatically from hysteria today in psychoanalytic discourse.

And yet within the assumptions about nerves as a mechanical entity, this association is unavoidable. Narrative became a central sign of nervous disorder because the nervous body had a narrative structure, and so there was an intrinsic link between nerves and narrative. That linkage stems from the conceptualization of nervous fibers as vulnerable to “impressions.” Healthy nerves receive and transmit impressions without ill effect. But the nervous body hoards them, as Trotter notes, “even to the hazard of its destruction” (199); it “retains, or records as it may be termed, all the effects of vicious indulgence” (211). Bodies that retain impressions are predisposed to nervous disorders, and that predisposition is what Trotter refers to as the “nervous temperament,” the central subject of his book.

The nervous temperament is not a manifest disorder itself but is the predisposition to disorder. As a predisposition, the nervous temperament precisely consists in the body's new receptivity to impressions; instead of simply registering them, the nervous body begins to incorporate impressions into its physical structure. Trotter's language describes these retained impressions as producing a physical record of the past that is “hoarded as it were in the structure of its nerves” (210). Impressions take on a new permanence, becoming etched in the body, rather than passing through it as transient experiences. This process of retention, however, cannot continue indefinitely. The nervous fibers have a finite capacity, and eventually they “accumulate the quantum of predisposition, and a nervous fit, or a bilious attack, is the immediate consequence of every new trouble of mind, and of every recent debauch of the body. Thus the habit may become so completely nervous … that the faculties of the soul will be worn out, and fatuity takes place; and the body will be so enervated as to be in a state of constant pain, tremor or convulsion” (211). The essential quality of the nervous temperament, thus, is that it destroys the body's assumed ability to resist the ill-effects of external sensations. It creates an overly inscribable body, one that is too easily written upon by the impressions of its day-to-day experience.

This gradually accumulated sequence of impressions creates a narrative within the nervous body which details its interaction with the larger social order. Within each nervous body lies the story of the social conditions that created it, and this social narrative reveals its somatic presence in the manifest nervous disorder, when the body acts out its pre-existing nervous condition. This narrative within the body is also a history of its own production, a somatic bildungsroman that tells the story of how it came into being, of how this particular body came to have a story to tell. Trotter's medical text on the genesis of nervous disorders is thus a critical text on how and why these nervous narratives originate.

This inscribable body is always gendered female.10 “The diseases of which we now treat,” Trotter notes, “are in a manner the inheritance of the fair sex,” because the female body possesses a finer set of nervous fibers (51-52). Thus when Trotter writes that women have “a greater delicacy and sensibility than the male,” he means that the female body is inherently more inscribable. Males could and did acquire nervous conditions; the prominent physician Thomas Sydenham had held, in 1681, that “women are more subject than males” to hysteria, but he also insisted that “such male subjects as lead a sedentary or studious life … are similarly afflicted; since, however much, antiquity may have laid the blame of hysteria upon the uterus, hypochondriasis … is as like it, as one egg is to another” (qtd. in Veith 141). And Trotter adopts a similar approach, encompassing all women and men of middle-class occupations. Because those occupations were growing, Trotter views nerves among men as a major medical problem. This nervous epidemic was a warning sign of just how “artificial” British social life had become. Its surplus of luxuries, its urban crowding, its over-sensationalized social environment—all created a cacophony that overwhelmed impressible bodies and made impressible even those that were not.

The most common way for a male to acquire this disease was to be born to a mother who had fallen prey to this lush and noisy environment. In an advanced nervous state, she could pass on her weakened constitution to the male: “From having injured her own frame by refinements in living, the mother thus sows the seeds of disease in the constitutions of her children: hence a weak body, delicate nerves, and their consequence, a sickly existence, become hereditary” (52). He could also get it from being suckled by a nervous nurse, whose nurture was a form of nervous poison. The female body represents the active principle of contagion, increasing the reproduction of the nervous temperament in the physical constitution of the English race.11 What these maternal figures sow in the constitution of their young is the same condition of inscribility that defines the female body. So the mother does not just spread disease. She spreads the particular disease of her femininity. This gender contagion is frequently illustrated in Trotter's descriptions of nervous males. Man-milliners are at high risk of contamination because of their proximity to female customers, and they are said to suffer peculiar “degeneracies in corporeal structure,” which he describes as follows: “These persons are commonly pale and sallow, soft-fibred, and of a slender make. Not a few of them behind the counter, approach in external form towards the female constitution; and they seem to borrow from their fair customers an effeminacy of manners, and a smallness of voice, that sometimes make their sex doubtful” (41). In the largest sense, then, the epidemic of nervous disorders was interpreted as a wholesale transformation of male bodies into female, and it was this regendering of the social body that doctors sought to cure.

The uncontaminated male body is absent from the present, and Trotter can only describe it in a mythology of Britain's ancient tribal life.12 The tribe's constant exposure to the elements hardens their bodies and dulls their susceptibility to dangerous sense impressions. This leads Trotter to the conclusion that “insensibility or passive content of mind, are the inheritance of the untutored savage” (29). This inheritance, because it forms the exact reverse of the sensibility which is “the inheritance of the fair sex,” suggests that Trotter's primitive world is a primarily masculine one, even as his modern world is feminine. As his contemporary gender roles blur sexual differences towards varieties of feminization, the savage state blurs them towards the male: “It was part of the marital contract,” he writes, “for the wife to share with the husband his labours and dangers; and to be his companion in peace and war” (22). Trotter's image of the savage female body is a significantly masculinized one in his terms; it is characterized by physical strength, vigor and stamina as well as stature. He structures an overall historical narrative around the basic story of the decline of the healthy and therefore male body, and the rise of the sick and female body.13

The difference between these two bodies—the present-day body of the nervous female and the past body of the non-nervous male—rests on their opposite relationships to narrative. The nervous female body contains a narrative within the fibers of her nerves. That narrative details the body's interaction with the social world around it, and so within each nervous body lies the story of the social conditions that created it. The non-nervous male body, certainly, has a history, but it is not pressed into its material structure, waiting to come forth at a moment of crisis. The nervous female body, however, possesses a constitutive relationship to narrative. She has a story to tell, while the healthy male body has none. In the medical view, nervous disorders as well as narrative itself are inextricably bound up with the female body and with the feminization of the non-narrative male body. To assert, then, as our medical writer does, that a particular narrative act is symptomatic of nervous disease is a reflection of the narrative structure of the disease. He is saying that, having acquired the body with a story to tell, the nervous sufferer characteristically tells it.

When this body tells its story, it is going to tell it in a recognizable form, that of “engrossing the sympathy and attention of others to the narration of their own suffering.” And, because of its association with the female body, this form is always gendered female. In this nervous narrative, the speaker pleads for the listener's sympathy, and so the speaker is going to appear blameless or essentially victimized. And she narrates her own sufferings, that is, she describes in the first person the events in the past that produced her nervous condition. It is a retelling of the narrative in the body, one in which the narrator tells the story of how she acquired the body with a story to tell, or how she came into being as a narrator. This is also a self-canceling narrative, because the narrator's authority to speak is undermined by the nervous disease that the story reveals. To a trained ear, the form of this narrative immediately identifies the speaker as a medical object, not an authentic speaking subject. It demands treatment, not attention: a house in the country, fresh air and energetic horse-rides, is the proper response. And if it is heard in the prescribed manner, as what today would be perceived as the complaint of the hypochondriac, we know that this narrative asks only to be made to disappear, regardless of what it might say. And it will disappear, of its own accord, as the nervous narrator is recuperated to the realm of health and silence. At the same instant she acquires the body with a story to tell, the nervous narrator is disqualified from telling it.

The question of why a physician would place this particular narrative act at the center of his list of nervous symptoms is also a question of power. Practitioners like Trotter were in a contest with their patients for authority within the doctor-patient relationship.14 The medical profession was emerging from the patronage system of eighteenth-century medicine, in which doctors were servile dependents of their aristocratic patients, and medicalizing the patient's testimony was a strategy to minimize the patient's authority within a new professional relationship. The narrative structure of the disease also gives the physician an independent basis of diagnosis. For while the narrative indicates its presence only through immediate unreliable symptoms, the external social conditions that create it are observable by the physician. This leads Trotter to insist on a type of social realism in the practice of medicine: “Early habits, pursuits in life, modes of living, moral character, preceding diseases, amusements, professions, seasons, climate, &c. must all be taken into the account” (208). The aim of this minute attention to the individuality of the nervous body is to reconstruct, in the third-person, the narrative that has been written on its nerves and produces its disease. From the vantage point of the practitioner, the nervous body is a body in need of his narration, as one who has the authority to tell the story his feminized patient has been disqualified from telling.

The opening sentences of Caleb Williams typify the narrative stance that characterizes the nervous narrator: “My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity. I have been a mark for the vigilance of tyranny, and I could not escape. My fairest prospects have been blasted. … I have not deserved this treatment” (3). The balance of the narrative will expand on these statements, re-staging the exact conditions of the calamity, and it will denounce those conditions on the basis of the narrator's illness. Because he is isolated by the point late in the story where he begins to construct his narrative, he addresses an unknown future reader, one who will “render me a justice which my contemporaries refuse” (3). As a literary narrator speaking to an assumed sympathetic audience, Caleb thus perfectly positions himself among those narrators engaged in “engrossing the sympathy and attention of others to the narration of their own sufferings.”

Because the nervous narrative was viewed as the product of the speaker's disease, what is remarkable is not that it was routinely discounted because of its formal qualities, but that—quite the reverse—it was routinely deployed by writers in the late-Georgian period. William Godwin, after using it for Caleb Williams, uses it again in his next novel, Fleetwood (1805). Mary Hays also uses it for Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), Mary Wollstonecraft for Maria's memoir in The Wrongs of Woman (1798), Maria Edgeworth for Harrington (1817), Mary Shelley for Victor's narrative in Frankenstein (1818), and Thomas De Quincey for his Confessions of an English Opium-eater (1821).

This form proved inviting to writers of the period, despite its suspect nature, because people widely believed, as our nervous doctor did, that the social and physical environment had a determinant effect on individual development and, more generally, that it shaped the character of the English as a “race,” that is, as defined by a distinctly English physical body. The late-Georgian period saw the beginning in England of the utopian faith in the promise of reform-oriented institutions based on the effects of control over external impressions.15 York Retreat, the Quaker asylum for the insane founded by William Tuke in 1792, was a significant practical manifestation of this new faith. One of the earliest of the new breed of institutions, it eliminated physical restraint and punishment in favor of a new therapeutics based on the beneficial effects on the mind of a domestic physical environment combined with a carefully structured model of social interaction.16 The prison reformer John Howard, whose 1777 book on the conditions within England's prisons is cited within Caleb Williams, also contributed to the new focus on the power of environmental conditions to shape individuals (Caleb 181). Institutional structures were given a utopian power to remake inmates in a predictable fashion, and this led to the appearance of new reform-oriented institutions—penitentiaries, insane asylums, orphanages—that characterize the early-to mid-nineteenth century. Novels like Caleb Williams and medical texts like The Nervous Temperment utilize this larger cultural paradigm.

Godwin's and Trotter's texts also represent gender in comparable ways. Caleb has the same fundamental problem as the medicalized subject in Trotter's text. The critical problem posed by Caleb Williams is that the narrator has become effeminized. Godwin describes Caleb's body as riddled with the delicate “flutterings and palpitations” of the female nerves (153). And he later refers to Caleb's role by explaining, “Caleb Williams was the wife” (Fleetwood xii). What Caleb narrates is the process of his own gradual effeminization, as his abject position makes him increasingly nervous, and he attributes that gendering process to the irrationality of the social environment. Caleb thus tells the story of how he acquired the body with a story to tell. And Godwin utilizes that narrativized body as a means of naturalizing his own social critique.

Godwin believed that his novel was going to do more than just critique society. Indeed, he wrote it immediately after completing his main philosophical work, the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), with the stated intention of broadcasting his ideas through a more accessible representation of British social life. But in addition to conveying his philosophy, Godwin felt that his novel was going to change the society that it represented by changing the readership. “I will write a tale,” he explained, “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” (Fleetwood ix). He makes three assumptions in this statement that need to be addressed: first, the reader is a male; second, this male is somehow in need of change; and third, his novel can remedy this reader's problem.

Like Caleb's, that male reader's problem is that he has become overly effeminized. Godwin agreed with the nervous doctors that England was experiencing a socially generated nervous crisis, and, like them, he gendered this crisis female. He held that illness was a product of external impressions on the body, impressions that are defined as originating in the social structure. In the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Godwin goes even further than the nervous doctor to argue that all disease is caused by social factors. And he predicted that, in the future, when social power is rationally distributed, all disease will disappear. He even held out the ultimate possibility that, freed of the prejudices and errors that produce social conflict and disease, there would be no more aging, and so we might realize “the possibility of maintaining the human body in perpetual youth and vigour” (Enquiry 775).17 Thus the nervous body disappears from this future world. Godwin also recognized, as Thomas Malthus was quick to point out, that without mortality population increase would soon lead to ruin.18 However, he argues that, as reason gains the upper hand, people “will probably cease to propagate,” since there will be no rational need for it, and since the pleasures of the flesh are inferior to the truer pleasures of rational love and friendship (Enquiry 776). Thus in this future civilization, “the whole will be a people of men, and not of children. Generation will not succeed generation” (Enquiry 776). In this disease-free utopia, then, the female body, as the site of reproduction, disappears, along with its inherent nervous inscribability.19 In the progressive history of Godwin, that utopia is egalitarian but also entirely masculinized, even as the savage past was masculinized in the conservative history of Trotter. In both cases, the present body represents an effeminate deviation from a healthy and masculine ideal. Within Godwin's philosophy, the population in general possesses an overly inscribable body, one that carries within it the narrative written on it by the social environment, and this narrative has made the reader ill. So all readers, to some degree, are sick like Caleb Williams.

Godwin's novel will counter the diseased effeminization in the body of the reader by mobilizing the healing power of reason. In Godwin's philosophy, the individual is a reasonable creature who always behaves rationally within the faulty dictates of his or her situation.20 It is impossible for any person knowingly to persist in an action based on erroneous beliefs.21 “There is no conduct,” he points out, “the reasons of which are thus conclusive and thus communicated, which will not infallibly and uniformly be adopted by the man to whom they are communicated” (Enquiry 136). He establishes the principle, evident in each of his novels, that: “Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, will always be victorious over error” (Enquiry 140).22Caleb Williams repeatedly illustrates the compelling power of narratives based on “sound reasoning and truth.” And each time the novel represents in fictional form the real power it claims to possess over its readership. Emily Melvile and Squire Falkland both move, briefly, the emotions of the “unfeeling” tyrant, Squire Tyrell, through their direct appeals to his reason. Like Godwin, they reject eloquent conventions of speech, using a “plain-spoken” narrative to say what would otherwise remain politely unsaid. There is a teasing motion throughout the novel where the power of plain-spoken truth confronts the artful prejudice that characterizes the social narrative and, like a genie constantly threatening to break out of its bottle, almost overcomes it. But not quite. Caleb almost succeeds in moving the guard to free him. He almost succeeds in the pastoral interlude with Laura. The narrative of reason finally emerges triumphant in the climax to Caleb Williams, when Caleb tells his story to his persecutor, Squire Falkland, and neither Falkland nor the assembled jury are able to resist its compelling influence. “The artless and manly story you have told,” says Falkland, “has carried conviction to every hearer” (324). Caleb's story is gendered male by Falkland because it is a clear expression of reason, and so it functions as a harbinger of Godwin's male utopia of reason, when all discourse will take this form. Thus Godwin's concept of the “manly story,” or the narrative of reason, envisions a narrative form in which the first-person description of personal suffering is no longer bound by its constitutive association with the female body.23

To Godwin, reason is less a theoretical abstraction than a physical force. As he describes its power, reason operates through the same mechanism as sensations. Caleb's climactic story moves his audience to tears because Godwinian reason is experienced as a felt condition. It has a pronounced sensual element that distinguishes it from error: “Our perceptions never can be so luminous and accurate in the belief of falsehood as of truth” (Enquiry 132). Truth for Godwin is always embodied truth, rather than disembodied abstraction. It “possesses an undisputed empire over the conduct” because it duplicates the physical mechanism of sensation and so has the same determinant effect as do physical impressions in Trotter (Enquiry 144). For this reason, Godwin's concept of rationality does not allow the principle of independent free will, since he describes bodies as responding with the same mechanical predictability to rationality as to other external sensations.24 Caleb's own language best represents the conflation between the mechanisms of reason and sensation: “I conceived that my story faithfully digested would carry in it an impression of truth that few men would be able to resist” (Caleb 303-04). Truth operates through “impressions” precisely as sensations do, as a form of writing on the body, and thus Godwinian truth opposes the determinant power of external sensations with a similar model for reason. It competes with the social environment for control of the body of the individual, offering an antidote to the effeminizing effect of the social order, one that will lead a world of effeminized bodies forward to a masculine utopia. The difference between these two forces, then, is that, while the social order produces female bodies, Godwin's narrative of reason produces male bodies.

Caleb Williams was written as a narrative of reason and it was on this basis that Godwin could imagine it would transform the reader. But he encountered a problem late in the process of writing the novel. Four days after finishing the manuscript, and with the first volume already being set in type, he went back to the novel, canceled the original ending and wrote an entirely different conclusion.25 The two endings are critical because each frames the narrative that precedes it in an opposite light. In the conceit of the first-person narrative, Caleb does not sit down to write his narrative until almost the conclusion of the novel's action, during the two-year period when he is most discouraged. Ostracized, incessantly hounded by Falkland's agent, he suffers a progressive mental collapse even as he writes the history of that collapse. When the narrative arrives at the present moment, he makes a final, journalistic entry in which he decides to bring a charge of murder against Falkland. Because this decision holds the danger of imprisonment for him, he entrusts his written narrative to the reliable Collins, hoping the fugitive manuscript will vindicate his actions should the trial end unfavorably and his voice be permanently silenced. This self-vindicating manuscript, then, is the body of Caleb Williams, and it includes all of the narrative except the trial scene and its aftermath, which is framed as the postscript to the narrative proper.

As first written, the trial goes against Caleb, and he ends up under physical restraint in a madhouse controlled by Falkland.26 In notes smuggled out to Collins, he explains that his overly-impassioned testimony at the trial was “alarming to my hearers” and that the magistrate dismissed his story with the peremptory command, “Be silent!” (Caleb 330). Caleb thus is situated like a nervous narrator, with the magistrate in the position of a Thomas Trotter, dismissing the speaker's narrative as a proof of disorder, and one that thus begs to be silenced. In his last note from the madhouse, drugged and virtually inarticulate, Caleb can remember nothing: “I had something to say—but I cannot think of it” (333). He is finally deprived of his ability to construct a narrative out of the sequence of events: “there is one thing first, and then another thing, and there is so much of them, and it is all nothing” (334). While the magistrate does not believe Caleb, the reader knows his testimony to be truthful. Thus Caleb's voice is suppressed, and his fugitive narrative, wisely entrusted to Collins, becomes the recovered voice of resistance to tyranny. His narrative stands as Caleb intends it, as a narrative of reason vindicating him and exposing the tyranny of the social order which, in an extreme form, the asylum restraint symbolizes.

The cancellation of this ending is particularly significant because Godwin conceived it first and then designed the rest of the novel to explain the sequence of events leading up to it.27 Rather than excising a supplement, its elimination suggests that Godwin located a problem in the novel's central rationale. The revised ending supports this view. In it, Caleb succeeds in the trial through his triumphant speech but suddenly disavows the entire narrative. “I began these memoirs,” Caleb says in his final words, “with the idea of vindicating my character. I have now no character that I wish to vindicate” (326). Instead of letting his story stand as a first-person narrative seeking sympathy, in the nervous form, Godwin reframes it as a documentary of Caleb's own errors. And so, like the medical view with which we began, the nervous narrator of the novel is recontained as an object of study rather than a subject, as one whose diseased and effeminized body speaks and who, in the act of speaking, de-authorizes the content of his speech.

Godwin's retrenchment might suggest a fear that Caleb's original narrative will be routinely dismissed as the product of hysteria. But the need to contain it more convincingly suggests the reverse: that there is something transgressive in the original form, something that needs to be neutralized. And this is the larger problem raised by the nervous narrative in the novel and autobiography. The problem in this novel, I repeat, is that Caleb has been effeminized. In a medical setting, this effeminate narrator is a noisy object whose body must be disciplined into healthy silence. But in a novel, the speaker's effeminization becomes formally desirable as a necessary condition for the production of narrative. Without that nervous body, there would be no narrative launched into the world, not even to warn readers against the social conditions that brought it into being. In these narratives, the nervous condition transforms the narrator into a speaking subject, one who does the disciplining through her body's nervous critique. So, in Caleb Williams, the problem is not just that the speaker has become effeminized and needs to be restored to a non-nervous condition, but that the narrative depends on this effeminization as the basic condition of its production. In its formal quality, the nervous narrative inevitably promotes the nervous condition it claims to warn against.28

It has been argued that Godwin canceled the first ending because it was overly doctrinaire, and he had tired of his own dogmatism (Kelly 197-98).29 In terms of what Godwin called the “moral” of a text, or its “ethical sentence,” this makes sense (Enquirer 1: 109).30 However, Godwin differentiated the intended “moral” from the rhetorical effect of a text; he distinguished between a contained authorial statement and the uncontained constructions that could be made of it by the reader, which he called the “tendency” of the text. At the level of this larger and less containable statement, the basic problem with the original ending is not that it is overly doctrinaire, but rather that it is not doctrinaire enough. Godwin's social critique has the tendency of investing those faulty social conditions with the positive quality of generating narratives, like Caleb's. Indeed, his novel presents a picture of a comprehensive system of social power whose most extreme manifestation is located in the very production of the nervous narrative itself. Thus to criticize that system for the nervous body it generates is simply to reaffirm, at a higher level, that system's value, for it is a system that makes Caleb into a speaking subject. While the “moral” of Caleb Williams is a condemnation of the injustices in British social life, its “tendency” contradicts that moral by ascribing a creative function to that social oppression. And so Godwin must recontain Caleb's narrative. Otherwise, his social criticism inevitably valorizes the system he wants to change.

In making his revision, Godwin does not entirely surrender the dream of a new first-person narrative form, one that is to be gendered male instead of female. When his narrator disavows his narrative, something new happens. He becomes a different type of speaker, one who is defined by his resistance to the essentially feminine act of narration, rather than by his original indulgence in its pleasure. His narrative is re-framed as a protest against the compulsion of the body to speak.

This resistance to narrative appears at two critical junctures of the narrative. In the final trial scene, it constitutes the main change in Caleb's attitude towards the trial and his own part in it. The success of Caleb's testimony hinges on his paradoxical attitude towards the act of speaking. He narrates the story of all the forces that brought him to the fatal moment of his testimony, describing “some dreadful mistake in the train of argument that persuaded me to be the author of this hateful scene” (320). His “manly tale” indicts the sequence of events that brings it into being, and it works through the paradox of criticizing its own narration.31 “Would to God it were possible for me to retire from this scene without uttering another word!” (320). Thus Caleb introduces his speech, and he concludes it in an identical fashion: “Never will I forgive myself the iniquity of this day” (323). The narrative of reason is carefully bracketed within this act of negation, in which the speaker denounces himself for speaking. The “manly” quality of his tale is not an active principle within the tale itself. It is the negation of his own misguided act of speech, an act that remains inevitably feminized.

The postscript reframes the fugitive narrative in exactly the same way. Given the change of heart Caleb undergoes in the new trial scene, the function and status of his earlier narrative needs to be redefined, for its publication—we are, after all, reading it—contradicts the new narrative conceit, in which Caleb no longer seeks to clear his own name. In the final paragraph of the postscript, Caleb redefines his intentions, adopting a Biblical tone and addressing himself to Falkland as though to a saint: “I will finish them that thy story may be fully understood” (326). The original nervous narrative, then, written to clear the name of Caleb, becomes redefined as the narrative of Falkland's vindication. So what was initially written as a self-vindication becomes recast as a self-denunciation, and through this transformation the narrative itself is redeemed, not as a rational narrative, but as a protest against its own existence.

Because it is redefined as a vindication of Falkland, Caleb's narrative finally comes to occupy the position of another imaginary narrative described in the novel, the narrative that he imagines is hidden within Falkland's trunk:

The contents of the fatal trunk from which all my misfortunes originated, I have never been able to ascertain. … I am now persuaded that the secret it incloses is a faithful narrative … written by Mr. Falkland, and reserved in case of the worst. … If Falkland shall never be detected to the satisfaction of the world, such a narrative will probably never see the light. In that case this story of mine may amply, severely perhaps, supply its place.


By rededicating his own narrative to redeem Falkland's reputation, Caleb's narrative does finally “supply its place,” establishing a formal association between it and the imaginary narrative in the trunk. That unseen manuscript of the new Saint Falkland perfectly symbolizes the elusive narrative of reason, a dream-like narrative which can only exist hypothetically and comes into language itself only through negation.32

The resistance to narrative suggests the presence of another story, one that exists outside the discursive form that constitutes Caleb's narrative voice. This new story can only indicate its presence as a negation of the available narrative form, that of the feminized speaking body. While Godwin can theorize a new male narrative, because of the nervous narrative problem he can not tell it. Instead, he can only point to it through the speaker's protest against the compulsion to speak, when the speaker shows a healthy resistance to the disease that produces narration.

In reading the nervous narrative, then, emphasis needs to be given to the familiar moment of the speaker's resistance to the act of speaking, a resistance that is evident not just in Caleb Williams, but more famously in Frankenstein, with Victor's reluctance to narrate his history, or less familiarly in Hays's Memoirs of Emma Courtney, where the narrator protests against having to revisit her painful past. For the resistance points to a subject that is conceivably distinct from the socially-determined subject whose narrative is itself an act of capitulation, even in the belief that it is free of the system it condemns. Given a society that believes widely in the determinant forces of external events, there is no safe “outside” from which to criticize its effects. Self-negation at least points to a subject capable of recontaining her or his own uncontrollable tendency to give value to an oppressive social order, and if this resistance is not exactly self-expression, nor even descriptive of an alternate mode of being, it is nonetheless the only available sign of social condemnation available to the nervous narrator. Made into a critic by an unjust society, the social critic must necessarily practice a self-criticism, or more precisely, a criticism for the hystericized impulse to criticize.


  1. Trotter's book, which was popular in Britain and America, was more exemplary and influential than original. For assessments of The Nervous Temperament, see R. Porter, Mind-forg'd 182; and Bynum 92. Principle biographies are by Rolleston and I. A. Porter; see also R. Porter's introduction to his edition of Trotter's Essay on Drunkenness.

  2. Cheyne, who was Samuel Richardson's friend and physician, uses concepts earlier articulated by Thomas Sydenham (1624-89), whose work on hysteria marks the shift in historical thinking about the concept, away from an affliction of the body to one of the mind; see Veith 140-46.

  3. The pronounced interest in hysteria and its history from the different fields of clinical psychology and psychoanalysis within the health sciences, and intellectual history, history of medicine, legal history, women's studies, psychoanalytic studies, and literary theory within the humanities all contribute to a definable corpus of texts that Micale terms “the new hysteria studies.” His overview of the differences between the distinct disciplinary assumptions and his review of the strengths and weaknesses of the major existing histories of hysteria are much-needed starting points for new work in the field.

  4. Trotter's political beliefs are most evident in his poetry, much of it a loyalist British response to the French Revolution; see Sea Weeds.

  5. The standard overview of the history of hysteria and its related complaints is Veith, but see Micale's discussion of its Freudian bias (38-40).

  6. The chameleon-like character of nervous conditions was a standard feature of nervous theory, appearing in Sydenham's writings and later in Robert Whytt's Observations on the Nature, Causes, and Cure of Those Disorders Which Are Commonly Called Nervous, Hypochondriac, or Hysteric (1764). Whytt's writings defined the Enlightenment view of hysteria as a disorder of the nervous system, rather than the womb. His Observations is the source Trotter relies on for his nervous physiology.

  7. On the invention of hypochondria and the history of attempts to differentiate male and female hysteria, see Veith's discussion of Sydenham (137-47). The term “hypochondriasis” was introduced by G. Smollius in 1610, who attributed hysteria-like behaviors in males to a disorder of the hypochondrium.

  8. The modern, narrow definition of a hypochondriac as having a morbid preoccupation with health was popularized in 1822 by Jean Pierre Falret.

  9. See Evans for the intellectual history of Lacan's most famous formulation and its post-Lacanian evolution.

  10. On the history of women and nervous disorders, see Goldstein's analysis of hysteria and the medical profession in the late-nineteenth century (322-77).

  11. In his discussion of nervous theories in relation to Romantic poetry and the novel, Martin notes Trotter's concept of female contagion (32-33).

  12. Trotter primarily draws on Gibbon's account of Tacitus in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chap. 9. Pocock's discussion of this passage in Gibbon is relevant to Trotter's ideology (116-19, 143-56).

  13. Pocock discusses the deployment of this historical narrative in the period (114-18).

  14. On the professionalization of medicine in this period, see Waddington. On the eighteenth-century patient-physician relationship, see Jewson.

  15. On the penitentiary, see Ignatieff and Foucault. Bender has a detailed critique of the narrative organization of this new penitentiary space and relates it to developments in the novel, which made such structures imaginable. Rothman's Discovery of the Asylum, while an American history, is particularly useful in studying this development because it broadens the issue to encompass all the institutional forms this utopian impulse took.

  16. On the York Retreat, see Digby. On the related issue of “moral therapy” in France, see Goldstein 64-119.

  17. Page references are to the Penguin edition, based on the third and final revision of Enquiry, published in 1798. For a discussion of the changes Godwin made between the first and third editions, see Marshall, chapter 7.

  18. Malthus answers Godwin's ideas on reproduction and longevity in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).

  19. I refer here to Mary Wollstonecraft's identification of women with reproduction in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, not to some categorical association.

  20. See Enquiry, book 4, chapter 7.

  21. Thus Godwin's novelistic characters resist melodramatic simplification; even tyrants like Squire Tyrell behave within the dictates of their situation and so must also be seen as victims.

  22. For an explanation of the evolution in Godwin's thought on the best way to effect social reform, concluding with his belief in small group discussions, see Marshall 113-15.

  23. On the relationship between rational speech and Godwin's philosophy, see McCracken's discussion of the “plain-spoken tale” (xvii-xx). The mistrust of rhetorical forms Godwin displays, and his insistence on a non-rhetorical form of truth-telling, is closely related to the conventional distrust of eloquence that can be found in sentimental literature; see Starr's discussion of eloquence and sentimentality in “Only a Boy.” Rajan's discussion of the interpretive issues at stake in Godwin's use of plain-speaking is directly relevant here, particularly her insight into the revised trial scene and its effect on the project of the reader.

  24. On free will, see Enquiry, book 4, chapter 7.

  25. Dumas discovered the manuscript ending in 1966. Myers added further details, finalizing the actual dates of composition for the printed ending. Their two essays define the opposing basic positions that continue to dominate the controversy over the ending of Caleb Williams. Dumas argues that the printed ending is inconsistent with the narrative that leads up to it and prefers the original ending. Myers, responding directly to Dumas, prefers the moral complexity of the revised ending, and makes the case for serious inconsistencies in the original version that the revised ending reconciles.

  26. Many critics assume he is inside a prison, but the presence of the nurse and the nature of Caleb's treatment strongly suggests that Godwin is describing an eighteenth-century madhouse.

  27. Godwin tells us that he designed the novel in reverse order (Fleetwood xii-ix).

  28. The force of this dialectic is most evident in the reviews of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions that criticized it for enticing more people to try opium than to avoid the dangers he so eloquently warns against.

  29. I use Kelly's formulation here as a prominent example of a widespread attitude towards the original ending. In a more general sense, however, I need to acknowledge Kelly's work as the source of my own interest in the novels of the early century.

  30. See Rajan's analysis of the “moral” and “tendency” in Godwin's literary theory, to which I am indebted (167-70).

  31. Handwerk, in his analysis of this scene, provides an engaging analysis of problems in Caleb's subject-position, but obviously I disagree with his assessment that Caleb's narrative succeeds because it displays “magnanimity towards his tormentor” (946).

  32. Simms, in analyzing the trope of writing in the novel, comes to a similar conclusion about the enigmatic narrative in the trunk, noting how “truth … is contained not as an absolute, but as another writing, a pre-text the existence of which is only conjectural” (357-58). See especially his analysis of the way Caleb “becomes a narrative himself,” one that “is the effect of which it is the cause” (347).

Works Cited

Bynum, W. F. “The Nervous Patient in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Psychiatric Origins of British Neurology.” The Anatomy of Madness: Essays in the History of Psychiatry. Ed. Bynum, Roy Porter and Michael Shepherd, 1: 89-102. London: Tavistock, 1985.

Bender, John. Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of Mind in Eighteenth-Century England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Cheyne, George. The English Malady. London, 1733. New York: Delmar, 1977.

Digby, Anne. Madness, Morality and Medicine: A Study of the York Retreat, 1796-1914. New York: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Dumas, D. Gilbert. “Things as They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams.SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6 (1966): 575-97.

Evans, Martha Noel. Fits and Starts: A Genealogy of Hysteria in Modern France. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Godwin, William. Caleb Williams or Things as They Are. Edited by David McCracken. New York: Norton, 1977.

———. The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1797.

———. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, And Its Influence on Modern Morals and Happiness. New York: Penguin, 1985.

———. Fleetwood: Or the New Man of Feeling. Standard Novels 22. London: Bentley, 1832. New York: AMS, 1975.

Goldstein, Jan. Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Handwerk, Gary. “Of Caleb's Guilt and Godwin's Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb Williams.ELH 60.4 (1993): 939-60.

Howard, John. The State of Prisons in England and Wales (1777-80). London, 1792.

Ignatieff, Michael. A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. London: Penguin, 1978.

Jewson, N. D. “Medical Knowledge and the Patronage System in Eighteenth-Century England.” Sociology 8 (1974): 369-85.

Kelly, Gary. The English Jacobin Novel, 1780-1805. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.

Marshall, Peter H. William Godwin. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

Martin, Philip W. Mad Women in Romantic Writing. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Micale, Mark S. Approaching Hysteria: Disease and Its Interpretations. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.

McCracken, David. Introduction. Godwin, Caleb vii-xxii.

Myers, Mitzi. “Godwin's Changing Conception of Caleb Williams.SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 12 (1972): 591-628.

Pocock, J. G. A. Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Porter, Ian Alexander. “Thomas Trotter, M.D., Naval Physician.” Medical History 7 (1963): 155-64.

Porter, Roy. Mind-Forg'd Manacles: A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

———. Introduction. An Essay, Medical, Philosophical, and Chemical, on Drunkenness, and its Effects on the Human Body. By Thomas Trotter. London: Routledge, 1988.

Rajan, Tilottama. “Wollstonecraft and Godwin: Reading the Secrets of the Political Novel.” The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990. 167-94.

Rolleston, Humphry. “Thomas Trotter, M.D.” Contributions to Medical and Biological Research Dedicated to Sir William Osler in Honour of His Seventieth Birthday, June 12, 1919. By His Pupils and Co-Workers. New York: Hoeber, 1919. 1: 153-65.

Rothman, David J. The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Boston: Little, 1971.

Simms, Karl N. “Caleb Williams' Godwin: Things as They Are Written.” Studies in Romanticism 26.3 (1987): 343-63.

Starr, G. A. “‘Only a Boy’: Notes on Sentimental Novels.” Genre 10.4 (1977): 501-27.

Trotter, Thomas. Sea Weeds: Poems, Written on Various Occasions, Chiefly During a Naval Life. London: Longman; Edinburgh: D. Lizars, 1829.

———. A View of the Nervous Temperament: Being a Practical Enquiry into the Increasing Prevalence, Prevention, and Treatment of Those Diseases Commonly Called Nervous, Bilious, Stomach and Liver Complaints; Indigestion; Low Spirits; Gout, &c. London: Longman, 1807. New York: Arno, 1976.

Veith, Ilza. Hysteria: The History of a Disease. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1965.

Waddington, Ivan. The Medical Profession in the Industrial Revolution. Dublin: Gill, 1984.

Dorothea von Mücke (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: von Mücke, Dorothea. “‘To Love a Murderer’—Fantasy, Sexuality, and the Political Novel: The Case of Caleb Williams.” In Cultural Institutions of the Novel, edited by Deidre Lynch and William B. Warner, pp. 306-34. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, von Mücke explores Godwin's use of language as a means of creating subjective realities within fictional representations.]

The popularity of William Godwin's novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (first published in 1794) was short-lived. One might wonder why this relatively unknown and inconsequential book should be of interest to anybody besides scholars of eighteenth-century literature. And yet, one of the first consciously “political” novels, this text provides a very interesting test case for an analysis of the relationships between literature and politics, ideology and sexuality. Caleb Williams challenges the reductionist understanding of the political that depends on a straightforward mimesis of history: it does so by constantly confronting its reader with the pragmatic aspects of language, that is, the ways in which language shapes subjective fantasies or organizes social hierarchies. Of course, to the extent that the novel provides a detailed first-person account of Caleb's suffering at the margins of society as the character attempts to escape being persecuted by his former employer, it can be read as a portrait of contemporary social injustice, a truthful representation that documents the necessity for political change.1 Along these lines Caleb Williams might be read as a mere illustration of the detrimental effects of feudal inequality, as those effects had already been laid out in Godwin's treatise Political Justice (in 1793). However—and this is why I have chosen to analyze Godwin's novel in detail—Caleb Williams also parts with these limiting representational claims by drawing attention to the medium of fiction, the institution of literature, and poetic conventions. More than a neutral medium allowing the objective representation of “things as they are,” language in this novel fundamentally shapes and informs both the realities observed and the observing and speaking subjects. “Things as they are,” injustice, inequality, and the perception of these realities are all affectively supported and shaped by fantasy and ideology—in a manner that culminates in the “willing submission to inequality.”

Though the three books of Caleb Williams are mainly narrated by Caleb himself, we must by no means take this first-person narrator's account as a simple reflection or expression of his own view. Rather, Caleb Williams becomes the victim of his infatuation with the discourse of another, Squire Falkland, and of the latter's poetic ambitions. The novel distinguishes various high and low rhetorical registers and discursive genres, making it clear that while reading habits and literary tastes have a great impact on one's expectations and values, not all genres are equally accessible to every speaker. From the moment when Caleb becomes Falkland's secretary, the poor and orphaned country lad is fascinated and seduced by what he perceives as his employer's enigmatic chivalric charm. Falkland's personality is repeatedly characterized in what the latter's half brother Forester calls “the language of romance.” When Caleb flees his employment, he does not give up his obsession with this dark romantic hero. By then Caleb believes he has the key to Falkland's personality: he has confirmed his initial suspicion that it was Falkland who murdered the unbearably tyrannical Squire Tyrrel. Book 1 of the novel consists primarily of an account of Falkland's youth and early manhood up to his trial for murder, when the finding of his innocence culminates in a drastic alteration of his personality. In books 2 and 3 Caleb's dreary existence is described, consistently in relation to Falkland on the one hand and to the writing and publishing of some kind of heroic narrative on the other. As it gradually becomes clear that Caleb's narrative is distorted by paranoid delusions, that Falkland might not be constantly trying to hunt down Caleb, and that this persecution is partly Caleb's fantasy and partly the doing of Falkland's half brother Forester, we are forced to ask how we should apprehend the novel's representational claims and political aim, how fantasy is related to “things as they are.”

Should one describe Caleb Williams as a novel about the ideological function of literature? Could one view the book as a fictional case study of the disastrous effects of a chivalric code and the “fictions of romance”? What exactly does Godwin mean by “chivalry” and “romance,” and what is their political significance? At this point it might be useful to introduce a citation from a later essay in which Godwin situates the origins of both inequality and love in the feudal culture of chivalry:

Chivalry was for the most part the invention of the eleventh century. Its principle was built upon a theory of the sexes, giving to each a relative importance, and assigning to both functions full of honour and grace. … The woman regarded her protector as something illustrious and admirable; and the man considered the smiles and approbation of beauty as the adequate reward of his toils and his dangers. These modes of thinking introduced a nameless grace into all the commerce of society. It was the poetry of life. Hence originated the delightful narratives and fictions of romance; and human existence was no longer the bare, naked train of vulgar incidents, which for so many ages of the world it had been accustomed to be. It was clothed in resplendent hues, and wore all the tints of the rainbow. Equality fled and was no more; and love, almighty, perdurable love, came to supply its place.

(Godwin 1831, 296)

It should be noted that in contrast to Edmund Burke, his political opponent, Godwin firmly believes that all inequality among men, be it inequality of wealth, power, or status, derives from culture, not nature.2 For Godwin human nature is in principle infinitely perfectible. The means to perfection are to be found in education, an increased awareness of one's true motives, and an enhanced insight into the common good. To the extent that it relates inequality to the specific cultural construction of courtly love, the citation above fits into this political perspective. But the passage also makes the critique of the ideology of romance a complicated matter. For once the culture of chivalry and “the delightful narratives and fictions of romance” have become the idealized version of a heterosexual relationship, the ideology that cements social inequality becomes part of the very fabric of identity formation.

This glance at Godwin's critique of the ideology of love and romance should indicate that for Godwin the fictions of romance are to be understood not merely as “misrepresentations” of reality but also in terms of their production of a reality. Literary language and fiction, according to Godwin, must also be analyzed with an eye to their pragmatic effects. In fact, not only literary fictions and poetic idealizations but every discursive genre, literary or not, can be described in terms of its performativity. In this sense it would be impossible to reduce Caleb Williams or any other text to the constative function of stating “things as they are.” If the exact historical representation of “things as they are” is integral to a genre like the confession, for instance, that generic rule will greatly influence the subjectivity and actions of all those who will have to construct their past within the rules of this genre. Although this observation might sound like twentieth-century speech-act theory, it is one that can be found in Political Justice. In the chapter entitled “Sincerity” Godwin recommends the following discursive practice of “mental hygiene” in the interest of crime prevention:

Did ever man impose this law upon himself, did he regard himself as not authorized to conceal any part of his character and conduct, this circumstance alone would prevent millions of actions from being perpetrated, in which we are now induced to engage by the prospect of secrecy and impunity. We have only to suppose men obliged to consider, before they determined upon an equivocal action, whether they chose to be their own historians, the future narrators of the scene in which they were acting a part, and the most ordinary imagination will instantly suggest how essential a variation would be introduced into human affairs. It has been justly observed, that the popish practice of confession is attended with some salutary effects.

(1946, 327; emphasis added)

Note how Godwin's description of the genre of the confession makes it a model of surveillance that would combine features of such innovations as Jeremy Bentham's panopticon with what was to become the psychiatric case history.

Besides the pragmatic considerations that prevent us from reducing a genre to a pure instance of representation, there is another problem with the title's claim that Caleb Williams relates “things as they are.” As I have already noted, Caleb's account turns out to be the writing of somebody whom we would call paranoid, that is, although Falkland is furious about Caleb's spying and does threaten him, he is neither always nor exclusively in search of his former secretary. Thus James Thompson, a critic who discusses this novel as a prime example of the “paranoid gothic,” writes:

The theme of being watched, that is, the thematization of paranoia, is common to the gothic novel, with its noumenal world constantly on the verge of interpenetration with non-human agency. But the eeriness found in a Walpole, Reeve, Radcliffe, Lewis, or Maturin novel is nothing like the anguish of isolation which Caleb experiences in his world as Prison. The passage just quoted is often cited to illustrate the power of Caleb Williams,3 with its terrible, Benthamite combination of isolation and surveillance, the terror of exclusion and separation that George Lukács analyzes as the objectification of social relations under capital. If surveillance is central to this novel, then the passages exposing the brutal condition of the prisons, and the interpolated episodes from the Newgate Calendar, and the notes to John Howard's State of the Prisons are not mere social protest dragged into an otherwise psychological novel out of the reformer's sense of duty: on the contrary, Caleb's vision of his society as a vast prison is Godwin's central insight.4

(1989, 183)

In attempting to appreciate Godwin's critical insight into contemporary society, Thompson's account of the novel in terms of the “paranoid gothic” is caught in a strange contradiction, one that might have to do with the rather complex representational claims and status of this text. On the one hand, the novel's sinister description of a world of perfect surveillance and persecution is supposed to portray rather accurately the actual state of affairs in Godwin's England. On the other hand, Thompson calls the description “paranoid,” a term implying that this view of reality is distorted by an unwarranted recourse to an epistemology of conspiracy or a hermeneutics of suspicion. Furthermore, even when we use the term “paranoid” in this colloquial sense, we mean not only that somebody's sinister view of reality is inaccurate but also that the paranoid person has an ambivalent emotional investment in the situation of surveillance and even in the persecutor. Caleb's excessive fear of Falkland is not the only thing that needs accounting for; so too do Caleb's fascination with Falkland, his spying on him, and his intense admiration of what he takes to be Falkland's chivalric ethos. In brief, to deal with the politics of Caleb Williams, we shall have to come to terms with the protagonist-narrator's obsession with his persecutor and his affective investment in being under surveillance. Ultimately, this project requires coming to terms with the special frisson, with the particular pleasures that are connected with Falkland in his capacity as a dark romantic hero.

In order to explain the connection between delusions of persecution and fascination with the persecutor, Alex Gold (1977) has recourse to the psychoanalytic model of paranoia and derives Caleb's paranoid delusion, his excessive fear of being persecuted by Falkland, from Caleb's love for Falkland. He reads Caleb's story as the result of a homosexual love story that in turn is borrowed from Falkland's biographical account in book 1 of Emily's unrequited love for him. Gold emphasizes the parallels between Godwin's political novel and Freud's analysis of Daniel Paul Schreber's autobiography. Concurring with Gold, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes:

The limited group of fictions that represent the “classic” early Gothic contains a large subgroup—Caleb Williams,Frankenstein, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, probably Melmoth, possibly The Italian—whose plots might be mapped almost point for point onto the case of Dr. Schreber: most saliently, each is about one or more males who not only is persecuted by, but considers himself transparent to and often under the compulsion of, another male. If we follow Freud in hypothesizing that such a sense of persecution represents the fearful, phantasmatic rejection by recasting of an original homosexual (or even merely homosocial) desire, then it would make sense to think of this group of novels as embodying strongly homophobic mechanisms.

(1985, 91)

Gold's analysis of Caleb Williams, certainly one of the most sophisticated and detailed analyses of this novel, and Sedgwick's use of this reading in her broader argument about the disciplinary deployments of homophobia lead me to a question that is provoked by these critics' ahistorical approach to sexuality. Like Freud, whose model of paranoia partially depends on a normative model of sexual maturation, one that ideally involves the overcoming of a homosexual stage, Sedgwick refers to an “original homosexual (or even merely homosocial) desire.” Foucault in his History of Sexuality (1978) has shown, however, that this notion of “sexuality” as a fundamental character- or personality-forming trait was merely a nineteenth-century discursive construct, one that found its first full theoretical articulation in Carl Westphal's article “On the Contrary Sexual Sensation” (1871). Analyzing a male transvestite, Westphal argued that there is something like a fundamental sexual orientation, a type of desire that shapes an individual even in its latency, doing so quite independently of the “sodomitical” practices that until the late nineteenth century constituted a quite different version of male-male desire and practices. The psychiatric and clinical construction of homosexuality hence provides some important parameters for its later uses in psychoanalysis and identity politics.

Having voiced my objection to this anachronistic use of sexuality, I hasten to add that my own reading will by no means reject what psychoanalytic theory has to offer literary analyses. If we distance ourselves from its normative tendencies, we will find productive models of sexuality that presuppose the ambivalent and irrational nature of pleasure. Indeed, a model of human sexuality as polymorphous perversion may both support and subvert its normative counterpart.5 In other words, I shall not with Gold try to map Freud's analysis of Schreber onto Caleb Williams, an operation that—as Gold has proven—works, if anything, too well; rather, I shall attempt to show why this operation works at all, and how this particular novel as an example of the “paranoid gothic” participates in the history of sexuality.

How should we understand the Gothic novel's literary use of paranoid fantasy in relation to extraliterary accounts of fantasy and delusion? What was the status of “paranoia” in the discourse of psychiatry, which was at the end of the eighteenth century still very new? The first psychiatric case history of paranoia was not taken down until about fifteen years after the publication of Caleb Williams. It was published by John Haslam (1764-1844), the apothecary of Bedlam. In his Illustrations of Madness (1810) Haslam states that with his book he wants to initiate a new genre, one advancing the science of psychiatry. He regrets that England does not yet have a richly documented library of cases of mental illness, of the sort that can be found in Heinrich Spieß's Biographien von Wahnsinnigen (Leipzig, 1795). It is not clear whether Haslam is aware that Spieß is not a medical authority but the author of popular entertainment fictions, primarily robber novels. Spieß's accounts of madness are melodramatic; and their chief interest seems less medical or scientific than sensationalist. This glance toward the psychiatry of the 1790s allows us to note that, since the field was barely emerging when Caleb Williams was published, it must have been from literary fiction that the clinical case history took its cues rather than vice versa.

Though there might be no psychiatric prototypes for this novel's approach to fantasy and delusion, we can certainly think of literary works that explore the delusions of madness in terms of the impact of fiction. To the extent that both Falkland's and Caleb's madness is channeled by the reading of fiction, one might even think of comparing Caleb Williams with Don Quixote, the paradigm of the novel as antiromance. Yet the two novels are worlds apart in the ways in which each contrasts “reality” with the distorting fantasy world shaped by romance's heroic ideals. Whereas Cervantes builds the novelistic counterreality on the sensuality and sense certainty of Sancho Panza and ultimately relies on a commonsense model of “natural” bodily sensations and pleasures, for Godwin the nature of pleasure is more problematic: certainly pleasure can no longer ground a world of sanity and reason. In fact, I will show throughout my analysis of Caleb Williams that this novel's exploration of subjectivity insists on the ambiguity and complexity of pleasure. It is here, in its complex, “unnatural” approach to pleasure that Caleb Williams acquires its significance for the cultural work of the novel. In what follows I shall analyze in detail how the protagonist's paranoia is constituted through a relationship to literature and language. I aim to demonstrate that this novel's treatment of its hero's mental and emotional state participates in the construction of the kind of subjectivity that a century later would become theorized and analyzable by psychoanalysis.

My argument has two stages. First I shall trace the development of Caleb's paranoia, beginning with the moment in the narrative when he flees a gang of robbers. Once I have shown how Caleb's persecution anxiety is worked out vis-à-vis his poetic ambitions, and the allure of sublime postures, on the one hand and the humdrum publishing realities of sensationalist popular literature on the other, I shall focus on the kernel of his narcissistic fantasy, on the specific organization of pleasure that underlies it. In the second part of this article I shall isolate the scenes that condense Caleb Williams's approach to the relationship between subjectivity, knowledge, the organization of pleasure, and writing. These scenes elaborate traumatic relationships between self and other, between pleasure and pain, in an attempt to answer the question of the origin of Caleb's passion, and to motivate the writing and the publication of Caleb's memoirs. Ultimately, I hope to show how this novel is involved with nothing less than the construction of human sexuality as the individual's secret, an encrypted but fundamental perversion.


The onset of Caleb's paranoia is marked by a shift from a position of perfect invisibility to one of visibility, and by a shift from a position in which language seems to be a tool to one in which language becomes opaque and conditions one's view of oneself and the world. As Caleb escapes from Falkland's household he has valid reasons to fear his former employer: that is why he joins a gang of robbers who hide in a secluded forest. This episode is described from the position of a quasi-neutral observer; Caleb studies and analyzes these people, speculating on their behavior, character, social interactions, and organization as a group as if he were on an anthropological field trip. Shortly after having left the robbers, Caleb sits in a corner of an inn, disguised as a beggar, and listens to the tall tales that are being told concerning him. Initially, he is frightened, but as soon as he apprehends his own “invisibility,” he begins to enjoy himself:

By degrees I began to be amused at the absurdity of their tales, and the variety of falsehoods I heard asserted around me. My soul seemed to expand; I felt a pride in the self-possession and lightness of heart with which I could listen to the scene; and I determined to prolong and heighten the enjoyment. Accordingly, when they were withdrawn, I addressed myself to our hostess, a buxom, bluff, good humoured widow, and asked what sort of a man this Kit Williams might be? She replied that, as she was informed, he was as handsome, likely a lad, as any in four counties round; and that she loved him for his cleverness, by which he outwitted all the keepers they could set over him and made his way through stone walls, as if they were so many cobwebs.

(Godwin 1977, 237)

Note how at the start his enjoyment is derived mainly from being an invisible observer, from being in control and knowing that he has exclusive access to knowledge. This self-reflexive enjoyment is described, in its autoerotic physicality, as narcissistic pride.

Immediately after this scene, Caleb encounters Forester's people, who are pursuing him. Although his beggar's disguise and assumed Irish brogue forestall his capture, he cannot remain calm:

I could almost have imagined that I was the sole subject of general attention, and that the whole world was in arms to exterminate me. The very idea tingled through every fibre of my frame. But, terrible as it appeared to my imagination, it did but give new energy to my purpose; and I determined that I would not voluntarily resign the field, that is literally speaking my neck to the cord of the executioner, notwithstanding the greatest superiority in my assailants.


Here, as in the scene at the inn, both autoerotic and narcissistic components are present, since Caleb's fear of being discovered can also be read as a wish to be discovered. His allusions to being “the sole subject of general attention” and “having the whole world in arms” against him reveal the close proximity of megalomania and paranoia.

This fear/wish of having everybody persecute him, of being the subject of everybody's attention, this sudden turn from a position of invisibility to one of total exposure, leaving one at the center of the gaze and under permanent surveillance, is at last realized in a manner that confirms Caleb's paranoia. Shortly after Caleb has boarded a boat in order to flee to Ireland, two officers come aboard and order his fellow passengers onto the deck for examination. “I was inexpressibly disturbed at the occurrence of such a circumstance in so unseasonable a moment. I took it for granted that it was of me that they were in search” (239). In fact, they are in search not of him but of two Irish mail robbers. His vague resemblance to the description of one of the robbers results in his arrest. This confusion confronts Caleb with the fact that no matter which identity he chooses, that identity is not determined by him, not expressive of what he would like it to be, but always determined by others, and in this sense an alienation.

Such an alienation of being within language can, however, be described in more specific terms. It is not Caleb's inability to create his own private language of expression that is at issue; rather, the matter needs to be understood in terms of the prevailing distribution of speaking and subject positions and the classed access to discursive genres. For the novel makes it clear that the variety of rhetorical and literary conventions and genres that Caleb wants to associate himself with, on the one hand, and those he can actually have access to, on the other, are distinguished according to class. When Caleb begins to listen with narcissistic pleasure to the tall tales being told about him as “Kit Williams,” “a devilish cunning fellow,” “breaking prison no less than five times” (236), he identifies with a stock character, the daring criminal who makes it into oral legends and ballads, a character encountered in print primarily on handbills, in prison and execution reports like the Newgate Calendar, and in fictional penny legends. Letting himself be interpellated this way, Caleb seems to be aware merely of the heroic status attached to the outlaw's subject position; he seems far less aware of the fact that, as Foucault argued in the essay “Lives of Infamous Men,” for an insignificant man of the lower classes, there is no way of entering history, of entering any public record or discourse, except by coming into conflict with power (1979). Caleb despises his disguises as an Irish beggar and as a poor Jew as much as he despises the company of the robbers. Clearly he would prefer to fancy himself somebody more glamorous. In fact, when he emphasizes how much his early youth was influenced by books, he makes a point of “ennobling” his character by dissociating himself from the genres of common, everyday life: “I read, I devoured compositions of this sort. They took possession of my soul; and the effects they produced, were frequently discernible in my external appearance and my health. My curiosity however was not entirely ignoble: village anecdotes and scandal had no charms for me” (4).

Caleb's paranoid fantasy takes its cues from what Godwin would call “romance,” that is, from what in the introductory pages I have characterized, with Godwin, as the “life-embellishing,” ideological function of the “language of poetry.” The plot of Caleb's trials and persecutions, however, draws on the genres associated with the “vulgar incidents” of everyday life. Although Caleb would like to associate himself with high heroic rhetoric, he cannot escape the popular robber legend. Disguised as a poor Jew he supports himself as a hack writer for a newspaper: “By a fatality for which I did not exactly know how to account, my thoughts frequently led me to the histories of celebrated robbers; and I retailed from time to time incidents and anecdotes of Cartouche, Gusman d'Alfarache and other memorable worthies, whose career was terminated upon the gallows or the scaffold” (259). Ironically it is his excellence in imitating the robber genre that attracts the attention of the thieftaker Gines, who happens to be the printer's brother:

After having listened for some time upon this occasion to the wonderful stories which Gines in his rugged way condescended to tell, the printer felt an ambition to entertain his brother in his turn. He began to retail some of my stories of Cartouche and Gusman d'Alfarache. The attraction of Gines was excited. His first emotion was wonder; his second was envy and aversion. Where did the printer get these stories? This question was answered.


Note how the paradoxical formulation, “my stories of Cartouche and Gusman d'Alfarache,” undermines both the notion of authorial originality and an expressive textual model. What matters both in terms of exciting Gines's mimetic desire and in terms of establishing Caleb's “identity” is not the actual story, which can just as easily be borrowed, or the particularities of its narration but merely the position from which it is circulated.

After Caleb manages to escape and change his identity once more, Gines, in order to find him, finally makes Caleb's megalomaniac/paranoid fantasy of universal persecution literally true. Gines imitates in his turn the genre of the robber legend and publishes a halfpenny legend about Caleb Williams, together with a previously published handbill promising a hundred guineas for the latter's apprehension: “It was no longer Bow Street, it was a million of men, in arms against me,” Caleb laments (270). Gines's publication is used twice against Caleb. The first time it leads to his arrest and brief imprisonment; the second time Falkland employs Gines to distribute the legend wherever Caleb wants to settle and by this means repeatedly destroys Caleb's reputation. So far, the compulsive, repetitive nature of Caleb's megalomaniac and paranoid plot can be described in terms of a desire to cast his life as a heroic romance, a narrative of fighting wild beasts and resisting terrible enemies, whereas in actuality the script available to him is merely that of the trivial penny legend, of the runaway prisoner, robber, or traitor. Yet this distribution of speaking and subject positions according to social class does not suffice to explain all the dynamics of Caleb's involvement with Falkland or the way that interpersonal relationships and affective economies are worked out in the novel.

In fact, even before Caleb is set on his paranoid course, before his escape from prison, this novel makes it clear that much as individuals are determined by their participation in different types of speech genres, their most secret wishes, avowed desires, and hidden fantasies also depend on the discourse of others. Consider, for instance, this passage in which Falkland disagrees with Forester on how to deal with Caleb:

I care not for consequences, replied Mr. Falkland, I will obey the dictates of my own mind. I will never lend my assistance to the reforming of mankind by axes and gibbets; I am sure things will never be as they ought, till honour and not law be the dictator of mankind, till vice is taught to shrink before the resistless might of inborn dignity, and not before the cold formality of statutes. If my calumniator were worthy of my resentment I would chastise him with my own sword, and not that of the magistrate; but in the present case I smile at his malice, and resolve to spare him, as the generous lord of the forest spares the insect that would disturb his repose.

The language you now hold, said Mr. Forester, is that of romance, and not of reason. Yet I cannot but be struck with the contrast exhibited before me of the magnanimity of virtue and the obstinate, impenetrable injustice of guilt. While your mind overflows with goodness, nothing can touch the heart of this thrice bred villain. I shall never forgive myself for having once been entrapped by his detestable arts.


In both cases the attitude toward Caleb is primarily a reaction to a narcissistic injury. Falkland's speech betrays in particular the narcissistic charge that attaches to the construction of the other as an opponent. From a sociological argument against the efficacy of laws in the improvement of men, he tips over into a hyperbolic discourse that recalls God's final boasting in the Book of Job. His opponent is unworthy to be touched by his own sword, and hence he smiles at him like the “lord of the forest” at the insect.

Whereas I have emphasized so far the degree to which Caleb is driven by a narcissistic desire to identify with heroic stereotypes, now I would like to point out that not just any heroic stereotype will do; instead Caleb will borrow almost literally Falkland's own “language of romance.” A good example can be found in the hyperbolic language Caleb uses to describe Gines's hostility toward him after he has left the gang of robbers: “I had fastened upon myself a second enemy, of that singular and dreadful sort, that is determined never to dismiss its animosity, as long as life shall endure. While Falkland, was the hungry lion whose roarings astonished and appalled me, Gines was a noxious insect, scarcely less formidable and tremendous, that hovered about my goings, and perpetually menaced me with the poison of his sting” (261). As Caleb ventriloquizes Falkland's “language of romance,” Falkland's heroic position remains uncontested; the lowly insect's place is no longer filled by Caleb, however, but is now filled rather by Gines. Caleb dramatizes the danger of his own position by making Gines “scarcely less formidable and tremendous” than Falkland. He thus not only creates a rather incoherent, unintentionally comical picture of the “sublime insect” but also marks Gines as a stand-in for Falkland.

Why is Caleb obsessed with Falkland? Caleb demonstrates not only a strong narcissistic investment in being persecuted by some horrendous foe but also a certain obsession with this enemy as a physical threat, with being “stung,” overwhelmed, or mortally wounded by him. Shortly after he has left the gang of robbers, when he still sees himself as an “invisible” hero with superhuman powers, he encounters Forester's people: “It was fortunate for me that my disguise was so complete, that the eye of Mr. Falkland itself could scarcely have penetrated it” (237). If his disguise is to give him any feeling of power and invulnerability, it has to protect him, not against Forester's people, who are indeed searching for him, but against “Falkland's penetrating eye.” This substitution points toward the kernel of his paranoid fantasy: he not only wants to be the center of Falkland's attention, but he also derives physical excitement and pleasure from Falkland's threat to the protective layers surrounding him.

At this point it is possible to describe Caleb's paranoid construction of reality with more precision. His fear of being/wish to be persecuted can be broken down into two aspects: (1) it is articulated in terms of the fear that “everybody is in search of me, watching me, and trying to hunt me down,” a fear that can be translated into the megalomaniac wish “I am a superman, a hero, terribly important, on everybody's mind and everywhere sought after,” a wish informed by the narcissistic desire to assume the heroic postures of the “language of romance”; and (2) it entails a fixation on Falkland: “I have the most terrible foe, he might suddenly overwhelm me because he can penetrate all the protective layers of disguise by which I have surrounded myself.” It is not immediately clear how this fear might be translated into a wish. As opposed to the first aspect of Caleb's paranoia, which can be discussed in terms of ideology or as an interpellation through the discourse of romance, this second aspect is fundamental in representing the mechanism according to which the experience of inequality is anchored in an economy of pain and pleasure. Once pleasure and pain are no longer quasi-natural opposites, once pleasure becomes connected with a state of excitement that originates in the fantasy of the painfully violent disruption of those layers of clothing and skin that would protect the body and the self, we are confronted with a position that in psychoanalytic terminology would be called masochistic.

One scene that explores Caleb's fear of being overwhelmed by somebody like Falkland is exemplary in showing the interdependence of Caleb's fantasy, this peculiar economy of pleasurable excitement derived from physical threat, with Caleb's apprehension of reality. It is through scenes like this that the novel comes closest to the fantastic, because it is here that a model of a rationally apprehensible universe is most thoroughly undermined. This scene is also prominently placed within the development of the plot. As I have mentioned, Caleb's “plot of paranoia” begins with his departure from the gang of robbers. This scene brings about his flight. Caleb is alone in the robbers' hiding place: he is exhausted, dreams of rest, peace, and quiet, and falls asleep. During his sleep he is frightened by a nightmare from which he wakes only to discover that an ugly old woman, hostess and housekeeper for the robbers, is about to murder him with a “butcher's cleaver.” That he should defend himself against an ax murderess and flee her does not seem strange but seems perfectly rational, in line with the interests of self-protection. However, a closer look at the sequence of scenes preceding Caleb's flight makes us doubt precisely this rational economy of pleasure and pain, in which pain seems naturally opposed to pleasure, and in which avoidance of pain, self-protection, and the maximization of pleasure seem to belong together. Whereas the rational model of pleasure would presuppose clear distinctions between a daydream, a nightmare, and waking reality, the following sequence explores the interdependence of these phenomena and, ultimately, exposes the fantastic kernel of waking reality itself.

The passage can be divided into three main phases:

  1. Reverie
    • a. “I sighed for that solitude and obscurity, that retreat from the vexations of the world and the voice even of common fame, which I had proposed to myself when I broke my prison.”
    • b. “I pulled out a pocket Horace, the legacy of my beloved Brightwell! I read with avidity the epistle in which he so beautifully describes to Fuscus the grammarian, the pleasures of rural tranquility and independence.”
    • c. “The sun was rising, … the scene soothing the mind … a confused reverie invaded my faculties. … [I] fell asleep.”
  2. Dream
    • d. Some person, the agent of Falkland, was approaching to assassinate Caleb.
    • e. “I imagined that the design of the murderer was to come upon me by surprise, that I was aware of his design, and yet by some fascination had no thought of evading it. I heard the steps of the murderer as he cautiously approached. I seemed to listen to his constrained, yet audible breathings.”
  3. Awakening
    • f. “The idea became too terrible, I started, opened my eyes, and beheld the execrable hag before mentioned standing over me with a butcher's cleaver.”
    • g. “Her vigour was truly Amazonian, and at no time had I ever occasion to contend with a more formidable opponent.”
    • (231)

Since Caleb's nightmare is introduced by a daydream, it does not take much familiarity with Freudian psychoanalysis to see that the nightmare is also a disguised wish fulfillment. The issue gets more complicated, however, if we ask what kind of wish the dream is supposed to fulfill. Is the dream meant to protect the self-sufficient contentment of the sleeper, that state of narcissistic bliss, solitude, independence, and withdrawal from the world that is invoked in quotation 1a? In this case the dream would provide protection against awakening, a means of integrating external reality and the noise of the approaching footsteps into the dream world and of securing a state of contented passivity. Yet this understanding of the dream's function for the dreamer's psychical economy seems incomplete. It cannot explain why we are dealing with a nightmare rather than a happy dream, nor does it explain why the dreamer wakes up after all. First we should note that the longing for peace and quiet is not immediately fulfilled through a sleepy reverie; rather, it is elaborated and modified through a scene of reading. What appears to be the most intimate and strictly subjective wish—the fantasy of self-sufficiency—is in fact mediated, informed by the discourse of the other in the guise of the pocket edition of Horace that Caleb had received from a dear friend. Is it possible that the “agent of Falkland,” the murderer, takes the place of that longed-for other, especially since the dream seems not frightful but captivating instead? “I imagined that the design of the murderer was to come upon me by surprise, that I was aware of his design, and yet by some fascination had no thought of evading it.” As if he were a voyeur spying on himself at a moment when he was about to be overpowered in a passive and helpless position, Caleb's first affect is fascination, not fright. Furthermore, the awakening is triggered not by Caleb's attempt to flee his persecutor but by “the idea [that] became too terrible”—that is, Caleb flees from the scene of the fulfillment of his own wish. Waking becomes a denial of his wish—or a slightly modified version of his nightmare. Reality then for Caleb is both an escape from his desire and a censored version of it. It wasn't Falkland who was approaching, but merely the horrible old hag. She is both terribly frightful, a castrating witch with a butcher's cleaver, and also just an ugly old woman who seems safely undesirable. Although he describes her from the start as an object of repulsion and contempt, she is also an object of fascination (comparable to the robbers and especially Gines) because of her fierce energy.

In this reverie-dream-awakening sequence, the transition from phase to phase must be understood in terms of the tension between a narcissistic desire for self-sufficiency and independence, on the one hand, and an intensified longing for a masochistic physical pleasure derived from the shattering of the ego's boundaries or penetration of the cutaneous layer, on the other. Whereas phase one (quotations 1a and 1c) would mean perfect stasis and self-enclosure, phase two (1b, 2, and 3) involves contact with a social dimension, through the discourse of the other. Since phase two seems to be fundamentally organized along the lines of a disruptive, if not transgressive, fantasy, it seems that it is exactly here, within the realm of intersubjectivity, that fantasy becomes a force in the construction of reality or “things as they are.” This nexus between fantasy and the social dimension, between Caleb Williams's bizarre economy of pleasure and communication, will be the focus of the following section.


In this section I shall analyze Caleb Williams's irrational economy of pleasure in relation to practices of communication. I shall also show how this novel foregrounds its own production in terms of a staging of sexuality. By sexuality I do not mean, of course, anything naturally related to genital intercourse or human reproduction; I refer rather to what, according to Foucault (1978), was being discursively fabricated and managed during the nineteenth century: the secret, key to the individual, that needed to be incessantly confessed, therapeutically treated, normalized, and liberated. One precondition for the discursive production of sexuality was the break with instinct: human beings were in principle free to choose; even what was unfit for them could become an object of desire; only on these grounds could human reason and perfectibility develop.6 Another precondition was the fascination with the secret of the individual. It is here that I would locate the contribution of the genres of the Romantic fantastic and of the novels of Gothic paranoia like Caleb Williams, Hogg's The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or Shelley's Frankenstein.

Let me begin with an exemplary passage in which Caleb explains why as Falkland's employee he tolerated a position of servile submission:

When I first entered into Mr. Falkland's service, my personal habits were checked by the novelty of my situation, and my affections were gained by the high accomplishments of my patron. To novelty and its influence, curiosity had succeeded. Curiosity, so long as it lasted, was a principle stronger in my bosom than even the love of independence. To that I would have sacrificed my liberty or my life; to gratify it, I would have submitted to the condition of a West Indian Negro, or to the tortures inflicted by North American Savages.


This passage weaves together the elements we have noted in considering Caleb's relationship to an other: curiosity, admiration, voluntary submission, and a willingness to endure pain. Does “curiosity” then mean for Caleb what “love” means in Godwin's essay “Of Love and Friendship,” that is, the end of equality, the willing submission to hierarchy, intimidation, and the other's ability to inflict physical harm? To a certain degree, yes. Yet, whereas in Godwin's essay love and inequality arise from an idealized heterosexual relationship, here the willing submission to inequality and the pleasure-pain ambivalence are the side effects of any truly functioning and hence interesting social contact. The opposite of this relationship of inequality is not brotherly love and understanding but utter indifference. Consider Falkland's indifferent and cold relationship with his half brother Forester, which Caleb glosses in this manner: “They had scarcely one point of contact in their characters; Mr. Forester was incapable of giving Mr. Falkland that degree either of pain or pleasure, which can raise the soul into a tumult and deprive it for a while of tranquility and self-command” (140). Whereas the age of sensibility would also have celebrated the “frisson” of a certain “je ne sais quoi” that could make a relationship interesting and intense, it would never have done so at the cost of the familial and familiar. For Rousseau, for instance, the presupposition of mutual sympathy and understanding is that one conceives of one's fellow being as somebody similar to oneself. In Caleb Williams a lack of contact and communication is blamed not on dissimilarity but on a lack of difference or even an absence of inequality: any functioning social contact or bond presupposes a certain amount of friction or irritation, the ability of one partner to jolt the other out of a state of calm and control. Note both Caleb's emphasis on the disruptive impact required for the establishment of social contact and the fact that pleasure and pain seem here to be exchangeable.

Although there is no question that Caleb's desire is primarily worked out as male-male desire, we still have to examine whether and how this matters. If Caleb is at all defined in terms of his desire, the object of desire is subordinated to its aim. The fact that the object of his desire is male is of little importance in comparison to the fantasmatic component of his desire, a component visible in the scenarios that define the type and the nature of the specific pleasure that Caleb seeks. To put it crudely, this novel is not yet about “sexual orientation” as an issue of “identity politics.” Against Sedgwick's reading of Caleb Williams and Hogg's Confessions in terms of homophobia and “repressed homosexuality,” I would argue that the object of desire has not yet become a problem. Instead, these novels are about the production of sexuality in the first instance: by joining a confessional, autobiographical genre to a notion of the sexual that is devoid of any “natural,” “instinctual,” or “rational” prototype, this novel provides a model for constructing an individual's identity in terms of his specific, highly problematic, organization of pleasure.

If indeed Caleb Williams participates in the creation of “sexuality” as the subject's defining mark, his or her innermost secret and determining feature, we shall have to describe in greater detail the axes along which such “sexuality” unfolds. In the beginning there was a transgression. It is not desire for a forbidden object of love that defines Caleb but the intrusive desire for a “forbidden” knowledge. Caleb is puzzled by Falkland's inexplicable moods. After he inadvertently surprises Falkland kneeling before a trunk and witnesses Falkland's excessive anger over this intrusion, he comes to believe that the trunk holds the key to Falkland's enigma:

After two or three efforts, in which the energy of uncontrollable passion was added to my bodily strength, the fastening gave way, the trunk opened, and all that I sought was at once within my reach.


No spark of malignity had harboured in my soul. I had always reverenced the sublime mind of Mr. Falkland; I reverenced it still. My offence had merely been a mistaken thirst of knowledge.


This confessional moment directs us toward a transgressive thirst for knowledge, fueled by a combination of intense physical and emotional excitement, as a crucial clue to Caleb's subjectivity.

Caleb's account of how he managed to confirm his suspicion that Falkland was Tyrrel's murderer represents an intensely climactic moment in the novel. First Caleb observes Falkland while the latter serves as judge in a murder trial. Then Caleb finds himself alone in a garden. It is in this overdetermined locale that he enjoys the knowledge he has gained from Falkland's visible uneasiness during the trial. The allusion to the biblical fall is obvious, yet the connection between the enjoyment of the forbidden fruit and the knowledge gained from the transgression deserves further commentary. The distribution of the two scenes onto different locales divides the issue of transgression, enjoyment, and knowledge into two stages, a primary one of immediacy and absorption and a secondary one of reflexivity. Surprisingly, however, full enjoyment is part of the second stage, during which Caleb is alone in the garden.

Caleb hopes to be able to study Falkland during the trial from the vantage point of an invisible, neutral spectator: “I will watch him without remission. I will trace all the mazes of his thought. Surely at such a time his secret anguish must betray itself. Surely, if it be not my own fault, I shall now be able to discover the state of his plea before the tribunal of unerring justice” (126). However, this Olympian gaze is very quickly replaced by a most intimate exchange of looks:

The examination had not proceeded far before he chanced to turn his eye to the part of the room where I was. It happened in this, as in some preceding instances; we exchanged a silent look by which we told volumes to each other. Mr. Falkland's complexion turned from red to pale, and from pale to red. I perfectly understood his feelings, and would willingly have withdrawn myself. But it was impossible; my passions were too deeply engaged; I was rooted to the spot; though my own life, that of my master, or almost of a whole nation had been at stake, I had no power to change my position.


Although the moment of mutual transparency of feeling and of a silent exchange of meaningful looks is rendered in the language of sensibility and love, this scene is taken to a very different conclusion. The fact that each knows what the other is thinking and feeling does not establish the equal and symmetrical relationship that we know from Enlightenment models of friendship and understanding—quite the contrary. Caleb is hurled from a position of superiority into one of paralysis, in which a passion stronger than he takes over and cancels any rational concerns that might fall under the rubric of self-preservation. Caleb's indiscreet, voyeuristic gaze is not the lone source of the all-powerful sensation that immobilizes him. That sensation is irresistibly intensified when Caleb is caught in mid-gaze by the one whom he is painfully invading. It is only because Falkland returns his look that Caleb's gaze acquires a sadistic component, while at the same time his own passivity bears a masochistic trait. Thus this scene rehearses the sexualization of the desire to know, to see, to observe, by investing this drive with a passion, energy, and intensity that have no regard for the calculus of happiness, or even for the preservation of the lives of those involved or for the survival of the nation at large. If one were to pinpoint what triggers this sexualization, one would have to conclude that it is the moment of interruption, of loss of control, of a momentary intrusion from the outside.

In the garden the traumatic emotions of the courtroom scene are transformed into a combination of visceral knowledge and intense physical pleasure:

I no sooner conceived myself sufficiently removed from all observation, than my thoughts forced their way spontaneously to my tongue, and I exclaimed in a fit of uncontrollable enthusiasm: “This is the murderer! The Hawkinses were innocent! I am sure of it! I will pledge my life for it! It is discovered! Guilty upon my soul!” While I thus proceeded with hasty steps along the most secret paths of the garden, and from time to time gave vent to the tumult of my thoughts in involuntary exclamations, I felt as if my animal system had undergone a total revolution. My blood boiled within me. I was conscious to a kind of rapture for which I could not account. I was solemn, yet full of rapid emotion, burning with indignation and energy. In the very tempest and hurricane of the passions, I seemed to enjoy the most soul-ravishing calm. I cannot better express the then state of my mind, than by saying, I was never so perfectly alive as at that moment.

(130; emphasis added)

The conclusion Caleb draws from observing Falkland during the trial, his certainty about Falkland's guilt, is not reached through a rational process; rather it emerges from what seems an involuntary chant accompanied by an intense physical arousal composed of the contradictory sensations of satisfied calm and energetic passion. The knowledge he has gained through this transgressive act, moreover, entails something more than confirmation of his old suspicion that Falkland was guilty of Tyrrel's murder. What matters is not merely factual confirmation but the erotic and self-reflexive dimension of this knowledge: “I felt, what I had no previous conception of, that it was possible to love a murderer, and, as I then understood it, the worst of murderers” (130).

Whereas the climax of Caleb's curiosity is played out in these two scenes in the courtroom and the garden, the “origin” of Caleb's transgressive desire for knowledge lies elsewhere. From the start he is fascinated by Falkland's enigmatic character: “He appeared a total stranger to everything which usually bears the appelation of pleasure” (6). Caleb gains access to Falkland's enigma, his entirely different relationship to pleasure, through three consecutive encounters, each promising to hold the key to the preceding enigma. Yet, instead of resolving the riddle of Falkland's relationship to pleasure, this sequence of encounters radically reorganizes Caleb's own relationship to pleasure.

Let me quote at length from the narration of Caleb's accidental encounter with Falkland beside the mysterious trunk:

Who is there? The voice was Mr. Falkland's. The sound of it thrilled my very vitals. I endeavoured to answer, but my speech failed, and being incapable of any other reply, I instinctively advanced within the door into the room. Mr. Falkland was just risen from the floor upon which he had been sitting or kneeling. His face betrayed strong symptoms of confusion. With a violent effort however these symptoms vanished, and instantaneously gave place to a countenance sparkling with rage. Villain, cried he, what has brought you here? … Do you think you shall watch my privacies with impunity? I attempted to defend myself. Begone, devil! rejoined he. Quit the room, or I will trample you into atoms.


What is emphasized is the suddenness of this first traumatic encounter. Caleb is caught off guard: he becomes an accidental witness to Falkland's guilty behavior, and Falkland threatens him as if he had been spying on his “privacies” deliberately.

The next encounter is no less enigmatic and sudden; however, the emotional tenor of the scene has changed.

His behaviour, which was always kind, was now doubly attentive and soothing. He seemed to have something of which he wished to disburthen his mind, but to want words in which to convey it. I looked at him with anxiety and affection. He made two unsuccessful efforts, shook his head, and then, putting five guineas into my hand, pressed it in a manner that I could feel proceeded from a mind pregnant with various emotions, though I could not interpret them. Having done this, he seemed immediately to recollect himself, and to take refuge in the usual distance and solemnity of his manner.


This scene establishes Caleb's complicity with Falkland's guilty secret: he now retrospectively learns to associate Falkland's outburst of violence with an outpouring of attentiveness. To compare Falkland's behavior toward Caleb with the behavior of a child molester toward his victim does not seem that far-fetched. Alternately, one might think of a more generalized scenario of the infant's sexualization as seduction through the encounter with adult sexuality, the enigmatic, guilty adult unconscious.7 Certainly the second enigmatic scene suggests to Caleb that Falkland wants something from him, that he is implicated in Falkland's desire. This encounter transforms Falkland's enigma, “what does he want?” into Caleb's question, “what does he want from me?”

The third and last element in the metonymic chain of enigmatic elements is the biographical narrative about Falkland recounted by Collins, Falkland's steward. (It constitutes almost the entirety of book 1.) Caleb is told this story after he confides to Collins the confusion he felt over Falkland's offer of the five guineas. Thus the question that motivates Falkland's biography becomes “What is Falkland's secret, which he has paid me to keep silent about?” Falkland's story is supposed to solve the riddle of his personality, explain his inability to enjoy normal sociability and its pleasures. At the same time it is to provide Caleb with information that requires his utmost discretion. Its effect on Caleb, however, is utterly different. Instead of answering his questions about Falkland, it provokes his determination to spy on him. And instead of ensuring his discretion, it leads to Caleb's retelling and publicizing of Falkland's biography. Note that for the most part it is Caleb who, for the sake of simplifying the speech situation—as he tells his reader—takes over Collins's role as narrator of Falkland's story. Caleb's ventriloquizing, of course, also supports our sense of his strong identification with that story.

Against the backdrop of the two traumatic encounters motivating it, namely, the trunk scene and the scene in which Falkland offers money to Caleb, Falkland's story is the narrative articulation of guilt and adult sexuality, a “case history” of individual pathology beyond a rationally accessible pleasure principle. At least this is the way it is viewed by Caleb, whose desire and sense of pleasure it fundamentally reorganizes. It is Falkland's story that makes Caleb articulate his suspicion/fantasy “what if Falkland were a murderer?” for the first time. And it is in the same context that his desire for knowledge and sense of pleasure are sexualized:

the idea having once occurred to my mind it was fixed there forever. My thoughts fluctuated from conjecture to conjecture, but this was the centre about which they revolved. I determined to place myself as a watch upon my patron.

The instant I had chosen this employment for myself, I found a strange sort of pleasure in it. To do what is forbidden always has its charms, because we have an indistinct apprehension of something arbitrary and tyrannical in the prohibition. To be a spy upon Mr. Falkland! That there was danger in the employment served to give an alluring pungency to the choice. I remembered the stern reprimand I had received, and his terrible looks; and the recollection gave a kind of tingling sensation, not altogether unallied to enjoyment. The farther I advanced, the more the sensation was irresistible. I seemed to myself perpetually upon the brink of being countermined, and perpetually roused to guard my designs. The more impenetrable Mr. Falkland was determined to be, the more uncontrollable was my curiosity.

(107; 108)

Caleb is actually less concerned with gaining knowledge about Falkland than with enjoying the titillating intimacy that being his spy entails. The source of excitement lies in the anticipated repetition of Falkland's anger. He states quite explicitly that to be Falkland's spy is a way to replay the traumatic scenario of surprising him at the trunk.

When Caleb seeks out Falkland's company, when he lures him by way of an assumed naïveté into conversations that have an unmistakable pertinence to Falkland's story, when he seduces him into forgetting himself and betraying his emotions, he is quite aware of the asymmetry of their situations:

There was indeed an eminent difference between his share in the transaction and mine. I had some consolation in the midst of my restlessness. Curiosity is a principle that carries its pleasures as well as its pain along with it. The mind is urged by a perpetual stimulus; it seems as if it were continually approaching to the end of its race; and, as the insatiable desire for satisfaction is its principle of conduct, so it promises itself in that satisfaction an unknown gratification, which seems as if it were capable of fully compensating any injuries that may be suffered in the career. But to Mr. Falkland there was no consolation. What he endured in the intercourse between us appeared to be gratuitous evil.


In this formulation we find probably the most elaborate articulation of the special kind of pleasure at stake in this novel. Neither the antithesis of pain nor a physical sensation that resembles the state of peace resulting from the satiation of some vital function, pleasure for Caleb is, on the contrary, a state of arousal and excitement informed by traumatic disruption, a shattering of the ego's sense of security and self-preservation. In fact, if there is any “organ” or erogenous zone involved, it is one related not to the body but rather to the mind which receives the stimuli. This purely mental and fantasmatic aspect of sexuality is also relevant to the “sexual relation” between Caleb and Falkland. Our analysis of the courtroom scene has revealed that to the extent that Caleb's pleasure involves an other and escapes its autoerotic confinement, it is informed by both sadistic and masochistic traits. The citation above confirms this: as Caleb enjoys the thrill of imagining himself threatened by Falkland's violent passions, and enjoys a masochistic fantasy of suffering the infliction of pain from a superior opponent, he also enjoys his own mental torture of Falkland.

The last passage I want to examine is from the end of the novel and traces Caleb's thoughts as he takes the decision to come out of hiding. Having moved from place to place, incapable of escaping Grimes's persecution of him, Caleb at last decides to break his loyal silence about Falkland's secret. He decides to make use of Falkland's confession and accuse him of Tyrrel's murder. The postponement of this decision provided the material for a large portion of the novelistic plot, notably, for Caleb's attempts to live a fantasy life of romance and to flirt with being persecuted by a sublime enemy. When I described Caleb's struggle to insert himself into some glamorous heroic genre, a struggle ultimately thwarted when the cheap robber legend and the broadsheet catch up with him, I referred to Foucault's “Lives of Infamous Men” (1979). In this essay Foucault argues that the only opportunity to enter history and acquire a momentarily heroic stature that is accessible to the common, insignificant man lies in a brush with power and a subsequent court hearing. It is finally exactly that speech situation—the courtroom confrontation—that Caleb resorts to. This courtroom scene not only puts an end to the paranoid romance but also, as we shall see below, provides Caleb with a rationale for becoming an author, at least for documenting his miserable life.

The actual courtroom scene—which culminates in Falkland's breakdown and acknowledgment of Caleb's version of events as well as in Caleb's overwhelming sense of guilt toward Falkland—is relegated to the postscript of the novel.8 The last page of the novel before the postscript relays Caleb's reflections as he prepares himself for the coming confrontation. Breaking my quotation of this passage into numbered sections, I shall mark three different “truth scenarios,” each of which is reminiscent of prior episodes of the novel:

1. No, I will use no daggers! I will unfold a tale—! I will show thee for what thou art, and all the men that live shall confess my truth!—Didst thou imagine that I was altogether passive, a mere worm, organized to feel sensations of pain, but no emotion of resentment? …

I will tell a tale—! The justice of the country shall hear me! The elements of nature in universal uproar shall not interrupt me! I will speak with a voice more fearful than thunder—Why should I be supposed to speak from any dishonourable motive? I am under no prosecution now! … Thou hast shown no mercy; and thou shalt receive none!—I must be calm! Bold as a lion, yet collected!

2. This is a moment pregnant with fate. I know—I think I know—that I will be triumphant, and crush my seemingly omnipotent foe. … His fame shall not be immortal, as he thinks. These papers shall preserve the truth: they shall one day be published, and then the world shall do justice on us both. … How impotent are the precautions of man against the eternally existing laws of the intellectual world? This Falkland has invented against me every species of foul accusation. … He has kept his scenters of human prey for ever at my heels. He may hunt me out of the world,—In vain! With this engine, this little pen I defeat all his machinations; I stab him in the very point he was most solicitous to defend!

3. The pen lingers in my trembling fingers!—Is there anything I have left unsaid?—The contents of the fatal trunk from which all my misfortunes originated, I have never been able to ascertain. I once thought it contained some murderous instrument or relique connected with the fate of the unhappy Tyrrel. I am now persuaded that the secret it incloses is a faithful narrative of that and its concomitant transactions, written by Mr. Falkland, and reserved in case of the worst, that, if by any unforeseen event his guilt should come to be fully disclosed, it might contribute to redeem the wreck of his reputation.

But the truth or falsehood of this conjecture is of little moment. If Falkland shall never be detected to the satisfaction of the world, such a narrative will probably never see the light. In that case this story of mine may amply, severely perhaps, supply its place.

(314-16; emphasis added)

The first scenario is the anticipated confrontation in the courtroom: Caleb invests himself with the sublime rhetoric of God thundering at Job, depicting the courtroom scenario as a heroic combat or duel between himself and Falkland. Whereas the first truth scenario relies on speech, Caleb's oral account of Falkland's murder of Tyrrel, the second scenario assigns to Caleb's autobiographical memoirs the function of securing his reputation sub specie aeternitatis, should the courtroom confrontation fail. Here the scenario of the duel is replaced by one of murdering, in which Caleb's published account will “stab” Falkland's reputation. In this slide from a duel to a murder, Caleb imitates Falkland's relation with Tyrrel. He also imitates the court case Falkland judged, which concerned a peasant lad who, having been challenged, agreed to combat and then immediately killed his challenger. Indeed, the third and last truth scenario spells out the parasitic relationship between Caleb's and Falkland's stories: Caleb speculates that Falkland's account of Tyrrel's murder might very well be replaced by his own story. This substitution is considerable: whereas in the second scenario Caleb's writing is supposed to kill Falkland's reputation, in the third it is supposed to supplant a text written to rescue Falkland's reputation. Both expectations are actually met after the courtroom confrontation: Falkland dies of grief and shame, Caleb feels like his murderer and publishes his memoirs with the intent that Falkland's “story may be fully understood” (326).

By the end of the novel, to be sure, fame and reputation are no longer at issue; instead we find a hermeneutic concern for understanding an individual in his particularity. And it is here that we can situate the proximity of this novel's generic conventions to the psychiatric case history and the detective novel. Henceforth what defines an individual is not an exceptional life, a list of heroic achievements. Rather, it is some mysterious quality that exerts an intense fascination upon others. Caleb's hermeneutics is that of the detective who is determined to decipher an unreadable text, to find the heinous crime at the bottom of a riddle. It is not an open-ended search for knowledge but one driven by a desire to investigate and represent something horrible and unspeakable. I have shown how the traumatic encounter with the enigma is closely related to what we might call “sexuality.” In the passage quoted above one crucial element of Caleb's obsession and involvement with Falkland reappears. The trunk with the secret becomes the link between the truth status of the narrative and sexuality. Earlier I described the trunk as a metonymy for mysterious adult sexuality and the guilty unconscious, which are first encountered in an accidental and traumatic way but subsequently become a seductive lure and pretext for the fantasmatic organization of pleasure. Earlier, Caleb tells us, he thought the trunk contained “some murderous instrument or relique”; now he believes “the secret it incloses is a faithful narrative” of Tyrrel's murder, which, he concludes, can just as well be replaced by his own narrative. Recalling the well-established eighteenth-century usage of “instrument” and “engine” for the male genitals, and insisting on the double entendre of “trunk,” we can spell out the metonymic-metaphoric chain that has been set up through these truth scenarios and their recombinations: Caleb can finish his narrative, the novel has almost reached its conclusion, once Caleb's own adult sexuality can take the place of Falkland's. Note, however, that the kernel of the secret, be it the pen, the engine, the instrument, or the written document, that which is behind the enigmatic signifier, Falkland's and then Caleb's sexuality, is not a signified but merely another signifier: a piece of writing.

Falkland's narrative and Caleb's are, of course, intricately interrelated. Indeed, Caleb's narration of Falkland's story constitutes a third of Caleb Williams. How do we understand the strange claim that on the one hand, Falkland's secret, the key to his subjectivity, is contained in his story, the kernel of which is his sexuality, while on the other hand, that story can be replaced or supplanted by another, namely, Caleb's story and sexuality? One conclusion we can draw relates to the way this novel constructs sexuality in the first place. Remember that sexuality is not something that is a priori proper to a particular individual. The notion of the sexual as the individual's secret, one awaiting confession or extraction, is already part of Caleb's own sexual fantasy. Rather, sexuality is first of all the effect of a traumatic encounter with an enigmatic signifier (with the other's opaque behavior, story, etc.). It then becomes fantasy's mechanism for regulating the pleasurable repetition of the traumatic encounter. Thus sexuality can neither be defined exclusively as the imposition of a cultural, political, or ideological code on the behavior and affect of an individual subject nor be reduced to something pertaining to a “natural” organization of bodily pleasure. Before the fall there is no natural sexuality that has a definite aim and object. Sexuality is highly problematic in terms of the concepts of pleasure and satisfaction, and its object differs from the one found in the standard heterosexual “romance” pattern. Thus Godwin's novel situates the constitution of subjectivity not only in the realm of the confessional, in the urge and incitement to discourse, but also within the technologies of power and pleasure. At the same time, indeed through the same moves, Caleb Williams invokes the discourse of individuality and freedom, the fall from instinct into freedom, as perversion and illusion or delusion.


  1. See the preface to Godwin 1977: “The question now afloat in the world respecting THINGS AS THEY ARE, is the most interesting that can be presented to the human mind. While one party pleads for reformation and change, the other extols in the warmest terms the existing constitution of society. It seemed as if something would be gained for the decision of this question, if that constitution were faithfully developed in its practical effects” (1). This preface, dated 12 May 1794, was withdrawn from the original edition, in compliance with the alarmed wishes of the booksellers.

  2. For an interesting analysis of Caleb Williams in terms of Godwin's relationship to Burke, see Butler 1982. Butler sees in Falkland a fictional version of Burke.

  3. “It was like what has been described of the eye of omniscience pursuing the guilty sinner, and darting a ray that awakens him to new sensibility, at the very moment that, otherwise exhausted nature would lull him into a temporary oblivion of the reproaches of his conscience. Sleep fled from my eyes. No walls could hide me from the discernment of this hated foe. Everywhere his industry was unwearied to create for me new distress. … My sensations at certain periods amounted to insanity” (Godwin 1977, 305-6).

  4. “For myself I looked round upon my walls, and forward upon the premature death I had too much reason to expect; I consulted my own heart that whispered nothing but innocence; and I said, This is society. This is the object, the distribution of justice, which is the end of human reason. For this sages have toiled, and the mid-night oil has been wasted. This!” (Godwin 1977, 182).

  5. Important in this respect is the work of Jean Laplanche, who attempts to rethink psychoanalysis without Oedipus—probably the most normative model for the development of the psychical apparatus and its different components. See especially Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (1976) and New Foundations for Psychoanalysis (1989).

  6. See Immaneul Kant's “Conjectural Beginning of Human History” (“Mutmaßlicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte”) in Kant 1963.

  7. On primal seduction and the primal scene, see Laplanche 1989, 89-151.

  8. To be precise: this is the second, published version of the postscript. Initially Godwin had written an ending that suggests that Caleb becomes entirely mad after Falkland denies everything.

Works Cited

Butler, Marilyn. 1982. “Godwin, Burke, and Caleb Williams.Essays in Criticism 32:15-28.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.

———. 1979. “Lives of Infamous Men.” In Michel Foucault: Power, Truth, Strategy. Ed. Meaghan Morris and Paul Patton. Sydney: Feral Publications. 76-91.

Godwin, William. 1946. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness. 1793. Facsimile of the third edition, corrected, edited, and with a critical introduction and notes by F. E. L. Priestly. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

———. 1977. Caleb Williams. 1794. Reprint ed. David McCracken. New York: Norton.

Gold, Alex, Jr. 1977. “It's Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin's Caleb Williams.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 29, no. 2:135-60.

Haslam, John. 1810. Illustrations of Madness: Exhibiting a Singular Case of Insanity. London: Hayden.

Kant, Immanuel. 1963. Kant: On History. Ed. Lewis White Beck. New York: MacMillan.

Laplanche, Jean. 1976. Life and Death in Psychoanalysis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

———. 1989. New Foundations for Psychoanalysis. Trans. David Macey. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1985. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press.

Thompson, James. 1989. “Surveillance in William Godwin's Caleb Williams.” In Gothic Fictions, Prohibition/Transgression, ed. Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press. 173-98.

Westphal, Carl. 1871. “Uber die conträre Sexualempfindung.” Zeitschrift für Neurologie.

Michael Cohen (essay date January 1998)

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SOURCE: Cohen, Michael. “Godwin's Caleb Williams: Showing the Strains in Detective Fiction.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 10, no. 2 (January 1998): 203-19.

[In the following essay, Cohen discusses Caleb Williams as the precursor of the detective novel, maintaining that inconsistencies within the novel anticipate different strains within the genre.]

According to Julian Symons in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, “The characteristic note of crime literature is first struck in Caleb Williams.1 Symons argues that however ingeniously others mine biblical or classical texts as sources for detective fiction, the genre's characteristic features do not come together before the end of the eighteenth century. William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) “is about a murder, its detection, and the unrelenting pursuit by the murderer of the person who has discovered his guilt.” Moreover, says Symons, Godwin's novel has the crime story's distinctive construction “from effect to cause, from solution to problem,” Godwin having conveniently admitted that he “invented first the third volume … then the second, and last of all the first.”2 Ian Ousby also treats Caleb Williams as the first detective novel. He begins Bloodhounds of Heaven, his survey of detective fiction up to Doyle, with a discussion of Godwin's novel, which “demonstrated for the first time that the detective could become the focus of serious literary interest.”3 Other voices concur in Symons's and Ousby's choice for the first begetter of English detective fiction—Stephen Knight, A. E. Murch, Régis Messac; if not unanimity, there is at least consensus in the choice.4 Yet these writers argue that Caleb Williams is not, like Edgar Allan Poe's stories, for example, the sort of grandparent in whose face we can discover all the features of the descendants. They see it as an antitype of the detective story as it has been theorized by modern critics of the genre: Godwin's novel is unlike any later detective story in its tragic mode, its anarchism, and its condemnation of law and lawful punishment. I argue that Caleb Williams, because of its inconsistencies, is a remarkably accurate anticipation of what is to come in mystery and detective fiction. The novel grows out of Godwin's theories about political justice, and, like those theories, it contains tensions and contradictions between ideas. Caleb Williams dramatizes Godwin's theory of political justice and, in doing so, enlarges the fissures and exaggerates the slippages in his theory. Because of its contradictions, Caleb Williams can be seen as a precursor of very different strains in the detective story—strains in every sense of the word—that are still with us. It is necessary to look briefly at Godwin's theoretical difficulties in the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice to see the ways in which some of the ideas there are transformed into a philosophical fable in the novel, and hence how the novel anticipates a continuing epistemological rift in modern popular fiction.


Godwin was, like his contemporary William Blake, a thinker bold in conception but not without inconsistencies. Godwin was born into a dissenting family and became a nonconformist preacher, but his reading, his friendship with the radical Thomas Holcroft, and the events of the late eighteenth century made him an atheist. The combination of the publication in 1793 of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and the appearance the following year of his novel Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams brought him brief fame and success that was seen by some, Hazlitt for example, as “a sultry and unwholesome popularity.”5 The proximity of publication of the two books concerns us because Caleb Williams is a narrative that enacts many of the ideas of Political Justice.

Godwin argues in Political Justice that, like any human endeavour, political institutions ought to be subject to reconsideration and improvement.6 He believes an inquiry into political justice is a moral investigation. His moral philosophy, which is utilitarian, he seems to have adopted about the same time as Bentham, though without Bentham's influence.7 Godwin thinks the general good ought to determine the kind of political system one has and the kind of authority it wields, the kind of social distinctions that are made in it, and the way property is handled within it.

Godwin is a philosophical anarchist who is convinced that government, which “was intended to suppress injustice,” has had the effect of perpetuating it (1:xxiv). The main problem is that government operates by coercion, and for Godwin coercion is always wrong (2:333-37). He looks at legitimate and illegitimate authority and at the kinds of obedience demanded from those upon whom authority is exercised. We obey for three reasons, he says: because of an “independent conviction of our private judgment”; because another has a “superiority of intellect or information” that we acknowledge; or “merely on account of the mischievous consequences” of not obeying (1:226-28). Governments can only claim the last kind of obedience, by coercion, although they attempt to claim the second kind, by pretending to the superiority of intellect or information of the governors over the governed. Godwin believes that obedience exacted by coercion is always wrong, and that the second kind of obedience can only occasionally be justified. The only political system that could be founded upon the first kind of authority and obedience is a small and completely voluntary federation—what Godwin calls, from lack of a better name, a parish (2:198). Such a nonbinding federation is Godwin's ideal society.

In such a community, social distinctions of birth or wealth would not be known. The aristocracy—in Godwin's view a pernicious system for “rendering more permanent … the inequalities of mankind … founded in falsehood” and “supported by artifice and false pretences” (2:103)—would be no more. Although distribution of property would be communally decided, Godwin reserves certain rights in property: “every man is entitled” to “the produce of his own industry” (2:433), for example.

Most radical of the corollaries from Godwin's belief in the injustice of coercion is his condemnation of state-sponsored punishment. He examines in turn the reasons for legal punishment of criminals—that it is just retribution, that it reforms, that it restrains the criminal himself, that it deters others—and he dismisses them. The idea of retribution does not stand up to his determinism, for although Godwin believes that society as a whole may be improved, he thinks individuals are the products of their circumstances and do not exercise free will, and that an act must be freely performed in order for it to “deserve” retribution. As for punishment intended to reform, Godwin argues that coercion causes resentment, not conciliation. Incarceration does restrain, but Godwin points out that the crime is over when the punishment happens. Why assume it will happen again? Of punishment administered as an example to others, Godwin says that besides being barbarous, it does not work; one has to keep coming up with newer and more horrible examples in order to deter because the intent is to create aversion and horror, and watchers of vengeful spectacles become inured to them.

The features of Godwin's political philosophy—its anarchism, its ethical, utilitarian base, its individual determinism and social meliorism, and its egalitarianism—are complemented by a Platonic conviction that rational behaviour is possible because truth will prevail. Truth's force for convincing citizens to act rightly can be opposed by considerations of power and influence; hence the danger of governments and social classes that not only perpetuate material injustice, but also have the power to obscure truth. But “sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error” (1:86).


This much of Godwin's moral and political philosophy seems to hang together. But when we look more closely, gaps begin to open up, starting with a discrepancy between Godwin's determinism and his insistence that “man is perfectible” (1:86). Godwin bridges the gap by writing (to borrow his chapter titles for book 1, chapters 3 and 4) that “the characters of men originate in their external circumstances,” but “the voluntary actions of men originate in their opinions.” He argues that those under the control of wrong opinion act as automatons, perpetuating the injustices of government and class difference, while those who are rightly instructed can act by rational principles. Free will is thus a product of instruction in truth. To put it another way, he has redefined any action under wrong principles as constraint. But since truth is invincible it also operates as constraint. Semantically, at least, Godwin eliminates free action, and with it go both merit and guilt.

Other slippages become evident when we examine Godwin's ideas about property and class. Godwin begins with assertions about the evils of private property and about the collective right of everyone to property (2:423). But he backs away from the implications of these assertions in several important ways. In Godwin's system everyone is entitled to the fruits of his own industry (2:433), and no one is to be enriched by a “legal” claim to what is produced by someone else. But the most important individual right of property has to do neither with one's own production nor with necessity. Godwin confounds a utilitarian principle with an individualistic one in saying that the first right of property is “my permanent right in those things, the use of which being attributed to me, a greater sum of benefit or pleasure will result, than could have arisen from their being otherwise appropriated” (2:432).

The inconsistencies in Godwin's treatment of property rights are connected with other inconsistencies concerning class. Godwin's principles seem clearly egalitarian when he discusses the pernicious effects of the aristocracy (2:93-99) or when he talks about the levelling that will occur when community sentiments control wealth (2:440-41). Godwin reintroduces a class system, however, in his discussion of a “scale of happiness” and the “benevolent man” (1:444-48). He argues that we can construct for human beings a scale of happiness according to their moral capacities—that is, in utilitarian terms, their capacity to enjoy their own pleasure and that of others. At the bottom is the labourer, who, if healthy, “is in a certain sense happy. He is happier than a stone.” Next comes the man of “rank, fortune and dissipation”; he is “happier than a peasant” (1:445). “The man of taste and liberal accomplishments” is a further step up: he has “new senses, and a new range of enjoyments” (1:446). At the peak of this scale is “the man of benevolence,” who gets “true joy” from “the spectacle and contemplation of happiness,” and thinks only of the “pleasures of other men” (1:447-48). In Godwin's description of the benevolent man, readers of Caleb Williams will recognize Falkland when he is not thinking of his honour or persecuting Caleb. Godwin's Utopia will contain no men of “rank, fortune and dissipation.” Moreover, there will be pressure upward along the scale, since it is our duty “to endeavour to raise each class, and every individual of each class, to a class above it” (1:448). But class distinctions will remain and the benevolent man will still be at the top of the scale.

The benevolent man is the one whom Godwin has in mind when he writes about right to property through its most beneficial use: “Every man has a right to that, the exclusive possession of which being awarded to him, a greater sum of benefit or pleasure will result, than could have arisen from its being otherwise appropriated” (2:423). The man with a natural right to property is the man who will use it in such a way as to create the most good. Presumably the community sentiments will be unanimous that such a man should control wealth. When he considers the claims of aristocracy, Godwin rejects outright the possibility of moral excellence accompanying hereditary privilege (2:88), but in the benevolent man he has reinvented the aristocracy according to its own self-description as the moral class.


Caleb Williams enlarges the inconsistencies of the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice into rifts. In the novel, Godwin confronts the genuine incompatibility of human experiences in a way that his theoretical political treatise cannot. He imaginatively grapples with problems of truth and justice in ways that specifically anticipate the approaches of later popular fiction. In fact, Caleb Williams is two books. One of them is a demonstration of Things As They Are (not, as in some later editions, the subtitle of the book, but its original main title), showing that in the world as we know it power and place will triumph over truth and merit every time. This part of the book, despite an equivocal ending, shows again and again that since material goods are not distributed equally in the world, those with a lot of them will always get a biased hearing over those with few. Rich Falkland's accusation against poor Williams, though false, prevails over William's true charge against Falkland. In Falkland's world, status and wealth control not only material things but opinion as well, yet he argues for a still greater hold of aristocratic authority: “I am sure things will never be as they ought, till honour and not law be the dictator of mankind, till vice be taught to shrink before the resistless might of inborn dignity, and not before the cold formality of statutes” (p. 182).

The other narrative in Caleb Williams is also an illustration of things as they are, but this one concerns the opacity of both evil and good. Falkland's exterior appearance of the benevolent gentleman is impenetrable; Williams's innocence cannot be spied out through either his rags or the obloquy cast on him by Falkland. In a material culture, only the material commands attention, and since evil and good are spiritual qualities, they will necessarily be invisible in such a culture. The two books within Caleb Williams are separable, but linked by the theme of concealed truth. One part of Godwin's narrative asserts that the class system, driven by economics, can conceal truth to favour the economically privileged. Another part of his narrative asserts (despite Godwin's professed belief to the contrary) that even in the best of worlds appearances will still deceive.

Within these two connected narratives there are further splits. Caleb Williams has two opposed ideas about wealth and power, as well as two views about the occulted or obvious nature of guilt and innocence. The book has two of everything: two representatives of power in Tyrrel and Falkland, two detectives in Caleb and Gines, two attitudes about detection, two narratives, two endings—though only one was published.

On the one hand, Godwin demonstrates the inherent corruption of the squirearchy along with the dependence and inequalities that result from the concentration of land under one ownership. Tyrrel arbitrarily uses the power that results from his economic station, ruining his tenant Hawkins and killing his poor relative Emily Melville. Godwin also demonstrates such corruption through Falkland, whom he shows exercising arbitrary power in his persecution of Caleb and allowing the Hawkinses to die for his own crime. On the other hand, Godwin wants to show the benevolence possible in the privileged classes; he has used much of the first volume in depicting Falkland's exemplary behaviour abroad and in sketching the portrait of a benevolent man. Caleb, after he has felt the worst of Falkland's reprisals, still acquits him of blame, indicting society instead: “A nobler spirit lived not among the sons of men. Thy intellectual powers were truly sublime, and thy bosom burned with a godlike ambition. But of what use are talents and sentiments in the corrupt wilderness of human society? It is a rank and rotten soil, from which every finer shrub draws poison as it grows” (p. 336). Through the limited view of this narrator, we can glimpse Godwin's deep ambivalence about the character of Falkland. He seems to be suggesting that Falkland is as close to his utilitarian aristocrat as a flawed society will allow a man to be. Though some critics have suggested that Falkland reflects Godwin's wavering between admiration and disgust for Edmund Burke,8 I think Falkland is less a personal portrait than a type constructed of Godwin's unresolved feelings about the squirearchy, feelings he struggled with in the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

The most serious fissure in Caleb Williams has already been pointed out: the gap between two answers to the epistemological question about the power of truth to make itself obvious. The two answers are not equally convincing. “Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error: Sound reasoning and truth are capable of being so communicated: Truth is omnipotent.” These are axioms of Political Justice (1:86), but they are given many trials—literally—in Caleb Williams. The novel contains highly dramatized trial scenes, with Falkland as accused, accuser, or magistrate. In other scenes trials are averted, refused, or dismissed. Since trials turn on the ability of those present to recognize truth, those in the novel test Godwin's axioms about truth's patency, and in several of them truth is neither adequately communicated nor recognized as truth.

In the first of the trial scenes, Falkland defends himself against the charge of murdering Tyrrel; the occasion is a meeting of the neighbouring magistrates that is not quite a formal trial. Falkland begins by claiming his innocence and asserting “I have no fear that I shall fail to make every person in this company acknowledge my innocence” (p. 104). He appeals to his honour and reminds everyone of his philanthropy. He says he would have called Tyrrel out for a duel had he lived, and that “the greatest injustice committed by his unknown assassin was that of defrauding” him—Falkland—of his “just revenge” (p. 105) for the physical insults Tyrrel inflicted on Falkland immediately before the former's death. Finally Falkland pleads that he does not care about his life, but his honour is in their hands. He is “discharged with every circumstance of credit” (p. 106). So guilt successfully masquerades as innocence.

The second “trial” is a kangaroo court in which Falkland's friend Forester sits in judgment over Caleb on the charge of theft that Falkland has invented.9 Only this trial presents any physical evidence, and it is falsified: Falkland has planted his own valuables in Caleb's trunks and boxes. Despite what Forester calls “considerable dexterity” in Caleb's answers to the charges (p. 178), everyone present (except Falkland) concludes that Caleb is guilty, and he is sent to prison to await a real trial that never occurs. True innocence is not perceived to be so.

When Caleb decides to accuse Falkland, he is unsuccessful in his first attempt to bring his former master to trial. “A fine time of it indeed it would be,” says the magistrate, “if, when gentlemen of six thousand a year take up their servants for robbing them, those servants could trump up such accusations as these, and could get any magistrate or court of justice to listen to them! … There would be a speedy end to all order and good government, if fellows that trample upon ranks and distinctions in this atrocious sort were upon any consideration suffered to get off” (p. 286). Finally, however, Falkland is “solemnly brought before a magistrate to answer a charge of murder” (p. 331). Although Caleb has no evidence, Falkland confesses, saying Caleb's “artless and manly story … has carried conviction to every hearer” (p. 335). Caleb's equally artless and manly story failed earlier to convince Forester of his innocence, and Falkland's artful and manly—though false—story did not fail to convince his hearers in his original trial for Tyrrel's murder. Even the one-out-of-three triumph of truth record for Caleb Williams is undercut because the first ending Godwin wrote for the book shows the magistrate dismissing Caleb's accusations against Falkland. In the original conclusion, Caleb is last seen in a cell, going mad or perhaps poisoned by Gines, who is called Jones in this version.10 Truth is subverted in all three trials, in the original version, and in two out of three in the book's final form. In the book as published, a murderer's eloquence convinces everyone of his innocence; an innocent man cannot convince anyone of his innocence, regardless of his eloquence; and, finally, the same innocent man convinces everyone of the same murderer's guilt, without evidence, solely by “a plain and unadulterated tale” (p. 334). The afflictions of truth and innocence, when not caused by arbitrary power in the novel, are aggravated by it—what Godwin calls the “present state” of society. If change is to occur, however, truth has to be able to triumph even in adversity. Judged from the events in Caleb Williams, Godwin's opinion about the triumph of truth looks more like a hope than a conviction. I emphasize the equivocal answer to the question of occulted versus obvious guilt or innocence in Caleb Williams and the way power or wealth affects the perception of truth because these are the problems of the two strains of detective fiction after Godwin. Caleb Williams not only examines them, but explores and rejects “solutions” to them.

The last Janus-like feature of Caleb Williams is its doubling of detectives, the amateur Caleb and the professional thief-taker Gines. Here, we must acknowledge Godwin's anticipation of detective fact as well as fiction. Although the Bow Street Runners were in existence throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, they were an extension of the magistrate's court, and nothing like a detective for hire appears before Vidocq set up shop at his retirement from the Sûreté in 1827, while an amateur detective is a later matter still, in fact as in fiction: Dupin seems to be an amateur at first, in the Rue Morgue and Marie Roget cases, though he is definitely working for money in “The Purloined Letter.”

Caleb is the amateur whose importance as detective lies in his conviction that Falkland's guilt is detectable through physical traces of some sort. Caleb's detective work does not go on very long. He listens to Collins's narrative, which takes up most of volume 1, and begins thinking about Falkland at the beginning of volume 2: “Was it possible after all that Mr Falkland should be the murderer?” (p. 112). He begins to take pleasure in being a “spy” on Falkland—the word is his—and feigns innocence as he interrogates his master (p. 114). He finds a letter from the elder Hawkins that makes him doubt that such a man could commit murder; he grows “watchful, inquisitive, suspicious” (p. 128). He is not sure how he could satisfy himself of Falkland's innocence; “As to his guilt, I could scarcely bring myself to doubt that in some way or other, sooner or later, I should arrive at the knowledge of that, if it really existed” (p. 129). Then the trial of a peasant for the accidental killing of a bully causes Falkland to leave his seat as magistrate and rush from the room (p. 135). Caleb is convinced of Falkland's guilt, and seeks evidence in the trunk his master keeps locked in his study. Though Caleb is interrupted before he can find anything, Falkland confesses the murder a few pages later (p. 141). The whole course of Caleb's detection occupies less than six chapters at the beginning of the second volume. His amateur detection is “successful” in the sense that he finds the truth he is seeking, although physical evidence scarcely figures in this effort.

The “diabolical Gines,” as Caleb calls him (p. 200), is the hired professional detective who has no interest in detecting; he accepts the story his employers tell him as the truth and acts on it, even though Gines has himself been a member of the classless alternative society of Captain Raymond, where truth, justice, and law have meanings opposed to those in the class culture of Falkland. Gines's depiction breaks the pattern of such thief-takers as Jonathan Wild and the later Vidocq, who were thieves before they were thief-takers. Gines “had fluctuated during the last years of his life, between the two professions of a violator of the laws and a retainer to their administration. He had originally devoted himself to the first; and probably his initiation in the mysteries of thieving qualified him to be peculiarly expert in the profession of a thief-taker—a profession he had adopted, not from choice, but necessity” (p. 269). Gines would much rather be a thief, the more honourable “profession”—according to the inverted scale of values of the thieves: Godwin makes the scenes among the highwaymen a Beggar's Opera without humour or music, and has his Captain Raymond insist, “Our profession is the profession of justice. … We, who are thieves without a licence, are at open war with another set of men who are thieves according to law” (p. 224). Gines thinks that “there was no comparison between the liberal and manly profession of a robber from which I [Caleb] had driven him, and the sordid and mechanical occupation of a blood-hunter, to which he was obliged to return” (p. 270). Gines starts out after Caleb to claim the reward on his head, but after the charges against Caleb are dismissed without a trial, Gines is employed by Falkland to watch and harass Caleb.

Two detectives, two narratives, two attitudes about economic power and about discovering truth—these doublings are “strains” in the unity of Caleb Williams and they anticipate two “strains” in later detective fiction, two separate varieties of stories, each with its own internal tension or strain.


The two varieties of detective fiction anticipated in Caleb Williams might be called the tough and the technical. Although in accidentals the difference between the two looks like that between American mean-streets stories and English country-house stories, the real distinction is epistemological. Each strain is at bottom pessimistic and employs a mechanism to keep its fundamental pessimism under control without denying it outright. The two strains can be no better described than by using the terms with which I began separating the strands of Caleb Williams: in one of these strains—the tough one—the world is known as a place where power and money will triumph over truth and merit; where, since material goods are not distributed equally, those with a lot of them will always get a biased hearing over those with little; and where status and wealth control not only material counters but opinion as well. Raymond Chandler describes this world near the end of his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944):

The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.11

It is the world we live in, he tells us, and in similarly melodramatic fashion he outlines the mechanism this strain of fiction uses to keep its horrors under control: the loner who is untouched by all the corruption because he is alienated, the individual who has no ties and thus nothing to lose but his life by attacking the system. Chandler sees no contradictions in this scheme, no absurd self-satisfaction in talking about society as all them and no us; it looks for a moment as if the clause “because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising” means what it says, but then we realize it is only a formula and that Chandler is not talking about our responsibility for making society better but about stepping aside from it. Yet he has no idea what it would take to alienate oneself from such a society: his hero is “a common man” who can “go among common people.” And the ultimate contradiction comes at the end of the essay, where he imagines a community of alienated individuals: “If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in” (p. 237)!

Caleb Williams, by contrast, demonstrates a very clear awareness of the problems in any scheme for conquering the world's evil by attacking it from outside. Caleb learns that one must conform or die. In the two endings Godwin wrote for the book, Caleb either adopts the values of a society that has persecuted him, considering himself a murderer for having destroyed the sublime and godlike Falkland (p. 336), or (in the rejected ending) he is ignored by society's authorities and destroyed by its goons. Caleb himself recognizes that in fighting Falkland he has everyone's hand turned against him. What he does not see is the extent to which he has always internalized Falkland's values. He is only able to catch a temporary glimpse of some alternate value system when he watches others die in prison and is convinced he will soon be next. In the company of the robbers he takes their anti-establishment morality for cant—as of course it is, though Caleb cannot disentangle their criticism of present society from their rationalization of their own behaviour. Near the end of the book, when Falkland has succeeded in destroying Caleb's Welsh idyll with Laura Denison, the narrator writes about the necessity of human community:

The pride of philosophy has taught us to treat man as an individual. He is no such thing. He holds necessarily, indispensably, to his species. He is like those twin-births, that have two heads indeed, and four hands; but, if you attempt to detach them from each other, they are inevitably subjected to miserable and lingering destruction.

(p. 314)12

There could be no better emblem than Caleb's Siamese twins to show Godwin's awareness of how futile is the vision of reforming society from without, by means of the strong individualist who is alienated from it. And it is only fair to say that the futility of that vision has never been far from the surface of the best hard-boiled detective fiction, at least in America. When Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy not to be so sure he is as crooked as he seems to be—because such an appearance might just be good for business—he reveals a confusion of values and the untenability of the outsider's position.13 Hammett's Continental Op is perhaps more self-aware when he finds himself going “blood-simple” in the midst of the slaughter of Red Harvest: he begins to go native and to enjoy the killing of the killers for its own sake (p. 104). Later he shows no illusions about his own role when he tells his client he is giving the town back to him, “all nice and clean and ready to go to the dogs again” (p. 134). Even Chandler's Marlowe is not always so besotted with his role as knight freeing the lady from the dragon that he fails to appreciate his equivocal position in being hired by the rich to find their decadent daughters.

The other strain in detective fiction—the technical—has to deal with a more profound subversion, and it does so with a mechanism that is correspondingly more powerful than the myth of the individualist reformer. While the tough strain addresses the suspicion that judgments about right and wrong follow money and power, a deeper and more disquieting suspicion is that right and wrong are not discoverable, that character is opaque, that guilt can face it out forever without being discovered, and that innocence has no power to make itself known.

This suspicion is awakened whenever a criminal trial comes down to a question of the word of the accuser against the word of the accused. The judicial answer we have evolved to deal with the abyss of the unknowable here is the jury system: we place our faith in the “commonality” of those who judge—that is what a jury of one's peers means—and in multiples—it comes down to an idea that truth is communicable somehow, if the listeners to the tale, rather than the tale itself, are plain and unvarnished, and there are numbers of them. For Socrates, five hundred of them were not enough, but we go with twelve—in some cases six—and sometimes require only a majority rather than unanimity for a verdict. Detective stories always stop us before we come to that abyss of decision.

The myth of the technical strain of detective fiction is simply that guilt is detectable by means of evidence, that what is latent can be made patent. It is an idea that is late in developing, as Howard Haycraft has argued in Murder for Pleasure, because it lays emphasis on physical traces rather than psychology or metaphysics.14 When God cross-examines Cain in the Book of Genesis, when Daniel interrogates the elders separately to uncover discrepancies in their stories about Susanna, and when Oedipus examines eyewitnesses and pieces their stories together, the myth of the detective's seeing into the secret mystery of things has not yet been awakened. Those stories reveal that God sees all, that people tell truth if they are cleverly asked the right questions, and that Oedipus can know himself if he has the courage of self-destruction. Those myths are older ways of dealing with ultimate mysteries than the one with which people console themselves in the detective story. All Holmes or Dupin or Poirot insist upon is that human acts—even those of thought—leave traces that can be detected. The reader turns that insistence into assurances about the patency of guilt and innocence. The myth of the detector is a very powerful antidote to the fear that subverts all our fondest hopes about what ought to happen to good and evil people in this world. The detector's power of seeing the truth accounts for the tremendous appeal of one strain of detective fiction, and that power is suggested but also frustrated in Caleb Williams. Caleb believes in physical evidence but is unsuccessful in his attempts to find any that would unequivocally point to Falkland.

The results Caleb gets from his investigations come from many causes other than his own power of detection: his character assessment of Hawkins as incapable of murder, the guilt of Falkland becoming visible at the trial of a case only a little like his own, and especially Falkland's spontaneous confession. Yet Caleb continues to search for physical evidence, although he never discovers any. He is examining Falkland's locked trunk when Falkland finds him and attempts to kill him—and it is this incident that prompts Falkland's confession. The trunk is thus a centre for Caleb's conviction that physical evidence—perhaps even a confession—exists against Falkland. Caleb holds this conviction even to the end of the book:

The contents of the fatal trunk, from which all my misfortunes originated, I have never been able to ascertain. I once thought it contained some murderous instrument or relic connected with the fate of the unhappy Tyrrel. I am now persuaded that the secret it encloses is a faithful narrative of that and its concomitant transactions, written by Mr Falkland, and reserved in case of the worst, that, if by any unforeseen event his guilt should come to be fully disclosed, it might contribute to redeem the wreck of his reputation. But the truth or the falsehood of this conjecture is of little moment. If Falkland shall never be detected to the satisfaction of the world, such a narrative will probably never see the light. In that case this story of mine may amply, severely perhaps, supply its place.

(p. 326)

The incompatibility of Caleb's beliefs (truth makes itself obvious; hidden truth may need to be inferred from traces) leads to this passage's absurd requirement that the revelation of Falkland's guilt must precede the production of evidence for his guilt! Caleb sees his own account as evidence equivalent to physical proof or to Falkland's confession, but his own account is in a sense locked away by his promise never to divulge the admission Falkland made to him. Even when Caleb unlocks this evidence, it is at first ineffective in getting a hearing, and later, in the book's first ending, ineffective in convincing anyone. Physical evidence is only misleading or elusive in Caleb Williams: the knives found in Hawkins's cottage whose broken pieces fit the fragments in Tyrrel's wounds, Caleb's trunks and boxes salted with Falkland's “stolen” property, the locked chest that is never opened to reveal its contents. Consider, by contrast, the fantastic confidence that Conan Doyle's stories invest in the power of physical evidence to reveal truth.

Caleb Williams thus introduces the myth of the detector and at the same time questions it. The novel functions in this equivocal way for both strains of detective fiction. The mechanisms of these two strains are presented in Caleb Williams, but they are undercut as well. Godwin shows us the abyss: truth is dependent on money and power, or worse, unknowable even in an egalitarian world. He briefly presents what could save us: individuals can defy and reform society, a careful looker can see past appearances into the secret heart of things. But both these palliatives are withdrawn, and Caleb Williams ends as tragedy. George Sherburn thinks it is “the first impressive tragic novel since Richardson's Clarissa,” a judgment with which Ian Ousby concurs, and Sherburn goes farther: “its tragic themes seem more modern and less special than those of Clarissa.15

The tragic mode in Caleb Williams strikes its commentators as disqualifying it as pattern for subsequent detective fiction. Both Ousby and Murch miss the detective's triumph at the end, which they think makes it “profoundly dissimilar” from, if not “a complete antithesis to the conception of detective fiction.”16 Other features in Caleb Williams separate it from later detective fiction in the minds of critics: the novel is, in Ken Worpole's words, “an admirable anarchist text”; most of its principal characters speak out against law; and many of its episodes demonstrate the cruelty, injustice, and futility of punishment.17 Such critics see detective fiction as written in a comic mode, defending law as the agent of a just government, and endorsing punishment for offenders of the law. This pattern may well fit some of the more simple-minded examples of detective fiction, but not the ones we remember as great. For every comic resolution, as in The Thin Man, Hammett has at least two that separate lovers, compromise the “hero,” and suggest a reversion to the way things have been, as in The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. Detective stories have never been preoccupied with law, although they do concern themselves with justice. But legal sanctions almost always give way to either revenge or mercy, which may or may not invoke a higher law. “I suppose that I am commuting a felony,” says Holmes, as he lets a thief go, “but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. … Besides, it is the season of forgiveness.” And again, as he lets a killer go: “Once or twice in my career I feel that I have done more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had done by his crime. I have learned caution now, and I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience.”18

The subjects of the individualist reformer strain, the tough strain of detective fiction, like the subjects of Caleb Williams, are power, crime, and justice. The main character may be an actual criminal, like Hammett's Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, or some of Elmore Leonard's characters, but even if he seems to be on the side of law he will more than likely operate with the conviction, in the words of William Ruehlmann, that in dealing with the corruption of society, “the law can't help, but somebody with a gun can.”19 The subjects of the technical strain of detective fiction are also power, crime, and justice, but power here is not brute force exercised by a repressive society or by its lone reformer. Power resides in magic vision into guilt, revealed ultimately as not magic at all but resting securely on material reality and natural law. Caleb Williams forecasts each strain of fiction, anticipating and interrogating its palliative mechanism for dealing with the world's evil.


  1. Julian Symons, Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 19.

  2. Symons, p. 19. William Godwin, Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, ed. Maurice Hindle (London: Penguin, 1988), p. 349. References are to this edition. Critics who echo this observation about the construction of Caleb Williams do not seem to notice its problematic relation to later mystery fiction, since the mystery here is contained almost entirely in the first volume. Godwin did not say he constructed that volume backwards.

  3. Ian Ousby, Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 44.

  4. Stephen Knight, Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980); Régis Messac, Le “Detective Novel” et l'influence de la pensée scientifique (Paris: Champion, 1929); Alma Elizabeth Murch, The Development of the Detective Novel (1958; reprinted, New York: Greenwood Press, 1968).

  5. William Hazlitt, “William Godwin,” in The Spirit of the Age, vol. 9, The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe (1932; reprinted, New York: AMS Press, 1967), p. 16.

  6. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, Facsimile of the 3rd edition, with critical introduction by F. E. L. Priestley, 3 vols (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946), 1:v. References are to this edition. The best short summaries of Godwin's ideas about political justice can be found in K. Codell Carter's introduction to the 1971 abridgment of the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971) and in Basil Willey's The Eighteenth Century Background: Studies on the Idea of Nature in the Thought of the Period (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940). I lean heavily on these two sources in the following paragraphs.

  7. Carter, p. xiii.

  8. See, for example, Marilyn Butler, “Godwin, Burke, and Caleb Williams,Essays in Criticism 32 (1982), 255.

  9. In an intervening trial scene, Falkland as magistrate hears the story of a young peasant who accidentally killed a vicious bully. Like the Mousetrap in Hamlet, the incident “unkennels” the secret guilt of Falkland, who rushes from the room just as Claudius does in the play. This occurrence convinces Caleb of Falkland's guilt, and shortly afterwards Falkland confesses to Caleb (p. 141). Despite its importance for Caleb's detection, the peasant's trial does not test Godwin's axiom about the obviousness of truth, illustrating as it does either a superstitious conviction that murder will out or a feature of the psychology of guilt, rather than testing an assertion of how truth is perceived to be such.

  10. The original ending is included by Hindle as an appendix to his edition. Did Godwin change the name of his detective from Jones to Gines because he remembered the Don Quixote episode of Gines de Pasamonte, an episode in which don Quixote pronounces the Platonic—later Godwinian—doctrine that a prisoner should not be punished against his will?

  11. Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in The Art of the Mystery Story, ed. Howard Haycraft (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1946), p. 236. References are to this reprint of Chandler's essay, which originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in December 1944.

  12. Masao Miyoshi quotes this passage as an illustration of a division in Caleb's personality, but he never quite seems to grasp how divided a book Caleb Williams is; The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians (New York: New York University Press, 1969).

  13. Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, in The Novels of Dashiell Hammett (New York: Knopf, 1965), p. 439. References are to this edition.

  14. Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1941; reprinted, New York: Carrol and Graf, 1984), p. 7.

  15. George Sherburn, “Introduction,” The Adventures of Caleb Williams, Or, Things As They Are (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), p. viii; Ousby, p. 22.

  16. Ousby, p. 22; Murch, p. 32.

  17. Ken Worpole, Dockers and Detectives: Popular Reading: Popular Writing (London: Verso, 1983), p. 32. Hawkins's experience with his two landlords convinced him that “law was better adapted for a weapon of tyranny in the hands of the rich than for a shield to protect the humbler part of the community against their usurpations” (p. 76). Captain Raymond believes that “law is not the proper instrument for correcting the misdeeds of mankind” (p. 231). Falkland is convinced that “things will never be as they ought, till honour and not the law be the dictator of mankind” (p. 182). These statements—some of them admittedly parti pris—join those of Caleb, who through much of the book laments that the law lacks “bowels of humanity.”

  18. Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1930), pp. 257, 646.

  19. William Ruehlmann, Saint with a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye (New York: New York University Press, 1984), p. 114. Ruehlmann wants to make an exception of Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer, whose self-awareness separates him from other protagonists in this strain of fiction: “Archer knows he is guilty; the prototypical private eye knows everybody else is” (p. 114). But he catalogues fictional American detectives from Philo Vance to Mickey Spillane who act illegally and are sure they are right.

Carl Fisher (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Fisher, Carl. “The Crowd and the Public in Godwin's Caleb Williams.” In Women, Revolution, and the Novels of the 1790s, edited by Linda Lang-Peralta, pp. 47-67. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Fisher explores Godwin's inclusion of the larger community as a force that reacts to the words and deeds of individual characters within his novel.]

Nothing is more notorious than the ease with which the conviviality of a crowded feast may degenerate into the depredations of a riot. While the sympathy of opinion catches from man to man, especially among persons whose passions have been little used to the curb of judgment, actions may be determined on which the solitary reflection of all would have rejected. There is nothing more barbarous, blood-thirsty and unfeeling than the triumph of the mob.

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice1

Few novels engage their historical moment as cogently as Caleb Williams. The way in which the novel depicts individual psychology, or critiques the state, has often been documented.2

Personal obsession and private oppression are undoubtedly foregrounded, but always against a background of the community. The novel incorporates and involves the general populace, a public which responds to the actions of prominent individuals and reacts to violations of social norms; Godwin presents a social cross-section that strives to match the audience he defines in the preface as “persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach.”3 Identifying how Godwin integrates the public into Caleb Williams underscores the essential interaction of the individual and the collective in the polarized political world of the 1790s.

Godwin envisioned Caleb Williams as part of the French Revolution debate, an extension of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and a fictional rejoinder to Burke's Reflections, anti-Jacobin propaganda, and governmental repression. Throughout Caleb's “adventures,” Godwin critiques the collusion of the population with power as it operates “not merely through political institutions and the law, but through prejudice, prepossession and habit.”4 Essentially, Godwin probes the “moral economy” which defines eighteenth-century social relations, the supposed benevolence and heavy-handed pat