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.
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.
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.
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.