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

William Godwin


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

D. Gilbert Dumas (essay date summer 1966)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8886 words.)

Rudolf F. Storch (essay date June 1967)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8319 words.)

A. D. Harvey (essay date July 1976)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4928 words.)

Alex Gold, Jr. (essay date summer 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11468 words.)

Jacqueline T. Miller (essay date fall 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6420 words.)

Marilyn Butler (essay date July 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7402 words.)

Michael DePorte (essay date spring 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4631 words.)

Karl N. Simms (essay date fall 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9480 words.)

James Thompson (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7901 words.)

Robert J. Corber (essay date July 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 7832 words.)

Kenneth W. Graham (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9637 words.)

Gerard A. Barker (essay date spring 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 6735 words.)

Gary Handwerk (essay date winter 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9702 words.)

Peter Melville Logan (essay date winter 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8640 words.)

Dorothea von Mücke (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12288 words.)

Michael Cohen (essay date January 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7665 words.)

Carl Fisher (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7720 words.)

Andrew M. Stauffer (essay date winter 2000)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stauffer, Andrew M. “Godwin, Provocation, and the Plot of Anger.” Studies in Romanticism 39, no. 4 (winter 2000): 579-97.

[In the following essay, Stauffer explores the concept of anger and its role in determining culpability in 1790s England, maintaining that Caleb Williams is an “anti-anger” novel.]

I was angry with my friend
I told my wrath my wrath did end
I was angry with my foe
I told it not my wrath did grow

—Blake, “A Poison Tree”

William Blake's “A Poison Tree” suggests that acting upon anger puts an end to plot; whether we tell or wreak our wrath, its expression is antithetical to calculated...

(The entire section is 8202 words.)

Monika Fludernik (essay date winter 2001)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fludernik, Monika. “William Godwin's Caleb Williams: The Tarnishing of the Sublime.” ELH 68, no. 4 (winter 2001): 857-96.

[In the following essay, Fludernik discusses Caleb Williams in relation to Edmund Burke's concept of the sublime and Adam Smith's concept of sympathy.]


Caleb Williams, Godwin's literary masterpiece of 1794, has recently come in for extensive interpretative analysis and wide critical acclaim.1 The novel serves as a key text for studies of the radical novel (most recently by Schäffner in 1997) or “English Jacobin novel”; it has now acquired a firm position in the...

(The entire section is 17351 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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....

(The entire section is 686 words.)