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Introduction

(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...

(The entire section is 167,414 words.)