Places Discussed

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Falkland’s Manor

Falkland’s Manor. Country house of the intelligent and well-read English nobleman Ferdinando Falkland. This manor house acts as a focal point for the central theme of the novel: that even the most virtuous and intelligent of people can be corrupted by inherited social power. This house signifies the corruption of Falkland, who personally combines great intelligence with arrogance. When the novel’s hero takes a position as secretary to Falkland, his movement through the house symbolizes his growing knowledge that Falkland has committed murder. Falkland’s efforts to keep his criminality hidden are symbolized by the locked library and chest at the center of the mansion. In a plot movement similar to a fairy-tale, Caleb unlocks hidden and dangerous knowledge when he sneaks into the locked room; there he learns that Falkland has committed murder and allowed others to take the blame for it.


Village. Unnamed English country village populated by poor but honest farmers and overbearing noblemen, this setting demonstrates William Godwin’s concept that people should govern themselves by reason and not by inherited laws and conditions. The landscape of this setting is not described beyond a few simple structures—a few mansions, some simple dwellings, and a few village greens—but the human settings are emphasized. The antagonist in the village is Tyrrel, a vicious and violent nobleman, and it is clear that within this setting Falkland and Tyrrel will eventually struggle for dominance. This struggle is characterized as an abuse of reason and justice, and Falkland—despite his education and civility—is quick to jettison reason if his pride is wounded. A key secondary character cautions Falkland, “You have impetuosity, and an impatience of imagined dishonour, that if once set wrong, may make you as eminently mischievous.” After Falkland murders Tyrrel, this prediction comes true with Falkland allowing the blame for the murder to fall onto a poor family that had been victimized by Tyrrel. Falkland’s concern for his reputation, instead of for the lives of the farmers, drives home Godwin’s point here.

From the execution onward, the later settings of the novel demonstrate Falkland’s intention to eliminate Caleb Williams, the only person with certain knowledge of the murder. Falkland marshals the many social institutions of England to control Caleb. As Caleb goes from location to location he learns about the vast extension of noble power in eighteenth century England.


*London. Capital and largest city of Great Britain, which Godwin uses to demonstrate that Caleb cannot hide from Falkland’s power. London is not extensively described in this novel, giving the sense that the place is intended to function symbolically. Although London may seem like a place of refuge, given its size and mixed population, it does not provide much rest for Caleb. In fact, the paucity of description of the city parallels the futility of Caleb’s search for shelter. There is literally nowhere he can hide himself for long. In London, Caleb disguises himself and takes a false identity, yet finds that Falkland has hired a police agent, Gines, and has published wanted posters for his arrest.

Welsh village

Welsh village. Last place of shelter for Caleb, a rural location where he believes he is free from Falkland. Caleb eventually escapes from London and wanders into Wales, where he is initially accepted by the rural people. Although he takes a job and begins to participate in social life, Caleb is soon apprehended by Gines and subjected to Falkland’s abusive power.

Caleb’s prison cell

Caleb’s prison cell. Locked cell, containing only a bed and a small table. Caleb dies here under the observation of Falkland’s agents. In the first version...

(This entire section contains 766 words.)

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of the novel, Godwin ended his story with Caleb’s death in a locked room, with the strong implication that he had been poisoned by Gines. This scene was cut from later versions of the novel and was replaced by a scene in which Caleb talks Falkland into admitting his guilt and letting Caleb go free. This setting is, however, more appropriate for the original ending. First, it symbolizes Falkland’s interest in keeping knowledge of his guilt locked away; as in the first setting, the mansion house, the reality of murder is locked up and controlled. In the second place, it demonstrates Godwin’s contention that social power exists in England only to perpetuate itself by whatever means necessary; in this sense, Caleb’s locked death chamber signifies the lifelong control society has over the individual, who lives or dies at the command of those with power.


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Due to Caleb's notoriety, his infamous history, and the pursuit by Jones, one of Falkland's men, Caleb is unable to find rest anywhere and then commences to write a narrative of events which forms the body of the novel and that takes him several years. It is at the completion of his narrative that he resolves to leave England for good but is threatened by Jones with death if he attempts to cross the sea out of England. He then takes the final step of accusing Falkland of murder in front of a magistrate and having the magistrate bring Falkland to meet his accuser. It is then that Godwin's published ending and the manuscript's ending diverge. From the time Caleb breaks open Falkland's chest through all his subsequent adventures, about six months elapse; events in the final chapter occur several years later.

Within this time frame, Godwin employs many different settings which reflect his primary theme: a dramatization of the injustice of "things as they are." Thus, Godwin's settings demonstrate a shadow world of violence and passion that underlies the world of enlightened eighteenth century rationalism. The English country side of private and public spaces is set against the crass power struggles between gentry, free holders, tenants and other dependents. Prisons, dungeons, and jails expose the abuses of a justice system seemingly unconcerned with equitable treatment. Ruins, moorlands, cliff faces reflect a rising interest in the different subjective states of the different characters. The city, with its multitudes of teeming tenements and shifting relationships, indicates a growing alienation between people.

To some extent, Caleb Williams's situation evokes that of Hamlet's. Living with an intolerable wrong that society views simply as "things as they are," Caleb, like Hamlet, feels the burden of his knowledge, and like Hamlet, for whom "Denmark's a prison," Caleb finds that all of England has become a Benthamite Panopticon as he criss-crosses the countryside and cities always pursued by the watchful eye of Falkland's power. But while Shakespeare's Hamlet seeks to execute justice peculiar to the Elizabethan world, Godwin employs reason and sentiment to question the belief systems and conventional morality that make such intolerable wrongs possible.

Indicating the dark Gothic, irrational undertow beneath the bright surfaces of social convention, Godwin depicts the drawing rooms of civilized society, the assembly halls and court rooms of its judicial establishments, and the organization of the English country side with its land holding gentry and dependent tenant farmers. The quiet and still formalities of Caleb's job as Falkland's amanuensis, the many conversations they carry on, are disrupted by Falkland's rage sparked by Caleb's most innocent of actions. The rhythms of life are further disrupted by Caleb's ungovernable curiosity about the contents of the chest, and the full fury of this passion breaks forth when, during a fire, he violently breaks open the chest thus causing Falkland to confront him with a pistol to his head. In another example of these juxtapositions, the civilized surfaces of Italian court life that the young Falkland encounters belie the passions that course beneath, represented by the braggadocios, hired assassins, and young men ready to duel to the death at the least sense of loss of honor. One of Falkland's first encounters with Tyrrel occurs during the niceties of the ballroom where Miss Hardingham, in a test of Tyrrel's ardor for her, flirts with Falkland thus allowing the full force of anger and rage to break through the etiquette and custom of social conventions.

The organization of the countryside with its system of public and private spaces, free hold and tenant relationships, also exemplifies the darker disruptive currents running underneath the seeming orderliness of the English landscape. For instance, the farmer Hawkins, who has a small freehold, thus placing him somewhere in the middling classes, rebels against his landlord by refusing to vote for the landlord's candidate. To spite his neighbor for other perceived injuries, Tyrrel sides with Hawkins and sets him up on his own property. But upon Hawkins' next act of independence, the enraged Tyrrel circumscribes Hawkins by cutting off his access to public roads, flooding his crops and then having Hawkins' son arrested and jailed for maliciously breaking the padlocks that Tyrrel has put on the gates leading out of the purgatory that Tyrrel's "benevolence" had become. It is a significant plotting element that Tyrrel physically beats Falkland in the setting of the Assembly Hall and that soon afterwards Tyrrel is found murdered outside the door of a building created to rationally discuss and address grievances and resolve conflicts. The many miscarriages of justice that occur inside the very courts of justice would seem to convey a similar point. Indeed, Falkland's attempts to reintegrate the fugitive Hawkins whom he suspects of turning to robbery to support himself after the fallout with Tyrrel, places Falkland at the edge of a woodland at midnight where he is positioned to rescue Emily Melvile, who has been tricked into following Grimes who intends to rape her. Thus, such a setting reflects the disorderliness of human propensities to violence and transgression even amidst property boundaries and acts of benevolence.

Godwin's treatment of Emily Melvile is at once both a fulfilment of the Gothic genre's requirement of a sympathetic suffering female heroine, while at the same time a reflection of the problems inherent in the unequal status of such individuals. As a type of heroine falling into all kinds of physical dangers, she is rescued by Falkland from the burning village, a sublime scene which "presented no inadequate image of the eruption of a volcano." Falkland also prevents Emily's rape at the hands Grimes and assists her materially in the jail to which she has been consigned by her cousin, Tyrrel, for what he called unpaid debts. Her pitiable death thus demonstrates the cruelty and violence that run beneath the surface of society. But Godwin also describes Emily as "full of prepossessions" in regards to Falkland's intentions: Falkland's "discommoding her of an empty tea - cup, made her heart palpitate, and gave birth to the wildest chimeras in her deluded imagination." Emily becomes a case study of the limitations imposed by "things as they are," a distorted self-perception, on the one hand, and the suppression of an entire class of people, namely women, on the other.

Circumscribed though Godwin's women be, they each attempt to assert their rights as thinking feeling beings only to be beaten back by confining structures. Two female associates of Emily, Mrs. Jakeman and Mrs. Hammond, act with "masculine courage and impetuosity of spirit" to deliver Emily from her bondage. One imagines Godwin's appreciation of the possibilities of civilization through the existence of an unsubjugated class of women. Thus, the characteristics of Emily bleed over to Caleb himself, from whose own "prepossessions" and self perspectives he, too, must "unsubjugate" himself as he does in the published ending to the novel.

The use of prison settings in this novel is of special interest in relation to modern attitudes toward imprisonment and the evolution of this imagery in Godwin's own time. Godwin's prisons occupy a place the imagination that is owed partly to the Italian artist Piranesi. Piranesi's famous prints of highly imagined but impractical prison architecture, "Carceri," evoke the sublime and terrible in their manipulations of perspective, volume and light. The famous Newgate prison, designed and constructed in the 1770s, would manifest some of the possibilities of a Piranesi-like effect with its imposing geometry and massive masonry work. Such prison architecture, from the perspective of the power systems which made it manifest, would have the effect of humbling the criminal mind. In a Europe on the cusp of revolutionary change, though, prisons would become emblems of an intolerable abuse of power. Daring prison escapes, like Caleb "Kit" Williams's own escape, would capture the public imagination, and such fortress prisons like the Bastille, though empty at the time of its destruction at the hands of the Parisian mob, would indicate a level of sympathy for and identification with the prisoner, especially the prisoner whose sufferings far outweighed any crime. In a time when British citizens imprisoned each other for debts of less than a few British pounds, Godwin's depiction of Caleb's fellow prisoner, the ex-soldier, Brightwell, accused of robbing a gentleman of the sum of 3 shillings, is of particular significance in terms of leveling this charge of injustice against the system.

That Caleb's sufferings in prison seem to cleanse him, at least in the published ending of the novel, suggests Caleb's descent into prison is a type of of catabasis or descent of a hero into the underworld. The prison scenes also evoke the stage for "things as they are" to present themselves in their most powerful form: "the massy doors, the resounding locks, the gloomy passages, the grated windows, and the characteristic looks of the keepers, accustomed to reject every petition of, and to steel their hearts against feeling and pity." Caleb's ingenuity in manipulating his environment and his ability to fashion his escape are further indications of his heroic qualities. But it is the language of Godwin's contemporary prison reformers, such as that of John Howard,  and the employment of feelings for the common humanity of the prisoner, that Godwin employs through Caleb's experiences.

A heightened sense of subjectivity marks the rise of Romanticism, and the use of natural settings and ruins exemplifies this tendency. Volume III finds Caleb set upon by a gang of thieves and then later helped by a gentleman who happens to be the leader of the same gang. The ruins of a castle to which the leader takes Caleb to care for him reflect a growing fascination with ruins and the possible ways in which ruins inform human sensibility. At this point in Caleb's narrative, they are a place for outcasts like himself; they function as the basis for a novel social experiment of equality among thieves upon the ruins representing a moribund social form; to the local peasants, the ruins are haunted by a "carnival of demons; and it is in the ruins where Caleb discovers the impediments to the thieves reasoning, the vice in which they are plunged, and the ancient animosities from which they cannot free themselves. In an earlier passage, Falkland's melancholia is represented by the moorlands, wastelands, and rocky precipices where he experiences a heroic isolation and meditates on the ruins of his own plans. Caleb's experiences in the cities also indicate the problems of subjectivity and a social system organized along lines of self interest and the ensuing social fragmentation. On the one hand, the kindly Mrs. Marney befriends him but then winds up in jail for assisting a felon, while, on the other hand, Mr. Spurrel betrays Caleb for a cash reward.

Hamlet says, "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams",  indicating the rich vein of subjectivity which would make him a hero to the Romantics, themselves so attuned to their inner tempests and moments of tranquility. In a similar way, Caleb asserts, "The mind is its own place; and it is endowed with powers that might enable it to laugh at the tyrant's vigilance," and he thus colors his surroundings with a subjectivity and impressionism that are exhibited in the rich settings for Godwin's novel. But it is this emerging subjectivity which might also lead the way out of "things as they are" when, in the published conclusion, Caleb asserts:  "I came hither to curse, but I remain to bless."


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Boulton, James T. The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963. Discusses the “inexorable deliberateness” of Godwin’s novel, the way he builds up a systematic chain and combination of events. Godwin’s weakness is a lack of dramatic immediacy. Too often Godwin speaks about psychological states rather than dramatizing them.

Godwin, William. Things As They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. Edited by Maurice Hindle. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. Hindle’s introduction discusses the novel’s origins, the politics and history informing its narrative, and its place in the genre. Notes, bibliography, and appendices.

Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. Considers how Godwin’s philosophy influences his novel and compares him to his contemporaries. Discusses his fascination with fantasy and romance writing.

Miyoshi, Masao. The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians. New York: New York University Press, 1969. Considers the novel as part of the gothic tradition. Analyzes Caleb’s motivations for spying on Falkland, discusses the differences between Godwin’s novel and his great work of political philosophy, Political Justice, and addresses differences between the imaginative and discursive process.

Ousby, Ian. Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. Discusses the novel as the first work of English fiction to take a sustained interest in detection. Other critics have emphasized how the structure of the novel influenced later detective fiction, but Ousby points out that the main character, Caleb, is equally important because he is an original detective in the English novel.


Critical Essays