Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1886
Caleb Williams is set in a time of great political change in England. Revolution in America had deprived England of the wealth of her colony on that continent, and the revolution in France threatened all of Europe with war, economic uncertainty, and political chaos. To raise money for its national debt, the British government demanded new taxes from every class. Opposed to the Tories, the Whig Party at this time tended to champion the role of Parliament in achieving a measure of control over taxation and policy making. Thus the "old" wealth of the aristocracy and the "new" wealth derived from middle-class industrial investment found a common cause in safeguarding what were considered to be older English "liberties."
William Godwin, who began his political activism in support of the reform-minded Whigs, would move further toward the radical fringe of politics by promoting political anarchism. His characterization of the landed gentry in Caleb Williams, the tyranny of Tyrrel, and the liberality and benevolence of Tyrrel's opposite, Falkland, posit how political systems can lead to the suppression and corruption of the individual. Caleb Williams can thus be seen as a dramatization of Godwin's earlier theoretical book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).
Current readers of Caleb Williams can find fascinating parallels between the world of Godwin and the global war on terrorism. Faced with unprecedented violence in revolutionary France and insecurities about homeland defense and assaults on the very fabric of English political life, the government cracked down on dissent and so-called "Jacobin" or Francophile and radical segments of the population, which resulted in the suspension of habeas corpus (1794) and the creation of various legal stratagems by which charges of treason could be brought against writers and intellectuals considered subversive to English society.
Predictably, Godwin supported many of those figures who were unfairly charged, and his concerns show up in his writings. Caleb Williams, though not a roman a clef, explores the way that individuals can be manipulated by the structures of power. Caleb is pursued from place to place not only by the intelligence gathered from informants of all stripes, but also by the "history" of his crimes, published by means of inexpensive pamphlets that penetrated even the remotest regions of the kingdom. Although economic conditions in England had caused large landowning interests to enclose common lands to better use the productive value of such commonly held property, the remaining rural people were relatively conservative in their outlook, and thus Caleb finds limited relief from a population itself subjected to hardship and manipulated by aristocrats like Tyrrel and the media of the day—church sermons and pamphlets. Caleb's interactions with Falkland's servant, Thomas, is another instance of this trend. Ironically, Godwin would be unable to publish a preface indicating the "delineation of things passing in the moral world," because governmental "[t]error was the order of the day; and it was feared that even the humble novelist might be shown to be constructively a traitor."
The Changing Role of Religion
Although the Bible was a primary text during this period, its status as a unified work emerging from a single spot in time had undergone a change over the preceding century. Scholars in the Enlightenment era, using tools developed to create authoritative editions of Greek and Latin classics by comparing texts, examined the books of the Bible. It was held that different accounts of similar events were embedded in the Bible, suggesting that different source material had been combined. This scholarship would flourish in the nineteenth century, but, nevertheless, due to this scholarship, freethinking individuals like Thomas Jefferson could decide to study what they believed to be the real historical words of Jesus.
The Bible was also seen as a supreme work of genius, and as such contained timeless and universal treatments of the human condition. Its great story of creation, of the relationship between God and human and angels, of humans aspiring to be as God, of divine wrath, retribution, universal destruction and redemption, of demonic powers and so forth, fueled the collective imagination.
To justify the ways of God to man might have been the poet Milton's theme in Paradise Lost, but the creative theme of this age of revolution and change would be to justify the creation of a new world as it might be. An instance of that desire in Caleb Williams is the prominent use of the biblical name "Caleb." Caleb, as a spy for Moses in Canaan, is rewarded by God for his service and told that his "seed shall possess" Canaan. The problematic aspect of Caleb's endeavors—suffering under "things as they are"—underscores the real work required of delivering a nation from bondage; in the case of England, bondage resulted from the excess of corrupting political structures. Thus, the translation into a contemporary setting and language of the loss of Eden, the disobedience of God's servants, the unbridled curiosity and the fruits of knowledge, and the consequent suffering of humankind maintain a living relationship to an ancient text.
In that sense, Godwin's novel and the radical politics out of which it emerged suggest the milieu in which other artists such as William Blake constructed their artistic and poetic visions, freely employing biblical themes and symbols but significantly altering the conclusions: "I will not cease from mental fight," Blake writes, until he has built "Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." Odysseus and Jesus, two ancient craftsmen, exemplify the role of labor in their cultures' conceptions of spiritual understanding. So, too, Caleb, adept at tools, descends, like these archetypes, through a symbolic hell and is resurrected through a saving grace expressed in the language of feeling and sentiment.
Psychological themes are the bread and butter of the Gothic genre to which Godwin's novel belongs. Caleb's journey through the darkest depths of human depravity, aggression, and repressed feeling is a journey into the unconscious life of a rational civilization that postpones any explication of "things as they are." To acknowledge the way things "really" are is to invite a revolution in perception—thus the genius expressed in Godwin's creation of two different endings to the novel. From one perspective, Caleb is a voice in the wilderness, lacking the proper figures in his life that will integrate him successfully and completely into the forms of human society built as they are on the repression of all the truths that Caleb experiences firsthand. On the other hand, Caleb imparts a story of redemption and understanding that bursts spontaneously from him because his life is formed in the crucible of suffering.
Another fascinating psychological element of the novel is the secret that the chest contains. In film history, an inconsequential device that serves to generate much of the activity of the characters is called a "MacGuffin." In one sense, the MacGuffin is an unexpressed engine of desire that motivates characters to act, but which can never really satisfy the drive that compels them to possess it. Thus Falkland's mysterious chest and the secret it supposedly contains serve simply to drive Caleb's "fatal" curiosity rather than ever satisfy a need. What evidence of a secret murder would such a contrivance contain? Caleb admits toward the end of his story that the chest probably contains a manuscript like the one he himself has written, but Caleb also thinks that the manuscript is not so much Falkland's confession of guilt as it is a vindication of the author's reputation. The MacGuffin thus offers a motive for continuing on in this vale of tears, but with little meaning or satisfaction really coming from all the trouble.
In his book Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud argues that the modern human is unhappy because so much of civilized life requires that people swerve from indulging the primal drives that emerge from the unconscious and demand satisfaction; instead, civilized humans replace those drives with acceptable, if somewhat boring, substitute pleasures. Thus, Caleb's search for an absolute truth is thwarted; the question, though, remains: is he blessed that he never finds the "truth" with which he was teased and better off that life retains its ambiguous aspects? Going through life mildly depressed may perhaps be a more productive spiritual state and antidote to the monstrous certainties that fueled the excess of the French Revolution and all the aspects of fundamentalism that oppress and destroy.
Related to psychology and the psychology of archetypes is the concept of the doppelganger, an individual's double representing a shadow self frequently seen as a repressed aspect of self. The presence in the arts of the language of the irrational, the terrible, the monstrous, of sentiment and emotions, and a revival of preliterate and folk wisdom of the past are all indications of shifts in perspective and taste occurring in the late eighteenth century. To raise the specter of terror or to experience the sublime was a way into the heart and mind of the human and thus carried a moral weight. It became part of the concept of the artist that they would explore such places. John Keat's "chameleon poet" is just such an expression of the trend, and the celebration of a national poet like Shakespeare centered on the necessity of his exploring all aspects of human behavior, the dark and the light. That writers of the period began to see humans from a psychological perspective is undeniable, though the science of psychology did not exist. An expression of this trend can be discerned in William Wordsworth's great poem The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet's Mind, though the title was only settled on late in Wordsworth's life. However, the text existed in an early form in the 1790s.
Caleb Williams is an especially interesting example of the use of a doppelganger in a literary work. That Falkland and Tyrrel, though apparent opposites, are nevertheless forever joined by means of Falkland's rash action is very plain. But the relationship of Falkland and Caleb is much more complex. Falkland's slight physique, benevolence, wealth, and possession of abstract values like courage and honor are complemented by Caleb, who is sturdy, emotive, poor, and in possession of many physical skills. Falkland uses his power to persecute and force his will on Caleb, whose only trespass against Falkland has been to find out a secret guilt. Falkland and Caleb mutually project their own fears and desires onto each other, becoming doubles of one another. Such a "monologue," occurring as it does between two parts of one whole, dramatizes political stasis, where there is no independent voice to insert a needed third or multiple number of insights into a system invested in enforcing power and corrupting relationships between individuals and the larger society around them. Readers will find a similar destructiveness in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, where Victor creates in the Creature an idealization from his own drives, without consideration of his dependence on others. The Creature thus becomes a shadow of Victor's own desires and shortcomings and runs amok in society. In Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, the relationship between Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff reflects many aspects of the problems of assimilating the shadow self into an integrated individual. Thus, the doppelganger becomes a way in which we learn about our inner drives and the choices we make about our relationships to the larger world of feeling, thinking, suffering human beings.