Radical philosopher William Godwin wrote Caleb Williams to embody the principles described in his most well-known work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. Therefore, the work was not designed to display feats of detection but rather examine ideas such as guilt, innocence, and justice.
Like a blast of cold wind, the first words of Godwin’s masterpiece Caleb Williams tear away the empty sentimentalism and inflated rhetoric that had clothed later eighteenth century English fiction. Caleb Williams curses the results of his being framed for a theft by his master, Falkland:My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity. I have been a mark for the vigilance of tyranny, and I could not escape. My fairest prospects have been blasted. My enemy has shown himself inaccessible to intreaties and untired in persecution. My fame, as well as my happiness, has become his victim.
The gripping rhythm of the opening sentences is indicative of the novel’s magnetic power, which still attracts and holds readers across the gulfs of culture and history. This passage begins the novel’s intense focus on the mind of its protagonist and narrator. (Godwin had begun the novel in the third person, but realized that only a first-person account would do.) The passage also highlights the novel’s existentialist theme: Calamity has forced Caleb to realize how ultimately alone he really is, how impervious others can be to his plight, and how impossible it is to express truth or guilt.
The brisk style of these sentences is soon superseded by others, however, as Godwin shifts from one genre to another—prompting one critic to entitle his study of the novel “A Question of Genres.” At times Caleb, in telling his story, assumes the role of preacher against injustice (here Godwin is aided by his own background in the ministry). At times Caleb gives objective descriptions of prisons and criminals, in a reportorial style reminiscent of The Newgate Calendar (1773). The first book of the novel, however, is characterized mostly by the balanced periods and brisk irony of the sentimental novel.
Thus the country gentleman Ferdinando Falkland, who secretly murders a rival squire who had humiliated him, is first described in the language of Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753-1754) as a paragon of honor, wisdom, and virtue. He is also, like Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), acutely sensitive and benevolent. (A later Godwin novel, Fleetwood—published in 1805—was subtitled The New Man of Feeling.) Falkland’s sentimentalism, however, while at first elevating him, turns to madness as he is led to hate his victim, Tyrrel, by brooding over Tyrrel’s part in the death of his innocent ward Emily. This part of the plot is modeled after Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-1748). Falkland is finally provoked to secret murder after receiving a beating in public from Tyrrel. Suspected of the murder, Falkland acquits himself through eloquence and reference to his previously unblemished reputation.
Godwin’s unique contribution, which has led to Caleb Williams being called—incorrectly—the first psychological novel, opens as Caleb, a poor boy whom Mr. Falkland has taken on as a secretary, begins to suspect his master of Tyrrel’s murder and to search for proof of it. It is clear that Caleb’s motivations in this search go far beyond idle curiosity. As the following passage indicates, Caleb is stimulated in his investigations not by a disinterested desire for justice, but by a peculiar attraction to Falkland and a Faustian love of knowledge as power:“This is the murderer! . . . It is out! It is discovered! Guilty on my soul!” While I thus proceeded with hasty steps along the most secret paths of the garden, and from time to time gave vent to the tumult of my thoughts in involuntary exclamations, I felt as if my animal system had undergone a total revolution. My blood boiled within me. I was conscious to a kind of rapture for which I could not account. I was solemn, yet full of rapid emotion, burning with indignation and energy. In the very tempest and hurricane of the passions, I seemed to enjoy the most soul-ravishing calm. I cannot better express the then state of my mind, than by saying, I was never so perfectly alive as at that moment.
Falkland is portrayed as a maniac ravaged by the twin emotions of remorse and pride; one can see from this passage that the justice-seeker Caleb is no less unbalanced than the murderer Falkland.
Falkland finally confesses to the youth, cautioning him that he can only remain alive by never leaving his sphere of influence. The rest of the novel is devoted to a depiction of the strange law of gravity that never allows Caleb to escape Falkland’s orbit, yet that also allows him close enough to be destroyed.
When Caleb first attempts to leave, Falkland has him imprisoned on a trumped-up charge of theft. After Caleb is condemned, Godwin has his hero describe the horrors...
(The entire section is 2108 words.)