Godwin, William (1756 - 1836)

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William Godwin
(1756 - 1836)

English philosopher, novelist, essayist, historian, playwright, and biographer.

Although known primarily for his philosophical works and his influence on English Romantic writers, Godwin is also remembered for his contributions to the Gothic literary tradition. His best-known novel, Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), is a didactic tale about the evils of government that borrows heavily from the popular Gothic fiction of the day. Caleb Williams dramatizes many of the anarchistic and rationalistic beliefs that Godwin put forward in his philosophical masterpiece, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), which argues that humankind is innately good and capable of living harmoniously without laws or institutions. Godwin's only other work in the Gothic tradition is the occult tale St. Leon (1799), which also has philosophical overtones. Critics point out that this novel, as well as his numerous other works, lack the emotional power and intellectual appeal of Caleb Williams and Political Justice. The influence of Godwin's writings on his younger contemporaries, including novelists, poets, economists, and philosophers, was considerable. However, Godwin's philosophical and literary reputation has declined, and he is chiefly known today as a figure of historical importance—as the husband of philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, as the father of novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and as the author of two minor Gothic novels.


The seventh of thirteen children, Godwin was born in Wisbeach, England, to a Presbyterian minister and his wife. Raised in a strict, puritanical environment, Godwin trained for the ministry at an early age and became a Sandemanian clergyman in 1777. However, after studying the French revolutionary philosophers, he grew disenchanted with religion and eventually became an atheist. Leaving the church in 1783, Godwin moved to London, intending to make his living as an author. He began writing pamphlets and literary parodies, most of them published anonymously. Against the backdrop of revolution in France and the repression of seditious writings and speech in Britain, he produced Political Justice, which met with immediate success. 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 people who would never read books of science or philosophy.

Godwin was already an established and influential writer and radical when in 1796 he met Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), an attack on society's treatment of women. Their rapport was immediate, and soon the two began living together. When Wollstonecraft became pregnant a few months later, the two wed despite their mutual distaste for the institution of marriage because they wanted to ensure the legal rights of their child. By all accounts, both found great joy in wedlock, but their happiness was short-lived. Several days after the birth of their daughter in 1797, Wollstonecraft died of complications from the delivery. A desolate Godwin recorded his memories of their brief life together in Memoirs of the Author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1798), in which he wrote of his wife, "I honoured her intellectual powers and the nobleness and generosity of her propensities; mere tenderness would not have been adequate to produce the happiness we experienced." Left with his infant daughter as well as a step-daughter to care for, Godwin set out to find a mother for his children. He was turned down by one woman after another before marrying Mary Jane Clairmont, by all accounts a harsh, cruel woman who treated his children poorly.

Although he continued to write and publish works of philosophy and fiction, Godwin was struggling financially, and around 1805 he and his wife began publishing children's books, histories, and biographies in a desperate attempt to support their growing family. Godwin also relied heavily on the financial assistance of the young followers who sought his philosophical guidance; most notable among these was the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1814, Shelley, who was already married, eloped with Godwin's sixteen-year-old daughter, Mary. Though a furious Godwin disowned them both, he continued to demand Shelley's monetary support. Godwin's wrath diminished when the two married several years later, and he became once again extremely close to his daughter. Shelley too remained a devoted disciple of his father-in-law, supporting his writing even as his popularity was declining and his ideas were falling out of favor. Godwin continued to write until his death due to complications of a cold in 1836.


Political Justice contains the theoretical essence of all Godwin's later writings. In this work, Godwin denounced contemporary governments as corrupt and ineffective, arguing that reason rather than law should provide the ruling force of society. Through the development of reason, he declared, humanity could become perfect. Godwin maintained too that criminals should be reformed, not merely punished. Of all the arguments advanced in Political Justice, perhaps the best known is Godwin's disdain for the institution of marriage: he advocated that men and women should be united solely by a bond of mutual respect rather than a social and legal contract. Godwin was nearly prosecuted for these unconventional beliefs. However, among those who sympathized with its unorthodox tenets, Political Justice met with immediate acclaim, and its author was widely hailed as an influential philosopher.

Following the success of Political Justice, Godwin produced Caleb Williams, a novel inspired by his desire to disseminate the ideas of Political Justice through a more popular form. A tale of good triumphing over evil and an individual conquering a corrupt system, the novel tells the story of Caleb Williams, a man persecuted by his employer, Ferdinando Falkland, and jailed for a crime he did not commit. Williams's troubles begin when he learns that Falkland once committed murder. When he confesses his discovery, he gets swept up in a series of events over which he has no control, as Falkland frames him for a capital crime. Falkland is an important prototype of the seemingly benevolent but cruel and morally bankrupt Gothic villain, a dual personality that foreshadows Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The account of Caleb's imprisonment and exile is a calculated indictment of the horrors of the British criminal justice. Godwin's plot combines historical events with psychological realism and Gothic and detective elements. Though undeniably propagandistic, the novel won critical praise for its synthesis of content and style. It established the sub-genre of "political Gothics" and was a precedent for the popular Victorian crime-fiction genre. It was a great success, to the extent that the publishers reinstated in the later editions of 1795 the controversial preface they had not dared to print in 1794 because it had been considered politically subversive.

Godwin's other Gothic-inspired tale, St. Leon, is a historical novel that reflects his interest in heroic drama and his desire to modify some of his earlier radical beliefs, which were considered harsh and insensitive. A sentimental depiction of the joys of domesticity, St. Leon is also a tribute to his late wife. In the apologetic preface to an 1831 edition of St. Leon, Godwin observed that he had been urgently solicited to follow up the success of his first, but had long remained in a state of "dif-fidence and irresolution" for lack of a new idea. What he eventually produced was a longer and far more orthodox Gothic tale following the adventures of a dissolute French nobleman who takes to farming after gambling away his inheritance but loses everything to a caprice of nature. Response to the novel was mixed, and critics termed St. Leon more ambitious in design than Godwin's range would permit. St. Leon is, however, regarded as significant in several respects. In its flirtation with Rosicrucian mysticism it anticipates Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Zanoni and further compounded the influence of Godwin on that writer. It also provided inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Two years before he died at the age of seventy-eight, Godwin published another work that delves into the occult. Lives of the Necromancers (1834), despite its title, is less a series of biographies than a study of the way the mind is readily deceived by the overwrought imagination and the desire for immortality. The work has been described as a series of tales of sorcery culled from the Bible, the Ancient World, and the Far East, as well as from medieval Europe. One of the admirers of the book was Edgar Allan Poe.


At the time of his death, Godwin's contemporaries considered him a figure of historical and literary importance whose beliefs had inspired such individuals as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth. However, Godwin's works soon fell into relative obscurity, receiving attention only from critics who censured his verbosity and excessive didacticism. It was not until the turn of the century that critics began to demonstrate a renewed interest in Godwin as a philosopher and author. Early twentieth-century studies stressed the literary merits of Political Justice, and its value as one of the main documents of English Romantic philosophy is now firmly established. Caleb Williams, too, has enjoyed a revival. Since the 1940s, critics have analyzed various aspects of the work, including its elements of tragedy and mystery, its status as a work of Gothic fiction, its two endings, and its prose style. Scholars regard the work as an important contribution to the evolution of the English novel and one of the first novels to successfully combine fiction and philosophy. Critics who have focused on the work's gothicism have argued that the author used Gothic devices to make the work less of a simple adventure narrative and to focus on the psychological and emotional excesses of the characters. They have pointed out too that the use of Gothic elements highlights the defenselessness of the protagonist against a cruel and often faceless power.

Critical commentary on Godwin's other Gothic novel, St. Leon, is more scant today, but shortly after it was published in 1799 there appeared a parody entitled St. Godwin: A Tale of the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century (1800), which is a testament, if nothing else, to the work's popularity—or notoriety. Criticism of the novel today has focused on its exploration of life-extension and immortality, its influence on Frankenstein, as well as its debt to the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Despite Poe's appreciation of Lives of the Necromancers, it is of little more than historical interest. Godwin's more important legacy, at least for readers of Gothic literature, is the influence he had on later practitioners of the genre and the synthesis of philosophy, social criticism, and horror in his novels.


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



SOURCE: Godwin, William. Preface to The Adventures of Caleb Williams; or, Things as They Are. 1794. Revised edition, pp. xix-xx. London: Richard Bentley, 1849.

In the following preface to Caleb Williams, written in 1794, Godwin explains the philosophical underpinnings of the novel. In a note appended to the original preface for the 1796 edition of the novel, Godwin explains why the preface was deleted from the first edition of the novel in 1794.

The following narrative is intended to answer a purpose more general and important than immediately appears upon the face of it. The question now afloat in the world respecting Things as they are, is the most interesting that can be presented to the human mind. While one party pleads for reformation and change, the other extols in the warmest terms the existing constitution of society. It seemed as if something would be gained for the decision of this question, if that constitution were faithfully developed in its practical effects. What is now presented to the public is no refined and abstract speculation; it is a study and delineation of things passing in the moral world. It is but of late that the inestimable importance of political principles has been adequately apprehended. It is now known to philosophers that the spirit and character of the government intrudes itself into every rank of society. But this is a truth highly worthy to be communicated to persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach. Accordingly it was proposed in the invention of the following work, to comprehend, as far as the progressive nature of a single story would allow, a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man. If the author shall have taught a valuable lesson, without subtracting from the interest and passion by which a performance of this sort ought to be characterised, he will have reason to congratulate himself upon the vehicle he has chosen.

                                 May 12, 1794

This preface was withdrawn in the original edition, in compliance with the alarms of booksellers. Caleb Williams made his first appearance in the world, in the same month in which the sanguinary plot broke out against the liberties of Englishmen, which was happily terminated by the acquittal of its first intended victims, in the close of that year. Terror was the order of the day; and it was feared that even the humble novelist might be shown to be constructively a traitor.

                              October 29, 1795


SOURCE: Godwin, William. "Ambitious Nature of Man." In Lives of the Necromancers; or, An Account of the Most Eminent Persons in Successive Ages, Who Have Claimed for Themselves, or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power. 1834. Reprint edition, pp. 13-18. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

In the following excerpt from a book originally published in 1834, Godwin discusses certain pursuits and practices of persons skilled in magic and the supernatural.

The Desire to Command and Control Future Events.

Next to the consideration of those measures by which men have sought to dive into the secrets of future time, the question presents itself of those more daring undertakings, the object of which has been by some supernatural power to control the future, and place it in subjection to the will of the unlicensed adventurer. Men have always, especially in races of ignorance, and when they most felt their individual weakness, figured to themselves an invisible strength greater than their own; and, in proportion to their impatience, and the fervour of their desires, have sought to enter into a league with those beings whose mightier force might supply that in which their weakness failed.

Commerce with the Invisible World.

It is an essential feature of different ages and countries to vary exceedingly in the good or ill construction, the fame or dishonour, which shall attend upon the same conduct or mode of behaviour. In Egypt and throughout the East, especially in the early periods of history, the supposed commerce with invisible powers was openly professed, which, under other circumstances, and during the reign of different prejudices, was afterwards carefully concealed, and barbarously hunted out of the pale of allowed and authorised practice. The Magi of old, who claimed a power of producing miraculous appearances, and boasted a familiar intercourse with the world of spirits, were regarded by their countrymen with peculiar reverence, and considered as the first and chiefest men in the state. For this mitigated view of such dark and mysterious proceedings the ancients were in a great degree indebted to their polytheism. The Romans are computed to have acknowledged thirty thousand divinities, to all of whom was rendered a legitimate homage; and other countries in a similar proportion.

Sorcery and Enchantment.

In Asia, however, the gods were divided into two parties, under Oromasdes, the principle of good, and Arimanius, the principle of evil. These powers were in perpetual contention with each other, sometimes the one, and sometimes the other gaining the superiority. Arimanius and his legions were therefore scarcely considered as entitled to the homage of mankind. Those who were actuated by benevolence, and who desired to draw down blessings upon their fellow-creatures, addressed themselves to the principle of good: while such unhappy beings, with whom spite and ill-will had the predominance, may be supposed often to have invoked in preference the principle of evil. Hence seems to have originated the idea of sorcery, or an appeal by incantations and wicked arts to the demons who delighted in mischief.

These beings rejoiced in the opportunity of inflicting calamity and misery on mankind. But by what we read of them we might be induced to suppose that they were in some way restrained from gratifying their malignant intentions, and waited in eager hope, till some mortal reprobate should call out their dormant activity, and demand their aid.

Various enchantments were therefore employed by those unhappy mortals whose special desire was to bring down calamity and plagues upon the individuals or tribes of men against whom their animosity was directed. Unlawful and detested words and mysteries were called into action to conjure up demons who should yield their powerful and tremendous assistance. Songs of a wild and maniacal character were chaunted. Noisome scents and the burning of all unhallowed and odious things were resorted to. In later times books and formulas of a terrific character were commonly employed, upon the reading or recital of which the prodigies resorted to began to display themselves. The heavens were darkened; the thunder rolled; and fierce and blinding lightnings flashed from one corner of the heavens to the other. The earth quaked and rocked from side to side. All monstrous and deformed things showed themselves, "Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimeras dire," enough to cause the stoutest heart to quail. Lastly, devils, whose name was legion, and to whose forms and distorted and menacing countenances superstition had annexed the most frightful ideas, crowded in countless multitudes upon the spectator, whose breath was flame, whose dances were full of terror, and whose strength infinitely exceeded everything human. Such were the appalling conceptions which ages of bigotry and ignorance annexed to the notion of sorcery, and with these they scared the unhappy beings over whom this notion had usurped an ascendency into lunacy, and prepared them for the perpetrating flagitious and unheard-of deeds.

The result of these horrible incantations was not less tremendous, than the preparations might have led us to expect. The demons possessed all the powers of the air, and produced tempests and shipwrecks at their pleasure. "Castles toppled on their warder's heads, and palaces and pyramids sloped their summits to their foundations;" forests and mountains were torn from their roots, and cast into the sea. They inflamed the passions of men, and caused them to commit the most unheard-of excesses. They laid their ban on those who enjoyed the most prosperous health, condemned them to peak and pine, wasted them into a melancholy atrophy, and finally consigned them to a premature grave. They breathed a new and unblest life into beings in whom existence had long been extinct, and by their hateful and resistless power caused the sepulchres to give up their dead.


Next to sorcery we may recollect the case of witchcraft, which occurs oftener, particularly in modern times, than any other alleged mode of changing by supernatural means the future course of events. The sorcerer, as we shall see hereafter, was frequently a man of learning and intellectual abilities, sometimes of comparative opulence and respectable situation in society. But the witch or wizard was almost uniformly old, decrepid, and nearly or altogether in a state of penury. The functions, however, of the witch and the sorcerer were in a great degree the same. The earliest account of a witch, attended with any degree of detail, is that of the witch of Endor in the Bible, who among other things, professed the power of calling up the dead upon occasion from the peace of the sepulchre. Witches also claimed the faculty of raising storms, and in various ways disturbing the course of nature. They appear in most cases to have been brought into action by the impulse of private malice. They occasioned mortality of greater or less extent in man and beast. They blighted the opening prospect of a plentiful harvest. They covered the heavens with clouds, and sent abroad withering and malignant blasts. They undermined the health of those who were so fortunate as to incur their animosity, and caused them to waste away gradually with incurable disease. They were notorious two or three centuries ago for the power of the "evil eye." The vulgar, both great and small, dreaded their displeasure, and sought, by small gifts, and fair speeches, but insincere, and the offspring of terror only, to avert the pernicious consequences of their malice. They were famed for fabricating small images of wax, to represent the object of their persecution; and, as these by gradual and often studiously protracted degrees wasted before the fire, so the unfortunate butts of their resentment perished with a lingering, but inevitable death.

Compacts with the Devil.

The power of these witches as we find in their earliest records, originated in their intercourse with "familiar spirits," invisible beings who must be supposed to be enlisted in the armies of the prince of darkness. We do not read in these ancient memorials of any league of mutual benefit entered into between the merely human party, and his or her supernatural assistant. But modern times have amply supplied this defect. The witch or sorcerer could not secure the assistance of the demon but by a sure and faithful compact, by which the human party obtained the industrious and vigilant service of his familiar for a certain term of years, only on condition that, when the term was expired, the demon of undoubted right was to obtain possession of the indentured party, and to convey him irremissibly and for ever to the regions of the damned. The contract was drawn out in authentic form, signed by the sorcerer, and attested with his blood, and was then carried away by the demon, to be produced again at the appointed time.


These familiar spirits often assumed the form of animals, and a black dog or cat was considered as a figure in which the attendant devil was secretly hidden. These subordinate devils were called Imps. Impure and carnal ideas were mingled with these theories. The witches were said to have preternatural teats from which their familiars sucked their blood. The devil also engaged in sexual intercourse with the witch or wizard, being denominated incubus, if his favourite were a woman, and succubus, if a man. In short, every frightful and loathsome idea was carefully heaped up together, to render the unfortunate beings to whom the crime of witchcraft was imputed the horror and execration of their species.

Talismans and Amulets.

As according to the doctrine of witchcraft, there were certain compounds and matters prepared by rules of art, that proved baleful and deadly to the persons against whom their activity was directed, so there were also preservatives, talismans, amulets, and charms, for the most part to be worn about the person, which rendered him superior to injury, not only from the operations of witchcraft, but in some cases from the sword or any other mortal weapon. As the poet says, he that had this,

    Might trace huge forests and unhallowed heaths,—
    Yea there, where very desolation dwells,
    By grots and caverns shagged with horrid shades,

nay, in the midst of every tremendous assailant, "might pass on with unblenched majesty," uninjured and invulnerable.


Last of all we may speak of necromancy, which has something in it that so strongly takes hold of the imagination, that though it is one only of the various modes which have been enumerated for the exercise of magical power, we have selected it to give a title to the present volume.

There is something sacred to common apprehension in the repose of the dead. They seem placed beyond our power to disturb. "There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave."

     After life's fitful fever they sleep well:
     Nor steel, nor poison,
     Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
     Can touch them further.

Their remains moulder in the earth. Neither form nor feature is long continued to them. We shrink from their touch, and their sight. To violate the sepulchre therefore for the purpose of unholy spells and operations, as we read of in the annals of witchcraft, cannot fail to be exceedingly shocking. To call up the spirits of the departed, after they have fulfilled the task of life, and are consigned to their final sleep, is sacrilegious. Well may they exclaim, like the ghost of Samuel in the sacred story, "Why hast thou disquieted me?"

There is a further circumstance in the case, which causes us additionally to revolt from the very idea of necromancy, strictly so called. Man is a mortal, or an immortal being. His frame either wholly "returns to the earth as it was, or his spirit," the thinking principle within him, "to God who gave it." The latter is the prevailing sentiment of mankind in modern times. Man is placed upon earth in a state of probation, to be dealt with hereafter according to the deeds done in the flesh. "Some shall go away into everlasting punishment; and others into life eternal." In this case there is something blasphemous in the idea of intermeddling with the state of the dead. We must leave them in the hands of God. Even on the idea of an interval, the "sleep of the soul" from death to the general resurrection, which is the creed of no contemptible sect of Christians, it is surely a terrific notion that we should disturb the pause, which upon that hypothesis, the laws of nature have assigned to the departed soul, and come to awake, or to "torment him before the time."


Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams


SOURCE: A review of Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, by William Godwin. The British Critic 4 (July 1794): 70-1.

In the following excerpt, the critic condemns Caleb Williams as an "evil use" of Godwin's talents.

[Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams ] is a striking example of the evil use which may be made of considerable talents, connected with such a degree of intrepidity as can inspire the author with resolution to attack religion, virtue, government, laws, and above all, the desire (hitherto accounted laudable) of leaving a good name to posterity.

In this extraordinary performance, every gentleman is a hard hearted assassin, or a prejudiced tyrant; every Judge is unjust, every Justice corrupt and blind. Sentiments of respect to Christianity are given only to the vilest wretch in the book; while the most respectable person in the drama abhors the idea of "shackling his expiring friend with the fetters of superstition."

In order to render the laws of his country odious, the author places an innocent prisoner, whose story he (avowedly) takes from the New-gate Calendar of the first George's reign, in a dungeon; the wretched, unhealthy state of which he steals (as avowedly) from one of the benevolent Howard's painful descriptions of a worse gaol than common. We will only add, that the character, on which the author seems to dwell with most pleasure, is that of a leader of robbers, one who dwells in a ruinous retreat, and dispatches felons and murderers, in parties, around the country.

When a work is so directly pointed at every band which connects society, and at every principle which renders it amiable, its very merits become noxious as they tend to cause its being known in a wider circle.


SOURCE: "Godwin's Things as They Are." The Monthly Review 15 (October 1794): 145-49.

In the following review, the critic terms the plot of Caleb Williams "a whining love tale," but praises the novel as an outstanding example of philosophical fiction.

Between fiction and philosophy there seems to be no natural alliance:—yet philosophers, in order to obtain for their dogmata a more ready reception, have often judged it expedient to introduce them to the world in the captivating dress of fable. It was not to be supposed that the energetic mind of Mr. Godwin, long inured as it must have been to abstract speculation and sublime inquiry, would condescend to employ itself in framing a whining love tale; which, after having drawn a few tears from the eyes of a number of tender virgins, would have reposed in eternal peace on the loaded shelves of some circulating libraries. In writing the Adventures of Caleb Williams, this philosopher had doubtless some higher object in view; and it is not difficult to perceive that this object has been to give an easy passport, and general circulation, to some of his favourite opinions. Having laid it down as a first principle that virtue consists in justice, or the wise and equal pursuit of general good, he thinks it necessary, in order to carry his system into effect, to investigate many sentiments which, though hitherto considered as the legitimate offspring of nature, and even as possessing some degree of moral value, are in his judgment only the creatures of error and prejudice. In this class he appears to rank that sense of honour which seeks its ultimate reward in the good opinion of mankind. Accordingly, this fictitious narrative seems to have been written chiefly for the purpose of representing, in strong colours, the fatal consequence of suffering the love of fame to become predominant.


The name of the author of Caleb Williams, and of St. Leon, is, with us, a word of weight, and one which we consider a guarantee for the excellence of any composition to which it may be affixed. There is about all the writings of Godwin, one peculiarity which we are not sure that we have ever seen pointed out for observation, but which, nevertheless, is his chief idiosyncrasy—setting him peculiarly apart from all other literati of the day. We allude to an air of mature thought—of deliberate premeditation pervading, in a remarkable degree, even his most common-place observations. He never uses a hurried expression, or hazards either an ambiguous phrase, or a premature opinion. His style therefore is highly artificial; but the extreme finish and proportion always observable about it, render this artificiality, which in less able hands would be wearisome, in him a grace inestimable. We are never tired of his terse, nervous, and sonorous periods—for their terseness, their energy, and even their melody, are made, in all cases, subservient to the sense with which they are invariably fraught. No English writer, with whom we have any acquaintance, with the single exception of Coleridge, has a fuller appreciation of the value of words; and none is more nicely discriminative between closely-approximating meanings.

SOURCE: Poe, Edgar Allan. "Godwin's Necromancy." Southern Literary Messenger 2, no. 1 (December 1835): 65.

Mr. Falkand, who ought, perhaps, rather than Caleb Williams, to be considered as the principal actor in this drama, exhibits a character wholly formed on the visionary principles of honour. Early tinctured with extravagant notions on this subject, by the heroic poets of Italy, he cherishes a romantic pride; which, notwithstanding his natural propensity toward benevolence, displayed in occasional acts of generosity, soon forms his ruling passion, and at length overwhelms him with accumulated wretchedness. He is the fool of honour; a man whom, in the pursuit of reputation, nothing could divert; who would purchase the character of a true, gallant, and undaunted hero, at the expence of worlds; and who thinks every calamity nominal except a stain on his honour. His virtue, his life, his everlasting peace of mind, are cheap sacrifices to be made at the shrine of same; and there is no crime too horrible for him to commit in pursuit of this object.—In the early part of his history, his pride suffers extreme irritation from the insulting provocations of a neighbour, Tyrrel; a man who has no other title to distinction than a large estate, and great bodily strength; whose ferocious temper, brutal manners, and shocking cruelties, render him to Falkland an object of profound contempt and abhorrence: but who, nevertheless, continually finds means to harass and torment him, and, while he is bringing on himself universal disgust by his enormities, and even at the very moment when he is suffering the extreme mortification of being driven from a public room, offers Falkland personal insult of the most disgraceful kind. Falkland, to whom disgrace is worse than death, wholly incapable of supporting this load of humiliating and public ignominy, yields to the irresistible impulse of detestation and revenge, and secretly assassinates his rival. The reproach and the penalty of the murder, however, fall on two innocent persons, Hawkins and his son, formerly tenants of Tyrrel; they are convicted on circumstantial evidence; and Falkland suffers them to die, rather than disclose the secret which would load his name with eternal infamy. This fatal secret becomes the burden of his soul, and the torment of his life. The fear of the infamy of detection drives him to a thousand acts of phrenzy and cruelty, and, after having tortured him with perpetually increasing anguish, at last destroys his existence.

This visionary character is drawn with uncommon strength of conception and energy of language. The reader, while he respects and adores the virtues of Falkland, feels infinite regret that his mad passion for reputation should suppress every feeling of humanity, and become the source of unspeakable misery to himself, and of the most tragical calamity to others. The character, though original, will perhaps be admitted to be consistent; unless it should be thought difficult to reconcile the benevolence every where ascribed to Falkland, with the deliberate injustice and cruelty which were shewn in suffering the innocent Hawkins and his son to be executed, in preference to confessing his own guilt.—It will perhaps be said that the ruling passion of Falkland was not benevolence, but the love of fame; yet it may be questioned whether such benevolence, as is ascribed to Falkland, be not utterly incompatible with the tyrannical sway which is given in his character to the selfish passion of the love of fame.

A farther object in this story appears to have been to exhibit an example of the danger of indulging an idle curiosity, merely for its own gratification; and the fatal consequences of this folly were perhaps never so impressively exemplified as in the story of Caleb Williams, the confidential servant of Falkland. Williams, having been made acquainted with many particulars of his master's history by his steward, begins to suspect that the murder of Tyrrel had been committed by Falkland: he is therefore determined, at all hazards, to detect the secret; he becomes a perpetual spy on his master's actions, and practises a thousand artifices to accomplish his purpose, till at length he extorts the truth from Falkland, on a solemn oath of secrecy. Having gained his wish, he finds the secret a most painful burden, which, through his master's jealous apprehension for his reputation, brings on him a long series of persecution and perils; and the relation of them forms a large and interesting part of the narrative. Nothing can exceed the skilful management with which that part of the story is conducted, in which the reader remains unacquainted with the real occasion of Tyrrel's death, till the suspicion against Falkland is gradually excited, and at length confirmed by the persevering ingenuity of Williams. The sufferings of Williams in prison, on a fictitious charge of having robbed his master,—the contrivances by which he repeatedly regains his liberty,—and the adventures through which he passes, while he is wantonly persecuted as the perpetrator of a heinous felony, and flies in disguise from place to place for safety; till, in the last extremity of danger, he discloses the fatal secret, and becomes miserable under a load of self-reproach: all are related with an interesting particularity that evidently shews the hand of a master. The general result is a forcible conviction of the hazard of suffering any foolish desire, or curiosity, (that restless propensity,) to creep into the mind. 'Error, (as Caleb well remarks,) once committed, has a fascinating power, like the eyes of the rattlesnake, to draw us into a second error. It deprives us of that proud confidence in our own strength, to which we are indebted for so much of our virtue.'

This narrative seems, moreover, intended to give the author an opportunity of making an indirect attack on what he deems vulgar prejudices respecting religion, morals, and policy. On these subjects, he expresses himself with that kind of latitude which those, who are acquainted with his treatise on Political Justice, will be prepared to expect. Striking pictures are drawn, in various parts of the work, of the oppression which is often practised under the form of law, and of the hardships which are inflicted in our prisons even on those whom the law has not convicted of any crime. Artful apologies are put into mouths of professional robbers, without any adequate refutation. Law is said to be better adapted for a weapon of tyranny in the hands of the rich, than for a shield to protect the humble part of the community against their usurpation. Caleb Williams thinks with unspeakable loathing of those errors, in consequence of which every man is fated to be, more or less, the tyrant or the slave; and he is astonished at the folly of his species, that they do not rise up as one man, and shake off chains so ignominious, and misery so insupportable. Mind, to his untutored reflections, is vague, airy, and unfettered; the susceptible perceiver of reasons, but never intended by nature to be the slave of force. He thinks it strange that men should, from age to age, consent to hold their lives at the breath of another, merely in order that each in his turn may have a power of acting the tyrant according to law; and he prays that he may hold life at the mercy of the elements, of the hunger of beasts, or of the revenge of barbarians, but not at that of the cold-blooded prudence of monopolists and kings!—What all this means we cannot precisely say: but, before the old fences of law be broken down, we hold it prudent that some effectual provision should be made for taming the ferocious passions of those animals, who have never yet been turned loose into the wilds of nature without biting and devouring one another.

With due allowance for systematical eccentricity, (the reader will pardon the paradoxical expression,) this performance, interesting but not gratifying to the feelings and the passions, and written in a style of laboured dignity rather than of easy familiarity, is singularly entitled to be characterized as a work in which the powers of genius and philosophy are strongly united.


SOURCE: Graham, Kenneth. "The Gothic Unity of Godwin's Caleb Williams." Papers on Language and Literature 20, no. 1 (winter 1984): 47-59.

In the following essay, Graham examines how Godwin utilized the Gothic narrative to unify disparate themes and plot lines in Caleb Williams.

In Caleb Williams a conflict between Godwin the novelist and Godwin the philosopher seems to have resulted in a work that is woefully bifurcated. A divided attitude to the prose narrative is reflected in the two titles, two prefaces, and two conclusions he conferred on the work. All reveal opposed assessments of the novel's nature. This binary pattern is continued in a fourth opposition—in the form of two beginnings—that signals a source of unity amidst all this discrepancy and suggests that Godwin found in a young but flourishing Gothic tradition the way to reconcile apparent divisions.


Yet another novel from the same pen, which has twice before claimed the patience of the public in this form. The unequivocal indulgence which has been extended to my two former attempts, renders me doubly solicitous not to forfeit the kindness I have experienced.

One caution I have particularly sought to exercise: "not to repeat myself." Caleb Williams was a story of very surprising and uncommon events, but which were supposed to be entirely within the laws and established course of nature, as she operates in the planet we inhabit. The story of St. Leon is of the miraculous class; and its design, to "mix human feelings and passions with incredible situations, and thus render them impressive and interesting."

Some of those fastidious readers—they may be classed among the best friends an author has, if their admonitions are judiciously considered—who are willing to discover those faults which do not offer themselves to every eye, have remarked, that both these tales are in a vicious style of writing; that Horace has long ago decided, that the story we cannot believe, we are by all the laws of criticism called upon to hate; and that even the adventures of the honest secretary, who was first heard of ten years ago, are so much out of the usual road, that not one reader in a million can ever fear they will happen to himself.

Gentlemen critics, I thank you. In the present volumes I have served you with a dish agreeable to your own receipt, though I cannot say with any sanguine hope of obtaining your approbation.

SOURCE: Godwin, William. "Preface." In Fleetwood; or, The New Man of Feeling. Vol. 1, 1805. Reprint edition, pp. v-xii. New York: Garland, 1979.

At times it appears that Godwin intended Caleb Williams to be a fictionalization of Political Justice directed toward an audience not accustomed to the dizzy atmospheres of philosophical speculation but content to take their radical philosophy coated in engaging fictions. It was a practice favored by Holcroft, Wollstonecraft, Inchbald, and others of the coterie published by Joseph Johnson in the 1780s and 90s. Didactic intent is apparent in what was the work's main title in its early editions, Things as They Are, and is apparent as well in radical reflections on specific social and political conditions. These include the pernicious effects of the class system in Britain, the debilitating and dangerous dependence of women, the foul conditions in prisons (with a reference to John Howard's studies), and the injustice of the legal system. The preface to the first edition, withdrawn amidst the threats and repressions of May 1794 but published in the following year, informs the reader that "the spirit and character of government intrudes itself into every rank of society" encouraging the kinds of "domestic … despotism" that the novel illustrates.1 Thus, in the early editions, title and preface prepared the reader for a Tendenz-roman very much in the spirit of its radical author and its revolutionary times.

In a preface published thirty-eight years after the first edition, Godwin presents his novel in quite a different light. Discussing Caleb Williams in an 1832 edition of Fleetwood, he places his emphasis on the spirit of the work's sub-title, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, and describes his work as "a series of adventures of flight and pursuit." Underlining this emphasis on plot rather than on theme is Godwin's account of the process of composition. He wrote it backwards, he tells us, presenting Falkland's protracted harrying of Caleb before establishing the motivation for the pursuit. According to this later preface, then, the political message that centers on the tyrannies of Tyrrel and Falkland was an afterthought; the Tendenzroman was subordinate to the adventure story. Godwin does not mention in his preface that he rewrote the ending, but Gilbert Dumas discovered in the holograph manuscript of Caleb Williams an original ending in which Falkland triumphs and grows strong while Caleb, imprisoned and harassed, declines into mental and physical debility and death. Caleb leaves behind only his manuscript to proclaim a final condemnation of Things as They Are. 2 In the published version a debilitated Falkland reveals his crimes but Caleb expresses no triumph in the victory of truth and justice but, rather, expresses guilt and revulsion at his own complicity in the destruction of Falkland.

Thus with titles, prefaces, and conclusions, Godwin offers us a systematic contradiction that reveals diverging conceptions of two quite different works. On one hand, one finds the Tendenzroman bearing the title Things as They Are, illustrating the teaching of Political Justice and ending (given the power of the prejudices that Political Justice was seeking to undermine) on the victory of tyranny. This is the novel that Godwin, in one of his moods, appears to have thought he had written. The novel he published lacks this "thematic logic."3 It focuses on Caleb Williams, offers "a series of adventures of flight and pursuit," but concludes on a paradox that probes the psychological implications of dominance and submission. That terrible peripety in which tyrant becomes victim and victim tyrant permits neither the simple triumph of an adventure story nor the healing catharsis that the death of a victim of tyranny might arouse. That Godwin's novel leaves Caleb in a condition of self-contempt and disillusionment represents a victory of art over politics and adventure.

Whether the victory came about consciously or unconsciously we shall never know, but there may be a wry self-awareness in an assertion that Godwin makes in The Enquirer of 1797. On the subject of moral and immoral tendencies in writing, Godwin remarks: "authors themselves are continually falling into the grossest mistakes in this respect, and show themselves superlatively ignorant of the tendency of their own writings."4 The 1832 preface may reveal how Godwin came not to write a politically appropriate and logically coherent Tendenzroman, for in it one finds a brief account of another (and fourth) binary opposition. He reports that he began the narrative in the third person but soon changed to first person point of view as "best adapted … to my vein of delineation," remarking at the same time that "the thing in which my imagination revelled the most freely was the analysis of the private and internal operations of the mind" (339). That second start makes the second ending comprehensible. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the peripety that leaves Caleb not vindicated and triumphant but guilty and depressed is not to be explained by the politics of the time but by narrative demands exerted by the change in point of view.5 That change reflects the true emphasis of the narrative which is on character and not on theme or plot.

Caleb's subjective narrative introduces into the world of the novel a solipsism that integrates the novel of politics with the novel of adventure and, yet, owing to imperatives inherent in the point of view and the subject, responds to purposes separate from those of politics and adventure. Godwin imposed on his novel a rigorous empiricism that creates fictional reality from Caleb's conscious adversions to the swarm of impressions, ideas, and thoughts flowing through his mind.

The wavering, nervous account of passion and compulsion, temptation and harassment, despite the two titles, is neither a Tendenzroman nor an adventure story. It is a Gothic romance of modern times that embraces the other two narrative purposes in fascinating and ambivalent ways. Broadly speaking, because of the inclination of Gothic narrative to operate at the furthest verges of fictional reality where the natural confronts the supernatural, all Gothic conflict tends to represent or enact psychomachia. Thus, to exemplify the universal conflict between tyranny and liberty, Godwin chose a narrator who perceives the world in Gothic polarities. It is owing to Caleb's perspective that Falkland takes his place among a class of Gothic tyrants that includes Walpole's Manfred, Beckford's Vathek, and Radcliffe's Montoni.

The Gothic mode is appropriate also to the presentation of an adventure of flight and pursuit since such action is stimulated by irrational hatreds and terrors. Ultimately the Gothic emphasis carries Caleb Williams away from the narrative simplicities of either an adventure story or a Tendenzroman and into the complexities natural to the portrayal of abnormal psychologies.

While Caleb's is the dominant solipsism, the major characters are similarly confined by their own extreme views of reality. Their perspectives combine to engender a narrative full of characteristics we associate with the Gothic novel but with subtle and significant transformations appropriate to its contemporary setting. Intense psychological energies unleashed by the interaction of characters take the place of conventional ghosts and demons. As expressed through Caleb's guilt- and fear-ridden consciousness, those energies give rise to a chain of hauntings, of obsession and compulsion, of guilt and anxiety, that lead Tyrrel to attack Falkland, Falkland to murder Tyrrel, and Caleb to uncover Falkland's secret. The searing conjunction of the sensibilities of the three characters impels them to confer upon one another the roles of malignant supernatural agency. To Falkland, Caleb is "devil"; Falkland haunts Tyrrel "like a demon"; Caleb describes Falkland's energy and rage as "more than mortal." Each acts, voluntarily or involuntarily, to threaten the tranquility or self-esteem of another.

To portray a world solipsistically projected by the emotional intensities of his characters, Godwin draws upon a Gothic vocabulary that invokes and evokes ideas of infernal supernatural agency, of physical torture and murder, and of psychological and emotional excess. I have already mentioned some instances of the use of terms like ghost and demon as characters project the powers of supernatural evil upon one another. One can multiply examples of such usage as actions are portrayed to represent "supernatural barbarity," "demoniac malice," or suffering as the "torment of demons." The very recurrence of terms evoking the demonic supernatural such as spectre, devil, chimera, basilisk, demon expresses the nature of the world the characters experience.

A vocabulary of physical and psychological excess reflects the terrible violence of this world. Characters "writhe with agony," "poison … pleasures," endure "insufferable tortures … upon the rack." Their emotional frenzies are often presented in the language of psychological aberration as they are "stung … to madness," "drunk with choler," foaming "with anguish and fury," or in a "paroxysm of insanity." Coral Ann Howells has called attention to the use of theatrical convention in the Gothic novel, and Peter Brooks reminds us of the similarities in source and subject of the Gothic novel and late eighteenth-century melodrama.6 While often awkward and artificial, Godwin's theatrical rhetoric does succeed in evoking the vibrant emotional intensities of his characters and the reality they experience. Tyrrel, tormented with a jealousy of Falkland that grows in him like Ambrosio's lust, "writh[es] with intolerable anguish, his rage … unbounded and raving" (93). This violent vocabulary reaches an extreme in the robber-woman who, in her hatred of Caleb, with "fevrous blood of savage ferocity" threatens to "tear" his flesh "piecemeal," to thrust her fingers through his ribs and drink his blood (231). A rational vocabulary is not appropriate to the rages and frenzies of the "divine intoxication" that Georges Bataille asserts is the traditional definition of evil.7 The images of cannibalism and vampirism help portray the physical and psychological violence of his novel's world that is forever forcing Godwin to challenge the expressive limits of language.

Thus, the reality that the passionate and violent minds of the characters project is a characteristically Gothic one. The elemental conflicts of pleasure/pain, reason/unreason, good/evil are enacted, and actions succeed one another with a terrible inevitability. When Horace Walpole replaced the drawing room of eighteenth-century fiction with the Gothic labyrinth, he introduced a Manichean dimension to the novel and offered glimpses of evil as a vital, independent force as he set a series of dark heroes on the path to inevitable damnation. The Gothic reality projected by Caleb's consciousness is marked by emotional extremes. His pleasures are ecstasies that are describable only in near-sexual terms. Here is his reaction to the discovery of Falkland's guilt:

My mind was full almost to bursting…. 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 was never so perfectly alive as at that moment.


More familiar than such euphoria in the worlds of the major characters is the experience of pain. Theirs is a manic world of stark polarities. From Caleb's viewpoint the major characters he encounters are angelic or demonic: Clare, Collins, Emily, and Laura are in seraphic contrast to Tyrrel, Grimes, and Gines. Falkland passes through Caleb's vacillating percipience from one extreme to the other. The world of the characters' experiences, colored by their intermittent episodes of mania and melancholia, is subject to a demonic destiny. Entrapped in their intense emotional states, the three major characters—Caleb, Falkland, and Tyrrel—create the world they experience, a world bereft of Providence and presided over by a demonic fatality that draws each character ever deeper into suffering.

The malignant destiny of Caleb Williams is, in fact, an adaptation of Godwin's concept of necessity. Although Godwin keeps his philosophical beliefs subordinate to the demands of his narrative, in this instance he has employed his philosophy to enrich his fiction. Godwin was a determinist. He saw life as "a vast system of interrelated events, an eternal chain of causes and effects"8 in which particular outcomes can be foreseen if one's knowledge of causes is full enough. The world of Caleb Williams is subject to necessity, but it is a Gothic necessity characterized as mysterious, inexorable, and malignant. Caleb confers a sense of dark foreboding on the work through his continual references to "painful presentiments," "mysterious fatality," and "ill destiny." The characters frequently express a sense of being compelled or acted upon by merciless forces, both within and outside themselves. Caleb characterizes Falkland's life as "the uninterrupted persecution of a malignant destiny." Emily's infatuation with Falkland "appeared to [Tyrrel] as the last persecution of a malicious destiny" (46).

All three major characters seem driven also from within by passions they cannot control: Tyrrel to persecute Emily, Falkland to kill Tyrrel, and Caleb to discover Falkland's secret. Caleb talks about his curiosity as a "fatal impulse … destined to hurry me to my destruction" and terms like "uncontrollable passion" and "unconquerable impulse" recur in the narrative to characterize the irrational compulsions of all three characters. Often involuntarily, they inflict terrible sufferings on each other. Caleb excoriates Falkland's tender conscience; Falkland's very presence in the district assaults Tyrrel's self-worth; and Falkland, fearing the effects of Caleb's knowledge, harasses him for ten long years, denying him any peace and security. In accordance with Godwin's determinism, the characters are subtly directed by their interaction with the world around them. But through their own intense irrationalities and imaginative energies, they create Gothic monsters of each other and impose a perspective that transforms a morally neutral necessity into a Gothic fatality and their world into a region of sorrow presided over by a malignant demon.

Two motifs very much associated with the politics of the time undergo fascinating transformation as a result of this Gothic perspective. Modern audiences may be baffled by the vehemence the novel directs against, of all unlikely subjects, chivalry and its corrupting influence. Caleb's penultimate paragraph, in overwrought rhetoric, establishes and attacks the source of Falkland's degeneration: "But thou imbibedst the poison of chivalry with thy earliest youth,"—a potion, Godwin suggests, though not in these anachronistic terms, that transformed Falkland from a Dr. Jekyll into a Mr. Hyde. David Mc-Cracken explains the attack as a reaction to the praise of chivalry9 in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France that soars to this ringing ubi sunt lament:

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened [the Queen of France] with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.10

Godwin's response to Burke resulted in the creation of a unique character type. With his passion for chivalry, his sensitivity to personal honour that, when threatened, drives him to paroxysms of anger, tyranny, and guilt, Falkland is a Gothic quixote, and as such must take his place with the female quixote, the spiritual quixote, and the other quixotic types that adorn the fiction of the eighteenth century.

Another political motif that undergoes a Gothic distortion is the social contract. The novel's demonstration of the distortions of solipsism that must be corrected through sympathetic social intercourse is a more convincing moral for Caleb Williams than the dangers of a socially inculcated corruption based on myths of chivalry. A perverse relationship between Caleb and Falkland is established through the operation of Caleb's passionate curiosity upon Falkland's overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. Together they enact a kind of courtship ritual as Caleb assaults Falkland's guilty sensitivities with probing questions and remarks, and Falkland, tempted to share the burden of guilt and allured by self-destruction, alternately encourages and rejects Caleb's overtures. Waxing in intensity through an intimacy of guilt, Falkland for his secret and Caleb for his curiosity, their relationship reaches a consummation as Falkland swears Caleb to secrecy and confesses his guilt. Their covenant, sworn by "every sacrament, divine and human" (135), is a kind of marriage distorted into a satanic bargain. It confirms Godwin's demonstration in Political Justice of the immorality of oaths and promises as forms of compulsion that restrict unnaturally the mutable individual.11 "You have sold yourself," declares Falkland, and for the rest of their lives the two are joined by guilt, secrecy, and forbidden knowledge in a Gothic social contract that precludes development or change in their relationship and entraps both in bonds of suspicion and fear.

When Godwin decided on a first person point of view he changed, consciously or not, the purpose of his novel from an illustration of Political Justice to a study of solipsism.12 The decision reflects a willingness to sacrifice objectivity to subjectivity and political to aesthetic purpose. His chosen point of view is fraught with distortion: Caleb moves in and out of dream states; his sense of time is frequently awry—indeed he acknowledges the subjective distortions of time in his prison experiences. In the subsequent nightmare of prolonged harassment Caleb is so immersed in his own misery that he has little sense of objective time, and it is with shock that we discover with the return of Collins from the West Indies that ten years have elapsed since Caleb's discovery of Falkland's secret.

The years of flight, disguise, and anxiety also affect his sense of identity. Seeking laboriously to evade Falkland's omniscient eye (305) and vainly to establish creative and normal relationships with ordinary societies, Caleb is in turn a beggar, an Irish vagabond, a farmer's son, a Jew, a deformed young man, twisted and lisping, and a rural watchmaker. The adoption and maintenance of alterations in behavior and appearance impose strains on his sense of self that are exacerbated by the assessments of his character expressed by others. In the story he is thrilled to overhear in a public house he is "the notorious housebreaker, Kit Williams" (235). In the broadsheet printed by Gines he is "the most accomplished swindler in plausibleness, duplicity and disguise" (269). He is devastated when Laura Denison gives credence to such stories and dismisses him as "a monster, and not a man" (300). Characterizations that disagree so markedly with his sense of self contribute to Caleb's disorientation.

The last few paragraphs of Godwin's rewritten conclusion demonstrate how far his conception of his narrative had developed beyond political polemic. Falkland's degeneration and death have acted so strongly on Caleb's wavering sense of selfapprobation that the logic of Falkland's decline and his own survival has forced him to redefine himself not as persecuted but as persecutor. "I began these memoirs with the idea of vindicating my character. I have now no character that I wish to vindicate" (326). Caleb ends his narrative enveloped by an uncertainty that extends even to his own identity.

The assaults on his sense of identity are accompanied by other distortions in perspective that demonstrate the limitations of Caleb Williams as a political document. One hears reverberations of paranoia in his confession: "I could almost have imagined … that the whole world was in arms to exterminate me" (238). Caleb acknowledges the effects of his nightmare life in two revealing statements: "My sensations at certain periods amounted to insanity" (306) and "I sometimes fear that I shall be wholly deserted of my reason" (314). Godwin, having made reason central to his conception of human nature in Political Justice, entrusts his narrative of "Things As They Are" to a narrator who doubts his own reason. Such acknowledgments of uncertainty with regard to time, identity, and sanity make Caleb's narrative dubious testimony.

The problem of credibility is complicated by inconstancies of narrative purpose. Caleb is writing his story in three stages and each stage is subject to different moods and purposes. He begins the process of composition on being driven out of Wales. His deep longings to be a respected and useful member of a community have been frustrated by false reports of a criminal past. His opening paragraph establishes for his narration the two aims of therapy and self-vindication. By writing he will divert his mind from his calamitous situation and rescue his reputation from wrongful accusation. The first and most extensive narrative stage extends to the fourteenth chapter of the third volume. Demonstrating a kind of modal unity, it ends with a repetition of its double purpose:

For some time I had a melancholy satisfaction in writing…. I conceived that my story faithfully digested would carry in it an impression of truth that few men would be able to resist; or at worst that … posterity might be induced to do me justice.


The second main stage of the narrative is marked by impatience and depression. Caleb has just encountered Collins' reluctance to be of assistance in his struggles with Falkland. His earlier aims, he writes, "have diminished in their influence…. Writing … is changed into a burthen. I shall compress … what remains to be told" (303-4). Caleb here asserts a narrative freedom that heretofore he has scrupulously avoided admitting: he will take a liberty with truth by compressing his story. In this narrative stage he declares also a new aim, revenge on Falkland for years of torment. "I will tell a tale … justice … shall hear me…. His fame shall not be immortal" (314-15). With this declaration, his tone has modulated from impatience to indignation and for the passive aim of therapy he has substituted the active one of revenge. This last purpose has the potential to carry the story even further away from truth.

Caleb's postscript, written after Falkland's death, represents the third and final narrative stage. In a tone of desperate remorse, the chastened and disillusioned Caleb regrets his aim of revenge and seeks to repair Falkland's reputation, tarnished by public trial and confession. For Caleb, now, the truth is that "a nobler spirit lived not among the sons of men"; Caleb stands self-condemned for "the baseness of my cruelty" (325). Ten years of persecution have shrunk in the face of his perceived responsibility for Falkland's death. The limitations of a solipsistic perspective had blinded Caleb to the effects of a prosecution on Falkland. The narrative that begins in self-assertive protest ends on the psychological vacuity of that final paragraph with its repudiation of the former aim of self-vindication. The narrative that begins as apologia ends as confession. Opening with vehement appeals to Truth and Justice, the narrative closes on fundamental doubts about the nature of guilt and innocence.

Such neat reversals in narrative purpose are part of a series of ironic patterns in the structure of Caleb Williams that demonstrate Godwin's willingness to reject conventional realisms. It is the nature of realistic fiction to enact a tension between the demands of verisimilitude for empirical randomness and the demands of aesthetics for attractive resolutions and surprising reversals. Godwin was able to satisfy his aesthetic impulses as an artist and his disciplined investigations as a philosopher by substituting for empirical reality the realm of necessity. In this realm of necessity the hidden forces behind appearances reside, and seemingly casual events are seen to spring from basic drives to form strange patterns of irony, reversal, and inevitability.

The hidden laws of Gothic necessity shape the action of the novel. The story of Falkland's long harassment of Caleb is punctuated by coincidences in which Caleb's escapes are prevented and his sanctuaries discovered. When the violation of Falkland's sense of honour drives him to a frenzied murder of Tyrrel, the instrument, "a sharp-pointed knife," Falkland tells us, by unexplained coincidence "fell in my way." That mysterious fate behind the unlikely events of the plot is in harmony with a world of surprising peripeties in which victim becomes oppressor, accuser becomes accused, freedom means imprisonment and imprisonment freedom, the peripeties that carry the work so far beyond the novel of adventure.

While Godwin's consciousness of the demands of philosophical consistency confers significance on his anti-realism, we should not be too blinded by his philosophy to overlook his use of the conventional anti-realism of the Gothic romance. Indeed, a fictional world that can contain a secret chamber, a locked truck bearing a dreadful secret, banditti and their violent consort reminds us that even at its most philosophical, the Gothic novel is still a thriller.

The importance of Godwin's employment of a solipsism that transforms his narrative from a political to a Gothic novel can be assessed by viewing Caleb Williams in its context in the young but developing Gothic tradition. It is a tradition that begins with Horace Walpole's impatience with Richardson specifically and the novel of bourgeois realism generally. "I thought … that a god, at least a ghost, was absolutely necessary to frighten us out of too much senses."13 The natural-supernatural tension takes a particular direction with Clara Reeve's strictures against the over-use of the marvelous and her complaint that Otranto should have been kept "within the utmost verge of probability."14 That movement comes to a significant focus with Ann Radcliffe who, by the example of excellence that she set, established a particular school of the Gothic in which the verge of probability is firmly located on the natural side of the boundary, and the focus of narrative is on the frightened apprehensions of her heroines.

Godwin appears to have learned from Ann Radcliffe's example that the Gothic romance need not rely on supernatural events; it does not need even a pseudo-medieval setting. What is essential is terror, a frightened uncertainty enwrapped in a threat of violence. Radcliffe demonstrates that terror need not be supernaturally generated. Godwin represents a further significant stage in the internalization of the sources of Gothic apprehensiveness by demonstrating that a response of terror is not dependent upon such physical properties of a Radcliffian scenario as mirrors, gloom, creaking stairs, wax works, and servant girls sleepwalking.

In Caleb Williams, Godwin's fearful Gothic reality is almost entirely generated internally. He demonstrates his creative grasp of the psychological Gothic by founding a series of Gothic motifs and images on the swarming thoughts and impressions of his characters. We find the hauntings, the demonic villains, the fearful threatenings, the passion and the violence that we expect in a Gothic novel, but all are psychologically generated. There is little physical description in Caleb Williams and none of the sublime word-painting characteristic of Ann Radcliffe's novels. Godwin's fictional setting is a projection of the experiences and expectations of his characters. Owing to their intense psychological agitation, Godwin's Gothic world is a charged reality, a subtle complex of strange tensions arising from the irrational willfulness of the characters and the uncanny destiny to which they believe themselves subject.

Ann Radcliffe's narrative technique that impels and enthralls the reader in engulfing excitement and suspense is subject to a serious liability, as Coleridge noted in his 1794 review of Udolpho in the Critical Review:

Curiosity is raised oftener than it is gratified; or rather, it is raised so high that no adequate gratification can be given it; the interest is completely dissolved when once the adventure is finished, and the reader, when he is got to the end of the work, looks about in vain for the spell which had bound him so strongly to it.15

Like the structures created by Swift's spider, Ann Radcliffe's novel has ingenious form but lacks substance. Such criticism is not applicable to Caleb Williams because its characters and its world are emanations from a thoroughly conceived philosophical system. They may not always illustrate Political Justice (which Godwin intended as an inquiry and not as fixed doctrine) but they derive substance and significance from a theoretical foundation.

True to Godwin's political beliefs, Caleb Williams undermines the notions of sacred hierarchy and Burkean chivalry, and it replaces Providence with Necessity. It satisfies the demands of doctrine and adventure without being merely doctrinaire or merely sensational. Consequently, it does not leave the reader with curiosity gratified but unsatisfied. Rather it encourages reflection on the human need for social interaction and the distortions of solipsism. Godwin recognized with Hume that there may be no resemblance between a sensation and its cause and that reality must remain a mystery to a human experience limited by sensation. But, as F. E. L. Priestley points out in his edition of Political Justice, in the development of Godwin's thought, human isolation is mitigated by the resemblance between the contents of one mind and another.16 Perhaps it was a reflection on the plights of Falkland, Caleb, and Tyrrel, isolated and imprisoned in their own consciousness, or perhaps it is a normal development in his philosophy that had Godwin write in Thoughts on Man (1831): "The belief in the reality of matter explains nothing…. But the belief in the existence of our fellow-men explains much." And "sympathy is the only reality of which we are susceptible; it is our heart of hearts."17

For different reasons, Falkland, Caleb and Tyrrel resist communication with their fellow men and thus create conditions for the distortions of a Gothic perspective to operate. Godwin's narrative builds to a climactic anagnorisis at Falkland's trial as Falkland's terrible physical degeneration acts upon Caleb, and Caleb's forthright testimony upon Falkland, to dissipate the demonic illusions that they had projected upon each other. Simplified, the underlying meaning of Caleb Williams is that solipsism distorts perspective and sympathy counteracts solipsism. That is the real focus of the narrative and the real basis for the title, Things As They Are.


1. William Godwin, Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (1970; rpt. London, 1977), p. 1. Subsequent citations from this edition will appear parenthetically in the text. This edition includes the prefaces of 1794, 1795, and 1832 as well as the extant fragments of the original ending.

2. For a discussion of the political events surrounding the revised ending see D. Gilbert Dumas, "Things As They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams," Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 6 (1966): 575-97.

3. The term is used by Dumas who prefers the original ending. I incline to Gary Kelly's opinion that the second ending "raises the novel above the doctrinaire." The English Jacobin Novel 1780–1805 (Oxford, 1976), p. 197.

4. The Enquirer (1797; rpt. New York, 1965), p. 132.

5. By linking his discussion of Godwin's revision of the conclusion to Caleb Williams to the political arrests of radicals in May 1794, D. Gilbert Dumas encourages the conclusion that the revisions were politically motivated.

6. Howells, Love, Mystery and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction (London, 1978), pp. 20-23; Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination (New Haven, 1976), pp. 16-21.

7. Literature and Evil, trans. Alastair Hamilton (London, 1973), p. 9.

8. F. E. L. Priestley, "Critical Introduction" in William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (Toronto, 1946), 3:6.

9. "Godwin's Caleb Williams: A Fictional Rebuttal of Burke," Studies in Burke and His Times 11 (1970):1442-52.

10. Ed. Thomas H. D. Mahoney (New York, 1955), p. 86.

11. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, ed. K. Codell Carter (Oxford, 1971), pp. 98-112.

12. Gay Clifford makes the solipsistic limitations of first-person narratives the basis for a fruitful comparison between Caleb Williams and Frankenstein. See "Caleb Williams and Frankenstein: First-Person Narratives and 'Things as They Are,'" Genre 10 (1977): 601-17.

13. The Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Mrs. Paget Toynbee (Oxford, 1904), 6:201.

14. The Old English Baron, ed. James Trainer (London, 1967), p. 4.

15. Included in A Wiltshire Parson and His Friends: The Correspondence of William Lisle Bowles, ed. Garland Greever (Boston, 1926), pp. 169-70.

16. "Critical Introduction," 3:98.

17. Ibid.


SOURCE: Rizzo, Betty. "The Gothic Caleb Williams." Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 305 (1992): 1387-89.

In the following essay, Rizzo addresses the disagreement over the classification of Caleb Williams as a Gothic novel, and argues that "Godwin's novel is squarely in the tradition."

William Godwin's 1794 novel Caleb Williams has long been placed firmly but uneasily in the Gothic tradition. If one defines the Gothic as that form that describes a mortal combat between one or more virtuous but comparatively powerless protagonists and others far more unscrupulous and powerful, as well as that form which deals obliquely with subjects which cannot be directly addressed, then Godwin's novel is squarely in the tradition.

In his preface to the book Godwin states his intention: to provide 'a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man'. A recent editor of the book has noted that this preface has 'by no means an obvious conection with the novel itself'. On the contrary, the preface points squarely to the purport of the book, which is to expose the malignancy of the patriarchal establishment of the England of his day.

In exposing the corruptions and terrible injustices inflicted for the perpetuation of their own power on the dependents it was their avowed responsibility to protect, by both the seeming worst and the seeming best of the English aristocracy, Godwin adopts the devices of the Gothic: the hidden past crime of the patriarch, his willingness to take any course to avoid exposure, his sacrifice of every human relationship, every human right, to preserve the reputation necessary to preserve his prerogative.

Much Gothic material lies on the surface of the plot. Godwin himself began with the compelling image of flight and pursuit of his third and final book. But the political import of the persecution of the less privileged must soon have attached itself to this pursuit theme, as Godwin worked out the circumstances which were to lead to the chase. Caleb Williams in the course of the persecution he endures, is isolated, terrorised, imprisoned, and denied the opportunity for personal development. He cannot settle down and work, cannot have human relationships, cannot win respect or love. These are the conditions of the Gothic; they are also the conditions of the victims of the patriarchy.

More hidden Gothic material has to do with the nature of the administration of the English social system—its true pernicious nature. The corruption of the law as a tool in the hands of the law's administrators is obviously highlighted. The defenceless Hawkinses, who think they can stand up for their own rights, are ruined and gaoled. The defenceless Emily who believes she can refuse to marry a brutish suitor chosen by her cousin Tyrrel is sued for her maintenance as a minor and thrown ill with a fever into gaol, where she dies. The law co-operates with the persecution of Caleb Williams at every turn.

Less obvious is the lesson that the swinish Tyrrel and his opponent the courtly gentleman Falkland are not opposites at all, but are doubles. And in both cases their corruption derives from their proud determination to be preeminent. Tyrrel is crude, abusive, and obviously an enemy of the rights of all other humans. Falkland opposes with abhorrence his destruction of the Hawkinses and Emily. But in fact he is simply a far more clever and subtle version of Tyrrel. The corruption of both men has been caused by their having been given control of others. Corrupted by their power, Tyrrel demands the incense of perpetual adulation; Falkland demands only the public acknowledgement of his impeccable honour. To protect that 'honour', Falkland murders Tyrrel, allows the Hawkinses to go to the gallows for the crime—now he is clearly branded as Tyrrel's double—and takes control of the life of Caleb Williams, who has learned his secret.

On the level of the Gothic plot this secret is the motive for the patriarchal concern to hide the truth in order to retain control. Caleb's function in the plot therefore is not to provide a clinical example of a curiosity wildly out of bounds, but to represent the rational just man who pursues truth from a love of truth and justice and from a sense that something is 'wrong'. Caleb Williams represents the new emerging man, not privileged, not tenderly educated, but a reader, and a man who, even while young and inexperienced, sees the criminality of Alexander the Great, whom Falkland defends. Furthermore Williams, who does not have an empire to protect, is compassionate and kind. Knowing Falkland's guilt, he still reveres and respects him, and would never have turned him in. His is the proper love and respect of the son for the father.

The patriarchy, however, has perverted every system including that of the proper relationship of fathers and sons. Though the Hawkinses were a model in this regard Caleb is denied the paternal care he needs and longs for. The fatherly Collins is sent away on Falkland's concerns, on his return is turned against Caleb, and finally is too old and frail to be burdened with the truth about Falkland's plots. The watchmaker who adopts Caleb as a surrogate son is seduced into betraying him by Falkland's proffered reward. Humbler characters are more likely to sense the truth. Old Tom, Caleb's fellow servant, even against his own reason, smuggles him tools with which to escape from prison, and in London Mrs Marney protects him even though she herself is followed—and characteristically is rewarded by being arrested herself.

The novel therefore is Gothic, dealing with the persecution of a humble, defenceless protagonist by others who wield the power. And it confirms the idea that the Gothic in fact exposes the vicious excesses of the patriarchal establishment seeking to perpetuate and confirm its ascendancy.



Pollin, Burton R. Godwin Criticism: A Synoptic Bibliography. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1967, 659 p.

Bibliography of works by and about Godwin published between 1783 and 1966.


Chandler, Anne. "Romanticizing Adolescence: Godwin's St. Leon and the Matter of Rousseau." Studies in Romanticism 41, no. 3 (fall 2002): 399-416.

Discusses the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau's Emile on St. Leon.

Clemit, Pamela. The Godwinian Novel: The Rational Fictions of Godwin, Brockden Brown, Mary Shelley. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, 254 p.

Analysis of the school of fiction inaugurated by Godwin and developed in the works of his principal followers, Charles Brockden Brown and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

Ellis, Kate Ferguson. "Men as They Are: William Godwin." In The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology, pp. 151-65. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Examines the reconceptualization of manhood and the presentation of opposing ideals of masculinity in Caleb Williams.

Flanders, Wallace. "Godwin and Gothicism: St. Leon." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 8 (1967): 533-45.

Interprets St. Leon as an elaboration of the literary techniques Godwin used in Caleb Williams and of his philosophical theories in Political Justice; asserts that the novel uses the trappings of Gothic fiction for didactic purposes.

Fludernik, Monika. "Spectacle, Theatre, and Sympathy in Caleb Williams." Eighteenth-Century Fiction 14, no. 1 (October 2001): 1-30.

Traces the theatrical metaphors in Caleb Williams and explores the idea of sympathy in the novel.

――――――. "William Godwin's Caleb Williams: The Tarnishing of the Sublime." ELH 68, no. 4 (winter 2001): 857-96.

Examines Godwin's deployment of the Burkean notion of the sublime.

Handwerk, Gary. "Of Caleb's Guilt and Godwin's Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb Williams." ELH 60, no. 4 (winter 1993): 939-60.

Argues that the tendency of Godwin's fiction runs contrary to the political assumptions and expectations of Political Justice.

Leaver, Kristen. "Pursuing Conversations: Caleb Williams and the Romantic Construction of the Reader." Studies in Romanticism 33, no. 4 (winter 1994): 589-610.

Discusses the relationship of author and reader in Caleb Williams.

Meyers, Mitzi. "Godwin's Changing Conception of Caleb Williams." SEL: Studies in English Literature 12, no. 4 (autumn 1972): 591-628.

Asserts that Godwin's views about morality and psychology evolved as he was writing Caleb Williams.

Morse, David. "The Social Novel and the Gothic." In Romanticism: A Structural Analysis, pp. 13-49. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1972.

Suggests that Godwin's use of the Gothic form in Caleb Williams enabled him to combine psychological exploration with social criticism.

Roberts, Marie. "William Godwin's Darkness of Enlightenment." In Gothic Immortals: The Fiction of the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, pp. 25-52. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Charts Godwin's role in the development of the Rosicrucian novel, showing why it was that this reformer and anarchist philosopher became the founder of a branch of Gothic fiction inspired by the Brothers of the Holy Cross.


Additional coverage of Godwin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789–1832; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 39, 104, 142, 158, 163, 262; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 14, 130; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, Vol. 4; and St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers.