Sunday, February 10, 2013

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

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 enemy has shown himself inaccessible to intreaties and untired in persecution.  My fame, as well as my happiness, has become his victim.  Every one, as far as my story has been known, has refused to assist me in my distress, and has execrated my name.  I have not deserved this treatment.

William Godwin's novel Caleb Williams was originally titled Things As They Are, which is admittedly a strange title for a fictional book.  Godwin, a 18th-century radical writer and philosopher, believed that his fiction spoke to fundamental truths about the operation of the class system in the England of his day, and while that might have been so, the Gothic improbabilities and overblown melodrama of Caleb Williams make the title even stranger.

Caleb is a servant in the household of Ferdinando Falkland, a wealthy landowner who is renowned but depressive and withdrawn.  Another servant informs him that Falkland was once cheerful and sociable, but a conflict with another squire, named Tyrrel, took such a toll on him that his character was forever changed.  Godwin devotes a full third of the novel to this story.  Tyrrel, Caleb learns, was so jealous of Falkland's eminence and popularity that he endeavored for years to destroy him.  Falkland's behavior in account is comically noble--at one point he just happens to be in the right place to save Tyrrel's beloved cousin Emily from a deadly fire--but all that ends when Falkland is put on trial for Tyrrel's shocking murder.  Falkland, being noble and well-loved, is acquitted of the crime, but Caleb notices inconsistencies in the story that suggest Falkland may have been guilty after all.

Caleb's curiosity gets the better of him, until he essentially goads his master into confessing.  Though Caleb insists he will remain silent, Falkland persecutes him doggedly throughout the rest of the novel, falsely charging him with theft, condemning him to prison, and generally making his life miserable.  Caleb's counter-accusation of Falkland only serves to make his crime more notorious, because Falkland's nobility protects his reputation.  Caleb, having escaped from prison, finds he has become an infamous criminal.

It seems as if Godwin has set up a classic tale of vengeance, but Caleb only desires to be out from under Falkland's persecution.  In fact, the most interesting element of Caleb Williams is Caleb's insistence throughout his ordeal that Falkland remains essentially good, and his unwillingness to accuse his former master except when he feels there is no other recourse.  The novel wears its social program on its sleeve in a way that often seems preachy and didactic, especially a long section describing prison life, peppered with footnotes directing the reader to firsthand accounts of the English prison system.  But Godwin's depiction of a man who has so thoroughly absorbed the dictates of social inequality that he prefers suffering to exposing his master to infamy is its strongest commentary.

Unfortunately, it cannot salvage Caleb Williams' ragged plot.  The resolution in particular is extremely unsatisfying--after fleeing Falkland's persecutions for 200 pages, Caleb's solution is to accuse Falkland a second time, but like, harder.  This scene has an elegant reversal to it--instead of denigrating Falkland, Caleb somehow manages to force a confession from him through adulation--but Godwin fails to explain why this scene couldn't have taken place months before.

I read this novel for a class I'm taking on 19th-century literature, so that's a lot of what I'll be posting over the next few months.  One thing I'm noticing about the century as a whole: They thought abstract nouns were awesome.  (Fortitude, depravity, sensibility...)  Apparently we didn't decide that "show, don't tell" was a maxim of writing until the 20th century.  It might be a long semester.


Brittany said...

I remember really loving Caleb Williams and then feeling really tired by the end. However, I still enjoy that feminist mom + anarchist dad = Frankenstein. Probably my love for Frankenstein and the idea of Shelley's DNA is what kept me going through both her mom and dad's books.

Christopher said...

We have to read one of Wollstonecraft's novels next (Either Maria or Mary, I forget which). Generally, what I've seen of her writing has been more interesting and vibrant than what I've seen of his.

Helen Rittelmeyer said...

Among the many, many damning anecdotes about Godwin in Muriel Spark's biography of Mary Shelley is the story of how Mary was forced to remind Leigh Hunt to be careful how he addressed his letters to Godwin: “Pray put W.G. Esq., since the want of that etiquette annoys him. I remember Shelley’s unspeakable astonishment when the author of Political Justice asked him half reproachfully why he addressed him ‘Mr.’ Godwin.”

This sensitivity somewhat undermines his thesis in CW, I feel.

The Spark biography is terrific, by the way, and offers ample evidence in support of the theory that Godwin was a bastard.