The Adventures of Caleb Williams by William Godwin

The Adventures of Caleb Williams is the story of how wealth and reputation can do as they please in 18th century England. The novel follows poor, yet respectable and educated, orphan Caleb as he takes a position with the richest man in the neighborhood, Mr. Falkland. Caleb, and every one else in the village, worship Mr. Falkland as a highly educated, kind, and distinguished nobleman. But Caleb also sees in Mr. Falkland a suspicious, moody dark side. Soon Caleb’s obsessive curiosity causes him to dig up the past and he pays the price for knowledge, that was perhaps, best left buried.

The author of Caleb Williams was political philosopher and anarchist, William Godwin. Godwin, an Englishman, wrote in the midst of the French Revolution. Like many other radicals at this time, he believed aristocracy and government to be unavoidably corrupt and that it was these institutions that trickled down to produce corruption and evil actions in the individual citizen. He thought, if we could disband the government and ruling classes, Man left to his own devices would revert to a natural morality. Unlike many anarchists though, Godwin did not see violent revolution as the solution, but believed in a slow and non-violent reform.

Godwin is perhaps remembered more for his family circle than for his philosophy. He was married (an unusual and mocked decision for an anarchists btw) to Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminist writers. His daughter, also Mary, was the author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Percy Shelley. They were quite the revolutionary family. Through out her life, Mary Shelley found herself somewhat awe inspiring in the eyes of others as the offspring of these two great philosophers. Can you imagine the pressure on Mary Shelley to make something of herself?

Caleb Williams has some how become one of the little known Classics, even though it was one of the first political novels and a massive influence on the later development of mystery and thriller genres. I am always interested in the history and evolution of a genre. Plus, as a huge fan of Frankenstein, I was eager to see how Caleb Williams may have influenced Shelley.

I found the overall style of Caleb Williams different from Frankenstein but the passion in the dialogue is very similar. Frankenstein is a true Romanticism novel with it’s adoration of the sublimity of nature. Caleb Williams on the other hand, being right on the cusp of two literature movements, has remnants of the Enlightenment with it’s distinct political message. However, the political philosophy from Godwin’s earlier treatise, Political Justice, was thoroughly repackaged into a dramatic story with lots of juicy mental anguish that the masses could enjoy. Caleb Williams has the occasional Gothic prison cell but little detailed natural scenery.

I tell you sir, she is dead! Can you bring her back to life, as you have driven her out of it? If you could, I would kneel to you twenty times a day!– What is it you have done? Miserable wretch! did you think you could do and undo, and change the laws if nature, as you please?

The above quote is from Volume 1 of Caleb Williams, my favorite part of the book. I was struck by how perfectly those lines would fit into Frankenstein. In fact from the very first paragraph Godwin’s influence on his daughter’s work is clear, as is his early use of the strong emotion that would mark the coming Romanticism movement.

My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity. I have been a mark for the vigilance of tyranny, and I could not escape. My fairest prospects have been blasted. My enemy has shown himself inaccessible to entreaties and untired in persecution. My fame, as well as my happiness, has become his victim.

Volume 1 of Caleb Williams is all mystery, while books 2 and 3 turn into more of a man on the run thriller. The novel is at it’s best when other characters bring dialogue to the story and when they interact with Caleb. In between the many events that Caleb must suffer, and there are MANY, the story can get bogged down with Caleb’s own slightly repetitive inner monologue. I’ll admit, Caleb’s philosophizing on his suffering had me nodding off in places.

Even though the story drags at times, Godwin does a wonderful job of making you feel the helplessness and frustration of the non-aristocrisy. Peasants and the middle-classes lived at the whim of land owners and had no recourse through the law, that was supposedly in place to protect everyone. The novel is very focused in it’s purpose of highlighting this, but it never felt like a political lecture to me, it may for others.

Perhaps the narrative was too tightly focused though. I can imagine how much depth and interest could have been added if Godwin had allowed another character to take over the narration occasionally. There are many characters in the novel that could have added a fascinating perspective and alternative to Caleb. For this reason, I think Mark Shelley’s novel out lives and trumps her father’s in depth and narrative technique.


This post is for the Classics Circuit pre-1840 Gothic lit tour. I published a little early because I will be back Thursday with my second book for this challenge, The Vampyre.