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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Godwin's Theatre of Calamity

References in parentheses are cited by part and chapter.

Godwin may have conceived of Things as They Are or Caleb Williams as a Tendenzroman, and the theme is certainly asserted with little room for doubt. The book’s unfortunate protagonist, a clever and idealistic youth of serious moral character, suffers all but constantly from the irrational power of a member of the ruling class, whose imperious power is unjust always and susceptible to aggravated criminal misuse. The legal system is condemned in the strongest terms for its injustice and inhumanity. The novel’s revolutionary implications did not escape the bookseller or the authorities and Godwin was first dissuaded from his original ending and then convinced to remove a preface that indicated the book meant to illustrate “a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man.” Godwin arranged for its publication on the very day Prime Minister William Pitt suspended habeas corpus and began rounding up the radicals of the London Corresponding Society. [1] Stage adaptations were banned, though Sheridan presented one under a different title.

Countless passages throughout the book remind the reader that morality and justice have little to do with the operations of government, that the wealthy and privileged are empowered to do as they will while the poor make do as they must. Godwin’s position as a philosophical anarchist is evident from his non-fiction works, [2] and he presents with passion and conviction a shocking story of “the gore-dripping robes of authority.” ( III, 1) The book’s title (anticipating Trollope’s The Way We Live Now with which Godwin’s book might be profitably contrasted) insists on its intention to break through what Rexroth used to call the Social Lie and reveal the simple fact of the absolute amorality of government by the selfish.

Yet it is difficult to view the novel in only that way. The theme of social protest is surely distorted by the depiction of the oppressor Falkland who is anything but a typical aristocrat just as Caleb is not a representative worker. Falkland in fact seems an extraordinarily unselfish and moral person whose sense of noblesse oblige is part of his polished and sophisticated manners. His degradation arises not from simple greed (as does the corruption of the ruling class under any system) but rather from his obsessive idealistic concern about honor and reputation. The reader never hears of how he makes his money. Though he might be viewed as an etiolated aristocrat whose decadence presages the end of his class’s governance, the central protest is not economic but legal. The wealthy can manipulate the law.

But in the conclusion as it stood in the first edition, Williams is implicated in similarly using legal process for private ends. Though he had long made it a point of pride not to reveal his one-time employer’s blood-guilt, he ultimately does, not to secure a disinterested retribution, but in revenge. He relates the tale of his personal “theatre of calamity” (I, 1) retrospectively so the pathetic (if not quite tragic) conclusion was never in doubt and Caleb ends by thinking himself more a sinner than his persecutor. Though at the outset he had said he wrote in hopes that “posterity” might “render me a justice, which my contemporaries refuse,” (I, 1) but he ends having given up on himself – he says “I have no character that I wish to vindicate” -- and hoping only that his antagonist “may be fully understood.” (Postscript) Even Falkland lauds Williams’ “greatness and elevation of . . .mind.” (Postscript) The reductive social reading’s bipolar distribution of good and evil is thoroughly confounded, and the alternate ending, in which the narrator’s persecutions continue, pushing him into madness, would have emphasized Williams’ own pathology.

As the first-person narrative voice tells the tale in retrospect, the reader can never expect a Dickensian story of the eventual rise of a meritorious but poor lad. The curiosity that marks his advancement in education and skills also will lead him to investigate the forbidden chest, extract his employer’s confession, and lock them in mutually destructive struggle. The very real economic conflicts of the early Industrial Age are quite absent; instead, the story suggests the role of chance (called “fatal coincidence” in the Postscript) and a powerful psychological determinism.

In the final pages of the book Caleb excoriates himself and excuses Falkland, thinking his employer has acted in the only way that he could given his life experience which led him early to dedicate himself to “the poison of chivalry.” The reader is invited to consider Caleb, too, as a victim of circumstance, operating blindly in a deterministic world where a person can only suffer and cannot control destiny.

The book, as Godwin said in his 1832 preface to the Bentley’s edition, “has always been regarded by the public with an unusual degree of favour.” He conceived it, he says as a volume of “fictitious adventures, and wrote the last part first, elaborating Caleb’s repeated attempts to dodge his tormentor, never for long successful, a continuous “flight and pursuit.” And indeed the book makes a decent episodic suspense story as Williams finds the agents of his nemesis oppressing him at every turn. Taken realistically the narrative involves a wide variety of circumstances from the robber’s den with its unlikely leader to his short-lived idyll in Wales. The conclusion in which Falkland and Williams reconcile at the end of the novel betrays the laboriously constructed horror of the Gothic machinery. The original ending, too strong for the publisher’s opinion of the public, had had Williams descend into madness while imprisoned under the supervision of the tireless Gines (or “Jones”).
The book may have sold as a straightforward adventure story, but the hero’s persecution is so extreme that the plot sounds very like a projection of the imagination of a paranoid schizophrenic, and his suffering is primarily psychological. If Williams is paranoid, surely Falkland is grandiose. Both Falkland and Williams are obsessively enwrapped in each other, their relationship deeply neurotic, ambivalent, and in the end internecine. Their connection has been taken by some as homoerotic and much of what happens might be viewed as a dramatic representation of the trials of love. [3]

The narrator’s mental suffering reaches such heights that it becomes a truly Existential theme. Like Beckford’s Vathek and Byronic heroes soon to come, Williams takes on the world and goes crashing down in glory of not in comfort. A large share of Williams’ pain arises from his isolation, as Falkland denies him the chance to have friends or even more casual human relationship. His isolation and his Job-like suffering lead him to cry out “Here I am, an outcast, destined to perish with hunger and cold. All men desert me. All men hate me. I am driven with mortal threats from the sources of comfort and existence. Accursed world . . .Why do I consent to live any longer?” (III, 7)

Today Godwin’s philosophic anarchism plays little role in contemporary political discourse, and his name most commonly appears in accounts of Shelley and Byron detailing their involvement with his daughter Mary and his step-daughter Clair Clairmont. The reader of Things as They Are or Caleb Williams will find something unrelated to these issues, a readable, compelling story that reflects how everyone has felt, at one time or another, about a boss, a loved one, or life in this world.



1. The date was May 12, 1794. It is a pleasure to report that English juries freed all the defendants.

2. See most prominently his Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness which was published the same year as Things as They Are.

3. See, for instance, Gold, Alex, Jr. “It's Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin's Caleb Williams.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 19 (1977): 135–160.

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