William Godwin was originally a Calvinist preacher and worked in a number of dissenting churches before disagreeing with his congregation and losing his faith. ‘An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’, one of his best-known works, sought to bring reason into the discussions of the 1790s. It argues for the dismantling of social institutions (government, judiciary, aristocracy, and the monarchy) on the grounds that they were corrupt and corrupting. As institutions, he saw them as perpetuating the inequalities of property and limiting free inquiry. Godwin argued a rational individual will eventually act in the best interests of both himself and society if left alone. Sincerity and rationality were the twin pillars of Godwin’s utopian society. For him, rational behaviour could bypass politics and lead to social justice because it relied on benevolence and impartiality. He also objected to violent rebellion and political associations and thought a blood-thirsty mob barbarous. This was the background to Caleb Williams which was published in 1794.
Caleb is employed as the secretary to the local squire. He becomes obsessed with the study of his employer Falkland and discovers he is the murderer of Squire Tyrell and not Hawkins who was originally convicted for the crime. Falkland confesses to the murder and threatens Caleb should he ever try to leave his service. Unable to live under such scrutiny he flees for London but is persuaded to return to face the charges against him. To his horror, valuables have been planted in his belongings and he is sent to prison. Caleb escapes and finds refuge with some robbers, but soon leaves disguised as a beggar. Falkland’s spy Gines finds him and there is a new hearing, but Falkland does not press charges, instead, he tries to get Caleb to sign a declaration that Falkland is innocent. Caleb refuses and he is constantly followed by the vigilant Gines who ensures he is deprived of a living. In the original ending, Caleb fails to convince the judge and is taken to prison, and dies in despair and madness. In the published ending, Caleb is overcome by kind feelings toward Falkland and Falkland confesses his crime, dying a few days later. Caleb is free but tormented by guilt because he has brought his noble master to disgrace.
Curiosity is Caleb’s most prominent mental characteristic and the strongest impulse of the human heart. Robert Uphaus refers to Falklands trunk as being a major curiosity and obsession throughout the book. When Caleb first enters Falkland’s room, he shuts the trunk and accuses Caleb of spying on him and trying to ruin him. Such a simple event should not provoke such extreme emotions, this is not only a question for Caleb but for the reader as well. Caleb cannot tolerate the absence of meaning and believes all secrets must be made public and the novel is about his pursuit of meaning, not necessarily about the end of the inquiry. In volume two, fire causes Caleb to enter the room and try and break open the trunk, as he believes Falkland has murdered Squire Tyrell and the trunk will contain evidence to prove this, such as a murder weapon. Falkland enters just as he breaks the lock, in a rage he takes a pistol and aims it at Caleb's head. Fortunately, he changes his mind and throws the pistol out of the window. Caleb refers to his actions as a mistaken thirst for knowledge, but Falkland sees this as an invasion of privacy. The third mention of the trunk is when Caleb finds out Falkland has been writing his story and Caleb undertakes to write Falkland's story. Godwin avoids the hero and villain label by making them both complicit, as each character seeks to invade the other person’s mind.
As a young gentleman, Falkland has a love of chivalry and romance. He uses his position to cultivate politeness, and inspire rectitude and moral service. As a member of the nobility, he also holds a position of power compared to Caleb. Squire Tyrell’s jealousy of his niece’s affection for Falkland causes friction. After Emily’s death, Falkland rebukes Tyrell in public, causing him to retreat in confusion. Tyrell returns to surprise Falkland with a blow and thrashes him in public, this reveals the vulnerability of civility in the face of barbarism, underlining the gap between the power of rhetoric and physical effect. When Caleb goads Falkland into confessing the truth Falkland has him arrested on false charges. Unlike Tyrell, he does not use physical strength but influential power. Falkland justifies his actions on the grounds that he wishes to preserve Calebs’s life. This makes the reader wonder to what extent the persecution is due to Caleb’s paranoia. Collins argues if we cannot distinguish between virtue and vice, or they were mistaken for one another, then how could a reputation be defended.
Two endings were written for this book. The first keeps Caleb as a victim of injustice. In the original ending, the trial is not the forum Caleb desires. Caleb testifies to Falkland's murder before an unsympathetic magistrate and Falkland undermines his testimony as that of a thief, prison breaker, and master of disguise. Caleb is again imprisoned and declines into mental and physical debilitation. The collapse of Caleb’s spirit suggests that power is internalised.
In the second published ending, Caleb is moved by Falkland's frailty and changes his accusation to self-accusation which prompts Falkland to confess his own guilt. Godwin is showing how outer circumstances and inner compulsions shape individuals. Afshin Hafizi argues that guilt and remorse cause the roles of oppressor and oppressed to be reversed and Caleb cannot escape from the power of the master. Power does not take on an external physical force but manipulates the individual into thinking along the lines of the prevailing ideology. Uphaus gives a much more psychological interpretation to the published ending of the book. For him, Falkland's confession does not satisfy Caleb or the reader. Instead, both Caleb and Falkland become objects of sympathy. The final scene has a mutual desire to discover the truth and confess, mirroring the fight and pursuit based not on rational thought but frustration. As two men they have lived out one story. Both men are preoccupied with vindicating their character (reputation) but in the end, neither feels they have a character to vindicate.
Hafizi, A. (2003). Ideology and Utopia in William Godwin’s “Caleb Williams.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, 4(2), 94–109.
O’Shaughnessy, D. (2005). A Cursory Consideration of William Godwin. Literature Compass.
Uphaus, R. W. (1977). “Caleb Williams”: Godwin’s Epoch of Mind. Studies in the Novel.
Wehrs, D. R. (1988). Rhetoric, History, Rebellion: Caleb Williams and the Subversion of Eighteenth-Century Fiction. Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900.