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The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 1)
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  21 Aug 2007

While many have touched upon the unreliability of the narrator in Caleb Williams (1794), they have done so primarily in connection with Godwin’s politics, psychology in general, or the novel’s characteristics as detective novel.  Godwin as well as the text encourage a political reading.  As Maurice Hindle remarks, “that Godwin originally viewed Caleb Williams as a vehicle for the philosophical anarchism preached in his magnum opus Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) is made clear in numerous ways by the text” (x-xi).  Godwin’s withdrawn preface described his desire to communicate “truth …  to persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach” (3).  Moreover, as Hindle has observed, “in many ways it is impossible to separate the ‘literary’ and the ‘biographical’ in the case of Godwin,” an anarchist and sympathizer with the French revolution (xxviii).

From this proceeds so many dry comparisons of Caleb Williams with Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, as when George Sherburn interrupts a description of the prison scenes to assert “But Godwin’s real purpose was to dramatize ideas” (ix).  Evan Radcliffe contrasts “the austerely logical approach of Political Justice and the narrative account of Caleb Williams” (528), finding that Caleb Williams tests Godwin’s theory through practice or narrative (553).  This is not so dissimilar from such dreary statements as Marilyn Butler’s:  “The power of fiction to generalize through the particular enables Caleb Williams to enact metaphorically the relationship between hereditary government and governed” (357-58).  Similarly, Kenneth Graham, writing on politics without a soul for poetry, occludes the unreliable narrator and conveniently finds that “from the confused motivations of unstable characters in an unstable world develops a firm and assured plot” (81).

There is some good reason, however, for addressing politics and narrative as intermixed.  The narrative frequently addresses the relationship between truth and class, utilizing words like “say” and “tell” that connect this relationship with narration.  Ordering Emily’s arrest, Tyrrel states:  “I tell you she does owe me, – owes me eleven hundred pounds. – The law justifies it. – What do you think laws were made for?  I do nothing but right, and right I will have” (85; italics mine).  Moreover, trials and legal proceedings, with their narratives and counter-narratives, run throughout the book.  Forester tells Caleb how to present his case, dissecting what the whole system of courts and hearings expects:  “Make the best story you can for yourself:  true, if truth, as I hope, will serve your purpose; but, if not, the most plausible and ingenious you can invent” (169).  The rules of trials are shown, again and again, to have little to do with truth.  For all of these reasons, Cheryl Walsh can assert that

Caleb Williams is a novel about narratives and their credibility, whether … told by an individual, such as in a courtroom deposition, or by society at large in the form of a person’s reputation.  Godwin illustrates that, in the context of Caleb’s society, the believability of any narrative is independent of its truth or falsehood.  Although truth may ultimately prevail …, it is not by virtue of truth’s … merits, but rather by the strength of its telling.  Even if Caleb has the truth on his side throughout the entire novel (and the truth of his story is continually thrown into question by the paranoia of his narrative voice), it is not until he learns how to tell his tale that people allow themselves to hear it. (23)

In this brilliant way of putting it, Walsh is absolutely right.  But this too reduces Caleb Williams to a political text, albeit a narrative one.

Some writers have focused on Caleb Wiilliams as precursor to detective novels, incited by the fact that Godwin wrote the three volumes in reverse order.  Michael Cohen argues that “Caleb Williams, because of its inconsistencies, is a remarkably accurate anticipation of what is to come in mystery and detective fiction” (204).  Other writers focus on the relationship between Caleb Williams and psychology – while doing a remarkable job avoiding the issue of the unreliable narrator as a literary maneuver.  Melinda Rabb has described how most of the characters in the novel are at least partially insane, or insane part of the time.  Diagnosing Caleb with a severe case of the nerves, which make people talkative, Peter Melville Logan writes:

[the] association of nerves with narrative makes problematic many narratives in the period that, like Caleb Williams, depend on a nervous narrator to testify, from personal experience, to the injustice of society.  (207)

Thus Caleb Williams becomes an artifact, an epiphenomenon of a psychological disorder rather than the author’s biography.

This remarkable insistence not to address Caleb Williams’s narrator as having literary merits can only astound.  Perhaps this is because such a focus feels out of place, too proleptic to be serious.  Wayne Booth’s (in)famous The Rhetoric of Fiction only addresses modern unreliable narrators.  William Riggan’s PÍcaros, Madmen, Naïfs, and Clowns:  The Unreliable First-Person Narrator includes works as old as The Golden Ass, but makes no reference to Godwin or Caleb Williams.  In fact, people are more willing to write about Caleb Williams as a spiritual allegory, arguing that Falkland represents God (as Walter Allen has), than address the unreliable narrator as a fictional narrator – not a political one or one that demonstrates psychological beliefs on his time, but a narrator of fiction, as we would so easily address a modern instance.

Yet we have every reason to treat Caleb Williams as a novel, rather than a biographical or cultural epiphenomenon.  Even in the original intent, Godwin’s political message subordinated itself as a concern to the writing of a ripping yarn.  This may be visible in Godwin’s statement:  “I will write a tale that shall constitute an epoch in the mind of the reader, that no one, after he has read it, shall ever be exactly the same man that he was before” (Fleetwood ix).  In an unpublished 1798 manuscript, Godwin wrote that he started Caleb “with no further design than that of a slight composition, to produce a small supply of money, but never to be acknowledged:  it improved and acquired weight in the manufacture” (quoted by Hindle, p. xxv).  In other words, the narrative as narrative got away from him.  Hindle has described how Godwin changed his ending both to achieve a better fiction and to better influence his audience (xxxvii-xxxix).  Gary Kelly has argued that this choice was based on Godwin’s own feeling that his ending was too dogmatic (197-98).  Perhaps the best such statement is that of James Mackintosh, from 1815; he called Caleb Williams “a striking … example, of the purpose of the writer being swallowed up by the interest of the work; of a man of ability intending to take part in the disputes of the moment, but led by the instinct of his talent to address himself to the permanent feelings of human nature” (quoted by Clemit (vii) and cited as “Review of Godwin, The Lives of Edward and John Philips, Nephews and Pupils of Milton … [1815],” coming from “Edinburgh Review 25 [October 1815], 485-501 [487]”).

While Godwin may claim political motivation, Caleb, for his part, claims to be “penning … these memoirs only by a desire to divert my mind from the deplorableness of my situation, and a faint idea that posterity may … be induced to render me a justice which my contemporaries refuse” (5).  We have good reason to doubt Caleb as narrator.  He confesses that he “derive[s] a melancholy pleasure from dwelling upon the circumstances which imperceptibly paved the way to my ruin” (129).  During the fire at Falkland’s, Caleb darts for Falkland’s trunk, which he opens only to be immediately caught.  Caleb admits that this “act was in some sort an act of insanity” (138), “a kind of instant insanity” that resulted from the convenience of the circumstances (139).  Near the end (324), Caleb confesses:  “I sometimes fear that I shall be wholly deserted of my reason” (324).  As if to answer that this has already happened, the narrative shifts in style, becoming considerably frenzied, full of exclamation marks and dashes – and it is exactly at this point that Caleb decides to write:  “I will unfold a tale!” (325).  And, of course, in the original ending Caleb wound up in an insane asylum.

A number of coincidences spot the narrative and suggest that it is in some way fictionalized.  After relating Falkland’s sudden appearance and rescue of Emily from Grimes (Grimes is, of course, following Tyrrel’s orders – or so we are told), having already rescued her from fire (in volume one, chapter VII), the narrator remarks:

It may seem strange that Mr Falkland should thus a second time have been the savior of Miss Melville, and that under circumstances the most unexpected and singular.  But in this instance it is easily to be accounted for.  (68)

The narrator proceeds to provide an elaborate, though altogether brief, explanation that has Falkland regularly patrolling the forest with his servants – all based upon a rumor.  By the eighth chapter, then, Caleb is aware of his narrative’s suspiciously coincidental nature and feels the need to make some awkward explanations for Falkland happening to be where he is.  The narrative may be perspicuous, but it is hardly convincing – though we are not altogether sure, at this point, whether this attempt to force the narrative represents ineptitude on Godwin’s or Caleb’s part.

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Essays on Literature by Julian Darius:
On "Renaissance" (Part 1)
On "Renaissance" (Part 2)
Implications of Dante’s Placing of Ulysses in Hell
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 1)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 2)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 3)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 4)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 5)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 6)
Pulling the Cheese from the Mousetrap:  Donne’s “The Bait” as (Anti-)Pornographic Narrative Fantasy
The Mistaken and Apologetic Chorus:  Shakespearean Faultlines in Henry V
The Old Conventional Metamorphosis:  Transvestitism in The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 1)
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 2)
"W - a - l - d - e - n," a large number of words by "T - h - o - r - e - a - u"
And When We Long, We Long as Gatsby