|The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 2)|
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  21 Aug 2007
I have already mentioned Falkland's convenient timing, during the second convenient fire, in entering the room just when Caleb has opened the trunk. Similarly, immediately after remarking that the crowd at the rural assembly "seemed to want a leader" in confronting Tyrrel, we are suddenly told: "At this critical moment Mr Falkland entered the room. Mere accident had enabled him to return sooner than he expected" (98). Similarly, while Caleb talks to forester, "without the smallest notice, and as if he had dropped upon us from the clouds, Mr Falkland burns into the room" (155). Falkland's arrival is tenuously explained by his having an appointment, but this requires Forester to have conveniently "forgotten his appointment" (156). Perhaps such coincidences are merely the onset of Victorian literature, or Godwin's incompitence. But we would do well to remember that, by comparison, Falkland's narration of Caleb's theft is much more consistent than Caleb's entire story, in which such coincidences smack of logical fissures in need of sealing.
Indeed, Caleb seems conscious of his work as self-conscious presentation. Having spent a chapter (IX) digressing to detail Falkland's dispute with Tyrrell over Hawkins, Caleb writes: "I go on with my tale. I go on to … lift the curtain, and bring forward the last act of the tragedy" (82). Stage metaphors are often used, suggesting Caleb's awareness of the presentation of himself – and the fictionalizing that inevitably accompanies such presentations.
Forester tells Caleb that he must focus on "the plausibility of your tale, you must take care to render it consistent and complete" (177). For Caleb at the time, this is repugnant: truth should bear itself out, winning over an audience without being "told," without having itself ameliorated to concerns of "plausibility," of consistency and completeness. Such concerns, then, are at odds with truth. Yet, from the start, Caleb asserts that his "story will, at least, appear to have that consistency which is seldom attendant but upon truth" (5) – an utter contradiction and a clear indication that he is presenting a case rather than telling the truth. Similarly, before relating Falkland's life, Caleb documents his sources and tactics in reporting, showing a desire for objectivity in his attempt to "give all possible perspicuity to the series of events" and "to avoid confusion in my narrative" (11). According to the terms of the narrative itself, these are signs, clear to those who have already read the whole, of fictionalization.
A critical point occurs at the juncture of volumes ones and two. Our narrator begins the final chapter of volume one by stating: "I shall endeavour to state the remainder of this narrative in the words of Mr Collins" (100). He begins volume two by stating:
I have stated the narrative of Mr Collins, interspersed with such other information as I was able to collect, will all the exactness that my memory, assisted by certain memorandums I made at the time, will afford. I do not pretend to warrant the authenticity of any part of these memoirs, except so much as fell under my own knowledge, and that part shall be given with the same simplicity and accuracy that I would observe towards a court which was to decide in the last resort upon everything dear to me. The same scrupulous fidelity restrains me from altering the manner of Mr Collins's narrative … . (111)
In any modern novel, this would be profound call to unreliability. The mentioning of memory's difficulties, the admission of mixing information, and the protestation itself all argue strongly for such a reading. The utter irony of the passage is astoundingly well-done. Indeed, the only claim to "authenticity" is made in comparison to "a court" – which we know Caleb, writing supposedly after having lived through the events of the novel, believes has no business with the truth.
It is here that our narrator begins to doubt Falkland. Following the above passage, he quickly observes: "There was a connection and progress in this narrative, which made it altogether unlike the little village incidents I had hitherto known" (111). He then relates:
At present I was satisfied with … considering every incident in its obvious sense. But the story … was for ever in my thoughts … . I turned it a thousand ways, and examined it in every point of view. In the original communication it appeared sufficiently distinct and satisfactory; but as I brooded over it, it gradually became mysterious. (112)
In this brooding, Hawkins becomes "strange": "So firm, so sturdily honest and just, as he appeared at first; all at once to become a murderer!" (112). Wondering whether Falkland could have really been the murderer, Caleb recounts Falkland's good character and "the dying confession of Hawkins," but comes to no conclusions (112). The overall effect is decidedly modernist, which often sought to duplicate in prose what cubism had done in art: turn the subject a myriad ways and examine it in every point of view. This process leads to a lack of discernable truth, both with Falkland's guilt and with Caleb's narrative. Indeed, the questioning of Hawkins's confession prompts us to question not only Falkland's confession but Caleb's – such testimony is unreliable.
There still remains the issue of the trunk. Caleb refers to it as "the mysterious trunk, out of which the shadow of a criminal accusation could be extorted" (166). The trunk appears in the first chapter, in which Caleb enters "a closet, or small apartment, which was separated from the library by a narrow gallery": "The sound of the door in opening seemed to alarm the person within; I heard the lid of a trunk hastily shut, and the noise as of fastening a lock" (9). Falkland, the person in the room, shows "symptoms of confusion," giving way "with a violent effort" to "rage" (10). Calling Caleb a "villain," then a "wretch," and finally a "devil," Falkland rants: "you want to ruin me. You … spy upon my actions" (10). Told to leave, Caleb does, hearing "the door shut after me with violence" (10). Later, Falkland acts as if he has "something of which he wished to disburthen his mind," but only silently presses "five guineas" into Caleb's hand, interpreted as a bribe for "secrecy" (10). When the trunk next appears, during the fire, Falkland is prepared to kill Caleb for violating it. All of this is indeed strange behavior, but it need not be produced by any one particular source: as Caleb has observed while studying Falkland, the same behavior may be read in multiple ways. Falkland, of course, claims the trunk held the money and other items Caleb stole (171) – a possibility in some ways more reliable than Caleb's own 350-page story.
Ultimately, the question is never answered; as Caleb writes:
The contents of the fatal trunk, from which all my misfortunes originated, I have never been able to ascertain. I once thought it contained some murderous instrument or relic connected with the fate of the unhappy Tyrrel. I am now persuaded that the secret it encloses is a faithful narrative of that [murder]. (326)
Such speculations are, within Caleb's own narrative, quite ridiculous. Falkland's confession, if true or if it even occurred, was prompted by the extent of Caleb's curiosity rather than the open trunk; after all, if the ultimate evidence is within the trunk, Falkland could simply move it. Moreover, Falkland's defensiveness over the trunk occurs, as I have already noted, long before Tyrrel's murder. The trunk thus serves as a wild card, a floating signifier to which we can imagine any meaning. Caleb chooses to imagine his vindication, even the truth itself, but this can only be fanciful. We may be reminded of Forester's words to Caleb: "where there is mystery, there is always something at bottom that will not bear the telling" (155). We may also be reminded of James's use of ambiguity and the way in which any revealed contents cannot satisfy as much as the imagination. Surely this, if nothing else, signals that Godwin's narrative had run so far away from a political treatise in novel form that Caleb Williams is a great and mature novel in its own right, worthy of being taken on its own terms – rather than as a trunk which conveniently conceals a political agenda, a demonstration of the era's psychological beliefs, or the discovery of the detective novel.
The quoted passage, moreover, occurs in a paragraph that begins, "The pen lingers in my trembling fingers!" – bringing attention to Caleb's own writing. The "faithful narrative" is what is unavailable to Caleb, whose own narrative has been unfaithful. Caleb does not have all the answers at hand, but he also has admitted to factual distortions. The trunk then, in Caleb's "trembling" insanity, comes to contain Caleb's book as it might have been – a work with "that consistency which is seldom attendant but upon truth," or something other than, in the last phrase of the revised ending, "a half-told and mangled tale" (337).
This essay was first published online on 8 July 2003. It was originally written on 8=9 May 2001 for Michael Griffin's class at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
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