William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams (1794) depicts late eighteenth-century England as a tangled web of deception and ruthlessness, wherein the justice system props up powerful, upper-class citizens at the expense of the working class. Attempting to resist this relentless system is Caleb Williams: through second-hand accounts and personal experiences from memory, he narrates a tale that centres around his discovery that his master, a country squire called Falkland, is a murderer. In the subsequent upheaval following this discovery, Caleb is falsely accused of theft by Falkland and is imprisoned: Caleb escapes, only to be continuously stalked by Falkland’s minions. As a result, Caleb is reviled and shunned by all who know him; even once people learn who he is, they turn their backs on him because of his reported deeds against Falkland. Eventually, out of sheer despair, Caleb attempts to bring Falkland to justice, only to recant his narrative when he sees how mortally ill Falkland has become. Caleb soon realizes that he is utterly forsaken by all English society if he continues to oppose Falkland. These plot details provide prolonged suspense and moments of terror within Godwin’s narrative: multiple scholars have identified Caleb Williams as one of the earliest Gothic novels (Miles 48, Dent 211). The Gothic aspects of suspense and terror in Caleb Williams are mostly found within Caleb’s mind as the narrative relies on his memories. As Caleb recalls his experiences, he vivifies them through melodramatic diction, evoking Gothic imagery to illustrate the extent of his dire plight. In this essay, I argue that memory is the form of agency that Caleb uses to resist Falkland and the rest of English society. Significantly, however, the imperfect nature of memory makes this attempt necessarily limited. Memory is further compromised in Caleb Williams due to the menacing Gothic atmosphere that Caleb’s recollections create in his mind; the Gothic thereby threatens the integrity of Caleb’s narrative and sense of self. Through the Gothic atmosphere of suspense and terror created in Caleb’s mind and sustained by external tensions, Godwin demonstrates how individual integrity becomes distorted under the unrelenting pressure of society.
Godwin’s deployment of Gothic diction in Caleb Williams illustrates how memory can function as a form of agency; Caleb records his memories in an attempt to showcase how he has been victimized by those in power. In this context, ‘Gothic’ refers to the literary movement that is commonly regarded as beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) but did not become a widespread phenomenon in England until the 1790s. The Gothic is an aesthetic that shifts across narrative forms (Gamer 4), from ballads to novels to plays. In a 1790s Gothic tale, the narrative is usually set in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space, wherein reigns an atmosphere of prolonged suspense interspersed with terror caused by supernatural or psychological threats. These features are exemplified by works like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796). The Gothic is an “entirely post-medieval and even post-Renaissance phenomenon” (Hogle 1), one that often evokes and re-works previous literary forms including tragedy and verse romances. When I refer to ‘Gothic diction’ in this essay, I am gesturing towards Godwin’s descriptions of Caleb’s recollections — the words that Caleb uses to create his narrative. Caleb’s word choice is frequently excessively violent and melodramatic. Thus, the images Caleb uses to convey his anger — against those who automatically believe Falkland’s narrative or against the justice system that allows such blatant corruption — are often exaggerated. Yet the use of exaggeration communicates Caleb’s powerlessness when confronted with the unrelenting English justice system that allows rich, high-status individuals to get away with murder, while poor, working-class people are condemned to cruel fates with far less provocation. By setting his novel in England during his own era, Godwin differs from other Gothic novelists of the 1790s. Representations of the Gothic in the late eighteenth-century frequently evoked images of haunted castles or abandoned monasteries, nominally in medieval France, Italy, or Spain. In these settings, characters typically contend with external threats, such as a supernatural figure or a menacing, greedy lord. As Jonathan Dent maintains, Godwin’s vision instead demonstrates that “tyranny is not exclusive to revolutionary France; it is firmly embedded at home in barbaric social institutions, such as the English criminal justice system” (211). Godwin is considered one of the first writers of the Gothic who is concerned with representing distorted psychological states. This is not to say that Godwin does not acknowledge threats from the outside world—Caleb Williams also deals with the political atmosphere of England in the early 1790s—but Godwin’s take on the Gothic encompasses internal as well as external pressures on an individual.
Caleb Williams is explicitly concerned with how one’s surroundings can impact the mind; more fundamentally, the novel displays how one’s internal state can be influenced by the external world. In the opening sentence of the novel, Caleb describes his life as “a theatre of calamity” and his person as “a mark for the vigilance of tyranny” (Godwin 59), stressing how drastically he has suffered and the deliberate nature of his misfortunes. Being the target of Falkland’s malignance, Caleb can only counteract his misfortunes by writing his own narrative. Caleb professes that he records his memoirs through “a desire to divert my mind from the deplorableness of my situation, and a faint idea that posterity may by their means be induced to render me a justice which my contemporaries refuse” (Godwin 59). The adjective “deplorableness” is notably strong: Caleb’s melodramatic diction illustrates that his present circumstances caused him to seek a mental diversion through writing. This is contrasted with the “faint idea” of posterity: Caleb’s apprehension about the integrity of present-day society leads him to believe that his narrative will only be legitimized posthumously if at all, blighted as he is in the minds of all who currently know him.
Caleb employs Gothic diction in his recollections as an attempt to preserve his autonomy and self-identity. Anna Maria Jones takes up this question of autonomy in Caleb Williams when she maintains that Caleb explores the “gothic fantasy of individual autonomy and rights, of self realization predicated on fear of the Other, showing that fantasy’s inevitably destructive results” (137). While I agree with Jones in that the Gothic is preoccupied with “individual autonomy and rights,” I see elements of the Gothic fantasy as necessary aspects of memory, not as something necessarily destructive. If the Gothic fixates on “individual autonomy and rights,” in the instance of Caleb Williams, it is in order to separate the personal conception of the self from society’s conception of self-hood. This is especially important for Caleb because of the universal opposition he faces. Caleb’s resolve to share his view of the truth does not always bring him solace; however, he sees it as a necessity for the majority of the novel. He admits: “it was a gloomy and desperate purpose; the creature, not of hope, but of a mind austerely held to its design, that felt, as it were, satisfied with the naked effort, and prepared to give success or miscarriage to the winds” (Godwin 379). Holding firmly to the truth is Caleb’s sole preoccupation—it becomes the only thing he clings to. Here, gloom and desperation – traits often associated with the Gothic – are not positive per se, but preserve Caleb’s narrative and autonomy against the powerful influence of Falkland’s narrative that labels him as a thief and later an outlaw. It is possible that, if Caleb was supported by those around him rather than disparaged, he would not have felt compelled to recant his narrative at the end of the novel.
Autonomy, however, is accompanied by exaggerations that correspond to the Gothic’s tendency to dramatize described actions. In the case of Caleb Williams, this means Caleb’s assertions can seem unnecessarily melodramatic. For instance, Caleb refers to Falkland’s circumstances as “these waters of bitterness extending beyond him, poured their deadly venom upon others, I being myself the most unfortunate of their victims” (Godwin 74). Employing a metaphor of poisoned waters as a malignant force concisely illustrates the utter powerlessness Caleb experiences through Falkland’s misery-driven persecution. Initially, this may seem like Godwin is showing how Caleb’s recollections are overly biased towards himself: after all, Caleb recounts his tale in full knowledge that his neighbour Mr. Tyrell was killed by Falkland, while the innocent farmer Hawkins and his son are framed for Tyrell’s murder and are put to death because of Falkland’s duplicity. While he is oppressed, Caleb is arguably not the most unfortunate of Falkland’s victims: Caleb, at least, has the opportunity to clear his name, assert his autonomy, and bend his efforts towards the resistance of tyranny. Perhaps Caleb sees death as an easier path than prolonged suffering; but to make this claim is rather melodramatic, given that he still asserts his own narrative by remembering and recording his version of the truth. While no one can perfectly recall past events, Caleb’s claim emphasizes how mental anguish can be just as intense, if not more so, than physical suffering. When Caleb recalls the experience of being framed for theft by Falkland and wrongfully imprisoned, he laments: “he that has observed the secrets of a prison, well knows that there is more torture in the lingering existence of a criminal, in the silent intolerable minutes that he spends, than in the tangible misery of whips and racks” (Godwin 265). Injustice can torment the mind as well as the body: prolonged misery and suspense are the invisible side-effects of a society dedicated to prioritizing social hierarchy over justice. Falkland is allowed to live freely despite being an obvious murder suspect, while Caleb is imprisoned as soon as Falkland calls his integrity and memory into question.
The melodramatic exaggerations that arise in Caleb’s narrative are, therefore, of secondary importance to how Godwin conveys the horror of individual autonomy being seized by those in power. The connection to power and Caleb’s powerlessness becomes especially poignant when one considers the historical moment in which Godwin’s novel was released: 1794 was the year of the treason trials, “one of the most significant events of the decade, where even authors, publishers, and booksellers were tried for "seditious libel"” (Miles 49). Caleb’s narrative, with its quest to expose the truth that runs so contrary to popular opinion, would have resonated strongly when first published given the wave of extreme censorship at the forefront of public attention. Indeed, Godwin explicitly states that Caleb Williams is his method of communicating ideas from his philosophical work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), to those who are unlikely to read philosophy or political tracts (Dent 209). The importance of being able to communicate truths without censorship, to speak about political justice to more than just academics or philosophers, is not only fictional speculation but a real-life stake in Godwin’s storytelling. Caleb’s memories, therefore, are influenced by his imagination to illustrate how futile life feels when one is powerless. In one digression from the narrative, memories of his suffering make Caleb’s abhorrence of society even more profound, as he cries, “turn me a prey to the wild beasts of the desert, so I be never again be the victim of man, dressed in the gore-dripping robes of authority!” (Godwin 300). To construct a metaphor that links those in power with the blood on their hands is violent, macabre, and effective – effective because it vividly identifies how authority can be synonymous with violence, and how control can be a form of domination. To prefer to be “prey” rather than the “victim of man” succinctly describes the calculated savagery Caleb depicts himself against. Ingrid Horrocks argues that Godwin’s interpretation of the Gothic centres around the notion of control, as “gothic horror is specifically knowledge of someone else's complete power to control (or author) the narrative of one's life, even to the point of extinguishing it” (39-40). In Caleb Williams, that “someone” is Falkland and the justice system working in Falkland’s favour, as together, they suppress Caleb’s narrative and control his life. Horrocks proposes that Godwin is adhering to the Gothic mentality around tyranny, maintaining: “Godwin suggest[s] that this is what a wholly tyrannized or dictated life, or perhaps just "things as they are," feels like.” (40). By this reasoning, the importance of Gothic diction lies in conveying the horror such helplessness creates, without necessarily giving an historically accurate depiction of said horror. Exaggeration is – to a certain degree – a necessary aspect of mental resistance: extreme, vivid images give more rhetorical force to Caleb’s writings.
Caleb also uses his powers of recollection to counteract a form of memory loss that arises from sheer terror. For instance, when Caleb is overcome with the squalor of his prison cell, he retreats into his mind. He recalls, “I tasked the stores of my memory, and my powers of invention. I amused myself with recollecting the history of my life” (Godwin 271). In this situation, memory acts as a safeguard against external horrors. Caleb’s recollections also enable him to financially support himself when he retells old tales from memory (357). Memory is both a tangible and intangible safeguard for Caleb. This notion of memory preserving the self becomes more nuanced when considering Emily Jane Cohen’s discussion of the fear of insensibility in the Gothic: she maintains that “the sublime object that terrifies the subject into momentary speechlessness or loss of consciousness, can also be seen as the fear of memory loss” (896). Memory loss on Caleb’s part can be interpreted as the ‘death’ of his narrative, the ‘death’ of another perspective on the universal reverence of Falkland. Caleb has to articulate his struggles in the most vivid manner possible to resist this momentary speechlessness that arises from the confrontation with a sublime object: in this case, against the subliminal menace of Falkland in Caleb’s mind. Therefore, Gothic diction helps showcase Caleb’s identity and autonomy as intact. Yet, vivified memories only protect Caleb’s narrative, not Caleb himself. While Gothic diction and the accompanying metaphors strengthen and enhance his recollections, Gothic atmosphere preys on the uncertainty spawning in Caleb’s mind.
The malignance that stalks Caleb throughout the novel is partially attributed to a Gothic atmosphere that mires his memories in uncertainty. Consider the initial description of Falkland’s moods as “the distemper which afflicted him with incessant gloom had its paroxysms” (Godwin 63): Falkland’s unpredictability builds suspense and constantly keeps Caleb on edge, unsure whether Falkland’s gloom will take a despondent or a violent turn. Cohen, who draws on John Locke to conceptualize the brooding aspect of the Gothic, explains Locke’s assertion about contemplation preceding retention in the memory as having a negative aspect: “the dark side of contemplation is reverie. Contemplation is "attentive consideration," whereas reverie is the "abstracted musing" of one lost in thought” (Cohen 896). In An Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke describes reverie as when “ideas float in our mind, without any reflection or regard of the understanding” (178); being caught in reverie, therefore, renders the subject unable to process what is occurring. This is detrimental to the act of recollection that Caleb depends on to create his narrative: for instance, after Falkland holds a pistol to Caleb’s head and then walks away, Caleb is left in a trance-like state, unable to think or comprehend what has happened. Caleb recounts: “all was chaos and uncertainty within me. My thoughts were too full of horror to be susceptible of activity. I felt deserted of my intellectual powers, palsied in mind, and compelled to sit in speechless expectation” (Godwin 213). Under the Lockean lens supplied by Cohen, this can be read as a double effect: the physical threat of the pistol and the psychologically threatening idea of Falkland’s probable guilt send Caleb into a reverie. In this state of miserable abstraction, Caleb declares that “death-dealing despair was the only idea of which I was sensible” (213). Caleb’s curiosity and self-identity become frozen when the looming threat of Falkland dominates his individuality. The lingering suspense and flashes of terror that Falkland creates in Caleb’s mind, therefore, has a detrimental effect on Caleb’s memory.
The Gothic atmosphere Godwin creates intermittently switches from suspense to moments of terror throughout Caleb’s narrative, causing Caleb’s mind to fixate on morbid thoughts. One particularly dramatic instance of this switch comes in the character of the old woman who frequents the den of thieves Caleb finds himself in after escaping prison. This woman’s vague aura of menace transforms when she attacks Caleb. Her body language is described in detail: “she gnashed her teeth, her eyes seemed as if starting from their sockets, and her body heaved with uncontrollable insanity” (325). This disturbing description conveys the unnatural rage Caleb finds himself up against on many fronts. Her dialogue is even more graphic, as she exclaims with sickening pleasure whilst wielding a cleaver: “I will thrust my fingers through your ribs, and drink your blood! – You conquer me? – Ha, ha! – Yes, yes; you shall! – I will roast you with brimstone, and dash your entrails into your eyes!” (325). The old woman’s threat against Caleb is more tangible than Falkland’s threat appears to be, yet the struggle is the same: to overpower a person’s identity by focusing their attention on the imminent threat instead of asserting their autonomy. Caleb becomes forced into fixating on self-preservation rather than self-assertion: when forced to choose between safety and freedom, his mind chooses safety in a desperate attempt to save itself. In doing so, he gives up his struggle for autonomy from society.
Godwin demonstrates the extreme consequences of being rendered powerless throughout Caleb Williams, wherein, unable to withstand such menace, Caleb’s mind turns against itself. Ingrid Horrocks accounts for Godwin’s revised ending and its reconsideration of the effect of sustained mystery (38). Godwin’s original manuscript ending for the novel is stark and uncompromising, depicting Caleb succumbing to insanity as he is locked away in prison, no longer able to recall anything about the fate of Falkland or even about himself. In the published and revised ending, Caleb recants his narrative, intimidated by Falkland’s near-death appearance and by the prospect of being forever cut off from English society. Horrocks argues that the revised ending contributes to the suspenseful effect Godwin builds throughout the novel. The dominant, despotic narrative represented by Falkland and by the judicial system is so extreme that it “creates a condition of psychological alienation that can only be represented as a kind of death on the mind” (Horrocks 38). While Horrocks’ notion accounts for Caleb’s rejection of his own account, I argue it is not just narrative dominance, but an accompanying atmosphere of menace arising out of constant persecution that explains Caleb’s unexpected behaviour at the end of the novel. Throughout Caleb Williams, Caleb is physically and psychologically haunted by his opponents. Caleb is persecuted by Falkland and Falkland’s servants, but also by his own thoughts, as he exclaims, “how was a mind…to endure this misery […] I could not forget my woes: they haunted me with unintermitted and demoniac malice” (Godwin 269). If a Gothic atmosphere is sustained over a long period of time, suspense and terror will erode the mind: Godwin creates in the character of Caleb a mind that cannot free itself wholly from its circumstances—a mind that, through constant recall, endows its persecutors with an almost supernatural agency. This occurs increasingly throughout the narrative itself: one of the dangers of recollection is that revisiting memories triggers the reverie that sends the mind into turmoil, grotesquely magnifying past horrors. Caleb internalizes the melodramatic diction that he uses to create his narrative, immersing himself in the horrors that are partially of his own creation.
The menace of Falkland becomes a formidable mental shackle for Caleb – captive or free, he cannot escape his thoughts of Falkland. Even after Caleb is released from prison, he declares that his existence is “enthralled to an ever-living torment” (Godwi 380). This language of perpetual captivity and ceaseless brooding lingers on even when Caleb is no longer in trouble with the law. His time spent at the mercy of Falkland and those in power leaves Caleb unable to wholly detach his mind from those that have kept him subservient, whether through servitude or through imprisonment. Accordingly, when Caleb goes to confront Falkland in court, he is greatly taken aback by Falkland’s appearance, since “life seemed hardly to be the capable inhabitant of so woe-begone and ghost-like a figure. The taper of wholesome life was expired; but passion, fierceness, and frenzy were able for the present to supply its place” (Godwin 382). From Caleb’s perspective, Falkland has become a force of distilled terror and fury. It is in this precarious frame of mind that Caleb recants his narrative, awed as he is by Falkland’s apparent ability to be so frail and yet so full of power and vengeance. As Alison Milbank maintains, the irony of Caleb Williams is it “begins to open a more complex and paradoxical understanding of human motivation and self-understanding than the steely optimism of Godwin’s necessitarianism allows” (113). Despite Caleb committing no greater transgression than being overly curious, the internalized societal hierarchy that sets Falkland above Caleb haunts Caleb’s mind, inflaming his guilt until it is easier to compromise truth and justice than to further resist societal pressures.
While Gothic elements in Caleb Williams complicate Caleb’s portrayal of his own recollections, these complications lead to Godwin’s portrayal of how memory is influenced by a desire to be a part of society. Godwin’s depiction of late eighteenth-century English society shows a strict adherence to class structure, wherein a country squire such as Falkland dictates who is admired and who is reviled in the community. Working class characters such as Caleb and the Hawkins family are discarded when their motivations run contrary to what the upper-class want: the justice system then reinforces these hierarchical standards. Caleb is morally right and universally hated by the end of the novel, whereas Falkland is morally wrong and universally loved throughout the novel. Arguably, Godwin is running a thought experiment, using an individual’s struggle against the entirety of society to demonstrate the extent to which society governs individual behaviour. Memory is vital to this process because it illustrates the trajectory of the self as it resists being lost in the whirlpool of mass opinion. Caleb initially resists, favouring his own sense of the truth, as when he affirms, “the more I am destitute of the esteem of mankind, the more careful I will be to preserve my own” (Godwin 385). His endeavours to remain morally intact and preserve his own recollections reflect Godwin’s conception of a ‘hero’ as outlined in Godwin’s 1809 Essay on Sepulchres. Rowland Weston refers to this essay when he frames Godwin’s hero figures as reformers, instructors, and improvers who were all “ultimately selected for their ongoing capacity to morally animate, energise, and modify posterity with their personal qualities” (652). While Caleb’s alteration of his memories at the end of his narrative is not consistent with Caleb’s intentions at the beginning of the novel, the narrative itself is a testimony to his ability to “modify posterity” by addressing the reader. Caleb is using memory to influence the future. This is evident from the beginning, when Caleb appeals to the next generation in the hopes that they, at least, will give his story credibility (Godwin 59). Although Caleb Williams is written before Essay on Sepulchres, Caleb’s attempt at posterity illustrates the articulation of a hero Godwin is working towards. Yet, in witnessing how memory maintains personal integrity and agency, one also witnesses how memory can become compromised if it is contrary to societal interests.
By the end of the narrative, memory brings Caleb despair as he realizes he has been completely alienated from society. Caleb’s tone is notably hopeless when he declares: “the law has neither eyes, nor ears, nor bowels of humanity; and it turns to marble the hearts of all those who are nursed in its principles” (378). This grotesque metaphor of turning those who abide by the law into living statues evokes the inhumanity and relentlessness Caleb is striving against. The image of the law as nursing turns an intimate, nurturing act into one of corruption: the impersonality of the law is so pervasive that it infects all who attempt to abide by it with an unnatural coldness. At this stage in Caleb’s narrative, recollections only bring the bitter knowledge that society does not permit those who contradict or resist the law to re-enter society. Caleb is at the height of his suffering when he realizes that, in resisting the powerful, he has lost the friendship of all who know him. Morality is not sufficient consolation at this stage in the narrative, as Caleb laments: “I endeavoured to sustain myself by the sense of my integrity, but the voice of no man upon the earth echoed to the voice of my conscience” (Godwin 414). Desolation has gotten the better of him. Without a single member of society to support and vindicate him, Caleb’s memories only remind him of how utterly alone he is. Reliving this experience by recording his narrative just magnifies his suffering. Memory may be Caleb’s means of holding Falkland and the English justice system accountable, but the act of recollection itself reanimates the menacing, Gothic atmosphere that is, unfortunately, antithetical to the preservation of memory.
The postscript is unsettling in its ambivalence: Falkland finally admits his deeds to the public, but this confession comes at the cost of Caleb’s convictions. Caleb still blames the system that brought him so much suffering, referring to society as “all that, in a happier field and a purer air, would expand in virtue and germinate into usefulness, is thus converted into henbane and deadly nightshade” (434). The Gothic diction in this poisonous metaphor defends Falkland’s actions as being the result of a corrupt society. Yet in doing so, Caleb no longer acknowledges that Falkland is revered in society. Earlier on in Caleb’s narrative, Falkland is depicted as both complicit in and enabled by the system that believes in his aristocratic superiority: Falkland’s ethos is so strong that anyone who speaks against him is instantly abhorred. Yet by blaming Falkland’s faults on those in power, Caleb ignores that Falkland is among the powerful. Godwin’s treatment of Caleb in the postscript as one who distorts their memories in order to excuse the powerful is a bleak conclusion to Godwin’s thought experiment: it implies even the most resolutely moral cannot withstand complete alienation from society. The Gothic atmosphere Falkland has generated, coupled with Caleb’s desire to rejoin society, influences Caleb’s memories. Caleb even goes as far as to claim, “I have been his murderer” (433), despite knowing that Falkland is harming himself. While Caleb may not mean this literally, it nonetheless illustrates the depth of guilt and torment he feels. Unwilling to consciously accept his desire to be a member of society, Caleb reverts to sentimentalizing his tormentor. Falkland is depicted as a victim of society as justification for Caleb’s submissive behaviour towards Falkland, who, in his eyes, has an almost supernatural mystique. Thus, the roles of victim and tormentor are reversed in Caleb’s reckoning, which only betrays how utterly desperate Caleb is to be included in society. In caving to Falkland, Caleb relinquishes his narrative’s separation from the rest of society and thus relinquishes a part of his identity.
The end of Caleb’s narrative sees his autonomy defeated and abandoned. Caleb attempts to discredit his recollections in the hopes of being accepted into a form of community with his tormentor. Addressing Falkland directly, Caleb pleads, “I have now no character that I wish to vindicate: but I will finish them that thy story may be fully understood; and that, if those errors of thy life be known which thou so ardently desirest to conceal, the world may at least not hear and repeat a half-told and mangled tale” (Godwin 434). Consider Caleb’s lapse into formal speech with the use of “thy” and “thou.” In the intransitive sense, to address someone with the pronoun ‘thou,’ especially instead of ‘you,’ is a sign of “familiarity or contempt” (Oxford English Dictionary). Presumably, this is Caleb’s attempt at familiarity, at regaining a fragment of the community he has lost. But this subservient speech highlights Caleb’s desire to now write for Falkland’s sake, not, as he claimed initially, to legitimize his own narrative (Godwin 59). The anguish of being alienated from society proves too great for Caleb: this is his desperate effort to take refuge in the social hierarchy that, ironically, has made him so miserable in the first place. As Robert Miles phrases the issue, “[b]y regarding himself theatrically, as a bit player caught up in a hero's destined fall, Caleb renounces free will while conceding the class differences, the institutional despotism, that afflicts him” (Miles 50). True to the Gothic tendency of incorporating and re-interpreting narrative forms, Caleb Williams plays with the convention of the heroic fall from tragedy. Falkland may be the prototypical ‘tragic hero’ in his fall from grace, however, telling the tale from Caleb’s perspective shows the extent of Falkland’s privilege. Falkland does not suffer alienation from others, rather, Falkland chooses to alienate himself, caught up in his own pride and misery. It is Caleb who truly suffers by having the ‘misfortune’ to be born a member of the working-class. None of Caleb’s stories are believed simply because he accuses someone of a higher rank in society than himself. Godwin exposes the limitations of the tragic form through the Gothic dramatization of Caleb’s predicament, as Caleb is forced to renounce his own narrative and memories in the hopes of recovering access to and acceptance in society.
Memory functions as a form of agency in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, separating the self from the dominant societal narrative and enabling the self to retain a degree of autonomy. Gothic elements in the novel, however, both vivify and threaten Caleb’s recollections, simultaneously maximizing the effectiveness of Caleb’s narrative and leaving him susceptible to the Lockean reverie that is detrimental to memory. Godwin’s participation in the Gothic tradition of the 1790s not only demonstrates the capacity of the Gothic to speak to internal as well as external hauntings, but attests to the ability of political philosophy to be communicated through a popular literary form. Godwin suggests, thus, that the mind can be a place of fear and suspense: indeed, the mind magnifies external horrors. Caleb’s narrative witnessing his recollections move from an attempt at justice through posterity to a subservient attempt to regain society, as memory also reminds Caleb of his utter loneliness. Memory and the Gothic are double-edged, both healing and hindering Caleb in his quest for justice. Godwin’s commitment to showing the individual struggle against a dominant societal narrative takes him to the grim parts of the mind, to the excesses of vengeance and to the depths of despair. A shred of hope is maintained in the act of preserving one’s narrative, to show a dedication to posterity that allows the self to live beyond its time. In doing so, Godwin demonstrates a sensibility that is both piercing in its views of eighteenth-century English judicial practices and universal in its recognition of society and the individual as being at the whim of those who wield power over others. Caleb’s valiant attempt to tell the truth can only be partially successful, as Godwin’s depiction of England’s criminal justice system and social hierarchy in the late eighteenth century is hostile and corrupt, questioning how either system can cause complete alienation from English society.
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Date submitted: September 26, 2022
Date accepted: December 02, 2022