The Politics of Narrative: Ideology and Social Change in Godwin's 'Caleb Williams."
When Shelley wrote "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," he may well have had his father-in-law William Godwin (1756-1836) in mind. Graham's book is a contemporary study which makes clear the importance of this little remembered thinker. A failed preacher turned hack writer, Godwin at thirty-seven became a meteor among the luminaries of the late Enlightenment. He blazed out from among the levee en masse of pamphleteers mustered as harbingers of the new epoch, a dawn in which it was "bliss" to be alive. At least that's the way Wordsworth remembered the period from the fall of the Bastille (1789) to the fall of Robespierre (1794).
One of the more blissful was William Godwin. The enthusiastic--in the Eighteenth Century sense of the word--reception of An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness (I 793) vindicated his long trek from the Puritan Calvinism of his Dissenter background through rationalism, millenarianism, universalism, sensationalist psychology, utilitarianism to radical politics. The pilgrim's progress had become to him progress tout court, an outcome which should not be a surprise if we recall that it was the Puritans who introduced the notion "radical" into politics. Therewith they declared their intention to rid the world of aristocracy (Godwin's chivalry) "root [radix] and branch" and to set up a theocracy-democracy. In Godwin's case, however, the outcome might better be called an idiosyncracy. The least to be said is that Godwin was the first to elaborate a more or less clear conception of Anarchism.
Godwin is a pivotal figure. His work is the culmination of the secularization of the admonitions of Hellenism and Christianity. "Know thyself" and "Love thy neighbor" became "Love thyself" and "Know thy neighbor." Fiat lux had become enlightenment; during Godwin's lifetime, it was becoming revolution. Godwin was a member of the English middle class of which his contemporary Jane Austin remarks that the less religious they became, the more moral they got. The dissenters of Godwin's youth successfully identified prosperity with religious persuasion. In the end, this middle class saw itself as morality itself, opening the way to others who thought themselves just as moral, but with less justification. But this step goes beyond Godwin himself.
Graham rightly dismisses the vilification of Godwin because of his personal life, particularly his financial ineptness (p. 7). His relationships with Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Shelley himself, and just about anyone of note were subordinated to Godwin's life work as he saw it. He was one of those Enlightment writers who, one feels, must have written all day, then gone home and written all night. Much of the heroic writing he did he did to support himself. The catalog of his works as autodidactic protester, promoter, pamphleteer, polemicist, philosopher attests to his industry.
Again, Graham emphasizes the role contemporary literature, particularly the Gothic, plays in Godwin's work. He quotes Godwin's evaluation of Paradise Lost: "a sublime poem upon a ridiculous story of eating an apple, and of the eternal vengeance decreed by the Almighty against the whole human race." Graham interprets: "Godwin rejects the representation of God as |so merciless and tyrannical a despot"'(p. 119). Marx, who knew Godwin's writings, put the matter a little more forcefully in his boyhood work Prometheus: "In a word, I hate all the Gods." Here we see clearly the nexus of the narrative of the Garden of Eden and that of the Cliff of the Caucasus found in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and so much of subsequent lucubrations on fire, light, etc. In justice to Godwin, it must be said that he did not go so far as Marx. Godwin did not hate all the gods; he venerated one last god: reason, deductive reason, of course. If anyone could justly be accused of logocentrism (the worship of one's own reason), it is the Enlightenment philosophes of whom Godwin is the last and, largely, the foremost. Graham's discussion of the novelistic element, particularly Gothic, in Godwin's work brings out its chiaroscuro effectively.
The discussion of the structure of Caleb Williams in Chapters 2 and 3 raises interesting points. To the question whether or not the work is a roman a these, the best answer may be that it is a these a roman. Graham notes: "The dual title suggests a conflict in intention. For the past hundred years or more, it has become almost habitual to assume that conflict to be between Godwin the novelist and Godwin the philosopher" (p. 50). Godwin had written three novels with little success before publishing An Inquiry into Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. So the title of the 1793 edition; in the 1796 edition Godwin replaced "general virtue" with "morals." Perish the thought that the "virtue" of the individuals had anything to do with the "morals" of the community or with their "happiness." The title is coy in its way, because in Godwin's opinion there is no such thing as political justice. The two are like oil and water: they don't mix. Godwin agrees with tradition in seeing a connection between the shortcomings of mankind and the polis. The amelioration or, radically, the abolition of these shortcomings is the object of justice. Godwin's originality does not consist in seeing government as the cause rather than the result of these shortcomings. This had been done by any number of Christian sects, to some of which Godwin had belonged. What he does do is to empower his opinion in a work which reverberates with the undertones of a powerful narrative, a mythos.
An analysis of the influences on Godwin would be long; he seems to have read everything and forgotten nothing. Caleb Williams is laminated rather than structured. The binary title Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams parallels that of its philosophical predecessor. There is no important conflict in intention. The novel dramatizes a thesis: things are now "political"; there is no justice. The "influence" causes the "adventures." Caleb is neither moral nor happy (this is my understanding of his statement "I have no character to vindicate" made on the last page). The title might better have been the Trials rather than the Adventures of Caleb Williams, because legal proceedings dominate the action. If you count the apologia pro sua vita which is the overall narrative, we are dealing with some of the most litigious people in all of literature.
Although Caleb Williams owes much of its eposidicity to Tom Jones, Fielding's work is, by far, not its only inspiration. We must include among the more important: Clarissa, Hamlet, Bluebeard, and the Old Testament as well as such lesser known works as God's Revenge against Murder, and Lives of the Pirates. The focus of Caleb Williams is the relationship between Falkland and Caleb. The other characters--Tyrrel, Emily, Grimes, Hawkins, etc.--serve principally to cast and create a dilemma: the clash between the lemma of Falkland's social nobility and the lemma of Caleb's intellectual nobility. The recognition and reversals based on the cross-casting of Lovelace, Clarissa, Hamlet, Claudius, Bluebeard's wife, Bluebeard, God, Adam and Eve, et al. produce powerful resonances.
The two lemmas finally come together, but how? Godwin explains in his preface to the Standard Novels edition (1832), "I said to myself a thousand times, |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."' The constitution of the new epoch rests on what for all the world looks like a double conversion scene at the end of the novel. Falkland, wearied by his persecutions of Williams and convicted by Caleb's sincere eloquence, throws himself into his accuser's arms and says, "William. . . . you have conquered! I see too late the greatness and elevation of your mind." Falkland then accepts the consequences of the revelation of Tyrrel's murder and dies of chagrin three days later. Caleb then says of Falkland, "A nobler spirit lived not among the sons of man. Thy intellectual powers were truly sublime, and thy bosom burned with godlike ambition." He goes on to blame "human society ... a rank and rotten soil from which every finer shrub draws poison as it grows" for Falkland's downfall. The "rank and rotten" is an echo of Hamlet 1.2.136, but Hamlet refers to the world, not just society, a significant indication of the shift in the notion of morality from the public to the private. The irony is that Caleb, far from rejecting Falkland and his "poison of chivalry" (his ideology), admires him deeply and seems to want nothing more than his good opinion.
Falkland, in short, is a diabolus ex machina, exactly the villain Godwin needed to demonstrate his proposition. But who is Caleb? In KJ Numbers 14.24, YHWH says that none of the faithless generation of the Exodus will see the Promised Land except Caleb and Joshua, two of the men who were advanced spies there. YHWH promises specifically that the seed of Caleb will inherit the Land of Flowing Milk and Honey because Caleb has "a different spirit" and, unlike the others, has followed him "fully." Joshua is, of course, the aristocratic warleader of chivalry (i.e., Falkland). It is not hard to see the relationship between William Godwin and Caleb Williams either anagramatically or actually. The Hebrew meaning of Caleb is doglike or very faithful, of which god-win, beloved of god, is a near calque (cf. the German Gottlieb). It would seem that Caleb Williams, far from being a critique of ideology, is an ideology itself, an intellectual's vision of his conquest of society through his deeper insight into "things as they are." Graham's book is a useful tool in the study of this fascinating writer. A philological note: There is evidence that Godwin himself was "poisoned by chivalry": he seems to be among the last writers to use the words magnanimous and pusillanimous correctly.
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|Author:||Robinson, Robert G., III|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1993|
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