Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Refiguring Clarissa in Godwin's Caleb Williams

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Refiguring Clarissa in Godwin's Caleb Williams

Article excerpt

William Godwin writes exceptionally clear prose, but few eighteenth-century novels have proved so difficult to read as his masterpiece Things as They Are; Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. An early experiment in psychological fiction by a noted political philosopher, the work, upon its publication in 1794, generated a body of critical responses whose sheer heterogeneity suggests that contemporary reviewers were unsure of how the novel should be taken. The Monthly Review, for instance, saw Caleb chiefly as a second Political Justice thinly disguised as fiction, calling the novel's plot and characterization merely a "captivating dress" cast over a bulky body of political dogma--a judgement virtually inverted in the Critical Review, which viewed Caleb's "political reflections" as tiresome and irrelevant intrusions on a story chiefly important for "well-drawn ... characters" and "fascinating ... narrative" (qtd. in Graham 85-87, 84). (The Analytical Review, peevishly, merely suggested that Mr. Godwin consider outlining his plot before embarking upon his next novel.) (1)

Curiously, similar questions of the novel's true nature (political or psychological?) continue to divide critical discussion today. Modern readings of Caleb Williams, as Monika Fludernik points out, tend to divide into "either political interpretations which try to reveal the arguments of Political Justice in the novel ... or analyses that focus on Caleb's psychology, his narrative unreliability, and his relationship to Falkland" (857). A seminal study in this latter category was contributed by Alex Gold, Jr., who in the late '70s pointed out the remarkable degree to which Caleb's relationship with Falkland is described in sexual terms (156-57); while Gold saw in this dysfunctional bond a clear and characteristically Godwinian statement about the inferiority of Love to Reason, a rich follow-up literature has continued to complicate our sense of the psychological forces at work both in Caleb himself and within the Caleb/Falkland dyad, tracing in the novel's intense and oddly sexualized master/servant relationship a variety of subconscious phenomena from incomplete identity-differentiation to full-blown clinical paranoia. (2) John Rodden's recent psychoanalytic reading, then, is only the latest in a long line of scholarship seeking to ground the novel's undeniably "fever[ish] ... reading experience" in its compelling exploration of the depths of the individual human psyche (120).

As Marilyn Butler points out, however, such readings necessarily minimize both Godwin's radical politics and the historical "topicality" of his novel--a topicality the author himself emphasized at the time of the work's publication (239-41). (3) Given that Godwin completed Caleb Williams only a year after publishing Political Justice and that his "tone of mind" during the novel's composition, by his own assertion, retained the "elevation" that had produced his earlier political work, it is perhaps unsurprising that a number of critics should have attempted to read Caleb Williams as a fictionalized version of Godwin's political treatise, a sort of sugar-coating of sensation layered over deeper social truths (Godwin, Preface 8). Straightforwardly political readings, however, are invariably frustrated by the narrative's apparent ideological instability: any political interpretation, after all, must account not only for Caleb's impassioned defenses of personal liberty and sovereign selfhood, but also his closing ecstasy of penitence and self-abasement, his final enthusiastic eulogizing of a tyrannical master whom he has formerly compared to Satan himself (Godwin, Caleb Williams 250).

Here, the issue has been complicated still further by the discovery, in 1966, of an original manuscript ending for Caleb Williams, dated a mere four days from the composition of the published conclusion, and closing the narrative instead with the half-crazed reproaches of a weakened Caleb now brought to final defeat at the hands of a still-malevolent Falkland. …

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