Godwin’s tale of the persecution of the poor by the rich is a socialist polemic that is a product of the influence of the French Revolution on English society. It’s a very readable narrative for sure with plenty to keep the pages turning, but as a comment on society and morality, I’m not sure Godwin was that successful.
Caleb Williams finds himself party to a secret about his wealthy employer which, after being sworn to secrecy, turns into a curse. Mr. Falkland, said employer, turns against anc pursues Caleb throughout the British Isles. With little or no resources to resist, Caleb easily falls prey to penury and imprisonment as a result.
Although there are plenty of of polemics against the oppression of the poor by the rich, the narrative seemed a flawed vehicle for it to me. Firstly, I’m not at all clear why Falkland decided so relentlessly to persecute a man who could very easily have blackmailed him or at least spread details of his secret far and wide. Even when Caleb seems to be completely harmless, he comes after him.
Near the end of the novel, this reality seems to become apparent to the author, and a scene of confession with a judge which Caleb hopes will free him from a further prison backfires. Predictably, the judge refuses to believe that an odious vagrant would be telling the truth in bringing such a scandalous claim against a bastion of society such as Falkland.
There’s some truth here undoubtedly, but I found Caleb’s character over-humble and unrealistic to me. A real person would have attempted to use this information to their advantage much earlier in the narrative. And after he has confessed the secret, Caleb is racked with remorse that he has broken his promise to Falkland. In the final confrontation with his persecutor, the man who has falsely imprisoned him and reduced him to beggary, Caleb simpers and whines about how pathetic an example of the human race he is because he was not true to his master.
At this point, Godwin seems to have completely undone the novel. For if Caleb’s crime is truly evil, then Falkland’s must also be so and both stand equally condemned. Instead, Godwin barely comments on Falkland’s misdeeds, preferring to leave him appearing finally as a wrinkled, wizened victim of his own bitterness as if this were punishment enough.
Readable, but flawed, though an important book for its time as it created a storm of debate on its publication.
Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | Style
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