We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE
William Godwin as Novelist (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 7, Number 1, April 1983
pp. 130-131 | 10.1353/phl.1983.0047

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

130Philosophy and Literature William Godwin as Novelist, by B. J. Tysdahl; 205 pp. Adeuitic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1981, $31.50. Hazlitt characterized William Godwin's PoliticalJustice approvingly, in terms that Swift might have used in A Tale ofa Tub: "He absolves man from die gross euid narrow ties of sense, custom, audiority, private and local attachment, in order diat he may devote himself to die boundless pursuit of universal benevolence. Mr. Godwin gives no quarter to die amiable weaknesses of our nature .... Gratitude, promises, friendship, family affection give way . . . [to] die disinterested love of good and the dictates of inflexible justice, which is "the law of laws, and sovereign of sovereigns." Godwin's equivocal flight from die Sandemanian Calvinism of his youth seems to have led him into the lukewarm embraces of Houyhnhnm rationality, an unpromising sensibility for an aspiring novelist. Yet he wrote nine novels, one of which, Caleb WiUiams, has a secure position among the minor classics of English fiction. The dustjacket promises that Professor Tysdahl will examine Godwin's novels "in relation to his works of political phdosophy . . . bringing together both sides of Godwin's oeuvre." Instead, he surveys Godwin's career as a novelist, and makes a convincing case for Godwin's limited but real talent and success. He treats briefly five of Godwin's minor novels as either derivative apprentice works or unfortunate lapses ofold age. The heart of his essay consists of four chapters devoted to the major novels of Godwin's prime: Caleb WiUiams, St. Leon, Fleetwood, emd Mandeville. His analysis focuses on die ways in which Godwin adapted existing novelistic conventions and strategies — particularly those of Richardson and the Godiic and Sentimental novelists — to his own political and psychological purposes. Conventional happy endings with dieir weddings and settlements for life would not do for Godwin, who had attacked both marriage and property in Political Justice. Nor could he employ the supernaturedism of the Gothic widiout running afoul of his professed atheism and material determinism. Professor Tysdahl thus argues that Godwin's major accomplishment as a novelist was to open fruitful lines of development for later naturalistic and Marxist writers. Professor Tysdahl's reading of Caleb Williams is die least satisfying of his major chapters. His attempt to account for the novel's power by suggesting that it is simultaneously a revolutionary political allegory, a conventional religious allegory, and a penetrating psychological study, all brought into coherence by die reader's "flickering" perception of shifting "figure and ground," sheds litde light on die sources of die novel's real strengths, particularly its fine plotting. The three chapters on St. Leon, Fleetwood, and Mandeville are more illuminating, especially his discussion of Godwin's experiments with narrators who are only occasionally sane, and his provocative linking of Godwin and Foucault on madness and civilization. Professor Tysdahl tends to assert more of Godwin's successes dian he demonstrates, and he speculates too much about Godwin's artistic and didactic intentions instead of dealing with die realized effects in the novels. Finally, the book is heavily earnest and partisan , lacking, like Godwin's own writing, a sense of irony and proportion. We are told, for example, diat "Falkland and Caleb fail because diey belong to a society not permeated by trudi and sincerity andjustice" (p. 38). As an explanation this may be heartfelt, but it is not helpful. It is, however, too nearly typical ofthe style of William Godwin as Novelist, a Reviews131 book which is too simple as criticism to appeal to specialists, and too speciedized in its focus to appeal to a more general audience. Willamette UniversityWilbur S. Braden Iris Murdoch: Workfor the Spirit, by Elizabeth Dipple; xii & 356 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982, $25.00. Why is it that some readers find Iris Murdoch's novels so irritating, even unreadable, while odiers find diem so irresistibly compelling? There are superficial explanations no doubt but Professor Dipple, in this exemplary and profound study of die Murdoch literary oeuvre, carefully tracks down the more complex sources of irritation and fascination alike. Some readers, teased by die glittering surface realism ofdie novels, recoil at the unescapable allusive undercurrent: invariably disturbing, uncomfortable, unconsoling. Dipple acknowledges...