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  • The Half-Mangled Narrator:The Violence of Psychic Dissection in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams
  • Eric Parisot (bio)

The trope of psychic dissection, used to describe the delineation of mental processes and their formative contribution to character and identity, was largely made available to readers and writers of the late eighteenth century by developments in the emerging field of psychology. “All that we know of the body,” proposes Thomas Reid in his Inquiry into the Human Mind, “is owing to anatomical dissection and observation, and it must be by an anatomy of the mind that we can discover its powers and principles” (5).1 By the time William Godwin’s Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams was published and receiving critical response, the trope was being employed aptly to describe Godwin’s method of characterization. Godwin is lauded for the way “he rivets our attention to a minute dissection of the characters, feelings, and emotions,” and for his “chief skill … in delineating in the wanderings of the intellect … which strangely delights in the most afflicting and humiliating of human miseries” (Rev. of Caleb Williams 564; Croker 218). Godwin himself—in his preface to the 1832 edition of Fleetwood—confirms the centrality of metaphorical dissection to his preference for first-person narration in Caleb Williams. As a penetrating form of enquiry, it was “infinitely the best adapted” to:

the analysis of the private and internal operations of the mind, employing my metaphysical dissecting knife in tracing and laying bare the involutions of motive, and recording the gradually accumulating impulses, which led the personages I had to describe primarily to adopt the particular way of proceeding in which they afterwards embarked.

(qtd. in Caleb Williams 351)

While Godwin’s conceit of a “metaphysical dissecting knife” echoes Reid’s Inquiry, his commitment to detailing the “gradually accumulating impulses” that give rise to an individual’s character and behavior is palpably indebted to the associationist principles of John Locke and David Hartley (a debt also reflected in Godwin’s own doctrine of necessity and [End Page 17] its extension to the faculty of the mind).2 Enlightenment philosophies of the mind evidently bore considerable influence upon Godwin, not only facilitating the adoption of dissection as a literary trope, but also the transformation of the literary sphere into a theatre fit for clinical experimentation and enquiry.

This intellectual debt has not gone unnoticed in recent scholarship. Most notably, William D. Brewer’s study of the mental anatomies of Godwin and Mary Shelley explores precisely this influence on Godwin, and how Enlightenment- and Romantic-era theories of the mind shaped his view of literary works as “thought-experiments” and “imaginary laboratories” in the “‘science’ of mental anatomy” (19). With particular regard to Caleb Williams, Brewer not only asserts that Caleb undertakes the role of an “amateur mental anatomist” preoccupied with both Falkland’s and his own state of mind, but that Godwin “also envisioned the ‘ideal reader’ as a mental anatomist”—a view I concur with entirely in this essay (40, 44). Brewer’s emphasis on anatomization—which primarily rests on Godwin’s fiction—is further validated by Angela Monsam’s reading of Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a hybrid literary performance labeled “autopsical biography” (110). Godwin substantiates this method in his preface to the Memoirs, detailing the way he often steered Mary’s conversation toward the formative influences and events of her life, and how these discussions were recorded and augmented by interviews with Mary’s acquaintances (Collected Novels 1: 88).3 For Monsam, not only is the resulting Memoirs discernibly influenced by contemporary dissection reports, but it also further reveals Godwin’s methodological alliance with the dissecting surgeon, joined in their pursuit of knowledge and dispelling of suspicion by laying bare and examining the minutiae of the subject.

Monsam’s concept of autopsical biography, it should be noted, resembles the retrospective idiographic analyses of suicides advocated and labeled by Edwin S. Shneidman as a “psychological autopsy,” whereby common cognitive and expressive characteristics of psychic imbalance are identified post-mortem by examining information gathered from interviews and the subject’s personal...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2165-2678
Print ISSN
0039-3819
Pages
pp. 17-33
Launched on MUSE
2016-09-25
Open Access
No
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