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  • Of Caleb’s Guilt and Godwin’s Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb Williams
  • Gary Handwerk

For a moralizing solution, like any essentializing gesture, serves the ideological function of masking the more difficult cultural and ethicopolitical issues.

—Dominick LaCapra, History, Politics, and the Novel


Despite a recent resurgence of interest in his life and in certain of his works, William Godwin remains an elusive and little-noticed figure of English literary and intellectual history. Known as much for his personal links to other figures—to Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth, or Shelley—as for his own writing, Godwin remains largely unread except by specialists in the Jacobin period. At best, other critics may identify Godwin with the eccentric anarchism of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice or the Gothic histrionics of Caleb Williams. Even if one gives full credit to work by more recent critics, literary criticism is still very far from doing justice to his work as a whole or overcoming long-nurtured suspicions about the quality and significance of much of his writing.

It may in fact be true that Godwin’s novels show flashes of dramatic intensity rather than any sustained technical brilliance; his imaginative gifts may indeed be somewhat narrow in scope. Yet because literary history has often relied upon evaluative criteria that fit Godwin’s fictional practice poorly, it has tended to reinforce the marginalizing of his work accomplished by the anti-Jacobin reaction in England. That tendency seems all the more regrettable in that Godwin’s work has tremendous bearing on issues central to contemporary criticism, such as the relation of ideology to ethics in literature, or the relationship of subjectivity to interpretation and to history. Its narrative anomalies are themselves instructive about the complexity of the problems with which Godwin struggled in trying to shape an aesthetic form adequate to his political and ethical concerns.

To be sure, the past few years have seen a renaissance of Godwin studies that has produced some outstanding analytical work—a renaissance traceable to the seminal work of Burton Pollin on the intellectual [End Page 939] coherence of Godwin’s ideas, to David McCracken’s work on Godwin’s literary theories and reedition of Caleb Williams, as well as to the discovery in 1966 of the original, previously unknown ending to Caleb Williams. 1 Since then, however, critical attention has focused almost exclusively on Political Justice and Caleb Williams, virtually neglecting Godwin’s other fiction and essays. 2 That focus, though regrettable for the narrow image it gives us of Godwin’s lifetime work, does rest on plausible premises, since much of the fascination of Godwin’s writing lies in his attempt to reconcile his vision of justice with highly realistic portraits of political psychology, a struggle most evident in the proximity of these two works to each other. Any reestimation of Godwin as a novelist, then, needs to begin by turning our attention back to Caleb Williams. Of particular interest is the way in which Godwin’s narrative choices, especially the revised ending, provide a developing commentary on his political values that takes him beyond the assumptions of Political Justice.

My primary argument here is that the tendency of Caleb Williams, and indeed of all of Godwin’s fiction, runs fundamentally contrary to the explicit political assumptions and expectations of Political Justice —but, for that very reason, they need to be read in a complementary fashion as parts of a comprehensive perspective. Though Godwin may well have begun this novel hoping to exemplify his political ideals in dramatic form, his own narrative and psychological realism transformed the fiction into a much more sceptical mediation on the possibilities for political amelioration through reason. His careful attention to the working of ideology in an individual mind, Caleb’s, led him to complicate his rationalist model of political justice and political change, anticipating the internal critique of his own political theory that comes more and more into evidence in his subsequent writing. To perceive this, however, we need to bear in mind the diverse tendencies present in the novel, and in fact, to read past the moral overtly proffered by Caleb himself. 3 If we attend to its multiple resonances, Godwin’s...

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pp. 939-960
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