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ELH 68.4 (2001) 857-896

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William Godwin's Caleb Williams:
The Tarnishing of the Sublime

Monika Fludernik

Dedicated to Paul K. Goetsch on his Retirement

I. Introduction

Caleb Williams, Godwin's literary masterpiece of 1794, has recently come in for extensive interpretative analysis and wide critical acclaim. 1 The novel serves as a key text for studies of the radical novel (most recently by Schäffner in 1997) or "English Jacobin novel"; it has now acquired a firm position in the canon of the Romantic novel; it sometimes figures as the first detective or spy novel; and it is frequently discussed in its relation to the Gothic novel with which it seems to share a number of prominent features: the continual references to "horror" and "terror"; the prominence of dungeons, confinement, and persecution; and the motif of virtue in distress, which is present in its stereotypical form in Emily Melville's story, and less typically so in the male protagonist's ordeal. 2 Only twenty years ago it seemed unbelievable that Godwin "in his day" should have been considered "as equal to Scott," and that "Shelley and Keats, Coleridge and Byron . . . Hazlitt and Lytton venerated him." 3 Since then, Godwin, and particularly Caleb Williams, has regained some of his former prominence in eighteenth-century studies.

Most readings of Caleb Williams tend to fall into two categories: they are either political interpretations which try to reveal the arguments of Political Justice (1793) in the novel--Handwerk's "Of Caleb's Guilt" and Graham's The Politics of Narrative (1990) are instances--or analyses that focus on Caleb's psychology, his narrative unreliability, and his relationship to Falkland. 4 This second line of interpretation starts from the assumption that Caleb Williams is "one of the first fictional studies of abnormal psychology." 5

The most significant insights that have been proffered about Caleb's psyche concern his presumable unreliability: his narrative, despite (or perhaps because of) his asseverations that he is speaking [End Page 857] nothing but the untarnished truth, is suspect for its inconsistencies. 6 A second major perspective on Caleb's psyche has relied on psychoanalytic readings of the Caleb-Falkland relationship. The most radical of these proposals comes from Rudolf F. Storch, who suggests that Caleb's story consists in projections of his Calvinist guilt on the God-figure Falkland. 7 In this reading Caleb turns into a dangerous neurotic. Although Storch's views may be too radical, other critics, too, have noted Caleb's pathological behavior, particularly his persecution-mania and paranoia, as does Alex Gold. 8

Gold's essay, moreover, addresses a third valuable psychological insight about Caleb Williams, namely his latent or repressed homosexuality. The point has been elaborated by Sedgwick and Corber. 9 While according to Gold, "[n]either Caleb Williams nor Godwin's philosophy nor the details of his own life make it clear that Godwin had any special interest in the exclusive sexual attraction of a man to other men," this finding is, however, suspect in view of the many passages Gold cites from Caleb Williams and St. Leon, and even more so when he notes that Godwin had a "well-known habit of surrounding himself with young male admirers," one of whom even committed suicide in 1814. 10 Indeed, Corber's unquestioning depiction of Caleb's relationship with Falkland as a homosexual love affair now puts this issue back on the agenda with a vengeance.

Corber argues that Godwin presented Falkland as a "sodomite" in order to further incriminate the conservative camp (that is, the aristocracy is tyrannical and unnatural; their tyranny is as unnatural as their morality and sexual mores), and he reads this device as a lamentable aberration on the part of a liberal Godwin who--so he argues--tried to curry favor with an unenlightened homophobic public. However, the speculation that Gold has unwittingly set afoot might in fact tend towards a quite different interpretation of the homosocial element in the novel. If Falkland is a close counterpart of Edmund Burke--Boulton, Butler, McCracken and Storch have all suggested this...


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