Places: Caleb Williams

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Things as They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, 1794

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Detective and mystery

Time of work: Eighteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedFalkland’s Manor

Falkland’s Caleb WilliamsManor. Country house of the intelligent and well-read English nobleman Ferdinando Falkland. This manor house acts as a focal point for the central theme of the novel: that even the most virtuous and intelligent of people can be corrupted by inherited social power. This house signifies the corruption of Falkland, who personally combines great intelligence with arrogance. When the novel’s hero takes a position as secretary to Falkland, his movement through the house symbolizes his growing knowledge that Falkland has committed murder. Falkland’s efforts to keep his criminality hidden are symbolized by the locked library and chest at the center of the mansion. In a plot movement similar to a fairy-tale, Caleb unlocks hidden and dangerous knowledge when he sneaks into the locked room; there he learns that Falkland has committed murder and allowed others to take the blame for it.

Village

Village. Unnamed English country village populated by poor but honest farmers and overbearing noblemen, this setting demonstrates William Godwin’s concept that people should govern themselves by reason and not by inherited laws and conditions. The landscape of this setting is not described beyond a few simple structures–a few mansions, some simple dwellings, and a few village greens–but the human settings are emphasized. The antagonist in the village is Tyrrel, a vicious and violent nobleman, and it is clear that within this setting Falkland and Tyrrel will eventually struggle for dominance. This struggle is characterized as an abuse of reason and justice, and Falkland–despite his education and civility–is quick to jettison reason if his pride is wounded. A key secondary character cautions Falkland, “You have impetuosity, and an impatience of imagined dishonour, that if once set wrong, may make you as eminently mischievous.” After Falkland murders Tyrrel, this prediction comes true with Falkland allowing the blame for the murder to fall onto a poor family that had been victimized by Tyrrel. Falkland’s concern for his reputation, instead of for the lives of the farmers, drives home Godwin’s point here.

From the execution onward, the later settings of the novel demonstrate Falkland’s intention to eliminate Caleb Williams, the only person with certain knowledge of the murder. Falkland marshals the many social institutions of England to control Caleb. As Caleb goes from location to location he learns about the vast extension of noble power in eighteenth century England.

*London

*London. Capital and largest city of Great Britain, which Godwin uses to demonstrate that Caleb cannot hide from Falkland’s power. London is not extensively described in this novel, giving the sense that the place is intended to function symbolically. Although London may seem like a place of refuge, given its size and mixed population, it does not provide much rest for Caleb. In fact, the paucity of description of the city parallels the futility of Caleb’s search for shelter. There is literally nowhere he can hide himself for long. In London, Caleb disguises himself and takes a false identity, yet finds that Falkland has hired a police agent, Gines, and has published wanted posters for his arrest.

Welsh village

Welsh village. Last place of shelter for Caleb, a rural location where he believes he is free from Falkland. Caleb eventually escapes from London and wanders into Wales, where he is initially accepted by the rural people. Although he takes a job and begins to participate in social life, Caleb is soon apprehended by Gines and subjected to Falkland’s abusive power.

Caleb’s prison cell

Caleb’s prison cell. Locked cell, containing only a bed and a small table. Caleb dies here under the observation of Falkland’s agents. In the first version of the novel, Godwin ended his story with Caleb’s death in a locked room, with the strong implication that he had been poisoned by Gines. This scene was cut from later versions of the novel and was replaced by a scene in which Caleb talks Falkland into admitting his guilt and letting Caleb go free. This setting is, however, more appropriate for the original ending. First, it symbolizes Falkland’s interest in keeping knowledge of his guilt locked away; as in the first setting, the mansion house, the reality of murder is locked up and controlled. In the second place, it demonstrates Godwin’s contention that social power exists in England only to perpetuate itself by whatever means necessary; in this sense, Caleb’s locked death chamber signifies the lifelong control society has over the individual, who lives or dies at the command of those with power.

BibliographyBoulton, James T. The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963. Discusses the “inexorable deliberateness” of Godwin’s novel, the way he builds up a systematic chain and combination of events. Godwin’s weakness is a lack of dramatic immediacy. Too often Godwin speaks about psychological states rather than dramatizing them.Godwin, William. Things As They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. Edited by Maurice Hindle. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. Hindle’s introduction discusses the novel’s origins, the politics and history informing its narrative, and its place in the genre. Notes, bibliography, and appendices.Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. Considers how Godwin’s philosophy influences his novel and compares him to his contemporaries. Discusses his fascination with fantasy and romance writing.Miyoshi, Masao. The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians. New York: New York University Press, 1969. Considers the novel as part of the gothic tradition. Analyzes Caleb’s motivations for spying on Falkland, discusses the differences between Godwin’s novel and his great work of political philosophy, Political Justice, and addresses differences between the imaginative and discursive process.Ousby, Ian. Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. Discusses the novel as the first work of English fiction to take a sustained interest in detection. Other critics have emphasized how the structure of the novel influenced later detective fiction, but Ousby points out that the main character, Caleb, is equally important because he is an original detective in the English novel.
Categories: Places