Jason Mills's Reviews > Caleb Williams

Caleb Williams by William Godwin
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Mar 31, 12

bookshelves: classics, fiction
Recommended for: Fans of indignation and outrage
Read from March 07 to 28, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 1

A brief summary, which actually gives away less than Godwin's own preface: Caleb Williams is a young man from a poor background, self-educated and with a lively mind. Squire Falkland employs him as his secretary, and Caleb learns the troubled history of his much-admired master's bitter feud with a neighbour, which ended disastrously. Compelled by a fatal curiosity, Caleb pursues the secrets of this conflict. This wins him the enmity of Mr Falkland and Caleb finds himself persecuted to the limit of his endurance, unable to escape the long reach of this rich and highly intelligent man.

Just as Godwin was parent to Mary Shelley, so this novel is parent to her "Frankenstein": each is a moral investigation built around a titanic, relentless confrontation between two men in each other's power; essays must have been written on the comparisons. But where the arena of "Frankenstein" is the universe itself, "Caleb Williams" is more concerned with man's role in society. Squire Falkland is willing to sacrifice everything for his social reputation, while Caleb is ground down beneath a legal system that is a catspaw of the rich, and the unquestioning condemnation of his peers. Godwin argues for natural justice and natural rights (I hope I don't misuse philosophers' jargon!), and rails against the inequity of his contemporary society.

But even these matters are secondary to the central conflict. As is often the case in 'classic' novels, there is heavy reliance on coincidence, to the extent that I found myself chuckling each time Mr Falkland made another of his 'unexpected' entrances; and surely nobody ever spoke whole paragraphs of dialogue with such care and eloquence (unless it was Christopher Hitchens). But these are trivial caveats: it is the compelling struggle between two obsessed men driving each other to the edge of madness that makes this enduring and subversive novel not only memorable, but thrilling.
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