Pamela's Reviews > Caleb Williams

Caleb Williams by William Godwin
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Jun 15, 2012

did not like it
bookshelves: angst, british, boring, disappointing, eh, obscure-and-overlooked, readin2012, social-commentary, woefully-depressing
Read from June 15 to 18, 2012

You have a suspicion that your master, the man you previously thought to be the pinnacle of excellence, intelligence, and nobility, is, in fact, a murderer. You are a poor working-man's son who has been accepted into service in this great man's household. This great man has 6,000 a year and is widely acknowledged to be, shall we say, a Righteous Dude. So, instead of quitting or quietly going about your business, what do you do? Did you answer, "Ferret around, arouse suspicion, let the guy know you're on to him and then earn his undying hatred and suspicion?" Congratulations! Your name is Caleb Williams, and you are the protagonist of this book!

Godwin can tell a good story, as shown by the backstory of Falkland (the rich master), which is told in the first part of the book. I mean, Godwin does go a bit overboard in the EVIL GUY IS REALLY EVIL department, and Falkland, who the reader knows to be the Bad Guy, is shown to be so nauseatingly virtuous, smart, handsome, and good, that it's hard to reconcile the two parts of the story. However, the little backstory is rather compelling, and I admit to being hooked and wondering how it would all pan out. Yet, I find that the two parts of the story do not really match--I cannot see the Falkland of the backstory becoming the wicked, nasty villain of the rest of it. I just can't. Maybe that's part of the point--good people can do bad things, blah blah blah, but really? It has to have some modicum of believability.

Caleb Williams himself is the kind of protagonist/narrator you just want to shake. Hey Caleb, ever hear the saying "curiosity killed the cat"? Hmmm? Evidently not. After hearing the backstory of his employer and benefactor Falkland, Caleb keeps digging up the past and even breaks into Falkland's personal property, and spends the rest of the book running around in various disguises, being dogged at every turn by a rather ridiculously omnipotent Falkland. I kept wishing he would just jump into the river as he threatened to, so as to put everyone out of their misery.

I admit to skimming through the mid-to-end sections of the book, as Godwin tended to ramble on about ... stuff (tyranny, mostly). Others have mentioned that this is a fictional companion to Godwin's political treatise, and I can see how that might work. However, if Godwin intended to condemn the tyranny of the rich over the poor, or the government over the people, I didn't feel very moved. Mostly, I felt that what happened to Caleb was his own durned fault for being nosy--would I then say that people deserve to be oppressed by tyrannical governments (hint: No!)? I really don't know anything about Godwin's political leanings, and I'm sure that that would have better informed my reading of this.
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Reading Progress

06/17/2012 page 199
44.0% "Started out well ... now we're in the philosophical muddle. Oh dear."

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Kenny I think Falkland's character is consistent. Even in his youth, he was never motivated to be a good person as an end in itself, but because that would lead to honor / a good reputation. He's like a Klingon, death before dishonor. The great crisis of his life comes when he's faced with the choice between doing the truly honorable thing (turning himself in for Falkland's murder) at the cost of his honor (in its social aspect), and retaining his honor at the cost of becoming unworthy of it. It's believable to me, at least, that he would choose the second option, and that having done that (condemning the innocent Hawkinses to death), the guilt would corrode his personality over the next 30 or whatever years until we meet him as an old man.

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