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Is "Caleb Williams" a Jacobin Novel?

Essay 1998 9 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Is Caleb Williams a Jacobin Novel?

Markus Widmer

In this essay, I will approach the term ‘Jacobin novel’ with several definitions, attempting to cover as many aspects of William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams and its background as possible. I will discuss with each definition whether it is applicable to the novel, or not. In the first part of the essay, the definition will be concerned with the political background of the author, mainly. Then I will consider the political philosophy inherent in the novel itself. Finally, I will investigate the aesthetics of Caleb Williams, and discuss whether these contradict the political content of the novel.

The first difficulties when trying to define the term ‘Jacobin novel’ arise with the word ‘Jacobin.’ It has been used in the English Revolution debate of the 1790s mainly by the conservatives, counter-revolutionaries, or ‘Anti-Jacobins’ to name, or rather denounce, the supporters of the French Revolution. These had rather little to do with the particular political movement of revolutionary France which went under that name.

[T]he term ‘Jacobin’ itself is misleading, since most of those in Britain who bore that label were in fact Girondins in their principles and beliefs, and took their political thought from native rather than French precedents.[1]

The name ‘Jacobin,’ however, was at least partly accepted by the English supporters of the French Revolution (Kelly 2), and is useful as an umbrella term for the relatively heterogeneous group of progressive political forces in the 1790s.[2] As the author of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and several pamphlets, Godwin was “obviously directly involved in organized English Jacobinism in the early 1790s” (Kelly 4).

Given this immediate political background, the Jacobin novel could therefore be defined as a novel which was written by a Jacobin in the time of English Jacobinism. Applying this definition, Caleb Williams would certainly be a Jacobin novel. The definition, however, is very simplistic. It is only based on the political background of the author as a person. A more satisfying definition must be based mainly on the text itself, since this is what literary criticism is concerned with.

A more accurate definition of the term Jacobin novel would therefore be the following: a Jacobin novel is a novel that is concerned with Jacobin politics, or Jacobin political philosophy. In Caleb Williams, the influence of political philosophy is very important. This is indicated, first of all, by two obvious features: the original title of the novel and its prefaces. The first part of the original title of the novel was Things as They Are.[3] This indicates the intention of the novel to tackle the political reality of the time. Actually, it was a phrase common in the Revolution debate, and Richard Price used it in his Discourse on the Love of our Country[4], one of the earliest pro-revolutionary pamphlets. Moreover, the two prefaces of the novel directly relate the text to the Revolution debate and describe it as a critique of current political practises.

Accordingly it was proposed in the invention of the following work, to comprehend, as far as the progressive nature of a single story would allow, a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man. (Caleb Williams - hereafter CW - 1)

In Godwin’s second preface, he explains the circumstances of the first preface’s withdrawal. He clearly states that the political content of the novel was strong enough to provoke legal prosecution.

Thus, according to the prefaces, the author’s intention was clearly to present a political novel. Yet the novel itself also supports this view. Many statements of the novel’s characters or the narrating Caleb are in fact very similar to statements in Godwin’s main political treatise, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which he had finished shortly before beginning Caleb Williams, and which he was revising for a second edition after, or possibly during, the writing of the novel.[5] A strict parallel is found in the view of justice as being partial:

Hawkins had hitherto carefully avoided, notwithstanding the injuries he had suffered, the attempting to right himself by legal process, being of opinion that law was better adapted for a weapon of tyranny in the hands of the rich, than for a shield to protect the humbler part of the community against their usurpations. (CW 73)

In many countries justice is avowedly made a subject of solicitation, and the man of the highest rank and most splendid connections almost infallibly carries his cause against the unprotected and friendless. In countries where this shameless practice is not established, justice is frequently a matter of expensive purchase, and the man with the longest purse is proverbially victorious. (Political Justice - hereafter PJ - in Butler 153)

Another frequently found parallel is based on Godwin’s view of the development of human character, which is fundamental to his political philosophy:

If he [Falkland] have been criminal, that is owing to circumstances; the same qualities under other circumstances would have been, or rather were sublimely beneficent. (CW 137)

... the actions and disposition of mankind are the offspring of circumstances and events, and not of any original determination that they bring into the world. (PJ in Butler 155)

These statements, however, are not just bits and pieces of philosophical discourse superimposed on the text. Godwin’s political philosophy, as expressed in Political Justice, is fundamental to the construction of the novel’s plot and its characters. A very good example for this is the bias of law and law-courts in favour of the rich and the aristocracy. The whole dynamics of Caleb William’s plot derive from the fact that Falkland is easily capable of blaming the Hawkinses for a murder that he has committed, whereas Caleb does not manage to prove his own innocence and Falkland’s guilt. The problem of biased trials already begins in the first volume, when Tyrrel sues Emily for no conceivable crime. After her death following her apprehension Tyrrel states, quite correctly: “I did nothing but what the law allows” (CW 91). This corresponds to Godwin’s idea that “legislation is in almost every country grossly the favourer of the rich against the poor” (PJ in Butler 153).

The reasons for the many misjudgements in Caleb Williams, however, are not only biased laws and money. The main problem of the judges and all the people rejecting Caleb in the third volume of the novel is what Godwin calls “reverence” (PJ in Butler 157). That is, most of the characters in the novel

take on trust the conclusions of their superiors. ... Like Laura, like Collins, like a multitude of servants, they repose confidence in report and in authority, rather than drawing conclusions by amassing and weighing evidence. (Graham 32)

Thus, attacking the rich and aristocratic is generally seen as an offence against the principle of authority. Falkland himself is quite aware of that, and warns Caleb: “I wear an armour, against which all your weapons are impotent” (CW 153).


[1] Kelly, Gary, The English Jacobin Novel 1780-1805 (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 7.

[2] There are, however, quite a few points that were common to all the English Jacobins:

They opposed tyranny and oppression, be it domestic, national or international, spiritual or temporal; they were against all distinctions between men which were not based on moral qualities, or virtue; and they were utterly opposed to persecution of individuals, communities, or nations for their beliefs on any subject. Most important of all, they saw history, both past and present, as an account of the efforts of some men to establish the rule of reason against its enemies, which were not imagination and feeling, but error and prejudice. ( Kelly 7)

[3] The second part of the original title, Or the Adventures of Caleb Williams, will be contrasted to this one later in the essay.

[4] in Butler, Marilyn, ed., Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

[5] cf. Graham, Kenneth, The Politics of Narrative: Ideology and Social Change in Willam Godwin’s Caleb Williams (New York: AMS Press, 1990), p. 138.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
394 KB
Institution / Hochschule
University of Aberdeen – English Seminar
2 (B)
Caleb Williams Jacobin Novel Romantics Revolutionaries




Titel: Is "Caleb Williams" a Jacobin Novel?