Reflections of Guilt and Power: The Deadly Curiosity of Caleb Williams

by Jeremy R. Strong

The character Caleb Williams comes increasingly to mirror the character Ferdinando Falkland in more obvious ways throughout William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams (1794) until finally becoming so like him that Caleb’s efforts to destroy Falkland also destroy himself. I believe that this fatal mirroring takes place due to, as Andrew J. Scheiber calls it in his article “Falkland’s Story: Caleb Williams’ Other Voice”, “the fateful wedge of Calebs “curiosity”” (259). I will discuss the different ways in which Caleb slowly becomes a reflection of Falkland and finally, how his becoming so like Falkland is the reason that the novel ends in despair for both men.

Caleb Williams seeks to master information in the same way that Mr. Falkland seeks to master social interactions and reputation. Caleb is obsessed with discovering Falkland’s secrets, as Scheiber puts it “Caleb attempts strategically to insinuate himself into his master’s confidence” (261). It is this curiosity and persistence that ends up causing Caleb to suspect Falkland of murder and influences him to let nothing take more precedence than discovering the truth of the matter, as in Chapter 6, when Caleb uses the opportunity of the house fire to attempt to discover the secret Falkland is keeping in the trunk. Caleb narrates that he arrived in Mr. Falkland’s private rooms “by some mysterious fatality” (Godwin 210) and several lines later that he knew “not what infatuation instantaneously seized me” (Ibid). Here Caleb is thwarted in his attempt to have confirmed with physical evidence his suspicions about the guilt of Falkland when he is interrupted by the man himself, who puts a pistol to Caleb’s head and threatens him. However, this interaction is the spark that sets in motion the dangerous game of cat and mouse that makes up the remainder of the novel and also sets Caleb on the self destructive mission of striving to know Falklands mind, a mission that forces him to become more like the object of his obsession than he realizes and as Sue Chaplin suggests threatens to destroy them both:

Falkland’s ancestral home catches fire and Caleb firstly resolves, like a dutiful servant, to rescue Falkland’s valuables. Caleb’s insatiable curiosity, however, turns him instead to a locked chest in a private closet which he believes contains Falkland’s confession to the murder of Tyrrel. Caleb chooses to preserve not the symbols of Falkland’s authority, but the deadly secret that threatens to destroy Falkland and Caleb (122-123).

Simple curiosity (which is one of the most powerful forces in human nature) aside, the psychological reasons that Caleb becomes obsessed with Falkland and Falkland’s power are key to understanding the mirroring that takes place in the novel. Gary Handwerk discusses the importance of understanding the novel in psychological terms in his article “Of Caleb’s Guilt and Godwin’s Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb Williams”;

“Caleb William’s narrative structure is obviously allegorical; it translates the larger terms and conditions of political justice into the personal relationship of power between Caleb and his master and mentor, Falkland. Recognizing this, however, does not provide a precise answer for just how the allegory works, especially for how Godwin’s choice to foreground psychology and to put issues in moral terms affects the political message (if any) of the text” (944).

            Handwerk here is discussing the relevance of the moral themes in the novel to the overall political message Godwin is attempting to convey in the narrative, but his comment that the narrative structure of the novel is an allegory for the power struggle between Caleb and Falkland is helpful to the purpose of this paper, which sets out to prove that by so attempting to equalize with Falkland “his Master and Mentor” (Ibid), Caleb is trying to use the political system in the same way that Falkland does; Williams in effect becomes Falkland, or at least, a reflection of Falkland.

Before Caleb does become Falkland’s doppelganger though, he goes through a progression of steps in the novel that bring him closer and closer to completing his horrible metamorphosis. And, before attaining an equal footing with Falkland, as Handwerk points out, Caleb “struggles as a righteous individual against the system whose representative or agent is Falkland, but he finds no opportunity for justice within politicized institutions” (945). Therefore, according to Handwerk, Caleb does at least in the beginning of the novel have the qualities of a righteous individual. It is because of the lack of justice in the system that Caleb has to rely increasingly on mimicking the behaviour of his former master. There are numerous examples of key points in the novel when Caleb takes action that I argue may have been inspired by Falkland’s previous behaviour. One of the best comparisons of such points in the novel is to juxtapose the treatment of the Hawkins’s by Falkland as compared to the treatment of Mrs. Marney by Caleb. Mr. Falkland knowingly lets the Hawkins’s be sent to jail and finally to be executed for the crime of murdering Tyrell, a crime we know that Falkland himself is guilty of. This act is cruel and unusual in that Falkland could have saved the men by admitting his guilt; Falkland keeps silent to selfishly preserve himself from the law. In the case of Mrs. Marney, Caleb hears that she is imprisoned due to her unknowingly having provided assistance to a criminal, himself the dreaded Caleb Williams. This becomes remarkably similar to Falkland’s behaviour, as we learn that Caleb does not turn himself in (his doing so would undoubtedly affect her release) but rather chooses his own self preservation (Godwin 369).

Another very interesting example of how Caleb takes his cues from Falkland’s behaviour is exampled by a comparison of the restraint shown by both men. Falkland, despite the threat that Williams imposes, throughout the novel keeps him alive. This is one of the more interesting aspects of the book, as Godwin early on establishes for Caleb and for the reader that Falkland is willing to kill to preserve his reputation. Why then, would Falkland suffer Williams to live, when Caleb is undoubtedly a liability to Falkland for almost the entire length of the novel? I argue that Caleb, tested certainly to the limits of human endurance and with much less to lose than Falkland, (as he, Caleb is already presumed the worst kind of human being) exercises the same kind of restraint in refusing to harm Falkland physically. This is behaviour he has observed of Falkland, that of using violence upon ones enemies only as an absolutely last resort.

If for the purposes of this argument we can see mirroring as temporarily or permanently “becoming like” or “becoming” another person, then the ending of the novel contains this becoming for both Falkland and Williams. Handwerk presents this key moment in terms of the revised ending and its psychological complexity:

In revising the ending of Caleb Williams, Godwin created one of his most brilliant and memorable narrative passages, its psychological complexity intensified by the way that it startlingly reverses the previous momentum of the novel not just once, but twice – first by Caleb’s triumph in court, then again by his sense of the emptiness of that victory (945).

This triumph by Caleb is his finally becoming Falkland by using the same tools as Falkland, the Law and his spoken eloquence, to achieve victory. Likewise, Falkland becomes Caleb as the victim of such powers, his physical weakness perhaps substituting itself for the political weakness that earlier in the novel kept Caleb imprisoned or a fugitive. Then, as Handwerk has pointed out, Caleb is immediately reduced again to a victim, this time mirroring the way in which Falkland’s triumph over Tyrell was really his own downfall.

The final court scene is also important in demonstrating how Caleb has come to mirror Falkland in his mastery of words and argument, both of which are crucially important to the outcomes of the courtroom scenes. Of this, Handwerk writes that:

Caleb’s moving speech manages to chart a third course, one that allows him to maintain his benevolence and impartiality towards Falkland. Even as he accuses Falkland, he vindicates his master’s character and intentions, rebuking his own “folly and cruelty” in choosing to confront Falkland in court and publicize his guilt. (Ibid)

This can be compared with the scene in which Falkland is the star witness at his own trial, and the applause that greets his acquittal is the expression of “rapturous delight” (Godwin 173). Caleb has in effect become Falkland here, by becoming the suspected villain who moves an entire courtroom to high emotion and by doing so achieves victory. Handwerk sees evidence that Caleb’s mirroring of Falkland in this way stems from obsession:

Caleb remains locked in an obsessive identification with Falkland because he can find no place for himself within the historical narrative he has constructed to vindicate Falkland. Rather than becoming an impartial spectator or a reliable narrator, Caleb simply exchanges roles with Falkland in an ongoing ideological spectacle (950).

And further reason to identify the courtroom drama with the two main characters becoming mirror images of each other, is the fact that “Caleb accepts the role of villain in this revised tragedy, re-enacting Falkland’s melancholy mourning for the other as victim and for himself as the unwilling agent of political injustice” (Handwerk 955). And not only do Caleb and Falkland come to mirror each other physically and in their actions, but also they even feel the same way:

“I now see that mistake in all its enormity. I am sure that, if I had opened my heart to Mr. Falkland, if I had told to him privately the tale that I have now been telling, he could not have resisted my reasonable demand” (323). This fault is Falkland’s as well; Caleb’s one remaining accusation is that Falkland likewise failed to trust him: “You began in confidence; why did you not continue in confidence” (Handwerk 948).

There are other ways in which the two characters come to mirror each other, or as Andrew J. Scheiber calls them, other “parallelisms” (256) that “bind Caleb and Falkland together” (Ibid). Some of these “parallelisms” (Ibid) draw the two characters so closely in tune with one another that it is as though Godwin has created a single person, split into two bodies. As Scheiber notes in his article:

In Chapter 1 Caleb spends a paragraph describing the circumstances of his birth and early years, and briefly notes his general interests and inclinations as a child; in Chapter 2 the same is done for Falkland. Caleb then describes, in the respective chapters, his own physical stature and then that of his master (they are both small and by appearance unathletic) (page 2). 

 Some examples of my own of how eerily the two seem to measure up one against the other; in the courtroom scene at the end Caleb begins to rely on his intellectual abilities (Godwin 431-432) the same way that he recalls, in second hand stories of Falkland, that Falkland had done the same in situations such as the early disagreements with Mr. Tyrell (87-90); Caleb mirrors Falkland in his inability or his refusal to find a female partner; Caleb mirrors Falkland by escaping from prison (294), the same way that Falkland had narrowly escaped going to prison (172); Caleb mirrors Falkland by using his powers of conversation when faced with violence, such as in the woods when he is affronted by Gines (301-302) and the other robbers just as Falkland does on social occasions with Mr. Tyrell (80-81); Caleb will do anything in his power to save his reputation, resorting to disguise, other means of employment, trying to leave the country, etc. just as Falkland was willing to kill and let others die, all to save his reputation; Caleb becomes like Falkland in the end when his entire will is bent on crushing Falkland, just as Falklands entire will was bent on crushing Caleb; Falkland becomes like Caleb when he is old and infirm and his body becomes crippled and useless (429-430), just as Caleb was reduced to an inform state both in prison and when beaten by the men in the woods (302); Falkland uses Caleb’s allies against him by spreading word to Laura through pamphlets about his true identity (402). This is very similar to how Caleb tried to use Forrester to his advantage, planning to leave the employ of Falkland (242); Caleb becomes obsessed with repairing his identity, for he does not want to go down in history as a villain, just as Falkland is concerned with his reputation as a great man to a fault; Falkland keeps secrets, hidden in the trunk. Caleb keeps secrets hidden in an anti chamber behind his room; Caleb begins the novel spying on Falkland, and as the novel progresses, the tables have turned and Falkland is the one keeping tabs on Caleb. In all of these ways the two characters become almost as one in the mind and perhaps this is why at the end of the novel, it seems as though neither of the two is truly victorious, as their dependence on each other seems almost that of father and son.

 Having established that the two characters do in fact mirror each other, I would like to discuss reasons why this may be so. Why does Caleb strive in a way to “become” Falkland? What does Godwin accomplish by having this moral twinning occur? Was his intention to show us that reliance on the political engine and the law do not always translate to truth and justice? Handwerk writes that:

Paradoxically, this reading suggests that Caleb’s error is his failure to step outside those circumstances and outside the legal system in order to seek a personal reconciliation with Falkland: “The direct and private confrontation of truth with error, testing the power of truth, is what Caleb should have attempted, but did not (943).

So if Caleb did indeed fail to deal with the situation of Falkland properly by resolving the conflict between the two of them personally and privately, what could his reasons be for doing so? We know that Caleb spends most of the novel in refusal to publicly accuse Falkland of the murder. Indeed, even when imprisoned, Caleb insists only on his own innocence and not on the guilt of his former master. I contend that it is Caleb’s fatal curiosity that drives him onward even in the face of annihilation. Andrew J. Scheiber’s article supports this theory as in it, when discussing Caleb and Falkland and their symmetry he writes of Caleb that “in the third paragraph of Chapter 1 he names the “spring of action which…characterized the whole train of my life”: his “curiosity.”” (256).  He, Caleb, is determined to figure out, through trial and tribulation if necessary, the truth of Falklands past, whether by discovering evidence or by forcing Falkland to a confession through his unbreakable spirit. It is this deadly curiosity that pulls the two characters so closely together. Caleb’s inquisitiveness and his awe of Falkland draw the two together until they are forced to collide in such a way that destroys Falkland and forces Caleb to acknowledge the reflection of Falkland in himself and therefore his similar moral failings. Handwerk’s theory agrees with this summation:

Failing to recognize the allegorical resonance of his own life, Caleb allowed his impartiality to be corrupted by his sense of self and by his emotional reactions to Falkland. Despite his belief in his own purity of purpose, he fell short of an adequate faith in the efficacy of his own appeal to reverse the predominance of power over ethics (948).

And so finally the curiosity and worship that has driven Caleb to the moment of crisis with Falkland has helped Caleb only to realize the same monstrous nature of Falkland as something that also exists within him. Of the novels ending Handwerk writes that:

Its emotional tone makes Caleb’s sympathy for Falkland extremely suspect, for it derives less from a detached, historical understanding of their relation than from a problematic identification with Falkland and even with his power to oppress. As the postscript continues, Caleb virtually becomes Falkland; he inherits his role as ruthless oppressor, passing on to him the role of innocent victim. Caleb sees himself as all that he has accused Falkland of being, a murderer (323) and an execrable criminal (325), even claiming that he should more mercifully have “planted a dagger in his heart”(as Falkland did to Tyrrel) than humiliated Falkland (150).

Also echoing these sentiments and best summing up the purpose of this paper in arguing that Caleb and Falkland end up mirroring each other to the mutual downfall of each other is Sue Chaplin’s conclusion in her article “A Supplement: Godwin’s Case for Justice” about the results of Caleb’s efforts:

Caleb’s eloquent juridical rhetoric does convince the court of Falkland’s guilt, but at the very moment that justice appears to have been done according to the law, Caleb suddenly sees in the defeated, decrepit, dying Falkland the other he has constantly misrecognized. This isn’t to say that Caleb wishes to re-assert Falkland’s legal authority over him, or that Caleb doesn’t deserve his victory over legal tyranny. Rather, it suggests that there is still some remainder here, something beyond the court room, some sense in which justice remains to be done. Caleb finishes in mourning for Falkland (123).

Godwin has created in Caleb Williams characters that reflect the utmost concerns of humanity; truth, justice and the inner turmoil within every person over mortality and legacy. Artfully, he crafted Caleb Williams and Ferdinando Falkland both in turn as hero and villain and skilfully wove their interconnectedness into a compelling narrative. This investigation into the mirroring between the two men has unearthed a correlation between Caleb’s fatal curiosity and the struggle for power that runs as an undercurrent throughout the novel and has proven the negative psychological effect of the associated guilt and its ruinous effect on both men. 

Works Cited and Consulted

Handwerk, Gary. Of Caleb’s Guilt and Godwin’s Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb 

            Williams. ELH, Vol. 60, No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 939-960. Johns Hopkins 

            University Press.

Scheiber, Andrew J. Falkland’s Story: Caleb Williams’ Other Voice. Studies in the Novel,

 (17:3), Fall 1985, 255-266.

Chaplin, Sue. A supplement: Godwin’s case for justice. European Romantic Review

            Vol. 19, No. 2, April 2008, pages 119–124. 

Barker, Gerard A. The Narrative Mode of “Caleb Williams”: Problems and Resolutions. 

            Studies in the Novel, 25:1, Spring 1993, p.1-15.

Godwin, William. Caleb Williams. Eds. Gary Handwerk and A. A. Markley. Broadview

 Press Ltd. 2000.

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