Textual Surveillance, Social Codes, and Sublime Voices

Textual Surveillance, Social Codes, and Sublime Voices:  The Tyranny of Narrative in Caleb Williams and Wieland

by David S. Hogsette, PhD

A lecture delivered at the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies National Conference


I. Introduction:  Transatlantic Gothic Dialog

Many scholars William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798) by establishing Godwin as the literary and conventional center within which Brown’s novel operates.  For example, Pamela Clemit argues that Brown translates Godwin’s social idealism expressed in Political Justice (1793) and Caleb Williams into a post-revolutionary American skepticism that reacted against the violent turn of the French Revolution (Clemit 107-121).  From this perspective, Brown appears to be a derivative writer delimited by Godwin’s literary example.  However, taking a cue from Robert Miles, I would like to characterize the relationship between these two authors in terms of cultural dialog and artistic revision.  Miles defines Gothic literature as a series culturally and historically synchronous forms that “‘revise’ one another, here opening up ‘ideologically’ charged issues, there enforcing a closure” (3).  The Gothic, as with any literary genre or form, is a linguistic matrix with intertwining cultural nodes that are constantly shifting and being revised as authors engage the literature, their audiences, and their communities.  Though Brown was indeed deeply influenced by Godwin’s philosophical, political, and literary work,[1] I don’t see him writing a Godwinian novel.  Rather, they develop, transform, and enhance the Gothic by exploring the terrors of linguistic power and textual imprisonment, thus emphatically infusing popular Gothicism with explicit moral and political significance.

II. Caleb Williams and the Tyranny of Aristocratic Codes

At its heart Caleb Williams is a political novel concerned with power in its various abusive forms.  As many commentators have noted, this novel is partly a fictional expression of Godwin’s social and political views outlined in Political Justice.  By casting his political idealism in Gothic melodrama, Godwin hoped to reach those readers who would not necessarily encounter his longer political treatise.  In the preface to the novel he writes, “It is now known to philosophers, that the spirit and character of the government intrudes itself into every rank of society.  But this is a truth highly worthy to be communicated to persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach” (3).   The politically charged purpose of his novel was not lost on its early readers who were struggling with the volatile debates over revolution and reform in England which was, at the time, at war with revolutionary France.  A reviewer for the British Critic, which was then supportive of the Pitt government, condemned the novel as a political allegory that inaccurately and dangerously protested the governmental oppression of 18th-century reformers (Kelley 193).  Godwin later responded to this critic, explaining that the purpose the novel had been “to expose the evils which arise out of the present system of civilized society, to disengage the minds of men from presupposition and launch them upon the sea of moral and political enquiry” (Hindle xi).  Godwin identified himself as a political radical and positioned his novel as a fiery political tract engineered to move readers toward social critique.

Godwin claimed that institutional government intrudes upon the private lives of its citizens (especially political radicals), erasing true freedom through invasive surveillance.  This concern over governmental espionage, as Hindle rightly notes (xx-xxiv), becomes one of the novel’s central political themes.  James Thompson extends this discussion by invoking Michel Foucault’s analysis of Benthamite Panopticon in which the authoritative gaze isolates and alienates its subject, inducing feelings of terror and paranoia (181-83).  Much of the terror in Caleb Williams indeed stems from a realization that Falkland’s authoritative gaze ultimately isolates Caleb from all human community and leads him to despise himself, resulting in self-alienation.  However, true terror in this novel is self-imposed surveillance and imprisonment.  Godwin reveals that an individual can victimize himself by stubbornly upholding external social codes and allowing himself to be completely defined and (over)determined by these social narratives.

In Godwin’s Gothic drama about political radicalism, true freedom is found within the mind and an individual’s control over his own will.  Terror results when the individual loses cognitive sovereignty.  This principle is first introduced in the narrative depicting Tyrell’s patriarchal tyranny over his cousin Emily.  When Tyrell threatens to lock Emily up in her room if she does not marry Grimes, she rebelliously charges, “You may imprison my body, but you cannot conquer my mind” (60).  Godwin locates true freedom in the independent will and the mind of the rational individual.[2]  This level of freedom, idealized in the characters of Emily, Hawkins, and Mr. Raymond, eludes Falkland and Caleb, for their minds are ultimately imprisoned by the imaginary, by narrative codes of honor and chivalry.  Falkland assembles these behavioral codes from an imagination fueled by a fancy for antiquarian literature and culture, especially Italian epic poetry and heroic tales of medieval chivalry and romance (12).  Falkland is not a Godwinian free thinker.  Though Godwin encouraged active reading as a way to shape the rational mind, to encourage moral development, and to engage political enquiry, the dangers of reading is the loss of the reader’s individualism to that of the author.[3]  Falkland’s fancy impresses upon his mind the fictitious codes of chivalry and honor, overshadowing the purging power of philosophy and overdetermining his identity and his actions in society.  Caleb is equally possessed by the imaginary, particularly the narrative dictates of romance.  In his boyhood, Caleb was possessed by an intellectual curiosity and a lust for literary adventure and romance (6).  For these two characters, reading excites their imaginations and enslaves them to ancient aristocratic codes.  Instead of developing a rational individuality based upon an elevated reason, Caleb and Falkland construct fictitious identities based upon romance quests and tales of chivalry.  Their independent wills become dominated by imaginary dictates of an internalized ancient literature.

Godwin’s Gothicism is so disturbing here precisely because it manipulates literary conventions to reveal the hegemonic dangers of the imaginary.  Falkland and, later, Caleb are not subject to the state, though abuse of institutional power and juridical authority is a major subject of this novel; rather, they are victims of a self-imposed imaginary tyranny.  They become imprisoned by their blind devotion to fictitious codes.  Ironically and significantly, the poet Mr. Clare recognizes this character flaw in Falkland:  “You have an impetuosity and an impatience of imagined dishonour, that, if once set wrong, may make you as eminently mischievous as you will otherwise be useful” (37; italics added).  Falkland’s sense of honor and personal injury resides in the realm of the imaginary, the narrative, the literary.  As a poet and practitioner of the imaginary, Mr. Clare knew that just as Falkland’s sense of self was based on the imaginary, an imagined offense could tear down this narrative identity.  Falkland imagines his public humility (being physically abused by Tyrell in front of the town council) to be far greater a dishonor than it really was, and the irrational response to this dishonor initiates an internal conflict that the aristocratic codes could not resolve, even in the literature:  the barbarous desire for revenge versus the honor code of civility.  In a fit of rage that shatters his civilized façade, Falkland murders Tyrell in cold blood, and he further betrays the aristocratic codes by covering up his deed and framing the Hawkins family.  He created a new fiction to hide the truth and to maintain his honorable image in the eyes and minds of the community.  He walls himself up behind a series of fictions and becomes a prisoner of and slave to his imaginary identity.

Though his identity is an imaginary construct, his isolation is tangibly real, and he feels the pangs of anguish associated with his subjugation to a hegemony he now desires to eradicate.  In one of many manipulative conversations orchestrated by Caleb to uncover the truth concerning Falkland’s actions, Falkland becomes enraged and suddenly “drew back with trepidation, and exclaimed, ‘Detested be the universe, and the laws that govern it!  Honour, justice, virtue are all the juggle of knaves!  If it were in my power I would instantly crush the whole system into nothing!’” (122).  This once aristocratic ideologue now views himself a miserable victim of culture and a dupe of social codes.  He has become a lonely, isolated prisoner to a hegemonic value system that he fully supported and perpetuated but now wishes could be obliterated.  Though seemingly trapped, he has three options.  He can confess his crimes and suffer the legal and social consequences as supported by the hegemonic codes, but his selfish pride, bolstered by these codes, is too great to allow such a confession and social disgrace.  Or, he can become a radical and destroy the system that imprisons him, but it is too powerful for one man to annihilate, and this reality fills his body with rage and poisons his mind with madness.  Last, he can maintain the fiction, uphold the codes of the hegemony, and suffer through personal guilt, emotional isolation, and physical decay.  Falkland chooses the later and becomes the poster child for tortured Gothic villains that would populate hundreds of later Gothic tales and novels in England and America.

Falkland’s slavish devotion to his public image and the antiquarian codes of honor alienates him from others and transforms him into a desecrated ruin.  Here, the self serves as Gothic prison[4] and the body becomes the site of ruinous decay.  For Emily, as well as Caleb upon first being imprisoned, the mind is a vehicle for true freedom, allowing them to celebrate a transcendent liberty of thought.[5]  Yet for Falkland, and Caleb by the end of his narrative, the mind is already entrapped by a fanciful devotion to codes of honor, allowing for no kind of cognitive freedom or mental transcendence.  He internalizes the guilt of his crimes, translating it into an emotional disease that fragments his mind and cripples his body.  When he confesses his crime to Caleb he says that ever since the day of the murder, “I have not had an hour’s peace; I became changed from the happiest to the most miserable think that lives; sleep has fled from my eyes; joy has been a stranger to my thoughts; and annihilation I should prefer a thousand times to the being that I am” (125).  The full extent of his Gothic transformation is revealed after Caleb is freed from all the false charges and brought before Falkland who reveals that he had been watching, hounding, and perversely protecting Caleb all along:

But now he [Falkland] appeared like nothing that had ever been visible in human shape.  His visage was haggard, emaciated, and fleshless.  His complexion was a dun and tarnished red, the colour uniform through every region of the face, and suggested the idea of its being burnt and parched by eternal fire that burned within him.  His eyes were red, quick, wandering, full of suspicion and rage.  His hair was neglected, ragged, and floating.  His whole figure was thin, to a degree that suggested the idea rather of a skeleton than a person actually alive.  Life seemed hardly to be the capable inhabitant of so woe-begone and ghost-like a figure.  The taper of wholesome life was expired; but passion and fierceness and frenzy were able for the present to supply its place.  (291)

Though never actually imprisoned, Falkland here has taken on the ghastly shape of a tormented Bastille prisoner or a demonic figure whose body is decayed and his soul filled with a hellish rage.  This melodramatic Gothicism provides a self-indulgent narrative thrill and is easy to dismiss from a modern aesthetic and critical perspective.  However, transforming Falkland’s decaying body into a ruinous Gothic architecture underscores the dehumanizing ramifications of social hegemonies.  By manipulating basic Gothic conventions, Godwin expresses his own political concerns for not only the physical horrors of overt political oppression but also the spiritual and psychological terrors of a slavish devotion to social prescriptions for personal identity.

The main purpose of Caleb’s own narrative confessional—the novel he writes—is to escape the prison of Falkland’s narrative legacy and to redeem himself in the eyes of the public.  From the moment Caleb left Falkland’s service, Falkland imprisoned him through surveillance and narrative entrapment.  He brought false charges against him that resulted in isolation through incarceration, and after he escaped from prison and tried to make a life for himself as a writer, Falkland ruined his reputation and alienated him from those he loved by circulating disparaging tracts detailing Caleb’s criminal activity.  Caleb writes this confessional tale to regain narrative control over his life, to achieve freedom by clearing his name, and to expose Falkland as the “true” criminal.  Readers like Maggie Kilgour claim that Caleb is successful in achieving his narrative goals:  “The creation of Caleb Williams becomes itself a model for an ideal literary society in which the free individual is able to encounter the ideas of others without losing his individuality:  seeing how others think helps rather than impedes thinking for oneself.  Literary relations produce not the conformity of sterile copying, but the individuality of new and original creations” (56). However, Caleb’s narrative does not achieve this Godwinian ideal of narrative production.  Caleb starts off with the radical spirit of intellectual and political individualism, but by the end of the confession he succumbs to the very same social codes that originally imprisoned Falkland.  Godwin expresses his literary ideals and political views on the tyrannical power of narrative not through positive example but through bitter ironic failure.

Some readers argue that the narrative is, ultimately, not a failure.  For example, Hindle suggests that unlike other 18th-century first-person narrators, “Godwin’s first-person narrator spends time ruminating upon his experiences, analyzing his thoughts and motives, and learning from them” (xviii; Hindle’s italics).  However, Caleb merely learns self-loathing.  Like Coleridge’s Mariner who entraps listeners in his Gothically seductive tale, draining them of Reason and joy, leaving them “sadder and wiser,” and further alienating himself from human community, Caleb likewise fails to learn the truth of his tale—the imprisoning power of social codes—and tragically enslaves himself to the very same chivalric and aristocratic codes that entombed and destroyed Falkland.  Kilgour also makes this implicit connection between Caleb and the Mariner, yet she reads the Mariner and Caleb as narrators in control of their tale (70-74).  She suggests that Caleb is not a failed revolutionary figure who has merely switched places with his oppressor, the victim becoming the victimizer.  Rather, she locates his final accomplishment and eventual freedom in the guilt and compassion he feels for the destroyed Falkland:  “As a result, in the final moments of the confrontation the system of domination and vicious circle of victimisation appear not futilely inverted but totally transcended through the power of sympathy and the emergence of mutual love” (71).  This mutual love, according to Kilgour, allows them to “exert their powers as free agents to move beyond their determined positions” (70).  The cycle of oppressing and revenge may be averted here, but processes of victimization are not transcended.  These characters indeed come to recognize and love each other for who they are, but the process of Falkland’s Gothic transformation into a ruined edifice is complete and unreversed.  Moreover, Caleb simply embraces the aristocratic honor codes that oppressed Falkland from the beginning, thus learning nothing from his experiences nor from his own confessional tale.  There is no true conversion of character here.

Godwin gives us a self-reflective narrative in which narrative itself is the Gothic prison.  Instead of freeing himself from social scrutiny or emotional bondage, Caleb reinscribes his body and mind within the very same social codes he is writing/fighting against.  As he writes the narrative, Caleb realizes that his confessional act does not rid him of guilt.  Rather, it reveals the truth of his social reinscription:  “But these motives [that the truth concerning political abuse be exposed and justice ultimately be served through the telling of this tale] have diminished in their influence.  I have contracted a disgust for life and all its appendages.  Writing, which was at first a pleasure, is changed into a burthen” (314).  The guilt associated with his continued public humiliation of Falkland, who he has deified now in his mind, burdens him.  Once Caleb saw the wasted and skeletal remains of a once great aristocrat, he shuddered at the realization that he was responsible for Falkland’s public destruction by breaking the chivalric code of allegiance and the honor of one’s word:  he revealed Falkland as Tyrell’s murderer after promising Falkland that he would never tell (330).  Caleb berates himself for succumbing to selfish indignation and breaking his promise.

He abandons his radical quest for truth and justice and adopts the social concerns of the establishment.  In his mind, Falkland is no longer a tyrant but a god:  “A nobler spirit lived not among the sons of men.  Thy intellectual powers were truly sublime, and thy bosom burned with a godlike ambition” (336).  Caleb reveres Falkland as an aristocratic gentleman of the highest sort, a nobleman whom he betrayed.  Caleb leaves himself victim to his own guilt:  “It would have been merciful in comparison if I had planted a dagger in his heart.  He would have thanked me for my kindness.  But, atrocious, execrable wretch that I have been!  I wantonly inflicted on him an anguish a thousand times worse than death.  Meanwhile I endure the penalty of my crime.  His figure is ever in imagination before me.  Waking or sleeping, I still behold him” (336).  His guilt does not grow out of a humanistic sympathy but is rooted in the precepts of the very aristocratic social codes he attempted to expose from the very beginning of his tale.  Sympathy here offers no social or political transcendence.  No alternative hegemony is offered, and Caleb victimizes himself under the authority of aristocratic social expectation just as cruelly as Falkland imprisoned himself.

III. Oppressive Gothic Ventriloquism in Wieland

Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland is unmistakably a Gothic novel, and readers either love or hate its machinations.  For example, early 19th-century English reviews leveled savage criticism against Brown’s use of Gothic parlor tricks—spontaneous combustion and ventriloquism—suggesting that locating a solution to the mystery in such a simplistic idea as a parlor trick gone wrong is largely disappointing and insulting.[6]  Indeed, if we view ventriloquism here only in terms of a rational explanation of the mystery as in a Radcliffe novel, then Wieland surely disappoints.  However, as Bernard Rosenthal notes, Brown’s use of sublime voices “had purposes having little to do with the solving of mysteries.  Brown had a polemic message, the dangers of morality based on revealed religion” (104).  This argument is similar to those early critics who valued the novel, pointing out that the voices spoke of the dangers of being mislead by a superstitious belief in supernatural agencies.[7]  Edwin Sill Fussell argues that we should shift our focus away from the Gothic totally, claiming that reading this novel from a generic perspective ultimately reduces the work to a catalog of infantile tropes.  He suggests we read the novel as an important historical document that represents writers and their function in revolution and social disruption (185).  My attempt here is not to remove the novel from history but to understand better how an American writer can drew from European Gothic conventions to achieve his literary and political goals and thus how Gothic literature functions historically and culturally.

As a writer and political thinker, Brown was aware of Godwin’s political views, social ideals, and Gothic appropriations, and he was well versed in the sensational fiction and Gothic novels that were popular in his day.  Yet he understood the absurdity of transplanting continental Gothic machinery onto a new landscape that lacked the medieval history to support it, and in the preface to his Edgar Huntly (1799) he called for an Americanization of the European Gothic literary tradition.  True terror, he explained in the “Advertisement” to Sky Walk (1798), could be found in his readers’ contemporary American life, and he therefore grounded his Gothic tale and literary craft in the realities of 18th-century American life (Sheldon 17-18).  Brown’s American Gothicism in Wieland reveals language and narrative to be potentially imprisoning devices that entrap the will, control the body, and eventually disease the soul.  This form of Gothic terror is especially frightening due to its political ramifications for a young republic whose democratic system was built upon a belief in the authority, purity, and efficacy of the people’s will and voice.

Rhetoric and voice are acknowledged in this novel for their persuasive powers, and as such they become mechanisms of oppression and Gothic tyranny.  Jay Fliegelman notes that in the second half of the eighteenth century rhetoric in American academies of learning and in politics was a purified Ciceronian notion of persuasion, an active art of moving or influencing individuals to action (xxviii).  Brown realized that power and authority in the young American republic hinged upon the ability to excite the mind, animate the soul, and control the will.  He transformed the traditional Gothic by characterizing voice and narrative as rhetorical prisons that entrap the will and tyrannize the individual.  Early in the novel, Clara identifies the will as the key faculty of understanding and notes its dependence upon the senses:  “The will is the tool of the understanding, which must fashion its conclusions on the notices of sense.  If the senses be depraved, it is impossible to calculate the evils that may flow from the consequent deductions of the understanding” (39).  The voice becomes a rhetorical machination through which the senses are deceived and the will is controlled.  As we saw in Caleb Williams, the mind is capable of freeing the individual from physical imprisonment; however, as Brown explores in Wieland the mind also is the weak link in the chain of independence and self-determination:  “So flexible, and yet so stubborn is the human mind.  So obedient to impulses the most transient and brief, and yet so unalterably observant of the direction which is given to it!” (61).

Brown recognized storytelling or the author’s rhetorical use of voice as a Gothic mechanism for influencing the human mind and thus controlling the will of readers.  The Advertisement to Wieland is clearly an attempt to enlist the favor of his audience and to justify his use of the Gothic and the marvelous.  However, it also introduces the theme of narrative influence and textual enticement at the heart of Brown’s Gothicism.  His purpose for writing this novel is to instruct the moral constitution of man, and he attempts this goal by ventriloquizing his message and text through the epistolary voice of Clara.  He creates a series of textual chambers and deliberately masquerades as a woman, revealing authorship as a form of ventriloquism.  He manipulates fictitious voices to create “memorable forms” (4) or impressions on the mind and soul.  Brown articulates this concept of the affective author in the Rhapsodist, claiming that the role of the writer is “to enchain the attention and ravish the souls of those who study and reflect” (Fliegelman xx).  Note the Gothic terminology here and how he characterizes the author as a disembodied voice that imprisons the reader’s mind and ravishes the soul. Through his narrator Clara, Brown repeats this notion of textual enticement and submission to excited emotions:  “How will your wonder, and that of your companions, be exicted [sic] by my story!  Every sentiment will yield to your amazement” (6).  Brown presents himself as a rhetorical storyteller who manipulates voices in order to influence the will his audience, foreshadowing Carwin’s tyrannical abuse of language and characterizing narrative as a Gothic form of imprisonment.

The novel begins with a genealogy detailing the Wieland family’s association with affective language and literature that ultimately leads to textual indoctrination and imprisonment.  Clara’s grandfather devoted his short life to literature, music, and drama and was supposedly the founder of German Theater.  Furthermore the “modern poet of the same name is sprung from the same family” (7).  These ancestors were crafters of affective art, which entertained through impressing the images and creative visions of their creators upon the minds and souls of audiences and readers.  Clara’s devoutly religious father, ironically, “entertained no relish for books, and was wholly unconscious of any power they possessed to delight or instruct” (8).  By rejecting the trade of his ancestors, Clare’s father is unaware of the manipulative power of literature and books, and he becomes an intellectual and spiritual prisoner of a book written by a French Protestant (8-10).  This book is so powerfully seductive that it completely engages his soul and entraps his mind.  It details the religious doctrine of the Camissards, a Protestant sect, and it eventually frames his will and structures his study of the Bible.  Instead of freely and reflectively studying the Bible in open prayer with God, he is indoctrinated by the sect’s discourse, and his thinking, feelings, and meditations are determined by this single text.  The result of this narrow textual indoctrination is horrific.  The Wieland family has an interesting and tragic historical connection to affective narrative and textual imprisonment, yet the knowledge of this history and genealogy—a narrative in its own right—does not free Clara and her brother from their own tragic encounters with manipulative rhetoric.

Clara and her brother seem predetermined to be tyrannized by Gothically affected narrative. Carwin’s emotional melodrama enraptures Clara.  For example, when he masquerades as the peasant stranger and visits the house, Clara remarks,  “The voice was not only mellifluent and clear, but the emphasis was so just, and the modulation so impassioned, that it seemed as if an heart of stone could not fail of being moved by it.  When he uttered the words ‘for charity’s sweet sake,’ I dropped the cloth that I held in my hand, my heart overflowed with sympathy, and my eyes with unbidden tears” (59).  Carwin is a master of the Gothic voice who manipulates the will by affecting emotionalism and influencing the listener’s senses.  His “magical and thrilling power” (79) also enslaves the empirical intelligence of Wieland and Henry.  The earliest and clearest example is when Carwin mimics Catherine’s voice and provides false information concerning the death of Theresa, Henry’s mistress (50-51).  This shadowy voice raises questions of identity and authenticity, but it also reveals the power of voice to affect the soul and influence the will of the listener.  By deceiving the senses, Carwin manipulates their rational, empirical minds, thus directly controlling their wills.  Carwin’s sublime voice becomes a Gothic machination of emotional tyranny and intellectual imprisonment.

Though Carwin’s sublime voice is the most obvious form of Gothic narrative tyranny in this novel, it really could not succeed as such without the dominance of empiricism in this Age of Enlightenment.  As Carwin suggests during his confession, he is not solely responsible for Henry’s and Wieland’s transformations and tragic actions.  Arguably, his narrative trappings only work because his victims are already imprisoned by empiricism, a scientific grand narrative.  They trust their senses too much as a positive source of empirical data, and because they value this data as scientifically and logically sound, they are ultimately and ironically deceived into false conclusions that lead to irrational behavior.  A key problem with empirical reasoning is that it cannot account for convincingly forged or mimicked sensory input.  Carwin’s ventriloquism demonstrates the limits of empirical thought and reveals how individuals can become prisoners to logic.  Conclusions based on forged empirical data are logically sound, but they can be, as in Wieland’s and Henry’s case, tragically flawed.

Because the disembodied voice of Catherine is so convincing and the information it communicated concerning Henry’s mistress so extraordinary, the group concludes that this empirical evidence proves the existence of a supernatural force or presence (51-52).   Yet shortly after Carwin enters this social circle, he provides them a rational explanation for all the supernatural elements and voices they’ve experienced:  mimicry and ventriloquism (86-87).  Carwin actually gives himself away, but they fail to realize the truth.  They are so taken by empiricism that they cannot think beyond it.  Carwin’s ventriloquism is merely the precipitating factor revealing the extent to which they have already imprisoned themselves to an over-reliance on empirical evidence and rational thought.  They follow the dictates of empiricism to the point of absurdity, and their Reason drives them toward the irrational.  This imprisonment to empiricism is illustrated again in the later descriptions of Wieland’s religious enthusiasm (188-90).  His spiritual knowledge and faith are not truly spiritual so much as empirical.  He submits to what he thinks is God’s will not out of true faith (a belief in that which cannot be substantiated) but out of an earthly knowledge and human understanding rooted in empirical, verifiable evidence—Carwin’s voice and parlor tricks.    The source of authority and meaning is dislocated from the divine and placed back onto the receiver of language.  The final irony is that as in Caleb’s and Falkland’s case, Wieland and Henry imprison themselves by limiting their perspective to the precepts of empiricism, allowing their wills to be contained by the precepts of a scientific grand narrative.

IV. Melodramatic Tragedy and Gothic Political Tracts:  A Working Conclusion

Though Godwin and Brown were to some extent skeptical of sensationalist fiction and the popular Gothic tradition, both writers nonetheless appropriated key Gothic mechanisms to motivate their plots and to express their political commentary.  Indeed, the specifics of their political content differ:  Godwin, responding to the reactionary policies of the Pitt government that were oppressive to English civil liberties, writes a fictional representation of the social idealism expressed in Political Justice; Brown, on the other hand, is himself reacting against the horrors of the French revolution and is pleading, as Jane Tompkins observes, “for the restoration of civic authority in a post-Revolutionary age” (61).  Godwin works toward an idealized progressive liberalization in which ultimate authority is located within the rational and sympathetic individual, and Brown, based upon his uniquely American experience, expresses a Federalist skepticism in egalitarian liberalism and speculates on the chaotic horror resulting from the disillusion of centralized power and authority.

Interestingly, both writers base the efficacy of their Gothic political tracts in melodramatic tragedy as did the founding father of this Gothic tradition, Horace Walpole.  In The Castle of Otranto (1764) Walpole does offer a pseudo-comic resolution:   the ancient prophecy is fulfilled, providence wins, nobility of birth is upheld and maintained, and the divine right of kings and primogeniture are validated.  However, the surviving characters are not joyous.  Walpole infuses the comic resolution with (melodramatic) pain and emotional suffering, thus leveling social criticism against the aristocratic ideals that are narratively sustained.  Similarly, tragedy underscores the political messages of Caleb Williams and Wieland.  Caleb ends his confessional tale a sadder and wiser man, suffering the melancholy of his guilt and reinscribing his identity within aristocratic social codes.  Clara, physically palsied and emotionally shaken by her own retelling of the tale, ends her narrative with a tragic epilogue that simply duplicates the horrific tragedy of her own narrative life.  Through Gothic tragedy and negative example, Godwin and Brown express their respective political sentiments.


[1] Brown was first acquainted with Godwin’s work when selected chapters of Political Justice were published in the New-York Magazine in July 1793.  Furthermore, Caleb Williams was reprinted in Philadelphia in 1795, and Brown’s own Monthly Magazine published reviews of Godwin’s The Enquirer (1797) and St. Leon (1799).

[2] We will examine this same principle in the Gothic horror of Brown’s Wieland, where real terror is located in the tragic loss of rational thought and the subjugation of one’s will to the power of an external voice and scientific ideal.

[3] For a full discussion of Godwin’s views on reading, see Maggie Kilgour 53-55.

[4] Godwin does satisfy the more traditional Gothic demand for actual prisons and dungeons with the laborious scenes of Caleb’s incarceration.  More than just providing Gothic atmosphere, Godwin uses these scenes rather heavy-handedly to comment on the condition of prisons and the cruelty of the justice system during his day.  For example, when Caleb is first placed in jail, Godwin clearly intrudes upon Caleb’s narrative exclaiming, “visit the scenes of our prisons! Witness their unwholesomeness, their filth, the tyranny of their governors, the misery of their inmates!  After that, show me the man shameless enough to triumph, and say, England has no Bastille!” (188).  And later when Caleb is visited by Thomas, Godwin speaks through the later who says, “Lord, what fools we be!  Things are done under our very noses, and we know nothing of the matter; and a parcel of fellows with grave faces swear to us that such things never happen but in France, and other countries the like of that” (210).

[5] Here we see Godwin inserting a (pre-)Romantic idealism.  When Caleb is first imprisoned, he falls into himself and exercises his mind, exploring the far reaches of his reason and imagination.  His physical isolation gives way to an internal transcendence, and he narratively achieves freedom of mind and thought (192-94).

[6] See the reviews of Wieland published in The Ladies’ Monthly Museum 9 (December 1810): 338-339 and Gentleman’s Magazine 81 (April 1811): 364.

[7] See the review of Wieland published in Critical Review s. 3, 22 (February 1811) 144-63.

Works Cited

Brown, Charles Brockden.  Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist.  Ed. Jay Fliegelman.  New York: Penguin, 1991.

Clemit, Pamela.  The Godwinian Novel:  The Rational Fictions of Godwin, Brockden Brown, Mary Shelley.  Oxford: Clarendon P, 1993.

Fliegelman, Jay.  Introduction. Brown vii-xlii.

Fussell, Edwin Sill.  “Wieland:  A Literary and Historical Reading.”  Early American Literature 18.1 (1983): 171-86.

Godwin, William.  Things as They Are; or, the Adventures of Caleb Williams.  Ed. Maurice Hindle.  New York: Penguin, 1988.

Hindle, Maurice.  Introduction. Godwin ix-xxxix.

Kelley, Gary.  The English Jacobin Novel, 1780-1805.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1976.

Kilgour, Maggie.  The Rise of the Gothic Novel.  New York: Routledge, 1995.

Miles, Robert.  Gothic Writing, 1750-1820: A Genealogy.  New York: Routledge, 1993.

Rosenthal, Bernard.  “The Voices of Wieland.”  Critical Essays on Charles Brockden Brown.  Ed. Bernard Rosenthal.  Boston: G.K. Hall, 1981.  104-125.

Sheldon, Pamela J.  “The Shock of Ambiguity:  Brockden Brown’s Wieland and the Gothic Tradition.”  The DeKalb Literary Arts Journal 10.4 (1977): 17-26.

Thompson, James.  “Surveillance in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams.”  Gothic Fictions:  Prohibition/Transgression.  Ed. Kenneth W. Graham.  New York: AMS P, 1989.

Tompkins, Jane.  Sensational Designs:  The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860.  New York: Oxford UP, 1985.