Textuality as Gothic Prison

Textuality as Gothic Prison:  Narrative Surveillance and Oppressive Social Codes in Caleb Williams

by David S. Hogsette, PhD

A lecture delivered at the International Gothic Association


[The project described by the title grew much longer than a 20-minute paper.  Today I will focus on the issue of imprisoning social codes.  We could, in discussion, touch on the narrative surveillance issues if you like.]

At its heart Caleb Williams (1794) 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 (1793).  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, within the context of a 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 of 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 Maurice 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 Gothic 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, I will be arguing that Godwin uses language and narrative as Gothic components of tyranny and imprisonment.  He examines how an individual can be psychologically entombed and physically decayed by stubbornly upholding and being confined by external social narratives.

Robert Miles defines Gothic literature as a series of culturally and historically synchronous forms that “‘revise’ one another, here opening up ‘ideologically’ charged issues, there enforcing a closure” (3).  Godwin’s engagement of the genre—the confessional autobiography and Gothic fiction—opens up the specific ideological issue of power, both institutional and individual.  On the topic of power as a Gothic mechanism in Caleb Williams, however, David Punter makes a curious distinction:  “Although the kind of power which Godwin is depicting has a connection with political power (and is, at crucial points of the story, sustained by the authorities), it is not in itself political power.  It is better described as the power of subjection, and as such it operates partly through Caleb’s mind” (122).  I want to suggest that this persecutory manipulation of the mind we see in the novel is specifically political power, because it is a fundamental component of oppressive social hegemony.  Social narratives and codes of nobility function in this novel to effect self-imposed psychological persecution, which functions ultimately to preserve the hegemony.  Falkland is not a failed metaphor of state political power; rather, he is a representation of ultimate state power—the control achieved through narrative gaze and textual entrapment.  Moreover, Falkland becomes an exemplar victim of social oppression.  He is entrapped by the very codes he honors all his life.  And, ironically, Caleb’s confession does not free either of them, and it leaves Caleb further dejected and entrapped.

In Godwin’s Gothic drama about political radicalism, true freedom in its idealized form is found within the unfettered mind and within an individual’s rational 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).  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:  “Among the favourite authors of his early years were the heroic poets of Italy.  From them he imbibed the love of chivalry and romance.  He had too much good sense to regret the time of Charlemagne and Arthur.  But, while his imagination was purged by a certain infusion of philosophy, he conceived that there was in the manners depicted by these celebrated poets something to imitate, as well as something to avoid” (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, he also characterized the dangers of reading as the loss of the reader’s individualism to that of the author.[1]  In this novel, 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:  “I panted for the unravelling of an adventure with an anxiety, perhaps almost equal to that of the man whose future happiness or misery depended on its issue.  I read, I devoured compositions of this sort.  They took possession of my soul; and the effects they produced were frequently discernible in my external appearance and my health” (6).  For these two characters, reading excites their imaginations and, later in their lives, 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 oppressive 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, not even in the literature:  Falkland was conflicted over the barbarous desire for—yet ancient right of—revenge and 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 innocent 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 Falkland’s identity is an imaginary construct, his isolation is 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 an oppressive value system that he fully supported and perpetuated but now wishes could be obliterated.  Though seemingly trapped, he has three options.  One:  he can confess his crimes and suffer the legal and social consequences as supported by the social codes, but his selfish pride, bolstered by these codes, is too great to allow such a confession and social disgrace.  Two:  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.  Three:  he can maintain the fiction, uphold the aristocratic codes, and suffer through personal guilt, emotional isolation, and physical decay.  Falkland chooses this third option 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 and the body becomes the site of ruinous decay.  Of course, 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.[2]  For the purpose of this paper, I’m interested in analyzing how social narratives can transform the mind into a prison and the body into a Gothic ruin.  Godwin presents aristocratic social narratives as overdetermining codes that turn the mind—what would become the preeminent Romantic source of freedom and transcendence—into a dark prison of pain and obsession.

There are two key examples to the contrary in which Godwin seems to present a pre-Romantic idealism:  for Emily, as well as Caleb upon first being imprisoned, the mind is a vehicle for idealized freedom, allowing them to celebrate a transcendent liberty of thought.[3]  Yet for Falkland, and Caleb by the end of his narrative, the mind is entrapped by a slavish devotion to codes of honor, allowing for no kind of cognitive freedom or mental transcendence.  Falkland 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 thing 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 charges and brought before Falkland, who admits that he had been watching, hounding, and perversely protecting Caleb all along:

But now [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 the 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.  (290-91)

Though never actually incarcerated, 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 confession—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.  According to Maggie Kilgour, 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.

Other readers also argue that the narrative, ultimately, is successful.  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 Ancient 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 he 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 oppression 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).  He berates himself for succumbing to selfish indignation and breaking his promise.

It is clear to me that Caleb 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 system is offered, and Caleb victimizes himself under the authority of aristocratic social expectation just as cruelly as Falkland imprisoned himself.  In this Gothic tale, narrative—in the form of autobiographical confession and social codes—is the mechanism of terror, and the sympathetic self becomes the dark, tyrannical figure lurking within the shadowy recesses of the imprisoning mind.

Narrative Surveillance Outline [for Q/A Discussion]

  1. Caleb as Narrative Inspector and Reader-Spy—autobiographical writing and acts of reading (reading letters and reading lives) as invasive gaze.
  2. Falkland’s Epistolary Control—hides Hawkins letter (control by omission) and exploits Caleb’s letter of resignation (contextual control)
  3. Falkland’s Manipulation of Public Media—fliers and tracts concerning the events of Caleb’s life.  Facts are correct, but misapplied out of context transforms the factual into a tool of control and tyranny.

Works Cited

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.

Punter, David.  The Literature of Terror:  A History of Gothic Fiction from 1765 to the Present Day.  2nd ed.  New York: Longman, 1996.

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

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

[2] 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 breaks through again saying, “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).

[3] 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).