Tuesday, April 02, 2019

William Godwin, Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1791)


It had been a long time since I'd read an eighteenth-century novel, so I thought it was time. This one was hugely popular in its time, though clearly that hasn't particularly endured.

You hear that this is about the title character being relentlessly persecuted by unjust authority. And it is. But it doesn't start that way. You don't expect an eighteenth-century novel to just get straight to the point or anything nutty like that, but I was wondering for the first third: so why am I reading this? So ol' Caleb, a poor orphan, is nonetheless industrious and smart and works for this somewhat mysterious Mr. Falkland, a wealthy, quiet landowner who sometimes has inexplicable rages. And before anything else, we need to get a very long history of this man, who is widely known as being extremely benevolent and sophisticated and intelligent and all these good things. So he lives his life, but then there's this OTHER rich guy who's incredibly violent and tyrannical and mean, to a truly excessive degree. And the upshot is, said other guy is found dead, and some little suspicion rests on Falkland, who was his special enemy, but then evidence comes out that it was actually a farmer he'd been persecuting and the farmer's son, so they're hanged, but from then on, his honor (which is the most important thing to him) having been impugned, Falkland kind of retreats into himself, and this is the state he's in when Caleb is working for him. But Caleb becomes obsessed with the idea that actually it was Falkland who committed the murder that others were hanged for, and sets out to prove this. Eventually he figures out that it was indeed so, and so begin his woeful peregrinations: unfairly accused of having stolen some stuff from Falkland and then adding to this horror by having accused him of setting him up (but he doesn't actually accuse him of the murder, sympathizing with him and being generally honorable (if that's what "honorable" means)), so he's in jail for a while and escapes and is on the run and falls in with bandits and generally...like this, until the final resolution. Yup.

So Caleb Williams was actually kind of entertaining in a "what will he do next?" way. Godwin was an anarchist, and he spends a lot of time inveighing against the evils of imprisonment and of an unequal system where the rich (like Falkland) are able to persecute the poor and there isn't a dern thing they can do about it. So I liked that as well. I do feel, however, that the book ultimately has two fatal flaws.

First, while I can easily believe that the legal system could be such as to systematically not give our protagonist a fair hearing, what I really can't believe is that absolutely everyone he meets would react with this hyperbolic horror to hearing about his alleged crime, and would always always always assume that there is absolutely zero chance that he's not guilty. It's as if he were some sort of notorious war criminal, as opposed--let us forget to being an alleged thief who lied about his thievery. It's just silly, and was the occasion for some intense eye-rolling, but the plot would absolutely not work if that weren't the way of it, which is...a bit of a problem.

Second, there's the ending. For your amusement, why don't I spoil it? Caleb has reached the end of his rope, and he somehow convinces a magistrate to let his accusations against Falkland be heard in a public court, having finally determined to reveal the truth about the murder. But then he sees the sorry state Falkland has fallen into and starts feeling compassion and sympathy for him and goes off on this woeful jeremiad about how horrible a person he is for having brought him to court, he should have confronted him in private, blah blah, honor, and Falkland finally breaks down and admits to the crime and soon after dies, and in spite of being exonerated, he feels guilty and empty and so on, and the book ends on this less-than-cathartic tone. And all I can think is man, get off the cross. You endured way more than any reasonable person would, and now this? BAH. I DO NOT FEEL EDIFIED. I mean, obviously I wasn't meant to, but while I'm willing to countenance a certain amount from an eighteenth-century novel, I just don't feel that the narrative, which is set up at least somewhat as a thriller-y thing, can really support this Message ending. Although, ironically, the end of this review isn't very rewarding either. Well, bye.

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