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Literature / Caleb Williams

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"...But my difficulties, instead of being ended, seemed to be only begun."

You might as well think of escaping from the power of the omnipresent God, as from mine!
Ferdinando Falkland

Caleb Williams: Things As They Are is a novel by the philosopher William Godwin (better known as the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, father of Mary Shelley, and father-in-law of Percy Bysshe Shelley).

Ferdinando Falkland, a rural English squire, hires 18-year-old orphan Caleb Williams as his secretary. A few months into his employment Caleb begins to suspect Falkland is hiding a guilty past. When Caleb learns the truth – that Falkland murdered a man, and did nothing while two innocent people were executed for his crime – he also discovers Falkland will do anything to keep this secret…

Caleb Williams is still read as an example of late 18th century Gothic fiction, albeit one where a naïve newcomer is pursued not by ghosts or monsters but by the injustices of English law. Studied in particular for its criticisms of political oppression, unjust hierarchies, and English society in general in the 1790s.

Also just a really good suspense story.

Caleb Williams provides examples of:

  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Caleb declares his love for Falkland in Ch. 3 of Vol. II – at the end of a heated argument.
    "Sir, I could die to serve you! I love you more than I can express. I worship you as a being of a superior nature."
  • Anti-Villain: Falkland’s overall plans to follow, control, and discredit Caleb are evil, but he makes sure to never physically harm or kill Caleb. In fact, he tries to make Caleb’s prison stay more comfortable, gives Caleb twenty pounds (i.e., the average annual income for an English laborer or farmer in 1800) even after Caleb officially accuses him of murder, and drops charges against Caleb – effectively saving Caleb from further imprisonment and execution.
  • Asshole Victim: Squire Tyrrel. Assaults Falkland at a public meeting, arranges for Emily Melville to be abducted and forced into marriage, and unjustly evicts the Hawkinses from their home. Arguably, also Caleb: Falkland’s retribution is out of proportion, but Caleb deliberately and methodically provoked him.
  • Bad Boss: Judging by the other servants’ devotion, Falkland is actually an excellent boss, unless you know his dark secret.
  • Bittersweet Ending: On one hand, Falkland appears in court, confesses all his wrongdoing, commends Caleb – and dies. On the other hand, Caleb is wracked with grief for being Falkland’s “murderer” and disillusioned with “the corrupt wilderness of human society.”
  • The Bus Came Back: Collins disappears from the novel after telling Falkland’s backstory. Ten years (and many chapters) later, Collins bumps into Caleb on the road. It turns out Collins was sent to the West Indies to look after Falkland’s plantation.
  • Buy Them Off: In Vol. II, Ch. 13, Falkland bribes the jailkeeper into offering Caleb accommodations in the keeper’s own home. In Vol. III, Ch. 12, he offers to “mitigate” Caleb’s sufferings if Caleb will swear on paper that Falkland is not a murderer. Caleb refuses both times.
  • Byronic Hero: Let’s see…pre-murder Falkland is a highly attractive, passionate, intelligent, and sophisticated man. He often muses on the injustices of life, and how to correct them. He is intensely committed to live out his chivalric ideals and behave as a modern knight. Post-murder Falkland is haunted by his crimes and full of guilt and self-hatred, but nonetheless determined to defend his name, even to the point of self-destruction. He even wanders out to cliffs in stormy weather. Yup, we’ve got a Byronic Hero over here.
  • Character Title
  • The Chessmaster: Falkland is this. One example: before accusing Caleb of theft, he somehow plants a watch and several jewels in Caleb’s boxes.
  • Clear My Name: This is why Caleb brings Falkland to court at the book’s climax.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Falkland just happens to be in the right time and place to save Emily twice. He also arrives in the hall at the right time to confront Tyrrel: “Mere accident had enabled him to return sooner than he expected.” A similar “miraculous accident” enables Falkland to pin his crime on Hawkins. As Falkland tells Caleb,
    "Whence came the circumstantial evidence against him, the broken knife and the blood, I am unable to tell."
  • Conveniently an Orphan: Caleb’s father dies just before Caleb starts working for Falkland, while Caleb’s mother died several years ago. All the better to make him entirely dependent on Falkland’s care and mercy…
  • Despair Event Horizon: Falkland’s death is this for Caleb.
  • Encyclopaedic Knowledge: Caleb apparently has this, since he occupies his time in prison with (mentally) reviewing history and mathematics, and composing poetry.
  • Final Speech: Falkland gets this at his trial.
  • Framing Device: After being hounded for years, but before bringing Falkland to trial, Caleb writes his memoirs so his friend Collins will know the truth about his life.
  • Genius Book Club: Caleb loves tossing in references to Shakespeare.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Falkland was this, until he killed Tyrrel.
  • Great Escape: At the end of Vol. II, after Thomas the Footman gives Caleb a chisel, a file, and a saw, Caleb is able to remove his handcuffs, file through the bars on his window, and ultimately remove enough bricks in the prison wall to escape.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Inevitable for a book written in the 1790s.
    • "Ferdinando Falkland was once the gayest of the gay."
    • "…every day rendered our intercourse more intimate and cordial."
    • All of Caleb’s "ardent" declarations of love for Falkland. Probably.
  • He Knows Too Much: Falkland’s reason for keeping Caleb under surveillance for ten years.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Caleb is this in his own home after Falkland accuses him of theft. His infamy spreads nationwide after he escapes from prison and Forester offers 100 guineas for his capture.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: Happens to both Caleb and Falkland. When Caleb is trying to figure out whether Falkland is a murderer, Falkland is the Hunted. When Falkland sends Caleb to prison, Caleb becomes the Hunted. When Caleb brings Falkland to trial, Falkland becomes the Hunted again.
  • The Ingenue: Young, innocent Emily.
  • Love Martyr: For much of the novel, Caleb’s feelings for Falkland are a (platonic) version of this.
    "I had conceived that the unfavourable situation in which I was placed was prolonged by my own forbearance; and I had determined to endure all that human nature could support, rather than have recourse to this extreme recrimination (i.e., revealing Falkland is a murderer). That idea secretly consoled me under all my calamities: it was a voluntary sacrifice, and was cheerfully made. I thought myself allied to the army of martyrs and confessors..."
    Vol. III, Ch. 10
  • MacGuffin: The trunk that Falkland closes in the very first chapter, and which Caleb finally opens in Vol. II, seems so important that the play adaptation of this novel was titled The Iron Chest. But in fact Caleb never sees what’s inside the trunk. Its contents are never revealed, and aren’t important to the plot.
  • Might Makes Right: Squire Tyrrel certainly thinks this. Falkland, painfully, does not: he knows he uses his power unjustly but is unable to stop.
  • Mirror Character: Emily Melville for Caleb. They are almost the same age when they meet Falkland (Emily is 17, Caleb is 18). Both are orphans dependent on the generosity of hot-tempered squires for their survival. Both escape from fires. Emily is pursued by an uncouth, amoral rustic named “Grimes”; Caleb is pursued by an uncouth, amoral rustic named “Gines.” Emily is nearly raped in a forest until a Good Samaritan saves her, only to face a long illness and ultimately die from a fever; Caleb is beaten and left for dead in a forest until a Good Samaritan saves him, only to face a long illness and almost die from a cleaver. When it comes to Falkland, both Caleb and Emily are “full of a thousand conjectures as to the meaning of the most indifferent actions.” Even their words are similar. When Caleb tells Falkland, “You may destroy me, but you cannot make me tremble,” it brings to mind Emily’s feverish declaration that “though [Falkland] could reject her, it was not in his power to break her heart.” Finally, Emily’s fantasy of holding Falkland’s corpse in her arms nearly comes true at the book’s end when Caleb embraces Falkland, who dies three days later.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: What the book’s about: Caleb, an innocent person everyone believes is guilty, and Falkland, a guilty person everyone believes to be innocent.
  • Moral Myopia: For all their differences, both Tyrrel and Falkland. When Emily protests her arranged marriage, Tyrrel replies, “And who are you? The lives of fifty such cannot atone for an hour of my uneasiness.” Falkland similarly believes the cultured elite are justified in almost whatever means they take to spread civilization. When Caleb points out Alexander the Great’s wars resulted in the deaths of thousands, Falkland asks, “…what in reality are a hundred thousand such men, more than a hundred thousand sheep?”
  • Murder Makes You Crazy: Falkland’s life goes decidedly downhill after stabbing Tyrrel.
  • My Rule Fu Is Stronger than Yours: Tyrrel is able to use this to mistreat Emily and the Hawkinses.
  • Old Retainer: Collins is this for both Falkland and Caleb. He is Falkland’s faithful steward (the only one who can bring Falkland back from his nighttime hikes), but also a father figure to Caleb, who calls him, “[m]y best, my oldest friend!”
  • Parental Substitute: Orphaned Caleb attaches himself to 4 different parent figures throughout the novel: Collins, Capt. Raymond, Mr. Spurrel, and Laura. (Some scholars argue Falkland is a father figure as well.)
  • Please Kill Me if It Satisfies You: Caleb to Falkland, after admitting he read Hawkins’ letter: “Do with me any thing you will. Kill me if you please…”
  • Revised Ending: The official ending (where Caleb and Falkland reconcile) is actually a revised version of Godwin's original, manuscript ending, which appears in some editions of the novel. In the manuscript, Falkland maintains his innocence when Caleb accuses him in court. The two don't speak again, and Caleb, though legally free, is kept under house arrest by one of Falkland's agents. Alone and isolated, and possibly drugged, Caleb slowly goes insane. His final message to Collins is a broken, incoherent ramble. Meanwhile, Falkland dies. Maybe.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Falkland is the Sensitive Guy to Tyrrel’s Manly Man. Manly Tyrrel is furious at being unseated by “this Frenchified rascal.”
  • Slave to PR: Falkland is well aware that his attempts to preserve his own good name, even at the cost of his own or Caleb’s life, is completely insane. Even so he vows to do anything to save his honor.
    "Though I be the blackest of villains, I will leave behind me a spotless and illustrious name. There is no crime so malignant, no scene of blood so horrible, in which that object cannot engage me."
    Vol. II, Ch. 6
  • Stalker W Ithout A Crush: Falkland and Caleb are this for each other. (Probably.)
  • Starting a New Life: Caleb tries to do this in rural Wales, becoming a watchmaker/math teacher and befriending a local family. His attempt fails, however, when the mother of said family finds out Caleb (allegedly) robbed Falkland. Her late father heard about and admired Falkland back in Italy. Tough luck.
  • Undying Loyalty: Even after learning Falkland killed Tyrrel, Caleb reflects “it was possible to love a murderer.” Even after being sent to prison and chased across England and Wales, Caleb remains loyal to Falkland: “I rather chose to expose myself to every kind of misfortune, than disclose the secret…” It takes ten years of suffering for Caleb to finally, wholeheartedly turn against Falkland - and all it takes is an apology to bring Caleb around again.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Falkland does this to Caleb by accusing him of theft – though the object is actually not to send him to prison, but to hurt Caleb’s reputation.