Caleb Williams Summary

William Godwin

Caleb Williams

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Caleb Williams Summary

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Caleb Williams is a three-volume novel written by William Godwin and published in 1794. It is a story meant to bring to light the way the justice system and other institutions destroy individuals even if they have committed no crimes.

In the first volume, we are introduced to Caleb Williams. He is born into a poor family, but is honest and strives to learn to read and write. When his parents die, he is employed as a literary assistant to Mr. Falkland, the master of the estate where his parents worked. One day while at work, he surprises Mr. Falkland doing something with a locked chest in the library. Falkland is enraged and accuses Caleb of spying, but he later apologizes.

Falkland is aristocratic and refined and uses his wits to talk his way out of the darker side of the Italian aristocracy—duels. Over time, he becomes a popular favorite among both the poor and the upper-class families. This earns him the ire of Barnabas Tyrrel, another aristocrat. Tyrrel has no problem taking advantage of his status, and when lower classes begin looking to Falkland to protection, and the upper class for a husband for their daughters, he is enraged.

Tyrrel destroys the reputation of a local farmer whom he helped, to get back at another neighbor of his. When the farmer, Hawkins, crosses Tyrrel despite Tyrrel’s help, Tyrrel blocks his livelihood and has his son arrested on trumped up charges. Later, he tries to arrange for someone to rape his poor cousin so that she will be forced into marriage, but before it can happen, Falkland saves her. Tyrrel has her arrested on false charges, and she falls ill and dies in prison. Later, Tyrrel is found murdered.

Falkland is arrested for murder but manages to defend himself through eloquent speech and his wits. He is acquitted of the crime, and the murder weapon is later found with Hawkins, the farmer. Hawkins and his son are executed for the murder of Tyrrel. At the end of Volume 1, they note that Falkland’s terrible moods and fits of irrationality date to this event.

In volume two, Caleb explains his feelings about the trial and a growing sense of doubt and suspicion he has. Caleb begins to spy on Falkland, growing more convinced that he murdered Tyrrel. His behavior becomes more suspicious as Caleb starts to look into things, and Caleb is convinced that his easygoing manner is put on so that Caleb will not be suspicious.

Caleb recounts a strange discussion he had with Falkland. They argued about Alexander the Great. Falkland believed that he was a great man who united empires while Caleb countered that he was a madman who forced his will on others and unleashed destruction and murder. When Caleb mentions the word “murder,” he claims that Falkland’s countenance grows pale and that makes Caleb even more convinced that he is guilty.

There is a fire in Falkland’s house, and Caleb feels compelled to open the chest. Falkland catches him. Later, he calls Caleb to his presence and confirms his suspicions saying that he must now live with the consequences. Caleb promises to keep the secret but then flees the estate. Falkland has him accused of a crime and lures him back. Caleb tries to defend himself, but he is ultimately thrown back in jail. One of Falkland’s servants supplies him the tools to escape, which he does, fleeing into the wild.

In volume three, Caleb is a fugitive from Falkland. He is robbed and beaten but taken in by another gang of thieves. Caleb then flees to Ireland, but he is followed. He is mistaken for a different criminal and arrested, but he bribes his attackers. Eventually, he is caught again and sent to face Falkland. Falkland tries to force him to lie, but Caleb refuses. Falkland lets him go, but later sends the now impoverished Caleb money to bribe him. After trying, and failing to make a living in Wales, Caleb convinces a magistrate to call Falkland to court so that he can make his case.

In the published ending, Caleb finds no victory in the court case, and he and Falkland forgive each other, though Falkland dies soon after. Caleb feels that the process was hollow, and he is writing the book only to remark on the events that happened instead of condemning him. He feels guilt over possibly causing Falkland’s health to fail.

Godwin hated the unbalanced social hierarchy that favored the aristocracy over the working class. He believed that the system created a tyrannical abuse of power and that the government was complicit in the system.

He also believed that institutions like the justice system were unbalanced and that they could turn even the innocent into tyrants because the pursuit of justice was so rigged and so few ever saw the justice they deserved. Caleb ultimately feels that his vindication in court was a hollow victory and that it contributed to Falkland’s illness and death. For him, the result was not worth it.

The era in which the story was written was a time of political upheaval and radical new ideas. Godwin’s book met with both praise, as a commentary on a broken system, and criticism, as little more than anarchist propaganda. It is a fascinating look at what people can expect from the justice system and whether the pursuit of justice through the established system is worth it.