"Feeling Complicit in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams"


Feeling Complicit in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams

1.        The years of #metoo and the Trump presidency have seemed to install complicity as the universal diagnosis of our political present. They have also codified a now-familiar ritual of public disavowal: the deluge of personal and institutional statements in which denouncement doubles as self-exculpation. In other words: everyone is complicit; no one is complicit. I am less interested in the epistemological contradiction here than I am in the predictability of this phobic reflex: the assumption that complicity is, above all else, something to be shed or disclaimed. What forms of subjectivity, we might ask, does this circuit of response assume or nurture? What sort of politics do such disavowals enable, and what alternatives do they foreclose? What does it mean that the main form of collective agency we are capable of envisioning right now—the most recognizable instance of our condition of being-together—is also one that we cannot tolerate or own?

2.        In literary studies as in current political discourse, this peculiar state of mystified agency has proved remarkably easy to externalize: a condition we are in the business of recognizing, exposing, and implicitly disclaiming. This is one of the motivating projects of critique, as anatomized by recent challenges to depth hermeneutics. [1]  On the other hand, the very pervasiveness of this condition—its diffuse structure and banal omnipresence—can easily conduce to desensitization and false consciousness. This is the script of ideology itself, of the open secret that is so familiar it is barely registered at all. [2]  Complicity thus sits at the intersection of a pair of powerful cultural scripts, at once the target of critique and the work of ideology. In both of these scenarios—whether it is exposed in others or repressed in ourselves—complicity would seem to be precisely what cannot be felt. This is not to collapse the distance between critique and its object, but simply to draw out this initial inference: we seem to be good at identifying complicity, and bad at acknowledging it. Another way to put this is to say that it is hard to find a way of thinking complicity that is an adequate response to its basic shape (its banality, its scope) and that does not in some way reproduce its pitfalls (its tendency to replace responsibility with a mystified state of exception).

3.        This essay attempts to see a way beyond this impasse by theorizing complicity as a distinctive aesthetic response. [3]  To do so, I turn to a text that helped shape both of these cultural scripts, William Godwin’s 1794 political novel Things As They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams. Frequently cited as the first detective story, Caleb Williams has also been claimed as a founding parable of “ideology’s internalization” (Lynch 464). On one level, then, the novel pivots around the very predicament I’ve just described. Casting its protagonist as both a paranoid reader-detective and a victim of ideological mystification, the novel levels a searing critique of “things as they are,” even as it seems to diagnose its inadequacy to the task of what Godwin calls “political justice.” In what follows I will for the most part be setting these familiar versions of the novel to one side in order to concentrate on a range of effects that operate at a different scale, at once above and below the privileged formal sites of plot and character. For all of its forward propulsion, the novel is often figured in its reception as a spreading, lingering atmosphere that enmeshes its readers and sticks with them long after reading. And in brief snatches of dialogue and narration, it experiments with forms of lyric address that confuse guilty characters and eavesdropping readers. Both techniques have the striking effect of making complicity available as a first-person experience, at once an object of feeling and a mode of reading. To identify complicity, in this context, is also already to take part in it. The counterintuitive wager at the heart of this paper is that we might need more, not less, complicity to carry ourselves from the injustice of “things as they are” to a more equitable world.


4.        It is hard to imagine a more succinct articulation of the aesthetic ideology—of the utopian belief in the power of fiction to remake subjects and worlds—than the ambition Godwin claimed for Caleb Williams in his later preface to Fleetwood (1832): “I will write a tale, that shall constitute an epoch in the mind of the reader, that no one, after he has read it, shall ever be exactly the same man that he was before” (350). [4]  Formulated as a prediction but offered up only in retrospect, Godwin’s immodest aspiration can be read in part as a summary of the novel’s actual reception in the years between its publication and this preface. Around the same time, William Hazlitt offered a similar assessment of the novel’s cultural impact: “Few books have made a greater impression than Caleb Williams on its first appearance” (144). To paraphrase Godwin, I want to propose that the early critical discourse surrounding Caleb Williams is specific and consistent enough to constitute an event in the history of reading, although one that, for reasons that will become clear, has proved difficult to fully recognize.

5.        Some of the most revealing commentaries on the novel appear not in the first wave of reviews, but in a series of retrospectives tucked into reviews of other novels. Like Godwin in his later preface, these essays turn back to Caleb Williams, and specifically to the experience of reading Caleb Williams, as though still in its thrall. Many of them describe the experience in spatial terms, as an oppressive environment that is difficult to get outside of or to set at a distance. Here is John Gibson Lockhart, recalling his reading of Caleb Williams in an 1817 review of Godwin’s Mandeville (1817):

The impression which his story makes upon us is like that of a dismal dream, which we feel to be a fiction, and from which we are anxious to escape, but which sits, with a gloomy pertinacity, inflexible upon our breast, and compels us, in spite of reason and volition, to keep our eyes fixed and steadfast on its gliding phantoms and unearthly horrors. (270)

In a twist on Coleridge’s formula for poetic illusion, Lockhart describes a phenomenon we might call the unwilling suspension of disbelief: a state of immersion that endures “in spite of reason and volition.” The quality of persistence finds various names in this passage—“inflexibility,” “fixity,” “steadfastness,” “pertinacity”—which together conflate the formal continuity of the work with the condition of rapt paralysis it engenders in the reader.


6.        For other readers, this persistence extends even beyond the reading experience. “We remember the first time of reading [Caleb Williams] well, though now long ago,” recalls Hazlitt, in a review of Godwin’s Cloudesley (1830); “There is no laying down the book till we come to the end; and even then the words still ring in our ears, nor do the mental apparitions ever pass away from the eye of memory” (144). The novel seems to diffuse here across its own borders, sustaining itself as an echo or an afterimage. The experience Hazlitt and Lockhart describe is both a spatial and a temporal condition, defined by its extension in space and its duration in time. If the reception of this novel is, as I am suggesting, an event in the history of reading, it is one defined precisely by its refusal to constitute itself as a self-contained episode or object. This is implicit in the double gesture of Hazlitt’s description—a “first time” reading that, it turns out, hasn’t really come to an end—as well as the recursive structure of all of these accounts, the compulsion to return to Caleb Williams in apparently distant contexts.

7.        In their tendency to describe the novel as an oppressive environment or an ongoing experience, Hazlitt and Lockhart point to a set of effects that gather under the aesthetic category of atmosphere, a term that acquired its wider figurative range of reference—including the particular sense of a text’s enveloping mood—during the Romantic period (“atmosphere”). In her study of the history of this now-dead metaphor, Jayne Elizabeth Lewis identifies the 1790’s, in particular, as a turning point in this process. If, in the eighteenth century, literary atmosphere maintained a vital connection to the investigation of air in natural philosophy, the very success of atmosphere as an aesthetic program in Gothic fiction led it to shed its original material associations. Published the same year as Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, Caleb Williams is significant precisely because it helped usher in this shift. Unlike Radcliffe’s novels, which are awash in descriptions of clouded landscapes and gloomy interiors, Godwin’s novel generates atmospheric effects that lack an obvious mimetic source or counterpart in the text. Notably spare in its physical and environmental descriptions, the novel instead offers a study in what we might call atmosphere’s metaphorization, recruiting the distinctive phenomenology of weather and air to new ends.

8.        These responses to Caleb Williams therefore offer a distinct perspective on literary atmosphere just when it was coming into its own as an autonomous category. For one thing, they provocatively recombine a set of aesthetic phenomena we conventionally oppose. On the one hand, the Gothic images that dominate these descriptions (“mental apparitions,” “gliding phantoms,” “unearthly horrors”) are the signal tropes of the experience Rita Felski calls enchantment, a “sense of intense involvement” in which the instincts of the ego and the demands of the world outside the text seem to fall away (Uses of Literature 54). But as Lockhart’s “dismal dream” makes clear, this kind of reverie is unwilled and dysphoric, charged with a negativity we associate with the stance of critique. Moreover, in these accounts the state of reverie is strangely bound up with the apprehension of the work as a coherent form, what critics have consistently identified as its “oppressive” “unity of structure and atmosphere” (Tompkins 311) or “unity of design” (Kelly). [5]  Godwin’s claustrophobic atmosphere blends the immersive effects of enchantment or reverie with the totalizing intuition of tone, another term for a work’s global disposition (though one we more readily ascribe to poems than to novels). Tone and atmosphere both produce strong “worlding” effects but register different kinds of relations between texts and readers. While tone is, as Sianne Ngai argues, a powerful resource for ideology critique precisely because of its status as an “unfelt” or alienable feeling (43–9), atmosphere, Lewis reminds us, is something that “cannot be stood outside of, so it can never be completely objectified, fixed, or, as a result, intellectually possessed” (6). If the question lurking behind a description of tone is whether a feeling belongs to a work or its reader, the question raised by an aesthetics of atmosphere is whether the reader might in some sense belong to the work. The sense of totality is perceived insofar as the reader also feels herself to be a part of that whole: this is a view of a world not from above or outside, but from within.

9.        In Caleb Williams, then, atmosphere corresponds to a specific kind of readerly experience, in which a heightened impression of proximity and involvement is yoked to a sense of discomfort or dysphoria. This ambivalent relation diverges sharply from the forms of aesthetic subjectivity Romanticism has most often been understood to sponsor. From Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief to Schiller’s imaginative free play, the dominant strains of Romantic aesthetic theory tend to construe aesthetic experience as a pedagogy of negative freedom through which the individual subject achieves her most fully realized and self-conscious state. In their emphasis on consent, volition, and cognitive freedom, these ideas have often been understood either implicitly or explicitly to ground a liberal politics. But in these early responses to Caleb Williams, we can discern the contours of another form of aesthetic and political subjectivity, which corresponds not to an achieved distance or independence but instead to a sense of unfulfilled involvement and obligation. The name I am giving to this alternative is complicity.

Caleb and Falkland

10.        Two stark claims appear in the revised 1798 edition of Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (first published in 1793), the galvanizing text of 1790s British radicalism and founding document of philosophical anarchism. “We ought to be able to do without one another,” Godwin pronounces at one point (PJ Variants 337). But elsewhere he cautions: “No man stands alone, and can pursue his private conceptions of pleasure without affecting […] the persons immediately connected with him, and through them, the rest of the world” (PJ Variants 210). Leaning with equal and opposite force on the preposition “without,” these statements crystallize a seeming paradox. On the one hand, Godwin champions the sovereignty of individual reason. He objects to any social structures (predictably, governments, schools, and marriage contracts; less predictably, theatrical productions, promises, and dinner parties) that constrain a person’s ability to think for herself at all times. On the other hand, Godwin’s metaphysics insists on the fundamental interdependence of all things in the universe. Where his “system of individuality” (PJ 455) seems to enshrine the autonomous subject, this “doctrine of necessity” calls the very notion of autonomy into question. A person, on this account, is simply the product of her relations, the result of forces extending outward in space and backward in time: “[m]an is in no case strictly speaking the beginning of any event or series of events that takes place in the universe, but only the vehicle through which certain causes operate” (PJ 168). Seen from this perspective, the private reason that Godwin wants to shelter from social control would seem never to have been private in the first place; as Frances Ferguson puts it, “Godwin conceives of the individual as requiring external impressions to be an individual at all” (100). He therefore sits uneasily at the junction of differing intellectual traditions, alternately assimilable to a lineage of liberal individualism and to a genealogy of social determinism.

11.        These two currents of Godwin’s political theory can be seen to intersect, or perhaps collide, in Caleb Williams, a novel that introduces two paradigmatic liberal subjects—an ingénue and an outcast—who become inextricably bound to one another through the discovery of a hidden crime. [6]  Caleb is an orphan who is hired as secretary to the reclusive landowner Ferdinand Falkland. As he digs into his employer’s past, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the mysterious death of Falkland’s neighbor. When Caleb extracts a confession from Falkland—that he killed his neighbor and allowed two innocent men to be executed in his place—their fortunes become permanently entwined. Caleb possesses the secret that could ruin Falkland, and Falkland has the full weight of a corrupt justice system to bring down on Caleb. Driven to desperation by Falkland’s persecution, Caleb finally resolves to expose him in public, ruining both of their lives in the process.

12.        As this synopsis makes clear, although Caleb Williams seems to promise a conventional novelistic account of an individual, it actually gives us the inseparable stories of two protagonists. This structure provocatively installs not a character but an enigmatic relation at the heart of the novel. The relationship between Caleb and Falkland has long been a crux of the novel’s criticism. Some critics have questioned whether they are separate characters at all, preferring to see their relationship as an internal drama of the psyche (Uphaus and Storch) or an allegory of the conflict between individual and society (Gross and Ferguson). Others have disagreed about the pathology that binds them together—whether this is a story about excessive love and self-loss on the one hand (Gold) or about animosity and self-regard on the other (Jones). The sheer variety of these accounts testifies to the difficulty of assimilating Caleb and Falkland to a normative sense of individuated personhood. If Caleb and Falkland aren’t exactly their own persons, they might instead be seen as each other’s accomplices.

13.        Such a characterization would seem overly specific if their relationship weren’t so emphatically determined by the novel’s overarching juridical framework of innocence and guilt. Thus, in the first half of the novel, Caleb’s growing attachment to Falkland is propelled by his intuition of Falkland’s guilt, just as, after Falkland frames Caleb for theft, Caleb’s quest for personal liberty depends on the demonstration of his own innocence. In this way, both halves of the novel—the mystery and the chase, or what Godwin called its “offensive” and “defensive” parts—bind a socio-formal question of relation to a moral determination of innocence or guilt. The force of Caleb’s famous closing lines—“I began these memoirs with the idea of vindicating my own character. I have now no character that I wish to vindicate” (303)—should be felt on both of these levels, as at once a surrender of proprietary selfhood (the kind of character he would call his “own”) and of his claims to innocence. In a narrative centered on the practice of framing—as Falkland first allows the Hawkinses to hang for the murder he committed, and then pins a robbery on Caleb—the scandal of the conclusion is essentially to assent to the framing. Just as it hesitates to claim Caleb or Falkland as its protagonist, the novel finally refuses to choose between innocence and guilt. They are guilty because they are together and together insofar as they are both guilty. [7]  Godwin suggests that innocence is only really achievable in the absence of other persons and that any form of sociality will involve, perhaps even originate in, a sharing of blame.

14.        Moreover, what is true of Caleb and Falkland holds for the novel’s minor characters too: the baffling proliferation of surrogates and bystanders who motivate, execute, or enable the actions of others (the henchmen Grimes and Jones, the informant Spurrel, Falkland’s half-brother Forester). The overwhelming impression is of overpopulation, of more characters than are needed to carry out the basic movements of the plot. Even the persecution of Caleb turns out to be the joint handiwork of Falkland and Forester. Perhaps most tellingly of all, the novel is entirely noncommittal in apportioning blame between them: we’re quite not sure, in the end, of who did what exactly, and it doesn’t seem to matter. Against the forensic clarity of the whodunit, against Caleb’s cherished conviction that guilt is what individuates (“I always declared…that I was the perpetrator of no guilt, but that the guilt wholly belonged to my accuser” [264]), the novel instead repeatedly implies that guilt is something we hold in common.

15.        If, in contemporary usage, complicity is a pejorative term—a condition to be shed or disavowed—in Political Justice as in Caleb Williams, it emerges as the unexpected ground for Godwin’s ethics. The notion of a universe “connected and cemented in all of its parts” is in fact the premise behind Godwin’s concept of justice, the only absolute value in his system of morality (PJ 68). Justice—“a rule of conduct originating in the connection of one percipient being with another” (PJ 49)—is precisely this principle of relation recast as an ethical injunction, a person’s obligation to contribute in every way possible to the welfare of humanity at large. Godwin’s absolutist notion of justice led him to an idiosyncratic rejection of individual rights, a position that set him well outside the mainstream of English liberal thought in the 1790s. If we take a “right” to be “a full and complete power of either doing a thing or omitting it, without the person’s becoming liable to animadversion or censure from another,” Godwin explains, “man has no rights, no discretionary power whatever” (PJ 67).

16.        In its propensity to generalize blame, Godwin’s philosophy has clear affinities with the stringent logic of “tragic responsibility” that Sandra Macpherson has unearthed in eighteenth-century fiction and liability law. Like the realist novels Macpherson discusses, Godwin’s political theory insists on the responsibility we bear for the unintended effects of our actions. But alongside his attention to such externalities, Godwin retains a place for what Macpherson calls the “adventure of interiority” (23). At once more and less radical than this tradition of tragic realism, Godwin’s utopian anarchism cannot surrender the project of justice to a state empowered to mete out punishments and rewards. The “justice” in Political Justice is not, therefore, the one contemplated by the law of torts, or by the law in general. It is an ongoing principle of action rather than a system of accountability for past actions. “If justice have any meaning,” Godwin explains, “it is just that I should contribute everything in my power to the benefit of the whole” (PJ49). Godwin’s unusual recourse to the first-person pronoun in this definition makes it clear that even as the object of justice expands to humanity in general its execution remains a subjective problem. The peculiarity of Godwin’s political theory is this strenuous insistence on the welfare of “the whole” and the comportment of the individual. The problem of justice is to bring these incommensurable quantities into some kind of meaningful relationship, to turn the universal into a matter of intimate concern. The achievement of Caleb Williams is to explore what complicity might feel like, and how that kind of feeling might become a prompt for action—in Godwin’s terms, a way of making justice political.

Feeling Complicit

17.        Even though he spends most of the novel under some form of restraint, Caleb often dwells on the sensuous, embodied experience of his own freedom. When he escapes from prison, he marvels: “The night was gloomy, and it drizzled with rain. But these were circumstances I had scarcely the power to perceive; all was sunshine and joy within me. I hardly felt the ground; I repeated to myself a thousand times, I am free. What concern have I with danger and alarm! I feel that I am free; I feel that I will continue so” (151). Caleb seems to have an intuitive sense of personal liberty, perceptible here as a feeling of movement and weightlessness, an acute self-awareness that is notably indexed to an attenuation of his physical surround.

18.        It is less obvious how the state of complicity might become an object of embodied, phenomenal knowledge. Indeed, more than anything, the consciousness of self in relation to a wider collective that Political Justice prescribes—the insight that “[w]e are not connected with one or two percipient beings, but with a society, a nation, and in some sense with the whole family of mankind” (PJ 50)—poses a basic problem of apprehension. The expansive object of care that Godwin identifies as “the species,” “the whole and not a part,” or “the general weal” would seem to be by definition unavailable to anyone’s immediate sensory perception. But Caleb does intermittently experience a sense of involvement in an enveloping totality. Consider, for instance, the novel’s turning point, where Caleb impulsively decides to break into the chest he believes to be holding Falkland’s secret. The scene takes place during a fire, and Caleb specifically describes his “monstrous” deed as an effect of his surroundings: “This was the first instance in which I had witnessed a danger by fire. All was confusion around me, and all changed into hurricane within. The general situation to my unpracticed apprehension partook of the desperate, and I by contagion became alike desperate” (130). This scene describes an “involuntary sympathy” between self and circumstances, part and whole—a principle of “contagion” that is embodied in the spread of the fire itself.

19.        Something similar happens when Falkland is called to preside over the trial of a local peasant who has been accused of murder. Watching the proceedings, Caleb experiences a pressing sense of intimacy with Falkland, a strange compound of suspicion and sympathy:

His countenance was embarrassed and anxious; he scarcely saw any body. The examination had not proceeded far, before he chanced to turn his eye to the part of the room where I was. […] [W]e exchanged a silent look, by which we told volumes to each other. Mr Falkland's complexion turned from red to pale, and from pale to red. I perfectly understood his feelings, and would willingly have withdrawn myself. But it was impossible; my passions were too deeply engaged; I was rooted to the spot; though my own life, that of my master, or almost of a whole nation had been at stake, I had no power to change my position. (123)

These scenes of affective intensity pay a peculiar attention to scenery itself—in the first case, through Caleb’s heightened receptiveness to his material surroundings and, in this one, through a hyperawareness of bodies in space, of positions and sightlines. Here, in a notable inversion of foreground and background, we get a conspicuous focus on Caleb’s position and role as a bystander, a focus that is pointedly dramatized when Falkland turns his gaze upon Caleb, as though to draw him into the scene he thinks he is simply watching. That pivot might be said to trace the signature arc of complicity: the moment when spectators become participants, or when mere proximity shades into oblique involvement.


20.        What we might call Caleb’s feeling for circumstance in this passage culminates in the last sentence, the sequence of substitutions in which Caleb briefly imagines that his “own life,” or Falkland’s, or a “whole nation[’s]” are “at stake.” This climax strikingly embeds Godwin’s necessitarian philosophy—which likewise moves from “one or two percipient beings” to “a nation” to “the whole family of mankind”—in a hypothetical grammar intended most explicitly to attest to Caleb’s inability to act upon it. Against the feeling of weightless independence we saw above, this scene counterposes a fleeting sense of responsibility to a larger collective, albeit one oddly provoked by his own inadequate response to it.

Apostrophe and the Novel

21.        In these scenes, we might recognize some of the same features that distinguished Caleb Williams as an aesthetic experience for its early readers: the atmospheric awareness that made a perception of the whole consistent with a feeling of being inside and the state of unwilling paralysis that marked Lockhart’s “dismal dream.” What seems to link all of these experiences is a condition of problematic or unwilled immersion—a state of absorption no less powerful for the resistance it provokes. What might we glean from these examples, then, about how Caleb Williams produces the impression that it does?

22.        We saw that during the peasant’s trial, Caleb’s feeling of complicity coincides with a shift of address that causes him to think of himself as at once a spectator and a potential agent in the unfolding scene, an ambivalent condition that he experiences most concretely as a state of frustrated action. I want to suggest that the novel achieves a similar effect through its most significant—and most overlooked—structuring device, the framing or the wrongful accusation. After Falkland confesses his crime to Caleb, he falsely charges Caleb with theft, planting some of his own things in Caleb’s luggage to corroborate the allegation. This ruse not only effectively shifts the focus of suspicion from Falkland to Caleb, but also, more subtly, extends a version of Caleb’s predicament to the novel’s readers. For the rest of the novel, Caleb’s knowledge of Falkland’s guilt (against the widespread belief in his innocence) is shadowed by our conviction in Caleb’s innocence (against the circumstantial evidence of his guilt). Both situations deploy a form of knowledge that exceeds or outpaces the capacity for action. This makes for a uniquely exasperating reading experience: in one scene after another, we watch Caleb struggle, and fail, to convince former comrades of what we already “know” to be true. Here, then, is a situation that uniquely disables some of our familiar scripts for reading narrative: this is not a reading for the plot, or a suspicious reading for the symptom. Instead, the frustration derives from the fact that all is plain, that we know too much.

23.        Although this predicament broadly characterizes the experience of reading the novel in the wake of Falkland’s confession, its effects tend to be concentrated in particular scenes, and even more narrowly, in specific moments of dialogue. The example I want to consider in some detail here is the improvised hearing that Falkland’s half-brother Forester convenes after Falkland accuses Caleb of theft. Closely following and conspicuously restaging the peasant’s trial, the scene is charged with a sense of déjà vu: we find some of the same characters assembled in a similar configuration, as though we’re experiencing the earlier trial again from a slightly different vantage point. Where the first scene of judgment came to focus oddly on Caleb, the “deeply engaged” bystander (123), this one palpably shifts attention to the novel’s readers, who are likewise implicated in and barred from participating in the proceedings.

24.        This scene is constructed to pivot around Caleb’s lack of evidence—a problem that takes the wealth of circumstantial detail we’ve encountered as readers and converts it into a damaging absence. Faced with the stolen items Falkland has planted with his belongings, Caleb’s only recourse is to insist on his innocence. Without evidence or witnesses to support his case, he calls on Falkland to testify on his behalf:

Mr Falkland is not deceived: he perfectly knows that I am innocent. [. . .] I make this averment not merely because it is solemnly true, but because it is inseparably connected with my vindication. I am the party accused, and I shall be told that I am not to be believed in my own defence. I can produce no other witnesses of my innocence; I therefore call upon Mr Falkland to be my evidence. (163)

Caleb represents his predicament as a double bind: the only witnesses to the alleged crime are the accused and the accuser. One is unreliable and the other is lying. But the very terms in which he lays out this problem—his concession that “I can produce no other witnesses of my innocence”—may remind readers of their own status as vicarious witnesses in this hearing, in possession of the supporting testimony that Caleb lacks.


25.        The reader’s muteness thus joins Caleb’s unreliability and Falkland’s mendacity in Caleb’s predicament here: in this intimate circle of shared knowledge, each witness is equally incapable of vindicating the accused. It’s hard not to read the questions that Caleb poses—“Did you never boast to me in private of your power to ruin me? [ . . . ] Did you not tell me that, though I should prepare in that case a tale ever so plausible or ever so true, you would take care that the whole world should execrate me as an imposter? Were not those your very words?” (164)—as sidelong appeals to his readers, who, like Falkland, know enough to return a clear affirmative to each.

26.        This impression is strengthened by the fact that Caleb invokes specifically verbal evidence in his defense—not only transcribing exact bits of dialog we’ve read, but pointing out that he is doing so, effectively referring us back to the relevant passages in the text. His repetitions prompt and reward leafing back through the pages to locate their originals, thereby compelling a rereading, and leveraging that rereading as a form of proof. [8]  As if to reinforce the point, Caleb’s final appeal in his cross-examination is explicitly to a text:

Did you not receive a letter from me the morning of the day on which I had departed, requesting your consent to my departure? [. . .] Should I have begun with stating that I had conceived a desire to quit your service, if my desire and the reasons for it had been of the nature that is now alleged? Should I have dared to ask for what reason I was thus subjected to an eternal penance? Saying this, I took out a copy of my letter and laid it open upon the table. (164)

Caleb’s directive to read his letter again concentrates the act of rereading elicited by the passage in general upon a specific text within the diegesis. Turning Falkland quite literally into a re-reader of Caleb’s text, this move registers the degree to which this passage has already worked to fuse the position of Caleb’s accuser and the position of the novel’s readers. The strongly interpellated second person in Caleb’s speech—“you” or “your” appears eleven times in this short passage—is, in fact, a strangely mixed character. In the actions imputed to it (“Did you never boast to me in private of your power to ruin me?”), “you” is clearly Falkland; but in the kind of textually specific knowledge demanded of it, “you” is asked to behave more like a reader. We might say more precisely that this passage’s ideal addressee is a Falkland who could somehow have read a transcript of his own conversations with Caleb: a kind of Falkland-reader hybrid. The fleeting materialization of the past as a text (in the form of Caleb’s letter) both reflects this fantasy and marks its impossibility.


27.        When Caleb turns from Falkland to Forester and then to Falkland’s servants, his entreaties confuse characters and readers in similar ways: “I will never believe that a man conscious of innocence, cannot make other men perceive that he has that thought. Do not you feel that my whole heart tells me, I am not guilty of what is imputed to me?” (165). A fit of magical thinking in its immediate context, the condition of mental transparency Caleb presumes here is also familiar as the signal effect of reading a psychological novel—the form that Godwin would later call a “metaphysical dissecting knife” for “tracing and laying bare” “the private and internal operations of the mind” (“Preface” 350). Here, in other words, Caleb makes the same category error, treating his actual listeners like the readers of his narrative and making his readers feel like a more proximate audience. Like his demand that Falkland come to his aid and “be [his] evidence,” his plea to the servants makes an oblique exhortation to those who have been reading his mind all along: “If you believe, if you see, if you know that I am innocent, speak for me” (167). These repeated appeals, then, implicitly cast the reader in the uncomfortable role of a mute witness, bearing the exact testimony that Caleb requires to prove his innocence.

28.        Rather than emerging from a deep insight into a character’s motivations or a sense of elective affinity with a character’s interests, complicity arises here as a contingent effect of the felt coincidence between a character’s position and a reader’s. In this case, the passage is strongly focalized on Caleb and our loyalties are unmistakably on his side. At the same time, the hearing brings about a structural alignment between Falkland and the reader by confounding Falkland’s memory with the reader’s familiarity with the narrative past. More an effect of circumstance than fellow-feeling, complicity may therefore draw us into uncomfortable relations with those we might prefer to disavow. Blending intimacy and recoil, it diverges from the forms of characterological engagement placed under the more familiar rubric of identification. If we instinctively identify with Caleb’s sense of injury in this scene, our inevitable silence in the face of his challenges draws us close to Falkland’s lie. We are made to feel this proximity in the space of the dramatic pause that follows Caleb’s questions, when Falkland’s refusal to respond blends momentarily into our own agitated silence: “Mr Falkland returned no immediate answer to my interrogations. Mr Forester turned to him, and said, Well, sir, what is your reply to this challenge of your servant?” (164).

29.        In their explicit juridical setting and the repeated staging of such “turns,” these scenes in fact literalize the trope of apostrophe, defined by Quintilian as “turning the discourse [away] from the judge” (2:238). Quintilian generally advises against such deflections, “it being natural to speak to those chiefly, whom we wish to have our cause at heart” (2:207). When Caleb turns away from Forester to address Falkland, or from Falkland to the servants, he makes an “unnatural” appeal to those without the power to decide. Caleb’s oblique addresses to the reader are more unnatural still since they violate the circuit of narrative communication itself. If narrative form, like the juridical scene, erects a rigorous separation between participants and bystanders, characters and readers, apostrophe refuses to recognize that distinction.

30.        Jonathan Culler defines apostrophe as a quintessentially lyric form: “[O]ne might be justified in taking apostrophe as the figure of all that is most radical, embarrassing, pretentious, and mystificatory in the lyric, even seeking to identify apostrophe with lyric itself” (60). But apostrophe turns out to be everywhere in this novel, not only in exchanges like the ones we’ve just examined, but in the syntax of its regular narration. Caleb’s explicit invocations rarely address the actual reader; instead, they call upon absent characters: Thomas, Collins, and, especially toward the end, Falkland. In one striking case, the apostrophe—the single imperative “Tremble!”—is even centered and set off from the rest of the paragraph like a poetic quotation (291). The device is so pervasive in the closing pages of the novel that Falkland briefly becomes the novel’s implied audience. The last three paragraphs all address Falkland directly, culminating in the novel’s final lines: “I will finish [these memoirs] that thy story may be fully understood; and that, if those errors of thy life be known which thou so ardently desiredst to conceal, the world may at least not hear and repeat a half-told and mangled tale” (303). Folding together the local and the general second person, these sentences inscribe the uncomfortable intimacies of the trial into the novel’s rhetorical scene.


31.        Culler opposes apostrophe and narrative on the grounds that apostrophe substitutes the present of discourse—“the special temporality which is the set of all moments at which writing can say ‘now’”—for the temporal sequence of narrative (66). Where narrative is the representation of an event, apostrophe aspires to become one. What to make of Godwin’s deployment of this paradigmatic lyric form and my own recourse to lyric theory to explain what it feels like to read this novel of ideas? Complicity seems to arise precisely from a condition of generic incoherence, a kind of interference between the standard scripts of narrative and lyric utterance. For, even as Godwin evokes this lyric temporality, he also doubles down on the pressure of narrative sequence, the strong form of emplotment he would later mythologize in claiming to have written the novel backwards. The intimate present that these scenes construct is thereby always yoked, through plot’s inexorable logic of cause and effect, to a cascade of potentially devastating consequences. If, as another canonical account would have it, poetry is overheard, complicity names the conditions under which the experience of lyric overhearing becomes difficult to bear.

32.        Like any narrative, Godwin’s novel marks the difference between now and then, this world and that one, story and discourse. It also seeks to collapse that distance: with an oppressive atmosphere that softens the boundary between a text’s inside and outside and with slant apostrophes that strive to make a demand of you, here and now. Complicity turns the process of reception into an experience of responsibility that can neither be refused nor fully discharged. If that demand must always issue in a kind of failure, frustration also becomes the condition of its persistence—a persistence that readers like Hazlitt and Lockhart register when they describe the novel’s way of sticking around as a ringing in the ears or a bad dream that doesn’t let you go. The novel finally inverts the moral error that Godwin suggests we commit in conceiving of ourselves as righteous and rights-bearing subjects. If, in life, we all too often feel autonomous when we are vehicles of harm, as readers, we sometimes feel strangely responsible precisely when or because we can do nothing at all.

33.        Taking shape in the subtle shifts of address between possible audiences and in the oscillation between compelled identification and reactive disidentification that such appeals produce, the effects I am describing exploit the very ambiguity and imprecision that has long exercised theorists of reading about their object of study. For several decades now, the projects of narrative theory, reader response theory, the history of the book, and the history of reading have multiplied reader-avatars at various degrees of regress and inference from the text, usually in order to single out one in particular as worthy of critical attention: narratees, implied readers, ideal readers, “the reader,” bad readers, empirical readers, the reading public. Godwin’s text is just as relentless in proliferating potential readers, from the radical openness of the appeal to futurity at the beginning (Caleb’s “faint idea” of a “posterity” that might believe him [3]) to the overdetermined address to Falkland at the end. And it is especially attentive to the strange pressure that these readers may exert on one another. Just as Caleb leaves a letter for Falkland such that “the way in which it offered itself to his attention, should suggest to him the idea that it had possibly passed through my hands” (113), Godwin’s later retrospective on the novel presents the anecdote of a friend who read it “in a few hours” before bed, a figure who ambiguously serves as both model and negative example for other readers (“Preface” 352). Reading, thus construed, opens up a social relation—not only in the forms of sociality embodied by empirical reading publics, but in the felt connections between these never-quite-identical recipients. Complicity, of course, is not the only form that that relation might take; we can think of straightforwardly attractive and aversive relations like emulation and rejection as strong alternatives. But as a particularly intense and ambivalent one, it helps open the full range of these possibilities to view. It reminds us of the ways we always read as, against, and through one another.

34.        Moreover, in a moment when reading seems to present itself as a series of dilemmas—surface or depth? paranoid or reparative? critical or uncritical?—complicity presents a structure of aesthetic response strikingly defined by its refusal to choose between those alternatives. It combines, as we have seen, absorption with discomfort, surrender with recoil, identification with disidentification. Between these theoretical poles lies a realm of experience that points toward something like what Godwin calls “politics”—the work, that is, of putting a principle of morality into practice. That is the threshold where Godwin’s fiction means to leave us.

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[1] For the now-standard accounts of structure of critique, see: Eve Sedgwick, "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading"; Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, "Surface Reading: An Introduction"; Bruno Latour, "Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?"; and Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique. BACK

[2] On ideology and the open secret, see Slavoj Žižek, "The Spectre of Ideology" and D. A. Miller, "Secret Subjects, Open Secrets." BACK

[3] For a concept that underpins the project of critique and that is casually invoked with some regularity as a reader response, complicity has attracted little sustained attention as a distinct aesthetic experience. Two important exceptions are Geoffrey Hartman’s brief but suggestive essay on the nouveau roman, " The Aesthetics of Complicity", and Namwali Serpell’s chapter on “enfolding” in Seven Modes of Uncertainty, which puts forward complicity as one of its related effects (see 112–3). BACK

[4] Although written for a new edition of Fleetwood for Bentley’s Standard Novels series, Godwin’s 1832 preface is in fact entirely dedicated to an account of the writing of Caleb Williams. As I will argue, this impulse to return to Caleb Williams in seemingly unrelated contexts is a continuing trope of its reception. BACK

[5] David Perkins contrasts the discourse of Romantic reverie with “spatial metaphors such as ‘structure’ and ‘whole,’” which “name perceptions no reader has actually experienced” (189). What seems distinctive about the response to Caleb Williams, and the aesthetic category of atmosphere more generally, is its focus on the experiential correlates of uniformity and totality. BACK

[6] The major account of how these competing perspectives—the individualist and the deterministic—play out in Caleb Williams is Ferguson’s chapter on the Gothic in Solitude and the Sublime. Much of the novel’s critical reception has itself been shaped by these alternative frameworks. For many years, Godwin’s rationalist individualism prevailed as a hermeneutic: Harvey Gross, Alex Gold, Gary Handwerk, and John Bender all read Caleb’s narrative as a quest for autonomy, however failed or compromised. More recently, Brian Michael Norton and Anna Maria Jones have drawn attention to Godwin’s necessitarianism, with Norton describing Godwin’s shift from a Stoic concept of personal happiness to an Epicurean concept of public welfare, and Jones reading Caleb Williams as a critique of the Gothic’s conflictual model of personal rights. In a compelling reading that seeks to reconcile these views, Daniel Stout suggests that the novel calls for a legal theory of “easement” that would maneuver between the absolutist claims of private property and communal ownership. Taken together, these last three arguments suggest the remarkable degree to which the novel reclaims the quintessential Enlightenment bequests of happiness (Norton), rights (Jones), and property (Stout) as fundamentally social and transpersonal. BACK

[7] This reading of the conclusion dovetails with Stout’s resonant comments about the scene: “guilt is shared and therefore comes to be something that is not quite, not properly, guilt. Quasi guilty or quasi innocent is how things are left, is things as they are” (168). BACK

[8] To appreciate how exact these auto-quotations are, compare Caleb’s question, “Did you not tell me that, though I should prepare in that case a tale ever so plausible or ever so true, you would take care that the whole world should execrate me as an impostor” (164) to Falkland’s earlier warning, “prepare a tale ever so plausible, or ever so true, the whole world shall execrate you as an impostor” (150), and Caleb’s “Did you not add that my innocence should be of no service to me, and that you laughed at so feeble a defence?” (164) to Falkland’s “Your innocence shall be of no service to you; I laugh at so feeble a defence” (150). BACK