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William Godwin's Adventures of Caleb Williams: Plot Summary & Explanation

Instructor: Wendy A. Garland

Wendy has a Ph.D. in Adult Education and a Master's Degree in Business Management. She has 10 years experience working in higher education.

This lesson will include a summary of William Godwin's novel, ''Things As They Are; or Adventures of Caleb Williams'', often simply called ''Caleb Williams''. After the summary, we will explore some of the important themes of ''Caleb Williams''.

How Things Were

Written by William Godwin in 1794, Caleb Williams is a sharp criticism of the tyrannical English government of the time. In this novel, Godwin exposes how the justice system destroys all lives it touches, even the innocent ones.

Godwin saw this as how things were, hence the longer title of Caleb Williams. As you can imagine, this novel was controversial at the time of its publication. Godwin was even forced to remove the original preface in later editions, because its criticism of the government scared the publishers.

Volume 1

Caleb Williams is born on the estate of Ferdinando Falkland. Falkland is an aristocrat, or wealthy nobleman. Mr. Collins, who runs the Falkland estate, recommends Falkland take Caleb on as his amanuensis, an assistant who helps with taking dictations and copying manuscripts.

One day, Caleb accidentally walks in on Falkland looking into a chest in the library. He is terrified when Falkland unleashes one of his paroxysms--or sudden and violent outbursts of anger--toward him. Caleb tells Collins, who then explains.

Falkland had an enemy named Barnabas Tyrrel, one of his aristocratic neighbors. Tyrrel hated Falkland because of his popularity. After Tyrrel causes the death of one of his poor cousins, Falkland has his aristocratic privileges revoked. Tyrrel gets drunk and beats up Falkland. Later that night, Tyrrel's murdered body is found.

Falkland is accused and arrested, but is acquitted. Instead, a peasant, and his son are executed for Tyrrel's murder, which, Collins tells Caleb, is why Falkland suffers from violent outbursts of anger to this day.

Volume 2

Caleb suspects Falkland, and is convinced he is guilty. During a fire at the Falkland house, Falkland finds Caleb snooping around. After the fire, Falkland confesses to Tyrrel's murder to Caleb, but then says he will kill Caleb if he tells anyone about his confession.

Caleb must then endure a sham, or fake trial, presided over by Falkland's brother-in-law. Caleb is imprisoned, but one of Falkland's servants helps him escape, and he runs away into the wilderness.

Volume 3

Later, Caleb is betrayed by a neighbor and is arrested. However, Falkland does not show up in court, and Caleb is released. Jones, a thief, then grabs Caleb and sends him to Falkland, who wants Caleb to take back his accusations in writing. Falkland tries to bribe him, but Caleb refuses. Jones finds Caleb and tells him that if he tries to leave England, Falkland will have him either murdered or arrested and executed.

Caleb convinces a judge to summon Falkland to court, and makes his case public. However, after doing so, Caleb is saddened by having become the same as his antagonists, devoting his time to gaining power over others, even if only to prove his innocence. He and Falkland then forgive each other.

Falkland dies shortly afterwards, and Caleb feels his pursuit of justice, no matter how noble, contributed to Falkland's death. This leaves him feeling empty and remorseful.

Notable Themes

The existence of an unbalanced class system in England, and the government's favoritism of the aristocracy are what William Godwin calls Things As They Are in the longer version of this book's tittle. As seen in the last few pages of the book, Godwin also hates how the system of government turns innocents into tyrants, because they cannot otherwise find justice.

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