58 pages 1 hour read

William Godwin

Caleb Williams

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1794

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Summary and Study Guide


Caleb Williams, written by William Godwin, is one of the first crime novels in English literature as well as a critique of the injustices and inequities of the political and social system in Britain during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Godwin passionately believed that the social hierarchy that placed the upper class over the lower class was unjust and that the law enabled a tyrannical abuse of power. Although many felt that Caleb Williams came off as propaganda, the story made waves by critiquing the laws that British society upheld. The book was originally published in 1794; though Godwin had written two separate endings, he only included the second in the published edition. The edition of Caleb William this guide references is the 2000 copyright version published by Broadview and includes this second ending.

Plot Summary

Volume 1 opens with Caleb Williams addressing the reader. He describes himself as being from a poor family, but he grows up learning to read and write and feeling the need for adventure. Caleb’s defining trait is his curiosity—something he admits. After his parents die, he ends up working as a literary assistant to the master of the estate where his parents worked, Mr. Ferdinando Falkland. Ferdinando is an aristocratic man and is well known around town. While working for Ferdinando, Caleb walks in on his master doing something mysterious with a locked chest in the library, and before Caleb can get a word out, Ferdinando accuses him of spying; he angrily tells Caleb to leave, though he later apologizes. Confused about Ferdinando’s behavior, Caleb seeks out Mr. Collins, a man who works for Ferdinando and helped secure Caleb his job.

The remainder of Volume 1 consists of Caleb retelling the story about Ferdinando that he hears from Collins. Back when Ferdinando first moved to town, people were instantly drawn to him; he was refined and well-spoken, using his wits to talk his way into or out of things at his pleasure. The attention that he received did not sit well with another one of the aristocrats in town, Barnabas Tyrrel. Barnabas was athletic, boisterous, arrogant, and the most prominent local bachelor in town, who enjoyed life best when taking advantage of the status that he was born into. Barnabas looked down on the lower class, which is why he became angry when all the people that he tried to push around went to Ferdinando for help. The tipping point came when Barnabas’s own cousin, Emily Melville, became smitten with his arch-nemesis after Ferdinando saved her from a fire.

After Tyrrel attempted to wreck the reputation of Mr. Hawkins, a farmer that he felt has insulted him, and had Mr. Hawkins’s son arrested, he sought revenge on his cousin. Emily was under his family’s care after her parents died, and Barnabas arranged for someone to sexually assault her to force her into marriage; however, Ferdinando rode in to save her and Emily escaped. Barnabas later had her arrested by saying she owed him money for all the years he let her live with him. She soon fell ill and died in prison, deepening the feud between Ferdinando and Barnabas. The entire town turned against the latter after finding out what Barnabas had done to Emily.

Barnabas was later found murdered in the streets, and Ferdinando was arrested for his murder. Ferdinando went before a room of magistrates—his peers—and defended himself, using his wits and appealing to those who knew him. He was found innocent, and later the murder was pinned on Mr. Hawkins, resulting in the executions of both him and his son. Volume 1 ends with Caleb mentioning that Ferdinando’s anger and fits of insanity date back to this event.

In Volume 2, Caleb’s curiosity begins to get him into trouble, as he cannot let go of his feelings surrounding Barnabas’s death. He has doubts about Ferdinando’s innocence and begins to spy on him; however, Ferdinando’s behavior gets more suspicious because he notices Caleb looking into his past. One day, the two men have a disagreement over Alexander the Great: Ferdinando feels that he was a great builder of empires, whereas Caleb calls him a madman who caused murder and destruction. Ferdinando’s demeaner changes when he hears the word “murder,” furthering Caleb’s suspicions that his master could be guilty.

When a fire happens in Ferdinando’s house, Caleb seizes his chance to open Ferdinando’s hidden chest, but Ferdinando catches him. When Ferdinando realizes Caleb knows about his past, Ferdinando threatens him and says that he must live with the consequences of his curiosity. Caleb realizes in horror what being stuck with Ferdinando for the rest of his life will mean, so he runs away in the middle of the night. Ferdinando sets out with a warrant against Caleb accusing him of a crime that Caleb did not commit.

Caleb runs into Mr. Forester, a man who had lived at Ferdinando’s and happened to be the latter’s older half-brother. Caleb and Mr. Forester grew close when the latter was living at the estate, but Ferdinando ultimately told Caleb to stay away from him, and Mr. Forester left. Caleb asks for help, and Mr. Forester recommends that if he is innocent, he should go back to town and plead his case. Caleb does as his friend says but gets thrown in jail anyway. He convinces one of the guards to give him tools, which he uses to escape; however, he injures himself before he can get far and is reimprisoned. One of Ferdinando’s old servants, Thomas, visits him and is distraught at the state Caleb is in, so he returns with tools to escape. This attempt is successful.

The final volume of the novel has Caleb as a fugitive on the run. He runs into a gang of thieves who rob him and beat him up, but a man happens upon him while he is lying wounded in a ditch and takes him home to heal him. Once inside, Caleb realizes that the man who saved him is actually the captain of the gang that robbed him; his name is Mr. Raymond. When Mr. Raymond finds out that it was one of his men, Gines, who hurt Caleb for no reason, he argues that they are not murderers and votes to kick Gines out of the group. The others agree, and the man leaves angry. Gines, tracks Caleb throughout the rest of the novel, and eventually Ferdinando eventually hires him to destroy Caleb’s reputation.

Worrying that he will get caught, Caleb tries to flee to Ireland disguised as an Irish man; however, the fake accent he is using causes him to be mistaken for someone else who is wanted, and he gets arrested for robbing a bank. He bribes the officers and gets away, but he is caught again soon after and brought to an inn, where he is surprised to see Ferdinando. His old master does his best to convince Caleb to lie that the charges Caleb made that Ferdinando murdered Barnabas were false. Caleb refuses. Ferdinando has no choice but to let him go. Ferdinando fails to appear in court, so the charges against Caleb are dropped; however, after Gines’s torment prevents Caleb from making a life in his new town, Caleb tries once again to bring charges against his former master. Now that he is no longer a wanted man, the magistrate takes his claims seriously.

In the published ending, Caleb shows up at court and sees that Ferdinando is a shell of the man that he once was. He feels guilty for continuing to push the matter. Caleb does not find any satisfaction in the court case, and in the end, the two men find their own way to forgive each other, even though Ferdinando soon dies after their final meeting. Caleb explains that he has only written this book to recount the events that happened to him and how the justice system failed so many people in his life; he does not intend to name a guilty party, but only to unveil the injustices that ruined his life.