Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.
Originally published: 1794
Edition used: Caleb Williams (Penguin, 1988) edited and introduced by Maurice Hindle
Of humble origin, Caleb Williams, orphaned at the age of 18, is taken into the household of the local squire, Ferdinando Falkland. One day, he stumbles upon his master behaving in a secretive manner; on perceiving Caleb, Falkland becomes violent. Falkland’s steward explains the curious chain of circumstances that saw Falkland recently accused of murder and then vindicated, after which his personality underwent a profound change. Caleb begins to suspect Falkland is actually guilty of the murder and let others be executed for his crime. Falkland eventually confesses to Caleb, secure that no one will believe a servant over his master. When Caleb tries to flee the tyranny with which Falkland circumscribes his daily existence, he is framed for robbery. Awaiting trial, Caleb escapes, and from that moment on his life becomes a miserable series of disguises and upheavals as Falkland’s agents dog his steps, never allowing him to settle.
Things As They Are is an intriguing test case for where the boundaries of the fantastic lie. A ‘political Gothic’, there is nothing of the fantastic in it – not even of the apparently supernatural that is later revealed to have a mundane explanation. M John Harrison argues that the problem with much sf is that it has become addicted to the mediating metaphor – the whole paraphernalia of future societies, other worlds, monsters and spaceships, and the grab-bag of technical and rhetorical tools – rather than deploying such image-furniture and techniques to establish a metaphoric relationship between text and world. Much the same can be seen to happen in the flowering of the Gothic in the second half of the 18th century and its subsequent permutations.
While the Gothic imagined terrible incarcerations in crumbling vaults and subterranean dungeons, Godwin turned to the reality of the contemporary judicial and penal systems as described in The Malefactor’s Register; or the Newgate and Tyburn Calendar (1779) and Howard’s 1777 report on The State of Prisons, and as witnessed on visiting Newgate prison and in the treatment of fellow radicals such as Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot.
While the Gothic generally used such torments to thrill its readers with the depiction of sensibilities under distress, Godwin – who was not above such things – also turned his Gothic imagination to an elaboration of the prison as a model of the social world.
While much Gothic fiction can be read as a kind of sadomasochistic proto-feminist expression of the internalisation of particular historical restrictions on female experience, Caleb stands as a kind of typical subject for whom the whole world is carceral.[i] The ‘paranoid’ depiction of society as a prison-house becomes an important fantastic metaphor in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), Daniel Paul Schreber’s Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken/Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s My (1924), Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess/The Trial (1925), B Traven’s The Death Ship (1934), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Samuel Beckett’s Le Depeupleur/The Lost Ones (1971), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), throughout Philip K Dick’s work and in countless other fantastic and dystopian fictions.
But at what point does one judge the metaphor to have become sufficiently concretised in the diegetic world to make it a fantastic world?[ii]
One particular moment is worth considering in this light. Hiding out in London, Caleb encounters a hawker peddling a fictionalised account of his life:
Here you have the MOST WONDERFUL AND SURPRISING HISTORY AND MIRACULOUS ADVENTURES OF CALEB WILLIAMS: you are informed how he first robbed, and then brought false accusations against his master; as also of his attempting divers times to break out of prison, till at last he effected his escape in the most wonderful and uncredible manner; as also of his travelling the kingdom in various disguises, and the robberies he committed with a most desperate and daring gang of thieves; and of his coming up to London, where it is supposed he now lies concealed; with a true and faithful copy of the hue and cry printed and published by one of his Majesty’s most principal secretaries of state, offering a reward of one hundred guineas for apprehending him. All for the price of one halfpenny. (278)
Robbed of his liberty, Caleb is now stripped of his identity as other characters take this popular account for the truth about him. And it does indeed contain some superficial truths – he has escaped prison, been sheltered by a gang of thieves (although committing no crimes himself), become expert at disguise and made his way to London – but not the truth, especially not what has forced him into this behaviour. But this virtual self becomes a doppelganger, permitting him no rest, even as Falkland’s exercise of arbitrary power takes on a life of its own separate from and outside of his control. Elsewhere, much is made of the difference of justice as it exists on paper and as it is experienced by those subjected to its institutional practices – a long time before Borges or Baudrillard, Godwin observes not only the distinction between map and territory but also the supersession of the territory by the map.
Ultimately, even if Caleb’s misadventures are not judged to be fantastical, they nonetheless pose important questions about how we conceptualise fantasy. If M John Harrison’s Things That Never Happen (2004) collects the fiction of a fantasist working to strip the fantasy out of fantasy, Godwin’s Things As They Are seems to tackle the same problem from the other side.
It should also be noted that Caleb provides a template of sorts for the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) – Shelley was, of course, Godwin’s daughter – and that like Shelley’s novel Things As They Are cries out for queer reading.
The other eight entries I wrote were:
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
London, The Iron Heel
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X
This is not to imply that female characters cannot be typical subjects, nor that male experience should be normalised as in anyway typical.
Things As They Are bears some obvious similarities to such noirish crime movies as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy 1932) and The Big Clock (Farrow 1948), itself a possible prototype for Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977); and a similar question about the boundaries of fantasies is posed by the heady and tortured prose typical of Cornell Woolrich’s crime fiction.