William Godwin’s Things As They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams

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.

Caleb Williams.2-1Originally 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.

Falkland-discovering-Caleb2-e1300118099300While 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.

220px-CalebWilliamsIt 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:
Voltaire, Candide
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[i]
This is not to imply that female characters cannot be typical subjects, nor that male experience should be normalised as in anyway typical.
[ii]
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.

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Film neige: noir + snow

hqdefaultIn 1952, midway between two great noir performances as a psychotic racist (Crossfire, 1947; Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959), Robert Ryan played detective Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Alongside Ryan and Ray, the film has pretty much everything you could want from a tough-cop-on-the-edge noir: a script by AI Bezzerides, a score by Bernard Herrmann, and roles for Ida Lupino both in front of and (uncredited) behind the camera.

Wilson is sick of the scum he encounters – and beats on, with weary resignation and twisted joy – every day. Facing possible prosecution over a too-vigorous interrogation, he is sent out of the city to help some small-town cops track the killer of a young girl through the mountains. It is winter. And in the snow, the film begins to change – morphing, like all of Ray’s film noirs, into something more closely resembling the melodramas for which he is best remembered. Wilson stumbles upon the isolated house of a beautiful blind woman. Her kid brother, Danny, is the deranged killer; she is blind because she stayed to look after him rather than going away to have an operation. And her faith in Wilson’s goodness – something he just does not deserve – redeems him.

But this generic transformation is not merely Ray’s doing. It has something to do with the snow.

The first Max Payne video game (2001) is set during the worst blizzard to hit New York in a century, and in Sin City (2005), when Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is released from prison, having finally confessed to crimes he did not commit in order to go out and commit some for real (not without good reason), snow falls, blanketing the ground. There is something very right about these images, appearing in cross-media franchises that function as compendia of American crime fiction tropes.

But snow is rare in film noir.

There is sun, wind and rain – Key Largo (1948) has all three – but very little snow.

Citizen Kane (1941), visually the most significant American precursor of noir, has snow, and the climax of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) does get very cold, since its couple on the run are the odds-against-tomorrow-harry-belafonte-1959only fugitives ever to head for the Canadian rather than the Mexican border. And if you’ve not seen Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow recently you can be forgiven for thinking it has snow: the sound effects are so good, the icy wind cuts right through you. But in classical Hollywood, film neige, like the snow that somehow brings Britain grinding to a halt every couple of years, is pretty thin on the ground.

Why is this? Well, actually snow is relatively rare in studio-era Hollywood. It does appear in big-budget films (Way Down East, 1920), but it is difficult and expensive to shoot in cold, wet conditions and film noir rarely had a dime to spare. And when you fake it, it looks fake. However, that need not be a problem for films that are comical (How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953), fantastical (The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), musical (Swing Time, 1936) or otherwise given to artifice (All That Heaven Allows, 1955). Film noir, though, is rarely any of these things.

Snow has great noirish potential. It is treacherous, unpredictable. It can betray you, isolate you, trap you, kill you. Pursuers can track you through the snow, and it can force you into dangerous proximity to them. Banks and drifts obscure contours, conceal familiar markers. Flurries become blizzards. Visibility reduces. Cold becomes colder. Circulation slows. You begin to lose feeling. Death is never far away. It creeps inwards.

All of which makes sense in the wilderness, and even, sort of, in the older, northern and eastern cities in which, typically, gangster films – and Max Payne and Sin City – are set.

But film noir is a Californian invention. Whether it is the sultry Argentine night in which Rita Hayworth threatens to strip (Gilda, 1946), the dazzling Mexican afternoon out of which Jane Greer emerges to lead Robert Mitchum astray (Out of the Past, 1947), the hot Mexican night in which Mitchum, shirtless and glistening, is flogged with a belt, the buckle opening welts in his back, and thrown into a steam-filled engine room (His Kind of Woman, 1951), or the unseen suburban deck on which Barbara Stanwyck is sunbathing when Fred MacMurray comes hawking insurance (Double Indemnity, 1944), film noir thrives on heat.

In the heat, passions rise. Tempers fray. Everyone becomes just a little bit flushed. A little bit moist.

Snow simply lacks this erotic resonance.

So Robert Ryan, stuck overnight with Ida Lupino (and, admittedly, Ward Bond), has little choice but to sleep on the floor and wake up in a neighbouring genre; and film noir could do little with snow until it was reworked overseas and in post-classical Hollywood.

François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) casts Charles Aznavour as bar-room piano player Charlie Kohler. Once a concert pianist, he goes to pieces when he finds out that his waitress wife slept with an impresario to get him his big break. When she tells him this, he leaves her and she commits suicide. He abandons celebrity for anonymity, and rediscovers love with another supportive waitress, Léna. They flee Paris to his family farm, where his criminal brothers are holed up, having double-crossed their gang. Truffaut sets the final few minutes of the film in a desolate, rural snowscape, wryly inverting film noir’s black:white ratio. TruffautTirezSurLePianisteLenaThe gunfight between the gang and Charlie’s brothers plays on the spatial disorientations – and slippery footing – of deep, featureless snow. Léna, of course, is caught in the crossfire, robbing Charlie of his renewed future.

Charlie returns to the bar. A new waitress is introduced. Will she too become involved with him, offer him redemption? Will it also end badly for her? The snow reminds us that for Truffaut (or perhaps merely Charlie), women are like snowflakes: they are all unique, but this only makes them indistinguishable, interchangeable.

Even bleaker is The Criminal (1960), made in the UK by exiled American director Joseph Losey. Fresh out of prison, Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker), a cocksure working-class lad made good in London’s gangland, organises a brilliant racetrack heist; but being in love, he makes a tiny error and is promptly betrayed. When he is sent back to prison, his bosses abduct his girlfriend Suzanne to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the loot. Instead, Bannion promises it all to a crook who can break him out. He rescues Suzanne, but is followed to the snow-dusted field where he buried the money. A shoot-out leaves him bleeding to death in this dismal, grey-white, rutted landscape. As the camera cranes up and away from his corpse, his killers randomly scratch at 23-The-Criminal-360x216the frozen dirt in the hope of finding the cash – and we hit the permafrost of existence: life is not just cold, it is as hard and featureless and unrelenting as the ground on which Bannion dies.

In Fargo (1996), snow simplifies things. The ground – even the air – loses its features. The world is reduced to small towns and corporate franchises linked only by roads, phones, TV broadcasts and flows of money in a whited-out desert of the real. It is as if Chuck Jones and Jean Baudrillard had collaborated on a Jim Thompson adaptation. The Coen brothers’ caricatures of Minnesotans and North Dakotans open up the gulf between American capitalism and the kind of small-town values (decency, neighbourliness) that Sarah Palin pretends to embody. In Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998), snow isolates a gently parodic small town so as to reveal the extent to which those values are a myth desperately at odds with capitalism. College-educated Hank (Bill Paxton), his unemployed brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), find a kidnapper’s plane, carrying over four million dollars in ransom, crashed in the snow. Family ties and class differences clash as Jacob is forced to choose between Hank and Lou. Hank’s wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), initially nice-as-apple-pie, becomes grimly determined to hang onto the cash. Violence erupts. People die. But that is nothing to her hatred for their just-getting-by lives.

jlgThe Lookout (2007) is likewise about the contradictions of the American dream. Former high school hockey star Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), brain-damaged in a car crash, has lost everything. Wintry Kansas-Missouri settings emphasise his barren existence. Bank robbers manipulate him into helping them, but the heist goes wrong. Chris must concoct and follow a complex plan to free his kidnapped best friend – the only problem is, Chris has severe difficulties with planning future actions and suffers form short-term memory dysfunction. Against a stark white snowscape, the world – bitterly, ironically – redeems Chris, almost against his will.

However, the bleakest American neo-neige is – unsurprisingly – not actually American. A Danish-Canadian-British-Brazilian co-production co-written by Hubert Selby Jr, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Fear X (2003) starts with Harry Caine (John Turturro) opening the curtains of his Wisconsin suburban tract home. Snow falls gently on the snow-covered street. A woman enters the house opposite. It is Harry’s wife. But Harry is dreaming. His wife is dead, killed in a double homicide outside the mall where he works as a security guard. The black and white surveillance footage from that day – over which Harry pores every night, desperate for any clue as to who killed her and why – fills the screen, grainy and blurred, a blue-grey world of silhouettes, shadows and snow.

Snow fills Harry’s dreams and memories. It creeps into his system, fills him from the core – twin wavefronts of despair and isolation.artikel_fear_x_2

Is it worth risking his life to get a step closer to the killer?

‘I’m not living anyway’, he replies.

[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 8 (winter 2008), is now out of print.]