Class, Suffering, and Sensibility in Godwin's <i>Caleb Williams</i>


  • Bryan Grace Memorial University of Newfoundland


Caleb Williams, William Godwin, Political Justice, class, sensibility, suffering, pain, politics, animals, species, Louis Althusser, Edmund Burke, David Hume, Adam Smith


This paper explores the connections between the so-called cult of sensibility and class consciousness in eighteenth-century England as they are negotiated in William Godwin’s Things as they Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. It traces the connections between elitist sensibility and political oppression in prominent thinkers like David Hume and Edmund Burke. While these men argue that refined sensibility is the result of essential differences between men, Godwin counters their arguments in the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice by insisting that differences in sensibility are not the result of the natural superiority of one class of men over another, but the result of inherited regimes of power and “impressions.” For Godwin, the assumption that the upper classes have more refined sensibilities is a lie, a false ideology perpetuated to justify the extortion of the lower classes and uphold rank structures. In Caleb Williams, this ideology precipitates Tyrrel’s persecution of Emily because Tyrrel believes that his “injuries” are more important than hers. This dynamic is echoed in the relationship between Falkland and Caleb in two ways: Caleb views Falkland’s past suffering as a valuable treasure to be extorted; and, Falkland pursues Caleb in order to disproportionately repay him for the imagined injuries caused by the servant. This paper concludes by examining how these tensions are resolved differently in the alternate dénouements of the manuscript and published versions of the novel.

Author Biography

Bryan Grace, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Bryan Grace is a graduate student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he also earned his Honours undergraduate degree in English. He was on the 2007 and 2008 Dean’s lists. In 2009 he earned the Diploma in Applied Ethics from Memorial. He resides in St. John’s, where he is practically married to his wonderful girlfriend, Melissa.