Class, Suffering, and Sensibility in Godwin's Caleb Williams

Bryan Grace


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 Godwins 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 Tyrrels 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 Falklands 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 douements of the manuscript and published versions of the novel.


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

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