Contents Index

Caleb Williams and Frankenstein: First-Person Narratives and "Things as They Are"

Gay Clifford

Genre, 10 (Spring 1977), 601-17

They shaped him in her arms twa
An aske but and a snake;
But aye she grips and hau'ds him fast
To be her warldis make.

They shaped him in her arms twa
But and a deer see wild;
But aye she grips and hau'ds him fast
The father o' her child.

They shaped him in her arms twa
A hot iron in the fire;
But aye she grips and hau'ds him fast
To be her heart's desire.

They shaped him in her arms at last
A mother-naked man;
She cast her mantle over him
And sae her love she wan.1

{601} Confrontation and change are significant aspects of the endings of Caleb Williams and Frankenstein,2 more significant, arguably, than death. Caleb comes to accuse his aristocratic patron and persecutor but, moved by his "sunk and debilitated" appearance, finds that the ardor of compassion ousts that of resentment: "'I came hither to curse, but I {602} remain to bless.'"3 The transformation is reciprocal: "[Falkland] could no longer resist. He saw my sincerity; he was penetrated with my grief and compunction. He rose from his seat supported by the attendants, and -- to my infinite astonishment -- threw himself into my arms!" (CW, p. 324). The narrative consequences of this reconciliation are stated by Godwin with a terseness verging on bathos: "He survived this dreadful scene but three days" (CW, p. 325). The next sentence fully explains that terseness, as it does both the unexpected adjective (why should reconciliation be "dreadful"?) and the possessive ("he was penetrated with my grief"). It is: "I have been his murderer." It is a moment of self-recognition quite unlike anything in the book before, one that goes against probability and indeed against apparent circumstance, for it is Falkland who is a murderer and has near-murdered Caleb for knowledge of that fact. At this point we see what Godwin was about with his first person narrative: "He understood that he himself had been the murderer" would, formally, be a novelist's moral pis aller.

Victor Frankenstein is dead before the monster reaches him yet here too, self-confessed moral responsibility obliterates literal culpability. Bending over his creator's coffin, one hand stretched out in a gesture partly appealing and partly threatening (or both -- it is Mary Shelley's wisdom that an unanswerable appeal is, of necessity, a threat), the anonymous hero re-enacts the night when first he stood beside his maker's bed and presented the outrageous demand of his own existence. His language elaborates the continuity: "'That is also my victim . . . in his murder my crimes are consummated; the miserable series of my being is wound to its close!'" (F, p. 219). The procreative and terminal implications of consummation echo in this passage, as they do throughout the novel, and the monster puts the word in apposition with execution -- Frankenstein "'suffered not in the consummation of the deed -- oh! not the ten-thousandth portion of the anguish that was mine during the lingering detail of its execution'" (F, p. 219). Like Caleb, he now perceives that the source of his destructiveness was "'a frightful selfishness'" [Walton 13]. Godwin's hero is more prolix: "why should my reflections perpetually centre upon myself? self, an overweening regard to which has been the source of my errors!" (CW, p. 325). Assuming responsibility, both acknowledge the virtues of their masters, and at that point are freed rather more by their {603} insight than by the tyrants' demise. The funeral orations of Falkland and Frankenstein are spoken by those who have least cause to eulogize them -- a blessing in the teeth of reason. This might be seen as a variant on the experience of the Ancient Mariner, whose freedom begins as soon as he recognizes the beauty of the water snakes:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea. [lines 286-291]

The Ancient Mariner is, however, caught in reiteration, and the compulsion to tell the experience is nearly as painful as the experience itself ("Since then, at an uncertain hour, that agony returns: And till my ghastly tale is told, This heart within me burns" [lines 582-585]. The past tense of "this soul hath been alone on a wide wide sea" [lines 597-598] lacks force. Caleb and the monster break the subject/object division more actively: Caleb praises Falkland's kindness and is himself at that moment kind for the first time; the monster's oddly ambiguous apostrophe, "generous and self-devoted being" [Walton 12], simultaneously initiates his own generosity. The point is that these blessings are not at all "unaware"; they are signs of an awareness far more profound than the ulcerated self-consciousness seen hitherto. The breaking of the mirror of Narcissus is a more important culmination to the two novels than death or the end of pursuit. The "victims" became destroyers from an unyielding desire to be right (vengeance being the destructive face of high-mindedness); at the point where they see their opponents as something other than enemies, other than obstacles to moral victory, the victimization stops. Curiosity, desire, pursuit, error, ambition all originate with a sense of the self, and the four principals we are here dealing with exemplify all of them; yet it is pride in self, a loveless inflexibility, that is deadly.

Both novels deal with the powers and penalties of self -- the existence that is the center of what the "I" perceives, rather than the individualized selves that have conventionally been seen as a necessary condition for "the Novel."4 What is interesting is that neither degenerates into the sort of anguished bombast about loneliness and alienation that becomes {604} such a self-regarding romantic cliché. That they do not is a function of their form, a form in which the absolute authority of "I" is always juxtaposed with the requirements of the contingent, always being forced into alliance with the social conception of self that authenticates as well as threatens. The bombast is there, but the authors are critical of it even if their narrators are not; like Stendhal, they could present loneliness "as a premise not a predicament."5 Both novels are tragic as even the heroes' deaths do not make Stendhal's, but it is a tragedy that exists principally because the hero of the tale is in each case "his own historian."6 The first-person narrative is used as part of a critique on solipsism which is implicit in the structure of Caleb Williams and Frankenstein: it makes separateness the modus operandi rather than the theme.

Mary Shelley dedicated Frankenstein to her father: "To William Godwin, Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &c. these volumes are respectfully inscribed." She drew on the traditions of the Jacobin novel of the 1780s, on the Gothic, on the confessional romance and its formal correlative, fictional letters -- his daughter, and indeed Mary Wollstonecraft's, in matters more profound than genetic accident. What is striking is not the common literary inheritance (Godwin forming part of Mary Shelley's -- she read Political Justice and Caleb Williams in 1814 and the novel again in 1816, the year of Frankenstein) but the form shared by the two books. It is a form homologous with a particular existential and political conception of identity; I shall return to the ideology of self-statement, but will first discuss the novels separately.

In a brilliantly perceptive essay on Caleb Williams, James Walton comments that it is remarkable that "the self that the fable condemns has been fashioned strictly according to the conventions of middle-class fiction. In the hero's madness and despair is found an ineluctable consequence of the alliance between individualism and the novel form."7 Tracing Caleb's affinities with Defoe's Colonel Jacque and Moll Flanders and with Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, he observes that figures of {605} "servility and inwardness triumphant over the established order evolve naturally into the heroine of sensibility." Myths of persecuted innocence usually mask an extreme form of psychic aggression, and Walton discusses the aesthetic implications of these persecuted victims:

Barred from effective entry into the world of power and action, they cause that world to enter them. They exhaust it. Each represents the novelist himself, who contrives to show us that no external world is exhibited in his pages, only private vision. Their mirror-image within the fiction is a demonic persecutor who assumes their guilt, provides them with tragic stature, and vanishes, pleading, like Lovelace, "LET THIS EXPIATE!" Such narcissistic structures derive their broad appeal from the close affinities between the heroine-as-artist and each member of the middle-class reading audience. Her disadvantages and compensations are a specialized form of theirs. In debt for their very identity to the institutions which, like Chinese boxes, enclose them, they know that the strength of these institutions make submission and passivity, however unheroic, the cardinal virtues. For them, inwardness alone provides transcendence, and their world within has heroic dimensions. "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," is the signature of a bourgeois imagination, one like Richardson's, Godwin's, Charlotte Brontë's, George Eliot's, that dreams of power through self-immolation. (p. 35)
There is an important general truth here, but (and this cannot be emphasized too much) it is a truth that Godwin understood or at least intuited. What Walton leaves out of account is Godwin's political imagination, more disciplined, more educated (by experience as well as books), more self-critical than that of any of the authors with whom he is here (rightly) linked. In an essay on Romance and History, Godwin wrote that:
The period of the Stuarts is the only portion of our history interesting to the heart of man. Yet its noblest virtues are obscured by the vile jargon of fanaticism and hypocrisy. From the moment that the grand contest excited under the Stuarts was quieted by the Revolution, our history assumes its most insipid and insufferable form. It is the history of negotiation and trick, it is the history of revenues and debts; it is the history of corruption and political profligacy; but it is not the history of genuine, independent man.8
Anyone who can write so of history is unlikely to believe that the psychic politics of Romance can offer an account of "genuine, independent man." The original title of Caleb Williams -- Things as They {606} Are -- suggests that Godwin saw that a world of plurality constantly encompassed individuality, and that the hero or heroine who constructed a self without constant recourse to that world was deceived. As indeed that the author seduced by pathos into the fervently interior world of the victim or self-defining rebel would be deceived. Caleb's account of himself invites criticism from the outset; the structure of the narrative and its matrix in the first-person singular (things as I would like them to be) invites skepticism about literary forms based on the absolute authority of the of self.

Caleb is made to begin writing his account at the narrative point where Volume III, Chapter XIV opens:

I hasten to the conclusion of my melancholy story. I began to write soon after the period to which I have now conducted it. This was another resource that my mind, ever eager in inventing means to escape from my misery, suggested. (CW, p. 302)
His memoirs are a function of a mind "ever eager in inventing means to escape." The same verb occurs in the first paragraph of the novel.
There is now however little hope that I shall escape from the toils that universally beset me. I am incited to the penning of these memoirs, only by a desire to divert my mind from the deplorableness of my situation and a faint idea that posterity may by their means be induced to render me a justice which my contemporaries refuse. (p. 3)
Escape, invention and justification are constantly linked in the novel. In prison Caleb employs himself with "imaginary adventures" having by degrees "quit his own story," but these adventures consist in imagining himself in "scenes of insult and danger, of tenderness and oppression" (p. 186). This theatrical impulse is present in the novel's opening sentence: "My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity" -- he is falsifying through his self-revelation to at least the degree that Falkland is in the self-protection that Caleb calls "this miserable project of imposture" (p. 326). And Falkland has no voice, for his story is told by Caleb to whom it has been told by the steward Collins (the monster's story, too, is told at two removes but with a crucial modification at the end that I shall discuss later). Caleb also constitutes himself an approving audience: "I had considerable aversion to the boisterous gaiety of the village gallants, and contrived to satisfy my love of praise with an unfrequent apparition at their amusements" (p. 4). (He is applauded when he goes, but further approves himself for going infrequently.) "My {607} improvement was greater than my condition in life afforded room to expect" (p. 4). That this priggishness is meant to be felt can be seen in the way Godwin gives the scene in the inn where Caleb, in disguise, hears the company discuss the "notorious housebreaker, Kit Williams."

Caleb "found it expedient to give way to these gentry of a village alehouse, and remove to an obscurer station" (p. 235); this retiring affectation does not stop him overhearing when one of them reflects that the hundred guineas reward wouldn't come amiss and another replies that he wouldn't fancy a hundred guineas if it were "means of bringing a Christian creature to the gallows." Another cuts in "'Poh, that is all my granny! Some folks must be hanged to keep the wheels of our state-folks a-going . . . but that he should be so hardened as to break the house of his own master at last, that is too bad'" (p. 236). Another raises the old story of Falkland's trial for murder and suggests that the housebreaking charge was trumped up by Falkland and his brother Mr. Forester because Caleb had something on his employer: "'for when two squires lay their heads together, they do not much matter law, you know; or else they twist the law to their own ends, I cannot exactly say which; but it is much at one, when the poor fellow's breath is out of his body'" (p. 236). All this fuel to vanity causes Caleb "inwardly to exult" and he can't resist asking the landlady about "Kit Williams." Her response gives him "considerable pleasure": "'he was as handsome, likely a lad, as any in four counties round,'" she loved him "'for his cleverness, by which he outwitted all the keepers they could set over him, and made his way through stone walls, as if they were so many cobwebs'" (p. 237). The process of constructing a folk-hero on the basis of an unsentimental stoicism towards the class-system is relatively innocent; Caleb's "pride in the self-possession and lightness of heart with which [he] could listen to the scene" is not. There is an odd, if familiar, mixture of radicalism and conservatism here, and of truth and falsehood. Caleb notes that: "this story was very circumstantially told and with a sufficient detail of particulars" but is nonetheless prepared to be "amused at the absurdity of their tales and the variety of falsehoods I heard asserted around me" (p. 237). The truth or not of the account bothers him less than his feeling of superiority -- snobbish superiority, and the exulting superiority of the egoist.

Godwin's rendering of conversation (something different from set speeches) is always wonderfully vivid, which makes it less likely that he would have been unconscious of his hero's tone. Moreover, both Falk- {608} land's and Caleb's narratives furnish examples of very different sorts of victims and rebels.9 Barnabas Tyrrel, the squire-bully killed by Falkland, viciously persecutes his cousin Emily Melvile, and the Hawkins, father and son. The latter is perhaps the most relevant comparison. Tyrrel wants to take the son into service, and Hawkins senior resists: "'I will lose all that I have, and go to day-labour, and my son too if needs must; but I will not make a gentleman's servant of him'" (p. 71). Hawkins suffers the full vengeance possible from a squire and a landowner: harassment, expropriation, and probable death for his son under the Black Act, that notorious instrument of the eighteenth-century ruling-class's property interest. Hawkins escapes (his son also breaking jail), but is snatched up from the poverty and anonymity of his refuge on suspicion of the murder of Tyrrel. Falkland, who was prepared to intervene on his behalf before, will not now do so: the price of that intervention would be his own honor and reputation ("'reputation has been the idol, the jewel of my life'" (p. 102). The Hawkins are executed. Here are true victims: of the institutions of the ruling class, and of its delusions of superiority reified as chivalric values. Caleb by contrast is a victim of his own psychology.

Godwin's 1832 account of his reasons for choosing first-person narrative shows a shift towards "psychology" from the political aesthetic of the 1794 Preface (withdrawn "in compliance with the alarms of booksellers") in which he proposed "a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism." Yet he is after all offering a reconstruction of his own impulses forty years after the event:

I began my narrative, as is the more usual way, in the third person. But I speedily became dissatisfied. I then assumed the first person, making the hero of my tale his own historian; and in this mode I have persisted in all my subsequent attempts at works of fiction. It was infinitely the best adapted, at least, to my vein of delineation, where the thing in which my imagination revelled the most freely, was the analysis of the private and internal operations of the mind, employing my metaphysical dissecting knife in tracing and laying bare the involutions of motive, and recording the gradually accumulating impulses, which led the personages I had to describe primarily to adopt the particular way of proceeding in which they afterwards embarked.10
To argue for the fascination of motive is not at the same thing as {609} to uphold the supremacy of the psyche. The language of this passage shows that intellectual processes (operations, involutions, impulses are all words of process with chemical or zoological associations) interested Godwin precisely because of their results: they led characters "to adopt the particular way of proceeding in which they afterwards embarked." It is Caleb's vice that he thinks constantly of his predicament after embarcation, not about how he got to the landing stage. Here he differs sharply from his creator.

Although Godwin thought of the third book of the novel first, then the second, then the first,11 thus apparently acting like Caleb (who says "I could not rest till I had acquainted myself with the solutions that had been invented for the phenomena of the Universe" [p. 4]), he is too much the rationalist to see Falkland's vengeance as causing Caleb's persecution. James Walton observes that "Caleb's world of phenomena is a world of effects in search of hypothetical causes," which is true enough, but to add that "Caleb the romantic egoist is a figure of the novelist himself"12 will not do. The key is that Caleb found these solutions in "books of narrative and romance." He says: "I panted for the unravelling of an adventure, with an anxiety, perhaps almost equal to that of the man whose future happiness or misery depended on the issue. I read, I devoured compositions of this sort. They took possession of my soul; . . . my curiosity however was not entirely ignoble: village anecdotes and scandal had no charms for me: my imagination must be excited; and when that was not done, my curiosity was dormant" (p. 4). (Presumably the victimization of the Hawkins would be a "village anecdote" unless it had bearing on his obsession with Falkland.) Caleb here clearly reveals himself as the man who finds his own imaginative life of more account than the lives of others. It is the reference to romance that is damning, for it is Falkland's attachment to chivalric romance that sustains his destructive egocentricity. The point is made clearly when Caleb (innocent) appeals to Mr. Falkland (guilty) and gets the answer "I am sure things will never be as they ought, till honour and not law be the dictator of mankind, till vice is taught to shrink before the resistless might of inborn dignity, and not before the cold formality of statutes. If my calumniator were worthy of my resentment I would chastise him with my own sword . . . [I] resolve to spare him, as the generous lord of the forest spares the insect" (p. 175). The condescen- {610} sion in all this is ludicrous, but it is also dangerous (those who have power over us by virtue of privilege are often both). Its deluded basis is picked up instantly by a fellow aristocrat, Falkland's brother: "'The language you now hold . . . is that of romance and not of reason.'" This is glossed by Godwin in his account of the creation of Falkland: "it was necessary to make him . . . the tenant of an atmosphere of high romance so that every reader should feel prompted almost to worship him for his high qualities."13 Caleb makes an idol of his curiosity and innocence as Falkland does of reputation, and thus commits himself to the idealization of self appropriate perhaps to romantic fiction but scarcely to a "natural philosopher" (p. 4).

Caleb's curiosity is not the spirit of rational enquiry but a thrilling compulsion. Godwin's presentation of it is instructive: Caleb's intuition (no more) of Falkland's guilt occasions "rapture . . . rapid emotion . . . I was never so perfectly alive" (p. 130). He is convinced that proof is in the locked trunk in the private apartment beyond the library; during a fire he breaks it open (the Gothic apparatus of the forbidden is obvious) but is interrupted by Falkland before he can study its contents. Falkland confesses to him the next day but swears him to secrecy and compels him to live under his surveillance (innocence and guilt cohabit). Thence begins the long series of "adventures of flight and pursuit," and the onus of proof now falls on Caleb. Only at the last chapter, before his final confrontation with Falkland, does Caleb conjecture that the secret of the trunk is not a "murderous instrument or relique" but more probably a faithful narrative . . . written by Mr. Falkland." He adds that "the truth or the falsehood of this conjecture is of little moment" (p. 315). It is only when narratives are insisted on as exclusive truths that they become "murderous instruments or reliques," and it is to demonstrate this that Godwin changed the end of the book. In the first version Caleb raves and rambles in a series of "papers" and letters. The use of beast fable and exclamatory punctuation -- "My head throbs, and my pulses flutter, and yet I am so very heavy -- indeed, if you were to see me, you would pity me now . . . Well, I had something to say, but I cannot think of it"14 -- is a deft parody of Clarissa, which Godwin read while working on his novel.15 But the pathetic expostulations of a victim/heroine are {611} malapropos in a book designed, like Hogg's Justified Sinner's account of himself, to show "the dreadful danger of self-righteousness."

Self-righteousness may irritate either a romantic Tory or a positivist Jacobin, but it takes the latter to see the political consequences of the self-deception that generates it. Godwin had a passion for reason -- indeed he was often attacked for overvaluing it16-- but he was fully aware of its vulnerability. It is worth quoting at length from Political Justice:

Precipitate and superficial judges conclude, that he who imposes upon others, is in most cases aware of the delusion himself. But this seldom happens. Self-deception is of all things the most easy. Whoever ardently wishes to find a proposition true, may be expected insensibly to veer towards the opinion that suits his inclination. It cannot be wondered at, by him who considers the subtlety of the human mind, that belief should scarcely ever rest upon the mere basis of evidence, and that arguments are always viewed through a delusive medium, magnifying them into Alps, or diminishing them to nothing.

In the same manner as the grounds of our opinions are complicated, so are the motives to our actions. It is probable that no wrong action is perpetrated from motives entirely pure. It is probable that conscientious assassins and persecutors, have some mixture of ambition or the love of fame, and some feelings of animosity and ill will. But the deception they put upon themselves may nevertheless be complete. They stand acquitted at the bar of their own examination; and their injurious conduct, if considered under the head of motive only, is probably as pure, as much of that conduct which falls with the best title under the denomination of virtue.17

Self-deception renders Caleb and Falkland useless, even though they are not, finally, allowed to "stand acquitted at the bar of their own examination." Only a continual, not to say vigilant, re-examination of our motives and those of others, in the light of the institutions that historically must affect or distort all forms of social interaction, will allow us to remain active participants in things as they are. Godwin, writing soon after the Birmingham Riots, the trial of Tom Paine, the Edinburgh {612} Trials and the execution of Louis XVI, must have weighed interior odysseys like Caleb's rather light against the publicly accessible forms of heroism. But he was not a philistine, and saw that to seek to be your own historian entailed a consequential fallacy; a fallacy given form in Caleb's parasitism on other narratives (Emily's, Collins', Falkland's, Raymond's, Hawkins') while maintaining the "delusive medium" of the I. Godwin probably did achieve "a balance between psychological interest and English Jacobin social criticism,"18 but I would say that the novel is the process of achieving that, not a static piece of literary equilibrium.

Caleb's hereditary name is Godwin's first name; Falkland's is that of Lucius Carey, Viscount Falkland, the subject of one of the most eloquent biographies in Clarendon's History of the Rebellion.19 The monarchist historian recounts how melancholy invaded this great aristocrat at the outbreak of the Civil War, rendering him sharp with his companions, indifferent to his appearance, and almost paralysed in his withdrawal into himself. His behavior at the battle of Newbury was suicidal. The names are trivial indications of the way Godwin wrote as analyst both of the self and of historical events. Avoiding the mechanical social determinism which so often traps radicals (from Holcroft to Tressell) when they write fiction, avoiding the individualism which presents character as autonomous, beyond change or disintegration, and is therefore essentially conservative (Scott would be a cautionary example), Godwin combined rationality and a profound self-mistrust, political indignation and psychological guilt. The result is a truly radical book, going back to that prime root of experience, understanding, and conditioning -- language, its uses and abuses. In Book IV, Chapter viii of Political Justice Godwin sees language as causative, an influence on the self as much as an expression of the self, and since the "established language of morality" is likely to reflect prejudice as much as necessity, "it will therefore be of no trivial importance, to enquire, how much of this language is founded in the truth of things, and how much of what is expressed by it, is purely imaginary" [PJ].20

{613} It is strange that so many of Godwin's critics and biographers, whether seeing him as the expositor and ideologue, or as romantic mythmaker, allow apology or indulgence. Caleb Williams, a personal history in more ways than one, validates Hazlitt's account of Godwin: "He has displayed a more ardent spirit, and a more independent activity of thought than others, in establishing the fallacy (if fallacy it be) of an old popular prejudice that the Just and the True were One by championing it to the outrance and in the final result placing the Gothic structure of human virtue on an humbler, but a wider and safer foundation than . . . hitherto." The same essay (in Spirit of the Age) contains the apposite observation that "heroes on paper might degenerate into vagabonds in practice."

In Frankenstein this "Gothic structure of human virtue" is enclosed in letters, rather than by a historian addressing posterity and taking over other people's narratives. Walton the explorer, Frankenstein, and the monster all "speak" directly to another person -- Walton to his sister, Frankenstein to Walton, the monster to Frankenstein. The letters begin in December, but the crucial date is August 18th when Frankenstein says "listen to my history" [Letter 49] and literary structure intrudes with the heading, "Chapter I" (F, pp. 30, 31). Epistolary structure and chronology re-enter in Chapter XXIV, the last in the book, when Walton on August 26th writes that he has "a conviction of the truth of his narrative" [Walton 1] because he has seen Felix and Safie's letters. Frankenstein has connected the notes made by Walton on the basis of Frankenstein's words: "Since you have preserved my narration, . . . I would not that a mutilated one should go down to posterity" (p. 210). He is now therefore a textual as well as oral historian, having imposed order on his own Tale and having actually corrected the text Walton is transmitting. The monster's narrative, which occupied a whole day, is the substance of Chapters XI-XVI, closing with the demand that Frankenstein should create him a mate (p. 144). On September 7th Walton accepts the crew's request to abandon the polar expedition; on September 12th he reports Frankenstein's death, breaks off his letter to investigate a noise in the cabin where Frankenstein's body is, encounters the monster, and -- clearly -- returns to report it. "Great God! What a scene has just taken place! I am yet dizzy with the remembrance of it. I hardly know whether I shall have the power to detail it; yet the tale which I have recorded would be incomplete without this final and wonderful catastrophe" (p. 218). This paragraph begins the final dialogue with the monster, after whose "Farewell" the book ends: "He sprang from the cabin window as he said this, upon the ice raft which {614} lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance" (p. 223).

Mary Shelley's narrative is far more tightly organized with respect to chronology than Godwin's, and the emphasis on actual written text is far greater, because of the letter form, Frankenstein's editing of the transcription of his story, and Felix and Safie's letters being taken as proof. We are not forced to accept Frankenstein as the unmediated historian of his tale, as we are Caleb. Yet there are striking similarities. Walton is writing from somewhere immeasurably remote to someone we never see and who is never characterized: she is therefore a transparent fronting device. Much of the time he is writing to divert himself in a kind of imprisonment in the polar seas, ("mountains of ice, which admit of no escape" [p. 212]), not knowing whether he will ever go forward or back like Caleb. He doubts whether he will ever return, and if he can not the prospect of his letters reaching England must be unlikely. So his writing comes to be an account of himself and his experiences almost for its own sake. His intense partiality to Frankenstein excludes the possibility that he can be a neutral mediator of Frankenstein's narrative: he both yearns after Frankenstein's company as the monster does, and identifies with him as a "glorious spirit" (p. 218). "Must I then lose this admirable being? I have longed for a friend; I have sought one who would sympathise with and love me. Behold, on these desert seas I have found such a one; but, I fear, I have gained him only to know his value, and lose him" (p. 211).21 Frankenstein asks Walton "to undertake my unfinished work" (p. 217) -- i.e., to murder the monster -- because he presumably senses affinity. Indeed, the affinity is obvious in their desire to find out, to master reality without thought to the consequences for others. The geographical explorer is perhaps one and the same with the laboratory explorer, the former beginning his experiment in mastery in the lifeless polar regions, the latter his doomed journey in the charnel-house.

More important than this possibility that Walton may by analogy be his own historian, or at the least a ventriloquist for Frankenstein,22 is the way remembered event is cut across by present event, exactly as it is in Caleb Williams. This occurs first between August 26th (the end of Frankenstein's tale commented on by Walton) and September 5th {615} (the threat of mutiny); but the most dramatic example is Walton's final dialogue/confrontation with the monster. He has now obviously assumed the negative and denying voice of Frankenstein, and he too enters into expostulation with the monster, as did Frankenstein on the Mer de Glace in Chapter XVII. Once again the monster's rhetoric is more powerful, the sense of his superior political and moral sense overwhelming. The monster has moved from the center of the narrative into the very surface of the text; after his departure there is nothing. He is akin to both Caleb and Falkland in that the completion of his purpose is empty, and his removal from the book terminates it. Caleb speaks of his plans to effect Falkland's death and establish his guilt: "Both these events are accomplished; and it is only now that I am truly miserable" (CW, p. 325). The monster acknowledges the same phenomenon: "For while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires" (F, p. 221). He escapes this deadly mutual parasitism by envisaging himself as non-finite: "I shall no longer see the sun or the stars, or feel the winds play on my cheeks. Light, feelings and sense will pass away" (F, p. 222). So too Caleb: "I have now no character that I wish to vindicate" (CW, p. 326).

I have not discussed the mythic aspects of Mary Shelley's novel, nor its affinities with and influence on other romantic writing because that has been well done elsewhere.23 Nor have I gone into the specifically female quality in the imagining of creation, birth, abortion, and death.24 All of these have bearing on the ideology of self-statement, but I have attempted to concentrate on the formal rather than thematic aspects of Frankenstein, for it is here that the particular misgiving about the apotheosis of self in first-person narrative is most clearly shared with Caleb Williams.

We ignore the significance of the tensions in both novels if we see them as about "the individual versus society," or "science against humanism," or "reason versus passion." Godwin and Mary Shelley felt {616} these oppositions; indeed the way in which identities struggle and change places throughout the narratives is a dramatization of the experience of such opposition. Yet ultimately they possessed an imagination too profoundly dialectical, too holistic, to allow opposition to be seen as endlessly repetitive. Galvanism, which Mary Shelley used as a metaphor for Frankenstein's odd mode of bringing life to the dead, also provides metaphors for the way form functions in her novel and her father's. Alessandro Volta, putting forward an interpretation of Galvani's work in a letter to the Royal Society in 1792, particularly emphasized the continuity of the flow of electricity from terminal to terminal and "as there was no instrument suitable for the detection of continuous currents, he had to quote his physiological sensations in proof of their existence. The situation was paradoxical, but nonetheless real."25 Continuity and development are made possible by establishing the limitations of the premisses of first-person narratives.

Benveniste, distinguishing between historical enunciation and discourse (presupposing a speaker intending to influence a listener) notices that the passé simple is characteristic of the former and the passé composé of the latter. Those tenses are approximated rather than paralleled in their function in English, but Jean Starobinski's observation that the two are oddly confounded in the autobiographical mode seems relevant to the two novels discussed here.26 Both certainly manifest shifts in the kind of pastness evoked. Starobinski goes on to show how autobiography mixes r&eacite;cit and monologue pur. Récit is almost history, an apparently modest form that effaces the narrator in the interest of events but ends up solidifying him by objectification (compare Caleb's oppressive presence as the truthful historian, and Walton's role). In monologue pur the exclusive affirmation of "I," me, allows the events to be parasitic on the narrator, so that the insistently personal "I" becomes a non-person (as in Beckett's writing). Rousseau's Confessions are perhaps the extreme example of the kind of writing that is referred inward to sentiment and conscience, spontaneity of feeling as shown in the act of writing becoming the authentication of the narrative. What is so powerful, and ultimately so oppressive, about the Confessions is the sense that this maneuver attempts rhetorically to allow the present "I" ex- {617} clusive responsibility over the past "I," an exclusiveness that ultimately becomes a denial of the past "I." Both Godwin and Mary Shelley intuited the solipsist consequences of such maneuvers and presented heroes who pretend to history when they ought properly to have the courage to use autobiography. In autobiography the authority of the present narrator depends on its difference from the self that is revealed in the narrative: the form is justified by a conception of change. Caleb, Frankenstein, and their demonic victims and persecutors have to be shown as operating on morally, and ontologically, false grounds: first, through the strain and anxiety and falsification occasioned by their naïve relation to first-person narrative, and second, by a moment of insight in which the opponents they have struggled with as alien demons are suddenly, through an act of generosity, revealed as like them. Of course, this perception of a connection between a battle with Protean form (linguistic and anthropic and socially contrived) and any sort of self-possession or fulfillment is only incidentally submerged by the pieties of self-hood which characterize (both senses) conventional fiction. Godwin and Mary Shelley resurrected it. That is why part of the ballad of fair Janet and Tam Lin is given as an epigraph.


1. "Tam Lin," The Oxford Book of Ballads, ed. A. Quiller Couch (Oxford 1910), p. I2.

2. References throughout are to the Oxford English Novels editions: Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (London, 1970), and Frankenstein, ed. M. K. Joseph (London, 1969).

3. p. 323. Double quotation marks are used throughout where the first person narrators recount a scene, single quotation marks within double where the narrators give direct speech.

4. In Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1957), for example.

5. The phrase is from Michael Wood's acute study, Stendhal (London, 1971), p. 41.

6. Godwin, account of the composition of Caleb Williams in the preface to the "Standard Novels" edition (1832) of Fleetwood; reprinted as Appendix II in McCracken's CW, p. 339.

7. James Walton, "'Mad Feary Father': Caleb Williams and the Novel Form," Salzburg Studies in English Literature, Romantic Reassessment Series, No. 47 (Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache, 1975), p. II. I disagree with Walton's conclusions but am much indebted to his perceptions.

8. Ms. in the Abinger collection, quoted in Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel 1780-1805 (Oxford, 1976), p. 201.

9. Discussed in detail in Walton, pp. 24-31 and 37-38.

10. Appendix II to CW, p. 339.

11. Ibid., p. 337.

12. Walton, pp. 3, 4.

13. Appendix II to CW, p. 337. My italics.

14. Appendix I to CW, p. 333.

15. See Dumas, "Things as They Were: the Original Ending of Caleb Williams, SEL, 6 (July, 1966); and Myers, "Godwin's Changing Concept on of Caleb Williams," SEL, 12 (Autumn, 1972).

16. See David Fleisher, William Godwin: A Study in Liberalism (London 1951), p. 146, and D. H. Monro's careful rebuttal in Godwin's Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 1953). There is insult enough in calling Godwin a liberal, but Monro ignores that for the more important business of showing that Godwin's works precisely do not offer "an inadequate appreciation of the primal, brute forces in human nature that oppose reason."

17. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, ed. K. Codell Carter (Oxford, 1971), p. 82.

18. See Kelly's excellent discussion of Caleb Williams (note 8 above), p. 180

19. Hazlitt mentions this in Spirit of the Age as one of the books about which Godwin was best in conversation; Kelly (p. 203) suggests that Lucius Carey, Viscount Falkland, was the model for Godwin's hero, but gives Hume's History of Great Britain as the source, backed up by he DNB. There was an edition of selections from Clarendon in 1793, and though Clarendon was a fertile source for Anti-Jacobin demonstrating the horrors of Civil War, Godwin was exactly the kind of man to study his opponents' sources carefully.

20. Political Justice, p. 168.

21. Erice's extraordinarily beautiful film, Spirit of the Beehive, is a gloss on this section, as indeed it is on all the book.

22. Cf. the use of impersonation and ventriloquism in Charles Brockden Brown's Ormond and Wieland, which Mary Shelley read in 1815.

23. See especially Christopher Small, Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary and Frankenstein (London 1972); and Masao Miyoshi, The Divided Self (New York and London, 1969).

24. See Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York 1976), pp. 93-99. There is an odd coincidence of chronology about Frankenstein that supplements Moers' observations. The action of Frankenstein begins in December and ends nine months later in September; Mary Shelley hints that she is pregnant in the letter to Shelley of December 5th 1816 that records the completion of Chapter IV (the manufacture of the monster); her daughter Clara was born in September 1817, the month when Frankenstein was finally accepted for publication.

25. A. R. Hall, The Scientific Revolution 1500-1800 (2nd edition, London, 1962), p. 362.

26. Jean Starobinski, "Le Style de l'Autobiographie," Poétique, 3 (Seuil, Paris, 1970), 257-65.