Persecution and Nourishment in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams

Persecution and Nourishment in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams
Conference Name
The Poetics of Pain: Aesthetics, Ideology, and Representation
Host Institution
CUNY Graduate Center
New York
United States
Conference date
Fri, 02/26/2010
Conference Name
The Poetics of Pain: Aesthetics, Ideology, and Representation
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Ever since Alex Gold’s pivotal 1977 essay “It’s Only Love,” the pervasive homoerotics of William Godwin’s Caleb Williams have been read as inextricable from its paranoid tone and its focus on class warfare. Several critics—Gold included—understand the novel’s protagonist as suffering from “by the book” paranoia as Freud explained it: as the product of repressed homosexuality. Even those recent critics who read Godwin’s later novels as more favorable to loving relations between men still treat the homoeroticism of his first novel as at best a weapon against the feminization supposedly inherent in homoerotic attraction or in class oppression. In my paper I challenge this negative interpretation of homoerotic attachment in Caleb Williams. Drawing on the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s object-relations theory, I argue that it is more accurate and productive to read Caleb’s attachment to his desired persecutor, Mr. Falkland, as a masochistic assemblage and preservation of Falkland as a sustaining “good object.”

Caleb is not paranoid; he is actually persecuted. Moreover, he consciously perpetuates this persecution, or believes he does even when it is out of his control. Ending this persecution, he says, would be equivalent to “weaning” himself from a source of maternal nourishment—Mr. Falkland, his desired persecutor (274). Klein posits as one source of the phantasy of persecution the dread that, in seeking to internalizing the creative resources of the loved object, one has devoured it and thereby provoked its retaliatory hatred. In seeking to preserve Falkland’s persecution of him, Caleb attempts in a roundabout way to establish Falkland as a nourishing good object in the first place. His relationship to Falkland thus resembles to some extent Linda Hart’s concept of masochism as a set of practices that suspend the boundary between real and phantismatic, thus as “an acting out of the hope that a different structure of value could emerge” (151).

My argument is nourished by two thinkers, Klein and Hart, who could be said to appear at this moment in the nimbus of the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ideas. In imagining a reading of Caleb Williams that tries to understand the productive desire behind its portrayal of sexuality and gender, I attempt to practice what Sedgwick terms “reparative reading,” reading that emphasizes not the paranoid subversiveness of a text, but rather its efforts to developed what she used to call “queer strategies for survival.” 

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