Frankenstein’s Dad

Nice piece by Jeff Riggenbach on William Godwin. And what he says about the respective roles of communism and individualism in Godwin’s theory strikes me as basically right.

It’s also worth noting (since Riggenbach mentions Caleb Williams toward the end) that there’s been a revival of interest in Godwin’s novels as well; indeed I find that among academics he’s perhaps best known for his role in the development of the Romantic novel.

William Godwin

The theme of Caleb Williams might be described as “the problem of other minds, viewed through the lens of class analysis.” It concerns an innocent commoner being persecuted (for complicated reasons) by an aristocrat, where the difference in social status between the two men makes it literally impossible for even the most well-intentioned third parties to take seriously the possibility that the fault lies with the aristocrat; the notion that the aristocrat might be other than as he seems is treated as a skeptical hypothesis that can be entertained in the abstract but cannot seriously be lived. (Godwin had a deep interest in Humean worries about ordinary beliefs’ being unfounded yet impossible to surrender; see my Godwin paper.)

Among Godwin’s other novels, the best known is St.-Léon (originally titled The Adept), about an alchemist who discovers the twin secrets of making gold and of living forever. Just as H.G. Wells seems to have been the first writer to explore what being invisible would actually be like (including the disadvantages it would entail), so Godwin does the same thing for immortality and inexhaustible wealth. Byron once paid the novel a rather Byronic compliment:

[A]fter asking Godwin why he did not write a new novel, his lordship received from the old man the answer, that it would kill him. “And what matter,” said Lord Byron, “we should have another St.-Léon.”

(Given Godwin’s views on archbishops and chambermaids, he could hardly have objected to Byron’s suggested trade-off.)

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2 Responses to Frankenstein’s Dad

  1. Roderick May 7, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    I didn’t really explain the title. Its point was that Caleb Williams and St.-Léon are both regarded as major influences on Godwin’s daughter’s novel Frankenstein. St.-Léon experiments with the secrets of life as Frankenstein does, and equally to his regret; while Williams is a social outcast as Frankenstein’s monster is, and Williams and Falkland exchange roles as hunter and hunted, persecutor and persecuted, in a mutual vendetta, just as Frankenstein and his monster do.

                                  They called me mad at the University!

  2. Joel May 9, 2010 at 11:22 am #

    For some reason, after reading that article on Godwin, I’m thinking there is quite a bit of similarity between Godwin and Joseph Déjacque, which is a little bit ironic given their reputations within left anarchists circles.

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