Preferred Citation: Logan, Peter Melville. Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in 19th-Century British Prose. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

The Nervous Narrator’s Paradox

2. The Nervous Narrator’s Paradox

William Godwin and Caleb Williams

William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) contains an intricate representation of the nervous body in the novel. Because that body belongs to the narrator, the novel also illustrates the particular narrative act that was associated with nervous conditions. “All is not right within me,” Caleb reports, and he tries to explain what has gone wrong within his body by looking back over the sequence of impressions it received.[1] Because he is isolated by the point late in the story where he begins to construct his narrative, he addresses an unknown future reader, one who will “render me a justice which my contemporaries refuse” (CW, 3). He rehearses for this imaginary but sympathetic audience the litany of social injustice that caused his condition, and this retelling helps him to endure the intoler-able present: “I derive a melancholy pleasure from dwelling upon the circumstances which imperceptibly paved the way to my ruin” (CW, 123). Trotter describes precisely this form of narration in his sparse, reluctant list of nervous symptoms, discussed in chapter 1: “a selfish desire of engrossing the sympathy and attention of others to the narration of their own sufferings” (NT, xvi). The nervous condition, then, does not only stem from a narrative within the body; it is also associated, in early nineteenth-century culture, with a characteristic narrative act.[2]

Because the nervous narrative was viewed as the product of the speaker’s disease, what is remarkable is not that it was routinely discounted because of its formal qualities but that—quite the reverse—it was routinely deployed by writers in the late Georgian period. William Godwin, after using it for Caleb Williams, used it again in his next novel, Fleetwood (1805). Mary Hays also used it for Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), Mary Wollstonecraft for Maria’s memoir in The Wrongs of Woman (1798), Maria Edgeworth for Harrington (1817), Mary Shelley for Victor’s narrative in Frankenstein (1818), Thomas De Quincey for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), and James Hogg for Colwan’s half of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). In each case, the first-person narrative begins with the narrator’s nervous body and sets out to explain the specific social conditions that produced it. The opening words of Caleb Williams typify the narrative stance that characterizes these nervous narrators: “My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity. I have been a mark for the vigilance of tyranny, and I could not escape. My fairest prospects have been blasted…. I have not deserved this treatment” (CW, 3). The balance of the narrative will expand on this statement, restaging the exact conditions of the calamity, and it will denounce those conditions on the basis of the narrator’s illness.

This form proved inviting to writers of the period, despite its suspect nature, because people widely believed, as our nervous doctor did, that the social and physical environment had a determinant effect on individual development and, more generally, that it shaped the character of the English as a “race”—that is, as defined by a distinctly English physical body. The late Georgian period saw the beginning in England of the utopian faith in reform-oriented institutions based on the effects of control over external impressions.[3] York Retreat, the Quaker asylum for the insane founded by William Tuke in 1792, was a significant practical manifestation of this new faith. One of the earliest of the new breed of institutions, it eliminated physical restraint and punishment in favor of a new therapeutics based on the beneficial effects on the mind of a domestic physical environment combined with a carefully structured model of social interaction.[4] Prison reformer John Howard, whose 1777 book on the conditions within England’s prisons is cited within Caleb Williams, also contributed to the new focus on the power of environmental conditions to shape individuals (CW, 181).[5] Institutional structures were given a utopian power to remake inmates in a predictable fashion, and this trend led to the appearance of the new reform-oriented institutions—penitentiaries, insane asylums, orphanages—that characterized the early to mid-nineteenth century. Novels such as Caleb Williams utilized this larger cultural paradigm.

However, this social critique produces an inherent paradox within this narrative form. For although the narrator’s illness condemns the social conditions that produced it, that same illness also constructs the narrating voice. Without it, there would be no narrative, for the illness enables—in fact, compels—the narrative act. So the literary genre of nervous narration promotes, in its formal structure, the same disorder it cautions against. In this, it reenacts the paradox that Trotter’s writing exemplifies in its attack on excess sensibility, for like him the novelist relies on the same condition he or she condemns. Trotter makes sensibility the center of the doctor’s interpretive skill. In the novel, the narrator who criticizes sensibility does so from the position of experience, testifying to its terrors. The result is a conflict of narrative authority within the sizable group of first-person novels attacking sensibility that appeared at the same time sensibility was being medicalized by writers such as Thomas Trotter. How does the speaker of the nervous narrative criticize the sensibility that forms the basis of his or her authority to speak without negating that authority? By founding their critique on their own suffering bodies, these narrators invite the diagnosis of Trotter that the narrative itself is an expression of their disorder and hence not to be trusted. Similarly, the more compelling and admirable this narrative’s aesthetic qualities, the more it valorizes the disorder that produced it. The more it succeeds, the more it fails in its critique.

Because there is no firm ground on which to base narrative authority within such a dynamic, novelists attacking sensibility must devise extraordinary strategies to develop some alternate foundation for their criticism, distancing the nervous speaker’s narrative from the disease it criticizes. Godwin wrote two separate endings for Caleb Williams, and the changes he made directly respond to this nervous paradox, as he tried to avoid implicating his hero in the disease he constructed.

Although they were at opposite ends of the political spectrum in counterrevolutionary England, the radical Godwin shared with the conservative Trotter basic assumptions about the body’s responsiveness to its social environment.[6] In his major philosophical work, the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), Godwin goes even further than the nervous doctor to argue that all disease is caused by social factors. He predicts that in the future, when social power is rationally distributed, all disease will disappear. He even holds forth the ultimate possibility that, freed of the prejudices and errors that produce social conflict and disease, people will no longer age, and so we might realize “the possibility of maintaining the human body in perpetual youth and vigour.”[7] Thus, both writers interpret illness as a product of external impressions on the body, impressions that are defined as originating in the social structure. Godwin expands the role of social events further than Trotter, because he more fully enfranchises the working-class body in the new nervous democracy. The doctor allows for the presence of nervous disorders among some servants and laborers, but he preserves a partial role for inheritance in the production of the nervous body. Godwin, however, dismisses all theories of inherited sensibility as “the refuge of indolence” (PJ, 107). In the mold of Locke, he regards sensibility as entirely a social product: “In fine, it is impression that makes the man, and, compared with the empire of impression, the mere differences of animal structure are inexpressibly unimportant and powerless” (PJ, 107). Thus, the nervous body expands more noticeably across class lines in Godwin’s writing than in Trotter’s. It shows up in a rustic servant such as Caleb as well as in his aristocratic master, Squire Falkland.

Godwin’s novels pointedly expose the specific machinery at work in the relationship between the social body and the individual. The author afterward said of Caleb Williams that he was primarily interested in “recording the gradually accumulating impulses, which led the personages I had to describe primarily to adopt the particu-lar way of proceeding in which they afterwards embarked.”[8] Like Trotter, he focuses on the relationship between an observable sequence of events in the external world and its consequence in the individual, trying to demonstrate a cause-and-effect explanation for present, inexplicable behaviors—the murder of a rival, the fickle behavior of a stock trader—in the body’s intercourse with its social environment. This accumulation of impulses, because it represents that external social order, forms a social narrative of incidents, a narrative first produced by the order of society, then impressed on the inscribable body of the individual, and finally enacted in that individual’s conduct.

The entire structure of Caleb Williams revolves around the problematic of the inscribable body and the social narrative that impresses itself upon it.[9] The novel ends with the nervous body of the narrator. It begins with the nervous body of Falkland. And it follows the story of the unnecessary conflict the social narrative creates between these two fundamentally honorable individuals. Falkland’s story forms only the principal case history nested within the narrator’s own case history. Within Falkland’s tale lie further histories, each stressing the accumulation of sensations, the cascade of unwelcome shocks that lead to a given physical manifestation, either in action or illness. The squire Tyrell, a petty tyrant, is subjected to a series of “innumerable instances that every day seemed to multiply, of petty mortifications” (CW, 23). He is “accumulating materials for a bitter account” and “[s]marting under a succession of untoward events” (CW, 23). The farm boy on trial for murder commits the act only after being harassed with “a course of hostility” by his brutish victim (CW, 129). The sentimental heroine, Emily Melvile, uninured to hardship, develops a fatal fever due to unremitting persecution. These bodies, including Falkland’s and Caleb’s, are reservoirs for the social narrative, which is gradually written upon them and hoarded in the structure of their nerves. Each is the product of a slowly accumulated sequence of sensations rather than of a single catastrophic event. As the steward Collins asks of his master, Falkland, “Did any man, and least of all a man of the purest honour, ever pass in a moment from a life unstained by a single act of injury to the consummation of human depravity?” (CW, 103). Within the assumptions of the novel, the answer is in the negative. Despite Falkland’s guilt, he is not traduced “in a moment” into the act of murder but is led into it, ineluctably, through a lifetime of socially acquired conventions, particular incidents, and recent aggravations that finally accumulate to produce the disordered fit that constitutes murder itself.

Godwin believed that his novel was going to do more than just critique society. Indeed, he wrote it immediately after completing the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, with the stated intention of broadcasting his ideas to a broader readership through a more accessible representation of British social life. But Godwin felt that, in addition to conveying his philosophy, his novel was going to change the society it represented by changing the readership. “I will write a tale,” he explained, “that shall constitute an epoch in the mind of the reader, that no one, after he has read it, shall ever be exactly the same man that he was before” (Fleetwood, ix). The statement contains three assumptions that need to be addressed: first, the reader is male; second, this male is somehow in need of change; and third, the novel can remedy this reader’s problem.

That reader’s problem is that he is not quite male enough. Godwin’s nervous body is always, like Trotter’s, an effeminate one. In his utopian philosophy, he describes the ideal future as one in which “[t]he men…will probably cease to propagate. The whole will be a people of men, and not of children. Generation will not succeed generation” (PJ, 776). With the elimination of disease, longevity will be infinitely extended, and reproduction, no longer necessary to the survival of the species, will cease.[10] ( In this disease-free utopia, then, the female body, as the site of reproduction, disappears, along with its inherent nervous inscribability.[11] In Godwin’s progressive history, that utopia is egalitarian but also entirely masculinized, much as the savage past is masculinized in the conservative history of Trotter. In both cases, the present body represents an effeminate deviation from a healthy and masculine ideal.

Godwin’s presentation of Caleb reflects this gendered ideology. The critical problem posed by Caleb Williams is that the narrator has become effeminized. Godwin describes Caleb’s body as riddled with the delicate “flutterings and palpitations” of his feminine sensibility (CW, 153). His ruling passion is an “ungoverned curiosity” that is itself gendered female (CW, 133). “Caleb Williams was the wife,” wrote Godwin, drawing an analogy to the story of Bluebeard, “who in spite of warning, persisted in his attempts to discover the forbidden secret” (Fleetwood, xii). His curiosity represents the ascendancy of female nerves within his body; similarly, Falkland’s sensibility and hypochondriacal fits suggest his own effeminacy, within the older aristocratic model. What Caleb narrates is the process of his own gradual effeminization, as his abject position makes him increasingly nervous. He attributes that gendering process to the impressions produced in him by the irrational social environment. Caleb thus tells the story of how he acquired the body with a story to tell; and through Caleb, Godwin tells the story of how the narrative of social events produces female bodies. Within Godwin’s philosophy, the population as a whole possesses an overly inscribable body, one that carries within it the narrative inscribed by the social environment, and this narrative is the reader’s problem. So all readers, to some degree, are sick like Caleb Williams.

Caleb’s sensibility also has a positive side to it: It gives him a heightened “involuntary sympathy” (CW, 133) that, like the sensibility of Thomas Trotter, makes him “a competent adept in the different modes in which the human intellect displays its secret workings” (CW, 123). His role within the first half of the novel closely resembles that described by the nervous doctor. The enigma of Falkland’s secret hypochondriacal fits—in which the reserved but gentle squire has to hide himself as he begins to turn brutish, palsied, and violent—motivates Caleb to investigate, like a fictionalized Thomas Trotter, the elaborate history of the nervous body and to reconstruct the story behind it. At the climax, when he breaks into his master’s chest and glimpses Falkland’s autobiography, it is as if he is prying into Falkland’s own breast to discover the narrative hidden within.[12] His narrative curiosity, his desire to know the story, combines the same two elements that structure Trotter’s work: a need for the interpreter to construct narrative explanations and the feminization required by the work of interpretation. The ability to uncover the “secret workings” and move beyond what is made available on the surface is associated by both writers with the exquisite sensibility of the female body.

Godwin adds a new element in the relationship between narrative and the body, however. Although the problem of Caleb Williams is the social narrative that produces conflict between individuals like Caleb and Falkland, the solution to that problem lies in a new type of narrative, the narrative of reason. In Godwin’s philosophy, the individual is a reasonable creature who always behaves rationally within the faulty dictates of his or her situation (PJ, bk. 4, chapter 7). It is impossible for any person to persist in an action he or she knows to be based on erroneous beliefs.[13] As he points out, “there is no conduct…the reasons of which are thus conclusive and thus communicated, which will not infallibly and uniformly be adopted by the man to whom they are communicated” (PJ, 136). Thus he establishes the principle, evident in each of his novels, that “[s]ound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error” (PJ, 140). Because erroneous assumptions create the prejudice and blind traditionalism that cause the world’s distress and illness, the cure for these bodily disorders is rational explanation and discussion.[14]

Caleb Williams repeatedly illustrates the compelling power of narratives based on “sound reasoning and truth,” representing in fictional form the real power it claims to possess over its audience. Emily and Falkland both move, briefly, the emotions of the “unfeeling” tyrant, Squire Tyrell, through their direct appeals to his reason. Like Godwin, they reject eloquent conventions of speech, using a “plain-spoken” narrative to say what would otherwise remain politely unsaid. There is a teasing motion throughout the novel wherein the power of plain-spoken truth confronts the artful prejudice that characterizes the social narrative and, like a genie constantly threatening to break out of its bottle, almost overcomes it—but not quite. Caleb almost succeeds in persuading the guard to free him. He almost succeeds in the pastoral interlude with Laura. Not until the concluding scene, when Caleb tells his story to the court, does the narrative of truth finally emerge triumphant over the prejudice produced by the social narrative. Then Caleb’s “naked” analysis of the joint errors that destroyed his friendship with Falkland, the “best of men,” proves irresistible, even to an audience predisposed against him because of his reputation for having the charming eloquence of a charlatan. The “artless and manly story you have told,” reflects his former persecutor, “has carried conviction to every hearer” (CW, 324). Caleb’s story is gendered male by Falkland because it is a clear expression of reason, and so it functions as a harbinger of Godwin’s male utopia of reason, when all discourse will take this form. Godwin’s concept of the “manly story,” or the narrative of reason, envisions a narrative form in which the first-person description of personal suffering is no longer bound by its constitutive association with the female body.[15]

To Godwin, reason is less a theoretical abstraction than a physical force. As he describes it, reason operates through the same mechanism as sensations. Caleb’s climactic story has the power to move his audience to tears because Godwinian reason is experienced as a felt condition. It has a pronounced sensual element that distinguishes it from error: “Our perceptions can never be so luminous and accurate in the belief of falsehood as of truth” (PJ, 133). Truth for Godwin is always embodied truth, rather than disembodied abstraction. It “possesses an undisputed empire over the conduct” (PJ, 144) because it duplicates the physical mechanism of sensation and so has the same determinant effect as do physical impressions in Trotter. As a consequence, Godwin’s concept of rationality contradicts the principle of independent free will; he describes bodies as responding with the same mechanical predictability to rationality as to sensations.[16] Caleb’s own language best represents the conflation of the mechanisms of reason and sensation: “I conceived that my story faithfully digested would carry in it an impression of truth that few men would be able to resist” (CW, 303–4). Truth operates through “impressions” precisely as sensations do, as a form of writing on the body, and thus Godwinian truth opposes the determinist power of external sensations with a similar model for reason. It competes with the social environment for control of the body of the individual, offering an antidote to the effeminizing effect of the social narrative, one that will lead a world of effeminized bodies forward to a masculine utopia. The difference between these two forces, then, is simple: whereas the social narrative produces female bodies, Godwin’s narrative of reason produces male bodies.

Caleb Williams was written as a narrative of reason, and it was on this basis that Godwin imagined it could transform the reader. But he encountered a problem late in the process of writing the novel. Four days after finishing the manuscript, and with the first volume already being set in type, he went back to the novel, canceled the original ending, and wrote an entirely different conclusion.[17] The differences between the two are critical, because the two endings frame the preceding narrative in opposite lights. In the conceit of the first-person narrative, Caleb does not sit down to write his story until almost the conclusion of the novel’s action, during the two-year period when he is most discouraged. Ostracized, incessantly hounded by Falkland’s agent, he suffers a progressive mental collapse even as he writes the history of that collapse. When the narrative arrives at the present moment, Caleb makes a final, journalistic entry in which he decides to bring the charges of murder against Falkland. Because this decision holds the danger of imprisonment for him, he entrusts his written narrative to Collins, hoping it will vindicate his actions should the trial end unfavorably and his voice be permanently silenced. This self-vindicating manuscript, then, is the body of Caleb Williams, and it includes all of the novel except the brief trial scene itself, which is framed as the postscript to the narrative proper.

As first written, the postscript has the trial going against Caleb, and he ends up under physical restraint in a madhouse controlled by Falkland.[18] In notes smuggled out to Collins, he explains that his overly impassioned testimony at the trial was “alarming to my hearers” and that the magistrate dismissed his story with the peremptory command, “Be silent!” (CW, 330). Caleb thus is situated as a nervous narrator, with the magistrate in the position of a Thomas Trotter, dismissing the speaker’s narrative as a proof of disorder and thus one that begs to be silenced. In his last note from the madhouse, drugged and virtually inarticulate, Caleb can remember nothing: “I had something to say—but I cannot think of it” (CW, 333). He is finally deprived of his ability to construct a narrative out of the sequence of events: “[T]here is one thing first, and then another thing, and there is so much of them, and it is all nothing” (CW, 334). Although the magistrate does not believe Caleb, the reader knows his testimony to be truthful. Thus Caleb’s voice is suppressed, and his fugitive narrative, wisely entrusted to Collins, becomes the recovered voice of resistance to tyranny. The narrative stands as Caleb intends it, as a narrative of reason vindicating him and exposing the tyranny of the social narrative which, in an extreme form, the asylum restraint symbolizes.

The cancellation of this ending is particularly significant because Godwin conceived it first and then designed the rest of the novel to explain the sequence of events leading up to it.[19] By eliminating it, Godwin did more than excise a supplement; he apparently had located a problem in the novel’s central rationale. The revised ending supports this view. In it, Caleb succeeds in the trial through his triumphant speech but suddenly disavows the entire narrative. “I began these memoirs,” Caleb says in his final words, “with the idea of vindicating my character. I have now no character that I wish to vindicate” (CW, 326). Instead of letting his story stand as a first-person narrative seeking sympathy, in the nervous form, Godwin reframes it as a documentary of Caleb’s own errors. And so, like the medical patient described by Trotter, the nervous narrator of the novel is recontained as an object of study rather than a subject, as one whose diseased and effeminized body speaks and who, in the act of speaking, delegitimizes the content of his speech.

Godwin’s retrenchment might suggest a fear that Caleb’s original narrative would be routinely dismissed as the product of hysteria. But the need to contain it more convincingly suggests the reverse: that there is something transgressive in the original form, something that needs to be neutralized. This is the larger problem raised by the nervous narrative in the novel and autobiography. In a medical setting, the effeminate nervous narrator is a noisy object whose body must be disciplined into healthy silence. But in a novel, the speaker’s effeminization becomes formally desirable as a necessary condition for the production of narrative. Without that nervous body, there would be no narrative launched into the world, not even to warn readers against the social conditions that brought it into being. In these narratives, the nervous condition transforms the narrator into a speaking subject, one who does the disciplining through his or her body’s nervous critique. In Caleb Williams, the problem is not just that the speaker has become effeminized and needs to be restored to a non-nervous condition but that the narrative depends on this effeminization as the basic condition of its production. In its formal quality, the nervous narrative inevitably promotes the nervous condition it claims to warn against.[20]

It has been argued that Godwin canceled the first ending because it was overly doctrinaire and he had tired of his own dogmatism.[21] In terms of what Godwin called the “moral” of a text, or its “ethical sentence,” this explanation makes sense.[22] However, Godwin differentiated the intended moral from the rhetorical effect of a text; he distinguished between the contained authorial statement and the uncontained constructions that could be made of it by the reader, which he called the “tendency” of the text. At the level of this larger and less containable statement, the basic problem with the original ending is not that it is overly doctrinaire but rather that it is not doctrinaire enough. Godwin’s social critique has the tendency of investing those faulty social conditions with the positive quality of generating narratives like Caleb’s. Indeed, his novel presents a picture of a comprehensive system of social power whose most extreme manifestation is located in the very production of the nervous narrative itself. Thus, to criticize that system for the nervous body it generates is simply to reaffirm, at a higher level, that system’s value, for it is a system that makes Caleb into a speaking subject. Although the “moral” of Caleb Williams is a condemnation of the injustices in British social life, its “tendency” contradicts that moral by ascribing a creative function to the same social oppression. And so Godwin must recontain Caleb’s narrative. Otherwise, his social criticism inevitably valorizes the system he wants to change.

In making his revision, Godwin does not entirely surrender the ideal of a new first-person narrative form, one that is to be gendered male instead of female. When his narrator disavows his narrative, something new happens. He becomes a different type of speaker, one defined by his resistance to the essentially feminine act of narration rather than by his original indulgence in its pleasure. His narrative is reframed as a protest against the compulsion of the body to speak.

This resistance to narrative appears at two critical junctures of the narrative. In the final trial scene, it constitutes the main change in Caleb’s attitude toward the trial and his own part in it. The success of Caleb’s testimony hinges on his paradoxical repudiation of the act of speaking. He narrates the story of all the forces that brought him to the fatal moment of his testimony, describing the “dreadful mistake in the train of argument that persuaded me to be the author of this hateful scene” (CW, 320). His “manly tale” indicts the sequence of events that brings it into being, and it works through the paradox of criticizing its own narration: “Would to God it were possible for me to retire from this scene without uttering another word!” (CW, 320).[23] He concludes, “Never will I forgive myself the iniquity of this day” (CW, 323). In the trial scene, the narrative of reason is carefully bracketed within this act of negation, in which the speaker denounces himself for speaking. The “manly” quality of the tale comes not from within the tale itself but rather from the narrator’s negation of his own misguided act of speech. Narrative, that is, remains a feminized act. The existence of a “manly” narrative of reason is only revealed through the narrator’s resistance to his essentially feminized impulse to tell his own story.

The postscript reframes the fugitive narrative in exactly the same way. Given the change of heart Caleb undergoes in the new trial scene, the function and status of his narrative need to be redefined, for its publication—we are, after all, reading it—contradicts the new narrative conceit, in which Caleb no longer seeks to clear his own name. In the final words of the postscript, Caleb redefines his intentions, adopting a biblical tone and addressing himself to Falkland as though to a saint: “I will finish them that thy story may be fully understood; and that, if those errors of thy life be known which thou so ardently desiredst to conceal, the world may at least not hear and repeat a half-told and mangled tale” (CW, 326). The original nervous narrative, then, written to clear the name of Caleb, becomes redefined as the narrative of Falkland’s vindication. What was initially written as a self-vindication becomes recast as a self-denunciation, and through this transformation the narrative itself is redeemed, not as a rational narrative but as a protest against its own existence.

Because it is redefined as a vindication of Falkland, Caleb’s narrative finally comes to occupy the position of the narrative that he imagines is hidden within Falkland’s trunk:

The contents of the fatal trunk from which all my misfortunes originated, I have never been able to ascertain…. I am now persuaded that the secret it incloses is a faithful narrative…written by Mr. Falkland, and reserved in case of the worst, that, if by any unforeseen event his guilt should come to be fully disclosed, it might contribute to redeem the wreck of his reputation…. If Falkland shall never be detected to the satisfaction of the world, such a narrative will probably never see the light. In that case this story of mine may amply, severely perhaps, supply its place.

By rededicating his own narrative to redeem Falkland’s reputation, Caleb’s narrative does finally “supply its place,” establishing a formal association between itself and the imaginary narrative in the trunk. That unseen manuscript of the new Saint Falkland perfectly symbolizes the masculine narrative of reason, a dreamlike narrative that can only exist hypothetically and comes into language itself only through negation.[24] The formal effect of the postscript is to reposition the reader, who now duplicates Caleb’s action within the novel and peers into that trunk at Falkland’s narrative.

Thus, the narrative of reason proves elusive in the novel. Caleb Williams is not, in the end, such a narrative; it only points to the presence of such a narrative elsewhere, outside the novel, through the final protest against its own feminized act of narration. Although Godwin can theorize a new male narrative, because of the nervous narrative paradox he cannot tell it. He can only point to it through the speaker’s protest against the compulsion to speak, through the narrator’s healthy resistance to the disease that produces narration.

In reading the nervous narrative, then, emphasis needs to be given to the moment of the speaker’s resistance to the act of speaking, a resistance that is evident not just in Caleb Williams but more famously in Frankenstein, with Victor’s reluctance to narrate his past, or less familiarly in Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney, where the narrator protests against having to revisit her painful past. The resistance points to a subject that is conceivably distinct from the socially determined subject whose narrative is itself an act of capitulation, an acquiescence in the system it condemns. In a culture that believes widely in the determinant forces of external events, there is no safe “outside” from which to criticize its effects. Self-negation at least enables a subject to recontain her or his own uncontrollable tendency to give value to an oppressive social order, and if this resistance is not exactly self-expression, nor even descriptive of an alternate mode of being, it is nonetheless the only available sign of social condemnation available to the nervous narrator. Made into a critic by an unjust society, the social critic must necessarily practice a self-criticism—more precisely, a criticism of the hystericized impulse to criticize.


1. William Godwin, Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (New York: Norton, 1977), 313. Subsequent references to this edition are abbreviated CW.

2. There has been a large body of recent work done on literature and nineteenth-century nervous theory. On nerves and the sensation novel, see Sally Shuttleworth, “ ‘Preaching to the Nerves’: Psychological Disorder in Sensation Fiction,” in A Question of Identity: Women, Science, and Literature, ed. Marina Benjamin (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 192–222. See also Shuttleworth’s discussion of mid-Victorian nervous psychology in relation to George Eliot’s Villette, “ ‘The Surveillance of a Sleepless Eye’: The Constitution of Neurosis in Villette,” in One Culture: Essays in Science and Literature, ed. George Levine (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), 313–35. On the same topic, see Athena Vrettos, “From Neurosis to Narrative: The Private Life of the Nerves,” in Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 48–180. And see D. A. Miller, “Cage aux folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White,” in The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 146–91. Ekbert Faas outlines the influence of nineteenth-century psychological medicine on the dramatic monologue in Retreat into the Mind: Victorian Poetry and the Rise of Psychiatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). For a discussion of nervous theories in relation to Romantic poetry and the novel, see Philip W. Martin, Mad Women in Romantic Writing (New York: St. Martin’s, 1987). Janet Beizer discusses nineteenth-century theories of hysteria and French literature in Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994). Tom Lutz discusses the American context in American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

3. On the penitentiary, see Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850 (London: Penguin, 1978); and see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979). In Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), John Bender has a detailed critique of the narrative organization of this new penitentiary space and relates it to developments in the novel, which made such structures imaginable. David J. Rothman’s The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971), though a U.S. social history, is particularly useful for students of the British experience because it broadens the issue to encompass all the institutional forms this utopian impulse took.

4. On the York Retreat, see Ann Digby’s full-length study Madness, Morality and Medicine: A Study of the York Retreat, 1796–1914 (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985). On the related issue of “moral therapy” in France, see Goldstein, Console and Classify, 64–119.

5. On Howard, see Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain, 47–59; Ignatieff also discusses Godwin’s attack on Howard’s ideas, 117–18.

6. Janet Todd provides a succinct discussion of the range of political meanings given to sensibility during the period, in Sensibility, 10–14, 129–46. Trotter’s political beliefs are most evident in his poetry, much of it a “King and Country” response to the French Revolution; see Sea Weeds.

7. PJ, 775. The Penguin edition is based on the third and final revision of Political Justice, published in 1798. For a useful discussion of the changes Godwin made between the first and third editions, see chapter 7 in Peter H. Marshall, William Godwin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

8. Fleetwood: Or the New Man of Feeling, Standard Novels, No. 22 (London: Bentley, 1832; reprint, New York: AMS, 1975), xi. Godwin described his composition of Caleb Williams in his 1832 preface to Fleetwood, from which this and subsequent quotations are taken. The preface is also reprinted as Appendix 2 in McCracken’s edition of Caleb Williams.

9. Although not viewing it as a form of writing, Marilyn Butler nonetheless shares this view, arguing that Godwin was mainly interested in “the factors that shape” Caleb and Falkland, who are “not individuals but stereotypes” (“Godwin, Burke, and Caleb Williams,” Essays in Criticism 32 [1982]: 245).

10. Thomas Malthus answers Godwin’s ideas on reproduction and longevity in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).

11. I refer here to Mary Wollstonecraft’s identification of woman with reproduction in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Miriam Brody (New York: Penguin, 1985), not to some categorical association. See my discussion of this issue in chapter 3.

12. As McCracken points out in his Note on the Text, the word “chest” is used throughout the first edition of the novel (CW, xxv). Godwin changes it to “trunk” in the second edition, but both words maintain the metaphor with the body. As I discuss later, it is only at the story’s conclusion that Caleb finally reveals what he thinks was in his master’s chest.

13. Thus Godwin’s novelistic characters resist melodramatic simplification; even tyrants like Squire Tyrell behave within the dictates of their situation and so must also be seen as victims.

14. For an explanation of the evolution in Godwin’s thought on the best way to effect social reform, concluding with his belief in small group discussions, see Marshall, Godwin, 113–15.

15. On the relationship between rational speech and Godwin’s philosophy, see McCracken’s discussion of the “plain-spoken tale” in his introduction to the novel, xvii–xx. The mistrust of rhetorical forms Godwin displays, and his insistence on a nonrhetorical form of truth-telling, is closely related to the conventional distrust of eloquent speech in sentimental literature; see G. A. Starr’s discussion of eloquence and sentimentality, “ ‘Only a Boy’: Notes on Sentimental Novels,” Genre 10 (1977): 501–27. Tilottama Rajan’s discussion of the interpretive issues at stake in Godwin’s use of plain speaking is directly relevant here, particularly her insight into the revised trial scene and its effect on the project of the reader; see her “Wollstonecraft and Godwin: Reading the Secrets of the Political Novel,” Studies in Romanticism 27 (1988): 221–51.

16. On free will, see PJ, bk. 4, chapter 7.

17. D. Gilbert Dumas discovered the manuscript ending in 1966; see his “Things as They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams,” SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 6 (1966): 575–97. Mitzi Myers added further details, finalizing the actual dates of composition for the printed ending; see “Godwin’s Changing Conception of Caleb Williams,SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 12 (1972): 591–628. The two essays define the opposite basic positions that continue to dominate the controversy over the ending of Caleb Williams. Dumas argues that the printed ending is inconsistent with the narrative that leads up to it and prefers the original ending. Myers, responding directly to Dumas, prefers the moral complexity of the revised ending and makes the case for serious inconsistencies in the original version that the revised ending reconciles.

18. Many critics assume he is inside a prison, but the presence of the nurse and Caleb’s treatment suggest that Godwin is describing an eighteenth-century private madhouse.

19. Godwin tells us that he wrote the novel in reverse order; see Fleetwood, xii–ix.

20. The force of this dialectic is most evident in the reviews of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions that criticized it for enticing more people to try opium than to avoid the dangers he so eloquently warns against.

21. Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel, 1780–1805 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 197–98. I use Kelly’s formulation here as a prominent example of the prevailing attitude toward the original ending. In a more general sense, however, I need to acknowledge an indebtedness to Kelly’s work and its many insights into the novels of the period.

22. See Tilottama Rajan’s analysis of the “moral” and “tendency” in Godwin’s literary theory, which I rely on here: “Wollstonecraft and Godwin,” 167–70.

23. Gary Handwerk, in his analysis of this scene (“Of Caleb’s Guilt and Godwin’s Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb Williams,” ELH 60 [1993]: 939–60), provides an engaging analysis of problems in Caleb’s subject position, but I disagree with his assessment that Caleb’s narrative succeeds because it displays “magnanimity towards his tormentor” (p. 946).

24. Karl N. Simms, in analyzing the trope of writing in the novel, comes to a similar conclusion about the enigmatic narrative in the trunk (“Caleb Williams’ Godwin: Things as They Are Written,” Studies in Romanticism 26 [987]: 343–63). Simms notes how “truth…is contained not as an absolute, but as another writing, a pre-text the existence of which is only conjectural” (357–58), and he also shows how Caleb “becomes a narrative himself,” one that “is the effect of which it is the cause” (p. 347).

The Nervous Narrator’s Paradox

Preferred Citation: Logan, Peter Melville. Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in 19th-Century British Prose. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.