William Godwin on Character in Tragedy and Fiction

face of a prisoner

Late in the eighteenth century, William Godwin wrote wide-ranging texts: historical accounts, philosophical treatises, political pamphlets, novels, and plays. Godwin’s most popular novel, Caleb Williams (1794), has been insightfully described as a “cross-genre theatrical novel.”^ In a manuscript essay on tragedy and fiction probably written between 1790 and 1794, William Godwin declared:

The real essence of every story of human affairs is character. Without this it is all rottenness and dust. It is by character that I understand a story, and come to feel its reality.^

Greater importance of character relative to plot characterizes public works in competition for attention in England in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.

William Godwin had considerable influence on Shelley. A dedication page in the first edition (1818) of Frankenstein declared, “To William Godwin, Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &c. These Volumes Are respectfully inscribed By The Author.” Anonymously reviewing Frankenstein in 1818, Shelley observed:

The encounter and argument between Frankenstein and the Being on the sea of ice, almost approaches in effect, to the expostulation of Caleb Williams with Falkland. It reminds us, indeed, somewhat of the style and character of that admirable writer, to whom the author has dedicated his work, and whose productions he seems to have studied.^

Shelley’s work, like Godwin’s, emphasizes character over plot. Emphasis on character is particularly evident in Shelley’s treatment of the myth of Prometheus.

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