Feeling Complicit in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams

For all of its ubiquity in present discourse, complicity is also uniquely susceptible to repression and disavowal: pervasive and totalizing, yet always somewhere else. Working against the reflex to mystify complicity or to externalize it, this essay recovers an aesthetics of complicity in Caleb Williams, a novel that readers have long experienced as difficult to get beyond or to set at a distance. As a mode of reading, complicity is defined by a mixture of intense involvement and aversion, identification and disidentification. A story about radiating damage that also implicates its readers in its harms, Godwin’s novel ensures that any recognition of shared guilt will also amount to a claim in it. In the process, it elaborates a politics grounded not in negative rights but in mutual responsibility.