William Godwin

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Godwin, William,

1756–1836, English author and political philosopher. A minister in his youth, he was, however, plagued by religious doubts and gave up preaching in 1783 for a literary career. His Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) recorded the view that men are ultimately guided by reason and therefore, being rational creatures, could live in harmony without laws and institutions. His views are also reflected in his novels—Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), St. Leon (1799), and Fleetwood (1805). In 1797, Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft, who died the same year after giving birth to a daughter, Mary. He remarried in 1801 and in 1805 established a small, juvenile publishing business. His last years were an unceasing struggle against poverty and debt. Godwin's works strongly influenced his younger contemporaries, particularly ShelleyShelley, Percy Bysshe
, 1792–1822, English poet, b. Horsham, Sussex. He is ranked as one of the great English poets of the romantic period. A Tempestuous Life
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, whose elopement with Mary (1814) drew from Godwin an exhibition of sternness at variance with his earlier views. However, he was later reconciled to their marriage.


See biographies by F. K. Brown (1926) and E. K. Paul (2 vol., 1896; repr. 1970); studies by H. N. Brailsford (2d ed. 1951), D. H. Munro (1953), J. P. Clark (1977), A. E. Rodway, ed. (1977), D. T. Hughes (1980), and M. Philp (1986).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Godwin, William


Born Mar. 3, 1756, in Wisbech; died Apr. 7, 1836, in London. English publicist, writer, and historian.

Godwin was born into the family of a minister. After graduating from a seminary he was a pastor for several years. Under the influence of French thinkers of the Enlightenment (J. J. Rousseau, P. Holbach, C. Helvétius) he broke with the church in the early 1780’s. Although he looked favorably on the Great French Revolution, Godwin remained an opponent of revolutionary violence. Godwin’s political views were expressed in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (vols. 1–2, 1793), where, after criticizing the existing social order linked with private property and state power—state power that gives rise to violence and deceit—he describes a petty bourgeois utopia of a free community of independent workers, the products of whose labor would be distributed among all according to each person’s needs. F. Engels noted that in certain aspects of the Enquiry Godwin “borders on communism,” although he is “decidedly antisocial” because of anarchistic traits in his political program (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 27, p. 26). Godwin’s petty bourgeois utopia had considerable influence on the formation of various trends of Utopian socialism, in particular, that of Owen, and also of anarchism.

Godwin’s best novel is The Adventures of Caleb Williams, or Things as They Are (vols. 1–3, 1794; Russian translation, 1838, 1949). In depicting the fate of a poor man, Godwin demonstrates that the law justifies force when exercised by the rich, while it perpetuates the powerlessness of the poor. This critical motif is expressed more mildly in the novel St. Leon (vols, 1–t, 1799) and still more mildly in the novels Fleetwood (vols. 1–3, 1805) and Mandeville (vols. 1–3, 1817). In the composition of his works Godwin followed the traditions of the Gothic novel. His passionate criticism of the social order prepared the way to a great degree for the social theme in the works of romantic writers of the mid-19th century (such as E. Sue and G. Sand).


The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Early English Poet, vols. 1–4. London, 1803.
In Russian translation:
O sobstvennosti. Moscow, 1958.


Belinskii, V. G. “Kaleb Villiams.” Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 3. Moscow, 1953.
Chernyshevskii, N. G. Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 16. Moscow, 1953.(See Index of Names.)
Ramus, P. Vil’iam Godvin kak teoretik kommunisticheskogo anarkhizma. Moscow, 1925.
Alekseev, M. P. “U. Godvin.” In his book Iz istorii angliiskoiliteratury. Moscow-Leningrad, 1960.
Woodcock, G. William Godwin. London, 1946.
Rodway, A. E. Godwin and the Age of Transition. London-NewYork [1952].
Grylls, R. G. W. Godwin and His World. London, 1953.
Monro, D. Godwin’s Moral Philosophy. London, 1953.
Pollin, B. R. Godwin Criticism: A Synoptic Bibliography. [Toronto, 1967.]


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
"William Godwin's Caleb Williams: The Tarnishing of the Sublime." ELH 68.4 (2001): 857-96.
The extreme, on-the-verge situation regarding the marriage of Mary's parents should also be pointed out: Mary Wollstonecraft had married William Godwin when being already five months pregnant with Mary (also, she already had a daughter, Fanny Imlay, from an earlier love affair), and the marriage itself was accepted only as a convention, since the two did not believe in this social institution.
The Plays of William Godwin. London: Picketing and Chatto, 2010.
But weirdly, for me, it's not Mary (Kristin Atherton) but her radical philosopher father William Godwin (William Chubb) who, with all his contradictions, is the dramatic tour-de-force.
However, when Mary's father, William Godwin, disapproves of their relationship, Mary is heartbroken.
As an audience you feel acutely and physically the stress in the family home where the spectre of debt looms over political radical William Godwin (William Chubb), his exasperated second wife (Sadie Shimmin), and their three daughters - the product of three different fathers and two mothers - fragile Fanny, flighty Jane, and lastly Mary, mettlesome offspring of Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
William Godwin further atomised its possibilities in Caleb Williams, Or Things As They Are (1794) with his merciless exploration of the consequences of adhering to the chivalric code through the figure of Falkland, Caleb's nemesis.
(1.) For his view of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, see Colin Ward, Influences: Voices of Creative Dissent.
The Letters of William Godwin. Volume I: 1778-1797.
Siobhan Ni Chonaill's paper on William Godwin's St Leon focuses on the implications of immortality that are explored in this novel--political, moral, social, economic, religious, interpersonal, and so on.
Historical fiction tries to have it both ways: appropriating the authoritative voice of history while eschewing what William Godwin in Of History and Romance (1797) called its 'dry and frigid science'.
Sigmund Freud in his cultural treatises and William Godwin in Caleb Williams seem to hold faint hope that human civilization can exist on a worldwide scale without victims to oppress or that his neighbors can be both fully human and live peaceably together as social beings.