UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The concept of friendship in William Godwin's early novels Picken, Cassidy


With the publication of the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793, William Godwin arrested the attention of the English reading public. His call for an anarchist politics rooted in individual reason and divorced from all forms of political institution, cooperation, and tradition reoriented the terms of political debate and had a powerful (if short lived) influence on contemporary radicals, poets, and artists. But Godwin’s strict intellectual commitment to individualism and private judgment has often obscured the importance of the concept of friendship in his writing. As opposed to marriage or other conventional forms of social relation, friendship figures in Political Justice as a bond of rational sincerity, which provides the social basis for the dissemination of truth and for the spread of progressive justice. The fundamental role of this concept in his ethical and political thought is pronounced in his first three published novels, Caleb Williams: or, Things as they Are; St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century; and Fleetwood: The New Man of Feeling. This thesis explores the ways in which the narrative dimension of friendship in these novels brings to light certain tensions and paradoxes implicit in the conceptual structure of Political Justice. Against those critics who have read Godwin’s fiction as representing a turn away from his earlier political commitments, I argue that friendship continues to function in these texts as a crucial site of political communication and action. Godwin’s attention to the relationship between friendship and narrative furnishes his political thought with increasing temporal, economic, and anthropological complexity.

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