Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Theory and Criticism


Dr. Tilottama Rajan


This study examines the philosophical and literary anarchism of William Godwin. Through an analysis of several of Godwin’s major texts, including Political Justice (1793, 1796, 1798), “Of History and Romance” (1798), and his novels Caleb Williams (1794), St. Leon (1799) and Mandeville (1817), I argue that Godwin’s relationship both to the intellectual history of anarchism and its literary expression in the form of the historical romance is more complex than has been recognized. In order to tease out this complexity, I approach Godwin from the perspective of recent critics who reread the ideals of classical anarchism through post-structuralist theory. Rather than reduce Godwin to contemporary approaches to anarchism, however, this study demonstrates that Godwin’s texts anticipate and participate in a continuing dialogue with, and deconstruction of, the Enlightenment suppositions of his own anarchism.

This questioning leads to a conception of anarchy in Godwin that comes to mean something quite different from “anarchism.” Anarchy, rather, designates something closer to its root sense in the term anarchē, an existence without archē: principle or origin. Anarchē less names a political ideology so much as a “negativity” in the heart archē that refuses any sanctioning of things as they are, embracing an idea of history and subjectivity predicated on contingency. The anarchē evidenced within Godwin’s corpus unworks the possibility of any rational politics from within, showing rationality itself to be interminably afflicted by its own “groundlessness.” In this respect, Godwin can be read alongside a broader shift in the history of ideas, beginning in Romanticism, which traces a growing skepticism towards the projects of Enlightenment. One of the tributary goals is therefore to make a case for Godwin as a romantic writer, if by “romantic” we refer to a “literature involved in the restless process of self-examination” (Rajan, Dark Interpreter 25). By examining this “restless process” in several of Godwin’s works, this study contributes both to the fields of contemporary anarchist theory as well as Romantic studies by extending a conceptual bridge between the political and literary histories’ of ideas in which Godwin himself participates, but is often marginalized.