Caleb Escapes from Prison

The Agonizing Jailbreak

A scrap from Frankenstein Incarnate. Caleb Williams is a novel by Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. One part of the story really stuck with me:

Caleb’s corrupt employer unjustly accuses him of theft, which carries the death penalty. Caleb is put in prison to await trial. A month goes by. His friend Brightwel, a fellow-prisoner, dies of a disease he (Brightwel) catches in prison. Caleb decides to escape.

He offers to build “a dozen handsome chairs” for the jailer if the jailer will bring him the tools and materials. He accumulates “gimlets, piercers, chisels, et cetera” and a crow bar, the last item courtesy of the jailer’s daughter, who likes him. In the middle of the night, he forces his cell door open and removes the lock from the door leading into a garden. Just as he is scaling the garden wall, the jailer sees him and throws a stone at him. Alarmed by the stone’s near miss, Caleb drops to the ground on the far side of the wall, dislocating his ankle in the fall. The jailer captures him, fetters his ankles, and chains him to a staple in the floor of his cell.

The jailer leaves Caleb’s cell door open during the day so he can watch him. In the dim light from the door, Caleb notices a nail sunk into the mud floor of the cell. He memorizes its position and, after dark, finds it by touch and uses it to pick the lock of his fetters. Even being able to move freely about the cell is a welcome change, but one night Caleb forgets to replace the lock by the time the jailer opens his door in the morning.

The jailer, angered by Caleb’s continued attempts to escape, shuts him into the dank, mildewed “strong room,” where he is kept in solitary confinement, fettered, chained and handcuffed. One day, Thomas, a former co-worker, comes to see Caleb and, though believing Caleb guilty of the theft, is horrified by the conditions in which he is being kept. Thomas smuggles in a chisel, a file and a saw, which Caleb is able to conceal in the bottom of his rush chair.

Caleb waits for a full moon so that he can have good light to work by. He files off his fetters and saws through the iron bars in his window. The window’s not big enough for him to fit through. He uses the chisel and one of the iron bars to remove bricks from around the window and squeezes his way out onto the roof of a shed standing in “a rude area between two dead walls.” The outer wall is too tall to climb; Caleb’s going to have to dig his way through. What if someone sees him? He picks the lock on the shed door and works on the wall from inside the shed.

Over the next six hours, he removes a layer of bricks, only to discover that the remainder of the wall is made of stone, and the mortar is “nearly petrified.” The moon vanishes, leaving him in complete darkness. At this point (only at this point!) he considers giving up. He takes a ten-minute break, which re-energizes him enough that he is able to chisel his way through the stone wall to freedom.

I don’t know how Godwin wants us to respond. If he means to encourage us to persist in the face of adversity (Caleb did it! you can too!), for me, at least, it backfires (Caleb did it, but I can’t! No way!). Is he showing how powerful the unjust system is, by showing the near-superhuman effort it takes to oppose it? Or what?

For further reading:
William Godwin, Caleb Williams.


  1. Peg
    February 20, 2016

    And here I was thinking I wouldn’t even have the perseverance to finish that depressing a book. Don’t know the history/time period, but any chance it was a Charles Dickens raise awareness kind of thing?

    1. Anne
      February 20, 2016

      1794 – pre-Dickens – definitely a raise awareness kind of thing but also, I think, meant to be a more sweeping statement about the nature of tyranny…and/or power? Like I say, kind of an enigma to me.


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