Seven thematic connections between Caleb Williams and The Matrix identified by me, Allison Wyss, and Phil Stewart:
1. It takes some uncanniness around a cultural ideal for the interpellated to finally recognize their interpellation. The Matrix: Neo has a strong lesson in the shallowness of visual facades when the perfect “Lady in Red” turns into an Agent; Caleb Williams: Falkland, a chivalric, moral, and intellectual exemplar to Laura, Collins, and almost everyone else in the book must be revealed as a murderer for Caleb to begin to recognize “things as they are”. That’s right: Falkland is the Lady in Red.
2. As with Burke, it’s possible to recognize the illusions around us yet continue to embrace them. The Matrix: Cypher is part of the rebellion, yet willingly returns to the ignorance of enjoying a good steak; Caleb Williams: Gines experiences the democracy of the robber band, yet is content to return to the flip-side world of social inequality through the robber-snatching trade in order to survive comfortably and with emotional satisfaction.
3. You can be given the necessary knowledge to break free (or at least recognize) the ideological system surrounding you, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be ready or able to use that information. The Matrix: Neo interprets the Oracle’s words to mean he is not the One and that there thus may be no hope of breaking the A.I.’s dominance; Caleb Williams: after telling Mr. Falkland’s narrative at the beginning of the novel, Collins and Caleb are at the same level of information concerning Falkland (e.g. both able to observe him when he judges the trial that upsets him so), yet only Caleb puts recent and past events together to realize Falkland’s guilt.
4. Sometimes, a certain innocence within the system that ensnares you allows you to temporarily triumph over it. The Matrix: the young child who is able to free his mind can bend spoons (yet ultimately–at least in the first movie–he is a failed Potential, not the One who can entirely break free of the Matrix); Caleb Williams: Emily’s good nature allows her to positively interpret Tyrell’s tyrannies for some time, rendering her experience of the world temporarily more rosy.
5. Ideologies function by oppressing and keeping ignorant a large under-class for the benefit of their masters. The Matrix‘s fields of plugged-in battery-people and the nine-million-odd poorer classes of Caleb Williams‘ time are in the same subjected position, with masters who fear their revolt and require their submission to keep things running well for the privileged group.
6. Consumable media objects (in each time period, objects that would fall into the “new media” category of literature) have a power far beyond their size to unfold new virtual worlds. Matrix: the computer disks that run the non-Matrix training programs; Caleb Williams: Gines’ ballad pamphlet, the hypothetical excuse in Falkland’s trunk)
7. Ideologies place undue stress on small wrongs in order to distract their subjects from the big con of their illusions. The Matrix: The A.I. finds that humans experience a simulation that contains wrongs and sorrows as more “real” (and thus distracting from the Matrix’s unreality) than a Paradise; Caleb Williams: the government focuses on incarcerating those marked by reputation as criminals, and thus the populace is hungry for stories like that of Kit Williams but ignores the larger social evils around them.