The Vicar of Wakefield Summary
The virtuous, prudent, and intelligent vicar of Wakefield lives happily his family, which consists of his wife Deborah, his sons George, Moses, Bill, and Dick, and his two daughters Olivia and Sophia. They live a cloistered and genteel life and are preparing for the eldest son George to marry a lovely neighbourhood girl, Miss Arabella Wilmot.
Unfortunately, Mr Wilmot cancels the engagement after the vicaroffends him in a philosophical argument about marriage, and after the vicar loses his fortune to a shady merchant who proved to be a thief. Now destitute, the family is forced to move to a more humble area.
In their new neighbourhood, the vicar works as a curate and farmer. The family sends George, who had been educated at Oxford, to London in hopes that he cane earn a living there to supplement the family’s income. The new area is comfortable and pastoral, but the women, in particular, find it difficult to acclimate to a lower level of fashion than they are accustomed to.
The vicar befriends a handsome, erudite, and poor young man named Mr Burchell. After Burchell saves Sophia from drowning, it seems clear that she is attracted to him. Meanwhile, the family also hears the word of their new landlord, Squire Thornhill, reputed to be a spoiled brat who lives off the generosity of his uncle, Sir William Thornhill, while living a reprobate lifestyle. Eventually, the family meets the much-discussed squire, who proves charming, attractive, and amiable. The vicar quickly forgets his reservations as he notices the squire’s interest in Olivia, and the family begins to hope that their fortunes might change. Meanwhile, as he anticipates a new social status, the vicar becomes less pleased with Mr Burchell’s attention to Sophia. He does not want her marrying a man of no fortune.
They lose their simple manners and grow more prideful and vain as their hopes for Olivia and the squire increase. However, the more they attempt to present themselves as above their station, the more embarrassments they encounter. For instance, both the vicar and Moses are duped when attempting to sell the family’s horses in exchange for more fashionable ones.
The squire introduces the vicar’s daughters to two fashionable ladies, who suggest they might find positions for the girls in the city. The family is pleased but incensed when they discover that Mr Burchell has written a letter ambiguously threatening the girls’ reputations. Because of this letter, the plan to move the girls to town is foiled. Mr Burchell is banished from the house. Deborah tries to prompt the squire into proposing to Olivia, by vaguely threatening to marry the girl to a neighbour, Father Williams. Though the squire is clearly upset and jealous by the latter’s man presence, he makes no effort to propose, and the family prepares to marry Olivia to the farmer.
However, right before the wedding, Olivia flees with Squire Thornhill. This is a heartbreaking blow to the family since it means Olivia has sacrificed her reputation (which was no small virtue in this time period). The vicar sets out after her, hoping to save and forgive her. He finds Squire Thornhill at home, and then suspects Mr Burchell of the crime.
The vicar’s journey and anxiety are taxing, and he falls ill while far away from home. He rests for three weeks at an inn, and then heads back towards home, meeting a travelling acting company along the way.
When they arrive at the next town, he meets an intelligent man who invites him to his home for a dinner party. The vicar agrees and is astonished by the man’s magnificent mansion. To his shock, however, he discovers that this man is actually the home’s butler when the true master, Mr Arnold, arrives. It also turns out that Mr Arnold is an uncle to Miss Arabella Wilmot, who is overjoyed to reunite with the vicar. Her love for George has clearly not abated, although there are rumours that she is preparing to marry Squire Thornhill.
The vicar stays with the family for a few days. In an amazing turn of events, they attend the acting company’s show to discover that George himself is acting with it. Later, George reunites with his father and Arabella and tells of his many misadventures since parting with his family. His many missteps ended with him attempting to act, and none of them yielded much fortune. Along the way, he had reunited with an old college friend – who turned out to be Squire Thornhill – but was ruined when he fought a duel for the squire and was then repudiated by Sir William for that base behaviour.
The squire soon arrives at the Arnold house and is surprised to see the vicar and his son there. After some time, noticing the renewed feelings between Arabella and George, the squire procures a job for George in the West Indies. Since he has no money and no one suspects the Squire of ulterior motives, George gladly departs.
The vicar prepares to return home. Along the way, he stops one night in an inn and coincidentally discovers that Olivia is there as well. They reunite in a tumult of emotion, and Olivia explains how the squire seduced her, married her in a fake ceremony, and then left her in a de facto house of prostitution. She finally escaped his clutches and has since lived at the mercy of the innkeeper.
The vicar brings Olivia home but leaves her at a nearby inn so he can emotionally prepare the family for her return. Unfortunately, he finds his home engulfed in flames, with the two youngest sons trapped inside. He rushes in and saves them, but terribly injures his arm in the process. This proves a terrible blow to the family, and in light of it, they all easily forgive Olivia, who nevertheless remains broken-hearted.
The family tries to return to normal, even after they hear of the engagement between Arabella and Squire Thornhill. One day, the squire finds them outside, and the vicar insults him. The squire threatens to avenge himself on the vicar, and the next day sends two officers to collect rent the vicar owes on the house. The vicar cannot pay and is arrested.
They travel together to jail. The ladies take up residence in a nearby inn, while the sons stay with him in his cell. In prison, the vicar makes a friend named Ephraim Jenkinson, who turns out to be the man who swindled the vicar and Moses of their horses. He has since repented for his sinful life, and the vicar forgives him. In prison, the vicar sets out to reform the other prisoners, eventually winning them over with sermons and kindnesses. He tells Jenkinson what has happened to him, and the man resolves to help however he can. They send a letter to Sir William explaining how the man’s nephew had wronged the family.
Though both Olivia’s health and the vicar’s own health are fading, he refuses to make peace with Squire Thornhill until Jenkinson brings word that Olivia has died. Anguished, the vicar sends a letter of peace to Squire Thornhill, who refuses to compromise because of the letter the vicar sent to Sir William.
The vicar then learns that Sophia has been abducted. Almost immediately afterwards, George is brought to the jail as a prisoner, after having heard of Olivia’s shame and then challenging the squire to a duel. The squire’s servants beat him instead. Horrified by this succession of misfortunes, the vicar steels himself and delivers a sermon on fortitude to the entire prison.
After the sermon, Moses brings news that Mr Burchell had rescued Sophia. They arrive, and the vicar apologizes to Burchell for his previous resentments and offers his daughter’s hand to the man despite the latter’s poverty. Burchell makes no answer, but orders a great feast which the family enjoys until word arrives that Squire Thornhill has arrived and wishes to see Mr Burchell. The latter then reveals that he is actually Sir William Thornhill.
Sophia describes the man who kidnapped her, and Jenkinson realizes who the scoundrel is. With Sir William’s blessing, the jailer gives Jenkinson two men with which to apprehend this criminal. Meanwhile, Sir William realizes who George is, and lectures him about fighting. He comes to understand the behaviour, if not condone it when he learns what George believed about his nephew.
When Squire Thornhill arrives, he denies everything. The vicar has no hard evidence to support his claims until Jenkinson triumphantly returns with the criminal who kidnapped Sophia at the squire’s behest. The plan was for the squire to mock-rescue her so he could then seduce her.
Arabella and Mr Wilmot suddenly arrive at the jail, having learned from one of the young boys that the vicar had been arrested. The new discoveries quickly convince Arabella to end the engagement, but the squire is unfazed – since he had already signed the contract ensuring him Arabella’s dowry, he has no need of the actual marriage. Though everyone is dismayed, Arabella and George are mostly overjoyed to be reunited and plan to marry anyway.
However, many great discoveries save the family. First, it turns out that Olivia is not dead; Jenkinson lied in order to convince the vicar to make peace with the squire. Secondly, Jenkinson, who acted as the priest in what the squire thought was a fake wedding to Olivia, actually and legally married them. It turns out, then, that Olivia and the Squire are legitimately married, and so the squire is not entitled to Arabella’s fortune.
Squire Thornhill, now completely ruined, begs mercy of his uncle and is granted a small allowance. Once he leaves, Sir William proposes to Sophia, who accepts.
In the conclusion, George marries Arabella and Sir William marries Sophia. The squire lives with a melancholy relative far away. The vicar’s fortune is restored when the merchant who stole it is caught. Happiness and felicity reign and the vicar hopes he will be as thankful to God during the good times as he was during the times of adversity.
The Vicar of Wakefield Themes
Especially in the first half of the novel, the vicar is defined by his sense of prudence. For him, prudence (or wisdom) involves living a life of moral righteousness, trusting in mankind’s implicit goodness. However, the second half of the novel reveals the limits of such prudence. Through the vicar’s many mishaps – several of which he could have prevented had he employed a more cynical view of people – Goldsmith suggests that man needs more than prudence to navigate the world’s evils. Instead, the man also needs fortitude and a willingness to doubt and question the motives of others. Certainly, the novel does not condone immoral behaviour, but it does suggest that a delusional assumption of wisdom can often cause serious problems.
The theme of fortitude serves as the guiding force of the novel’s second half. The Vicar of Wakefield has often been compared to the Bible’s Book of Job, and with good reason. The characters, particularly the vicar, are subject to many trials and tribulations throughout the story, and must ultimately rely on intense fortitude in order to weather these trials. When faced with true calamity, the vicar must rid himself of pride, and recognize the limits of his prudence, so that he can become the true man of God he always thought himself to be. By the time he delivers his sermon on fortitude to George and the prisoners, he truly represents a man poised to weather difficulties through personal strength. The reader is thus exhorted to model his own behaviour on the vicar’s. Religion
Religion is obviously an important theme in the novel, considering the protagonist’s job. Though the book does have a moral message, it reflects an ambivalent relationship with God. Despite his flaws, the vicar does try to model a good, virtuous life for his family and strangers alike. And many of Goldsmith’s contemporary critics were impressed by his ultimate message, that man must endure hardship on Earth in anticipation of a greater life in heaven. However, the vicar has a discernible lack of intimacy with God; he certainly tries to live a godly life but does not necessarily engage in any deep prayer or communion. Instead, he uses his sanctimony to favour behaviour he approves of and to validate his more selfish desires for his family. The overall suggestion is that a sense of God permeates the vicar’s life, but that it might often only operate on a superficial level.
Disguise and Deception
The novel is rife with disguise and deception. Characters are never who they seem to be, and adapt different masks, identities, and personas both to confuse the reader and each other. In many ways, this repeated trait reveals some of Goldsmith’s view of humanity. The vicar and his family assume Squire Thornhill is a good person and that Mr Burchell is not. Moses and the vicar are duped by Ephraim Jenkinson, and the vicar is fooled by Mr Arnold’s butler. The two rich, fashionable ladies prove to be frauds. All of this deception reinforces Goldsmith’s point that prudence has limits since the family eventually realizes that virtue alone cannot ensure success, happiness, or safety in a world of duplicity. The Primrose family lacks true wisdom because they assume their godly wisdom serves them well, and they as a result are almost destroyed.
Family is extremely important to the vicar – he derives a great deal of pride and satisfaction in his wife and children. However, this love of family also serves to blind him to reality. He praises their excellent temperaments and overlooks their flaws and foibles. Further, he lapses into gentle hypocrisy because of his pride in them. Though he often outwardly argues that people should accept their station in life, the hopes of his daughters infect him, leaving him blind to the machinations of Squire Thornhill. The family thus operates as an insulated organism in the novel, and one that does not necessarily prove the most successful way of navigating the world. This is not to say that Goldsmith does not find value in the family; rather, he seems to counsel the reader that one must uphold one’s individuality and discernment, and not fall prey to the cloistered ignorance that often comes from remaining too close to one’s family.
In many ways, social class is one of the most pernicious forces in the novel. Despite the vicar’s outward support of poverty, the Primrose family cannot accept having lost its upper-middle-class status. Because they continue to see the world in terms of social class, they prove blind to Squire Thornhill’s machinations and question good people like Mr Burchell and the Flamborough girls. Even as their attempts to act above their station embarrass them, the Primrose family continues to push for a certain level of appearance.
Goldsmith is clearly mocking their pretensions, and yet his views on the class are a bit more nuanced than immediately apparent. While the squire is the grossest manifestation of the upper class, Sir William proves a benevolent and nobleman. The sense is that money and title can corrupt, but also that they can be channelled in virtuous and altruistic ways. The Primrose family eventually does attain their desired social station after the vicar’s fortune is restored and Sophiamarries Sir William, but this success only comes after many trials that effectively curtail the family’s pride and teach them the error of their pretensions.
Gender proves an interesting theme because of how closely the novel adheres to the traditional gender norms of 18th-century British society. The men make the decisions and hold the power; the vicar is the unequivocal patriarch who determines the conduct of his family members. His daughters are vain and romance-oriented and are notable only for their nubile, marriageable status. Arabella is viewed in the same way, despite being more genteel and elegant. Only the vicar and his sons are allowed to enter the public sphere and engage in commercial transactions. By contrast, when Olivia leaves the family home to elope with the squire, she is considered utterly ruined and beyond redemption. Her virtue is her most salient characteristic, as it was with all young women during the time. The novel is a perfect encapsulation of the way gender was viewed in Goldsmith’s era, which is interesting considering how wonderfully he challenges narrative conventions throughout the story.
Analysis of Chapters I-VIII
The vicar, Dr Primrose, narrates the novel. In chapter 1, he tells his backstory.
Not long after taking his vow, the vicar decided to marry. He chose a good-natured Englishwoman – Deborah – and they loved each other dearly. They live in an elegant home in a pleasant neighbourhood, even though he sometimes laments the rambunctious school-boys and obnoxious kindred who live near them.
The vicar and Deborah have six children: in order of decreasing age, George, Olivia, Sophia, Moses, Dick, and Bill. He describes the girls as capable of being both vivacious and serious depending on their moods. The vicar dotes on his children and proudly explains how his son George studied at Oxford and intends to pursue a learned profession. Overall, he finds his family “all equally generous, credulous, simple, and inoffensive” (12).
The vicar mentions that he has a fortune of his own, and thus donates his small clergyman’s salary to orphans and widows. As he keeps no curate (an assistant), he personally knows everyone in the parish.
One of his favourite topics to discuss is that of matrimony. In fact, he has written and published passionate tracts arguing that a husband or wife should never remarry if his or her partner dies. He believes a person should remain chaste in his or her beloved’s memory.
George, the eldest son, becomes engaged to Miss Arabella Wilmot. Both families are overjoyed and spend months celebrating, even though the couple has not yet set a date. Together, the families dine, the ladies dance and study, the men hunt, and everyone has a delightful time.
One day, unfortunately, the vicar shows Mr Wilmot (Arabella’s father) his study on matrimony. Mr Wilmot vehemently disagrees with the vicar’s position and has in fact been married more than once. The marriage agreement is threatened by the intense argument. However, in the midst of the argument, the worst news arrives: the vicar’s fortune is gone, embezzled by the merchant who was responsible for guarding it. Faced with this new discovery, Mr Wilmot definitively refuses to grant Arabella’s hand to George.
Finding themselves poor, the vicar’s family has few options. Therefore, he is encouraged by the offer of a vicar job in a distant neighbourhood, which would pay fifteen pounds a year and allow the family some farmland to manage. The family is discouraged by the prospect of moving, but he reminds them that they are now poor and much acclimate to fewer luxuries. Before they move, he sends George to town, hoping that the young scholar might find some work through which to support his family.
Despite their reticence, the family sets out for their new home. Along the way, they spend the night in an inn. There, the vicar tells the innkeeper about their situation, and the latter tells them about their new landlord, Squire Thornhill, who has a reputation for both the world’s pleasures and women.
At the inn, the vicar and his family meet Mr Burchell, a young and intelligent man who is also poor. They pass pleasant conversation together, and the young man rides with them to their new neighbourhood, to which he was also travelling. Along the way, the vicar and Mr Burchell discuss philosophy.
At one point, Mr Burchell points out Squire Thornhill’s home and explains how the squire is dependent on the generosity of his introverted uncle, Sir William Thornhill. The vicar has heard of Sir William and knows his excellent reputation of “consummate benevolence” (19). Mr Burchell confirms this impression, explaining that Sir William was dissolute and foolish when he was young, but has since grown more respectable in penance for those youthful follies. At one point during the journey, Sophia falls from her horse into a stream. Without a moment’s thought, Mr Burchell heroically leaps after her and saves her life.
The vicar describes his new neighbourhood. It is mostly comprised of middle-class farmers who are polite, but lack gentleness and good manners. However, the local citizens are happy to have a new vicar and welcome the family. The family’s new house is located at the foot of a sloping hill, before twenty acres of excellent land for which they are responsible.
Soon enough, the family settles into its new life and routine, the ladies maintaining the vestiges of good breeding despite the change in circumstance. For instance, the ladies insist on entertaining new friends and dressing up. On their first Sunday in town, the vicar reprimands them for wearing fancy dresses, insisting they will draw scorn from their poorer, less genteel neighbours. They agree with him and cut up their fine clothes to make Sunday waistcoats for Dick and Bill.
Often, the family spends time outside, in a beautiful area where honeysuckle and hawthorn grow, amusing themselves with reading and song. One day, a young man darts by in pursuit of a stag. He stops to introduce himself as Squire Thornhill and begs the young ladies for a song. Though it displeases the vicar, Deborah encourages the girls to comply. The vicar notes that the whole family seems taken by the squire, eager to please him.
After the squire leaves, Deborah describes the day as “a most fortunate hit” (26). The vicar discerns that Sophia does not much care for the squire, but that Olivia fancies him. He warns the family against pursuing a friendship with someone outside of their social class, insisting that “disproportionate friendships ever terminate in disgust” (27). Nevertheless, the family rejoices later that night when the squire sends a gift of venison. The vicar remains silent, believing he has already made his point.
While the girls prepare the venison, Mr Burchell arrives to visit. The vicar is happy to see him, as he respects Mr Burchell and knows his reputation in the neighbourhood as the poor gentleman who frequently moves between friends, relying on their hospitality before travelling to another friend’s home.
However, the vicar is disconcerted to observe Mr Burchell’s attentions towards Sophia. He later criticizes the man to his family but is admonished for his harshness by Sophia and Moses.
The family holds a party for their landlord and his friends, the chaplain and the feeder. It is a great success. At dinner, the vicar toasts the church, and the chaplain commends him on it. Moses and Squire Thornhill attempt to debate religion, but the squire’s arguments are too convoluted and silly for Moses to understand. Throughout the evening, the vicar continues to note how Olivia is taken by the squire.
After the Squire and his friends leave, the family discusses him. Deborah is proud to note his attentions towards Olivia, and “exult[s] in her daughter’s victory as if it were her own” (33). The vicar voices his disapproval of the man, insinuating that the squire is immoral and insisting that no “free-thinker” will ever have his daughter’s hand (33). Moses counters that it is not the squire’s opinions, but rather his actions, that should matter. Deborah follows to say that she knows several young women who have happy marriages with “free-thinkers,” and that Olivia is well enough versed in modern subjects to manage controversy. Olivia defends herself, insisting she has read a great deal on the subject.
Mr Burchell visits the house again, but the vicar is less pleased with the man than before because of Burchell’s apparent attachment to Sophia. Interestingly, the vicar and his family notice that Burchell’s wit and wisdom seem to improve with each visit.
One day, the family and Burchell begin to discuss poetry while dining outside. Mr Burchell believes that contemporary English poetry boasts only a combination of “luxuriant images” at the expense of a plot. It is, he continues, full of “epithets that improve the sound, without carrying on the sense” (35).
He then recites a long ballad, which tells of a hermit who invites a lost traveller to spend the evening in his cell. While they rest by the hermit’s fire, the hermit tells the traveller how he is at peace with his surroundings, but notices that the traveller seems heartbroken. As he tries to convince the traveller to forget about his earthly love, the hermit realizes that the traveller I, in fact,t a woman. The woman then tells her story, about how her father once tried to marry her to all the worthwhile suitors in the land, while she loved only a poor but wise man named Edwin.
Eventually, a dejected Edwin left to die in solitude, and she now seeks a place to die as he did. The hermit then joyously reveals that he is, in fact, the very Edwin, and the lovers reunite.
The vicar notes that Sophia is taken with the ballad. Suddenly, they hear a gunshot nearby, and Sophia leaps into Mr Burchell’s arms for protection. A moment later, the chaplain appears, having shot a blackbird. After asking pardon, the chaplain sits with them and flirts with Sophia.
Deborah whispers her approval to the vicar, noting that Sophia has potentially made a “conquest” as Olivia had with the squire (40). The chaplain tells them that that the squire intends to throw a ball for the girls on the following night, and then asks Sophia if she will grant him her first dance. However, she refuses, saying that she should grant her first dance to Mr Burchell. To the vicar’s surprise, the young man politely refuses to attend.
Analysis of The Vicar of Wakefield
The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith’s most famous work, is often classified as a sentimental novel, and many of that genre’s elements are already apparent in these early chapters. These elements include main characters who are paragons of virtue; an idyllic pastoral setting; and most importantly, a change in fortune that challenges their morality and delicacy. (See the Additional Content section of the study guide for more information on sentimental fiction). Misfortunes will continue to beset the family as the novel proceeds, and it is already clear that the primary conflict will lie in how they adapt their virtue in the fact of these troubles.
These first chapters might strike many readers as light and elegant. Indeed, critics usually divide the novel into two easily recognizable parts: the first section (chapters 1-16) contains a much more superficial account of country life and romance, while the second section (chapters 17-32) offers a heavy-handed critique of pride and a lesson on how virtuous people ought to negotiate life’s difficulties. Robert L. Mack, in his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classic edition of the novel, describes how “the vicar’s story is perfectly divided into two halves – the first half being essentially a comedy, its episodes (apart from the initial expulsion from Wakefield) relatively minor and even comfortably domestic in nature.” The second half, however, “is a quasi-tragedy rich in the pathos of multiple misfortunes and catastrophes.” Though the groundwork for those “multiple misfortunes” is laid in these early chapters, it reads as though such tragedy will never appear. Most of the characters are established in these chapters and do not change significantly throughout.
The vicar is a virtuous, religious man who encourages his family to avoid the traps of worldly pleasures, especially after they lose their money. It is telling that he loses his money to a shrewd crook; the fact that he placed all of his money in the hands of one merchant indicates that he truly does not concern himself with financial matters. Instead, the vicar is concerned with his family and values their hermetic, sheltered life in Wakefield. Some critics, like Thomas Preston, have excoriated the vicar as a “pious fraud who is really a money-conscious, fortune-hunting materialist, practising benevolence as a good business investment and his children as annuities for old age.” Certainly, one can see that despite his assertions that money should not matter, he sees the world largely in terms of how much money a person has. Regardless of how one interprets this issue, it is undeniable that he takes great pride in his family.
One of the novel’s most notable qualities is its first-person address. The vicar frequently contradicts himself without realizing it, especially in terms of his virtues and values. Though he speaks of his faith in God as supreme, it is frequently clear that he is as affected by base desires and pride as his family is. Ultimately, his pride in his family supersedes his pure virtue, indicated by the harshness with which he judges men like Burchell, who are otherwise great friends to him. Further, his tendency towards sanctimony – especially as regards the concept of marriage – reveals a personal pride that he is unaware of. Especially in these early chapters, Goldsmith uses this disconnect as a source of humour, a good-natured critique of religious pride that the vicar delivers without ever explicitly spelling out the theme.
The clearest instance of this disconnect comes through the vicar’s feelings about the women in his family. The vicar’s daughters – both tellingly named after romance heroines – are lovely but silly, and Deborah, though intelligent, is a mother overly-concerned with social status, who lives vicariously through her daughters’ successful romantic matches. Much of the novel’s comedy comes from the mismatch of the vicar with these women. Though he recognizes their vanity, he frequently capitulates to them and gets privately invested in their potential partners even though he refuses to admit it aloud. By chapter ten, the vicar’s entire family “began to think ourselves designed by the stars for something exalted, and already anticipated our future grandeur” (45).
One could see this inconsistency in the vicar as an expression of his love for family. Because he values them above all else, he wishes great things for them, even if what they want contradictions his virtue. Of course, this attitude necessarily means a compromise in virtue. Thomas Preston suggests that one of the novel’s main themes and arcs comes with the vicar’s “purging of his pride of family” so that he can return them to the purity of the hermetic life that enjoy at the novel’s beginning.
The nature of Squire Thornhill’s character is also pretty obvious to the reader, even if the Primrose family does not glimpse it. Largely, their obliviousness is a result of their pride; they want to be liked by the rich landlord, and hence see him as best serves that goal. Even though the innkeeper tells them “no virtue was able to resist [the squire’s] arts and assiduity, and scarce a farmer’s daughter within ten miles round but what had found him successful and faithless,” they are immediately taken by the squire’s “easy” manner when they finally meet him (17). Instead of finding his jests obnoxious, the vicar notes to himself that “the jests of the rich are ever successful” (31). And for a man so obsessed with intellectual discussion, the vicar quickly forgives the squire’s inability to carry on an intellectual conversation. The vicar knows enough to profess scepticism of the squire, but it is clear to the reader that he is slowly seduced by the man’s charms. In a word, the family is too taken by pride, which is all the more dangerous because their patriarch believes himself definitively above such pride.
Finally, Mr Burchell’s presence in these early chapters provides the alternative that the family is too proud and money-obsessed to see. With the exception of Sophia, everyone slowly turns their attention from Burchell to Squire Thornhill. The fact that Mr Burchell possesses the virtues they pretend to profess (ability to discuss intellectual matters, simple kindness, humility) ultimately mean less to the family than do the delusions of grandeur with the squire allows. It is telling that the squire’s ballad – which is also included as an example of Goldsmith’s proficiency with language and theatrical sense – warns against this very sin. It tells of a family whose obsession with money almost costs the daughter her future happiness. The ballad foreshadows the trouble yet to come and serves as a warning that the family is simply too proud to hear. They cannot see the truth that is right in front of their faces – a fact doubly apparent when Burchell’s true identity is later revealed.
Analysis of Chapters IX-XVI
Squire Thornhill brings two fashionable ladies – Lady Blarney andMiss Carolina Wilelmina Amelia Skeggs, though their names are not provided until later – to visit the vicar’s family. The party convenes outside to practice some country dances. When they realize they lack sufficient female partners, the family invites the Miss Flamboroughs, two neighbouring girls, to join them.
Afterwards, everyone converses over an elegant supper. The vicar notes that his daughters and wife are impressed by the “high life, and high lived company” of the two rich ladies (42). He is concerned that his family will eventually seem ridiculous and pretentious by mixing with a higher class. Nevertheless, fashionable ladies seem quite fond of Olivia and Sophia and ask whether the girls might accompany them home. The vicar politely refuses the request; as a result, his daughters are sullen for the rest of the night.
The vicar notices that his daughters are forgetting their lessons on humility and temperance. Instead, they are indulging in the “pride that [he] had laid asleep, but not removed” (44). They grow vain, overly worried about their complexions, and begin to abstain from their chores. Similarly, they speak disparagingly about the Miss Flamboroughs, whom they now deem too coarse and common, and attempt to talk only of fashionable, highbrow subjects.
One day, a gypsy passes nearby, and the vicar indulges his daughters by giving them a shilling with which to get their fortune told. After meeting with the gypsy, they express their great happiness at what they learned – Olivia was foretold to marry a squire, a Sophia to marry a lord. Paired with their recent changes in acquaintance, this incident leads the family to think themselves “designed by the stars for something exalted” (45). They believe their fortunes are rising, and expect the squire to soon propose to Olivia.
Towards the end of the week, the fashionable ladies send word that they look forward to seeing Olivia and Sophia at church. Anticipating the meeting, the girls convince the hesitant vicar that they must take their horses, rather than walk, in order to appear genteel. When Sunday comes, he leaves before them to prepare for the service, but they never arrive. After the service, he returns home and meets them on the road. It turns out that the horses refused to budge, after which the family “had met with a thousand misfortunes” (48). The vicar notes that their attempts at gentility had failed.
Humbled by their recent embarrassment, the family agrees to join the neighbouring Flamborough family for games and snacks on Michelmas eve. However, they are appalled when the two fashionable ladies (their names now given as Lady Blarney and Miss Carolina Wilhelmina Amelia Skeggs) arrive to discover them playing these silly games. The ladies had been worried about the family’s absence from church and came in search of them. They are ardent in insisting on their affection for the vicar’s daughters.
The entire group spends the evening together. The vicar’s daughters and Deborah are overjoyed to discern that the society ladies are discussing two open positions in town, for which they might recommend the Primrose girls. Strangely, Mr Burchell, who is also in attendance, constantly remarks “Fudge!” whenever the ladies say anything (50).
Deborah broaches the topic of sending the girls to town with the vicar, and he agrees to ask the fashionable ladies about it directly. They agree that Olivia and Sophia could succeed there, but note that they must first attain confirmation of the girls’ reputations, simply as a formality. They offer to attain the reference from Squire Thornhill, whom Lady Blarney identifies as her cousin. The vicar and Deborah are quite proud, certain that the squire will provide a good reference.
The family schemes and plots together, to determine how to best take advantage of the impending opportunities. They decide to sell Colt, one of their horses, in order to buy a more attractive one for the girls. The vicar asks Moses to bring Colt to the market to arrange a good trade.
While Moses is gone, the family learns that Squire Thornhill has spoken well of them to the ladies. Mr Burchell visits, and even though he had annoyed them at the previous dinner, they decide to ask him his opinion on the situation. His reservations about their plan annoy them further.
Moses soon returns, but without a horse. He explains that he made a profitable trade, obtaining some valuable silver-rimmed spectacles in exchange for Colt. However, the vicar examines the glasses to discover that the rims are not actually silver. It seems Moses has been swindled. Chapter XIII
The family is ashamed of their recent disasters. One day, Mr Burchell and Deborah argue over the girls’ plan to go to town, and Deborah grows emotional and irrational. She accuses Burchell of having selfish reasons for dissuading them, and he angrily insists he will depart both their home and the countryside in general. He announces that he will come by only once more, to say goodbye.
The vicar reprimands his wife for her rudeness, but she stubbornly insists Sophia deserves better company than a poor man like Mr Burchell. When Sophia insists that Mr Burchell has always been “sensible, modest, and pleasing” to her, the vicar feels a prick of conscience, but quickly forgets it (59).
As it seems like the girls will indeed soon leave for town, the vicar decides to sell the family’s other horse to obtain a better one. This time, he travels to the fair himself.
Several hours pass and the vicar can hardly interest anyone in the horse since it seems the beast has several medical conditions. Eventually, the vicar agrees to have a drink with a fellow clergyman. In the ale-house, the vicar is impressed by a respectable older gentleman, who both seems intelligent and exhibits charity when he gives a poor boy some money.
After the other clergyman leaves, the vicar approaches the old man, and they quickly impress one another through a discussion of church matters. The vicar is taken by the man’s grasp of complicated ideas and is flattered to learn that the old man has heard of the vicar’s opinions on matrimony.
Eventually, they share their reasons for being at the fair. The old man had come to buy a horse for his tenant, and an agreement is quickly struck for him to buy the vicar’s horse. However, the vicar does not have sufficient change to break the old man’s bill. Therefore, the old man writes a statement that he swears Solomon Flamborough, the vicar’s neighbour and a colleague of the old man’s will honour by paying the clergyman himself. The transaction being done, they part ways.
On his way home, the vicar grows nervous at having accepting a draught (the document of payment) from a stranger, and his worst fears are confirmed when Solomon tells him that he has been tricked by Ephraim Jenkinson, “the greatest rascal under the canopy of heaven” (64). The vicar arrives home embarrassed but is distracted to find his daughters and wife in tears. It turns out that someone has spoken ill of the girls’ reputation to Squire Thornhill, and so he will not sponsor their trip to town. The vicar wonders who would want to spread rumours about his harmless family.
The family asks around to determine who has slandered their name, to no avail. One day, one of the young boys discovers a letter case that belongs to Mr Burchell. In the case is a letter that seems to denounce the reputations of Olivia and Sophia. Naturally, they are incensed. Soon afterwards, Mr Burchell visits their house, and the vicar assails him with violent criticism. The family is so angry that they do not allow him to speak. Eventually, Mr Burchell grows equally angry and threatens that he could have the vicar arrested for opening mail that does not belong to him. With a promise never to return, he leaves.
Squire Thornhill begins to visit the family more frequently, and the vicar notes that “the hopes of having him for a son-in-law [as Olivia’s husband], in some measure blinded us to all his imperfections” (70). The greatest evidence of the squire’s intentions comes when the family commissions a portrait of themselves posed as great historical figures, and the squire asks to be included. He is painted as Alexander the Great, sitting at Olivia’s feet. Though the family is overjoyed by his request, they are dismayed to realize that the painting is far too large for their modest home, and hence must be awkwardly propped against a wall. Many townspeople make fun of the situation.
One day, Deborah decides to probe into the squire’s intentions, and slyly asks him whether he knows of an appropriate suitor for Olivia. When she suggests that they are considering Father Williams, the squire vehemently refuses to support such a match, citing his private sentiments as his reason. The family naturally takes this as further evidence of his desire to propose.
The Primrose family’s pride further manifests in these chapters, growing into a more dangerous vice. The vicar, who once admonished the family for their pretensions of wealth, here acquiesces to the schemes that aim to secure them a heightened social status. Tellingly, though, each one of their attempts to improve their appearance ends in a disappointment.
First, the women’s attempt to arrive at church by horse proves disastrous. They worry only about how they will appear to the fashionable ladies and yet end up not only travelling to church as they always have but in fact encountering several other misfortunes because of their pretensions. The scheme to sell the horses also reveals the limits of the family’s social acumen. Though both Moses and the vicar believe themselves capable of succeeding at shrewd business deals, their naiveté robs them of both their animals.
However, the clearest symbol of their delusions comes with the painting. That the family would want a portrait painted is hardly strange. That they would elect to have themselves represented as historical figures, however, reveals how their pretensions have overtaken them. Further, the composition – in which each figure is separated in identity from the other – suggests that their cohesion as a family unit has been sacrificed to self-interest. And of course, they show a lack of social intelligence by forgetting to measure their wall before paying the commission. As a result, this intended symbol of grandeur only reveals their absurdity.
The painting’s particulars also serve both as a symbol for the latent chaos in the family and as foreshadowing for discord and disharmony to come. Deborah is represented as Venus, a goddess of love, and a symbol patently opposed to the vicar’s strong ideas on matrimony and fidelity. Olivia is represented as an Amazon and Sophia as a shepherdess. The strength of the Amazon figure is ironic since Olivia is so compliant to the squire’s whims, while only Sophia’s figure suggests the inner strength that keeps her true to Burchell even as her family turns from him. The most ridiculous of all is the squire’s representation as Alexander the Great. In his annotations to the book, Robert Mack writes, “the intrusion of the Squire as Alexander the Great only suggests how foolish the family will prove to have been in permitting him to stand in a position of such intimacy in their household.”
What their “foolish” inclusion of the squire here – as well as all the other examples listed above – reveal is that the family is not only growing prideful but is also growing blind to their actual identities. They are losing sight of who they are, instead of focusing only on unfounded desires. As the reader becomes more and more confident that Squire Thornhill’s intentions are impure, the family only grows further seduced by the potential of securing a profitable match for Olivia. She has become a commodity through which they might earn a social rise. Were they not so blinded, these many misfortunes might alert them to the truth of their situation; however, each misfortune only forces them to redouble the extent of their delusions.
The quest for social status is clearest in the way the daughters idolize Lady Blarney and Miss Carolina Wilhelmina Amelia Skeggs while scorning the Flamborough girls. It comes as little surprise when the women are later revealed to be disreputable, considering how fraudulent they seem here. For instance, the names are almost ridiculous imitations of fancy names, yet the family is so blinded by the potential of wealth that they lose their senses. The name Miss Carolina Wilhelmina Amelia Skeggs is particularly ridiculous, and indeed Goldsmith also used it in one of his letters from his Citizen of the World (1760). The name obviously tickled Goldsmith, for he made his vicar delight in it as well. Further, the Flamborough girls appear to the reader as sweeter, more appropriate companions for the family, and yet are treated as though lesser. When Solomon Flamborough, their father, later reveals a greater common sense than the vicar has, the reader is to realize that these common folk have virtues far greater than the Primrose family is willing to give them credit for.
A few of the incidents in these chapters bear some explanation. For instance, after Olivia and Sophia hear their fortunes read, they begin to misinterpret their dreams to support their hopes. The particulars they use to refer to rural superstitions that were characteristic of the time – a 1755 edition of The Connoisseur said a purse was a “round cinder, as opposed to a hollow oblong one, which betokens a coffin,” and the 1756 Universal Spectator said, “she never has any Thing befalls her, without some fore-notice or other; she…is forewarn’d of Deaths by bursting of Coffins out of the Fire; Purses too from the same Element promise Money; and her Candle brings her Letters constantly before the Post.” It is worth realizing how Goldsmith seeks to skewer not just universal human qualities like the delusions of pride, but also some specific instances of foolishness that he observed in his day.
Also, Mr Burchell’s tendency to yell “Fudge” when the ladies speak might give the scene an unintentionally absurd air that Goldsmith did not intend. At the time, the word denoted a lie or nonsense, so Goldsmith’s intended audience would have seen that Mr Burchell did not believe the women. For a modern reader, the scene might simply seem like a broadly comic sketch.
Finally, the vicar’s acceptance of Jenkinson’s “draught” needs some illumination. A draught was a formal, written order for payment, addressed to someone who would be responsible for that payment. Though the vicar rightly felt nervous about the transaction, it was not an entirely unheard of means of barter.
This group of chapters signifies the end of what critics consider the novel’s first section. In the next chapter, Olivia’s abduction both provides a climax and indicates the introduction of a more serious, tragic air. Thus, chapters I-XVI offer a much different type of tale than the one that is about to come. The critic Richard H. Passon notes that the first section “is pervaded by an atmosphere of simplicity and idyllic unreality, with comic irony directed by and at Dr Primrose puncturing the balloon from scene to scene to bring the idyll back to earth.” The reader, then, “finds himself to be in an attractive but slightly unreal world of simple beauty that ugliness intrudes upon only now and then.” That Goldsmith can write a popular sentimental novel is already clear; that he is capable of digging more deeply into those conventions is evidences by the chapters to come.
Analysis of Chapters XVII-XXIV
Farmer Williams visits the family one day when the squire is there. The farmer’s clear passion for Olivia seems to bother Squire Thornhill, and Olivia suggests to her father that the squire must have a reason for delaying in his proposal. The vicar and Deborah then decide to set a date by which Squire Thornhill must act, after which they will give Olivia’s hand to Farmer Williams. Slyly, they let the squire know about this date.
When the allotted time passes, the disappointed family prepares for Olivia’s impending marriage to the farmer. One day, they are having a nice time together, during which the youngest son Bill sings a song entitled “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.” In the song, a man is bitten by a dog he loved, which saddens his neighbours, who believe he will die of the bite. However, they are happy when the man survives and the dog dies instead.
Happy, the vicar notes how grateful he is that his family has such “tranquillity, health, and competence” (76). Suddenly, Dick arrives with news that Olivia has left in a post-chaise with a gentleman who kissed her and said he loved her. Incensed, the vicar demands his pistols and prepares to set out after whoever this man is, but Deborah and Moses chide him for his excessive passion, and he calms down. After settling, he reflects on how he has lost his worldly happiness and will have to find it in the afterlife.
The next morning, the calm and confident vicar prepares to set out after Olivia, whom he will welcome back despite her sin, hoping to guide her to repentance.
The vicar first suspects Squire Thornhill of the crime but finds the man alone at home. Thornhill is shocked to learn of what has happened. The vicar then suspects Mr Burchell, whom he remembers recently seeing in conversation with Olivia. He walks towards the races, where he sees a crowd of people. There, he believes he sees Burchell, but is not certain.
After walking about seventy miles from home, the vicar falls into a fever from stress and despair. He is forced to stop at an inn, where he stays for three weeks while recovering. Left to his thoughts, the vicar develops a shame in his pride since it had caused him trouble.
After recovering, he sets off back towards home. On his way, he comes across a company of actors and enjoys conversing with them as they travel together. However, he is embarrassed to be in their company when they arrive in the village, so he breaks off for an ale-house. There, a man asks him about his relationship to the company, and the vicar denies any association with them. The men then discuss politics for a while, and the man (who later is revealed as the butler) invites the vicar to dine at his home.
The vicar accompanies the man to a magnificent mansion, where they continue to discuss politics over dinner. The man proves to be almost radical in his opinions, boasting that liberty is his ultimate goal. The vicar agrees that liberty is important, but believes that some men are born to rule while others are born to submit. He also argues that the rich are helpful because they diminish monarchial power by trying to claim it for themselves. It is within the middle class that art, wisdom, and virtue may be found. The vicar concludes by saying that he has known of many people who claim to be for liberty even though they are truly tyrants.
The man insults the vicar over his opinions, but they are interrupted by the arrival of Mr Arnold, the house’s true master. It turns out that this man was only the butler, pretending to be the master.
Mr Arnold apologizes to the vicar, but the latter is distracted to see Miss Arabella
Wilmot, the young woman who was engaged to his son George at the novel’s beginning. It turns out that Mr and Mrs Arnold are her aunt and uncle. Seeing that his niece cares for the vicar, Mr Arnold invites him to stay for a few days.
The next morning, Miss Wilmot asks after George, and the vicar sadly explains that he has not heard from his son for over three years. They talk through the afternoon until they encounter the company manager of the theatre troupe, who sells them tickets to the show, in which Horatio will be played by a young man who is perfect for the role even though he lacks any acting experience.
At the show, that night, Miss Wilmot and the vicar are shocked to realize that this young man is in fact, George Primrose. When George sees them in the audience, he bursts into tears and flees the stage. When the vicar later explains the situation to Mr Arnold and his wife, they send a coach for him so he can join them at the Arnold home. Though seemingly very sad, Miss Wilmot also expresses some happiness at the impending reunion.
George joins the Arnolds, his father, and former fiancée. The vicar is surprised to discover that George lives in poverty since he was supposed to earn money for the family. Eventually, George tells the story of his adventures. He first went to London and met up with his cousin, as planned. He intended to work as an usher at the academy, but the cousin discouraged him from this plan, instead suggesting he become a writer. George liked the idea but found little success in writing about topics that actually interested him.
One day, he ran into a classmate from Oxford – Ned Thornhill, whom the vicar knows as Squire Thornhill. Pitying George, the squire hired him as a personal assistant. Though George performed well in the position, the squire was generally more impressed by a sycophantic marine captain. Over time, George became less impressed with the squire, whom it seemed loved flattery above all else.
Eventually, the squire asked George to fight a duel on his behalf, in a matter concerning a lady’s honour. Though he felt terribly about, he performed well.
When Squire Thornhill had to leave town and could not take George with him, he suggested George contact his uncle, Sir William Thornhill, to secure a post there. Carrying a recommendation letter from the squire, George bribed one of Sir William’s servants to secure an interview with the man. However, Sir William discerned from his nephew’s recommendation that George must have fought a duel for the squire, and dismissed him as an unsuitable man.
Exhausted and discouraged, George visited a man named Mr Cripse, who arranges for people to work in America as veritable slaves. Mr Cripse promised to appoint George as a secretary to a Pennsylvania synod on Indian relations, and though George doubted the man, he was desperate enough to agree. However, an old captain friend learned of George’s plan and instead convinced George to sail to Amsterdam, where he could teach English to the Dutch. George spent his last money on passage but realized when he arrived in Amsterdam that he could not teach English without first knowing Dutch. He then travelled to Louvain (in France) to teach Greek, which he learned at Oxford but found little demand for it. He turned then to music but found that France had much better musicians than him.
While in France, he reunited with his cousin, who set George up with a job buying pictures for rich people. Though George knew little about paintings, the cousin convinced him that it was more about conning people than actually knowing about the work. After working shortly in this field, George worked as a tutor with a young man travelling through Europe. Eventually, the student left him behind, and George was stranded again.
He made his way back to England, where he earned a living by disputation. He intended to make his way back to his family, but along the way encountered the acting company. He knew one of the actors and was hired by them to play Horatio.
The butler has become a friend to the vicar since the latter convinced Mr Arnold not to fire him. He informs the vicar that Squire Thornhill has made overtures to Miss Wilmot, and will be visiting. When the squire does arrive to pay his compliments, he is surprised to find the vicar there and asks after Olivia.
It is clear that the squire is pursuing Miss Wilmot, but she does not seem pleased by it, instead mostly devoting her attention to George. One day, the squire happily announces that he has found George an ensign’s commission in a regiment travelling to the West Indies. George is pleased, but the rest of the group is sad to see him go.
After George leaves, the vicar sets off for his own home. Along the way, he stops at a public-house for a drink and converses with the affable innkeeper, who tells him how loathed the squire is by his tenants in the area. While they talk, the landlord’s wife enters, complaining about a female guest who continues to stay there even though she has no money. The vicar hears the girl pleading for pity, and realizes it is Olivia. He rushes to her, finding her in a wretched state, and forgives her.
Olivia tells her story. It was indeed Squire Thornhill who abducted her. It turns out that the fashionable ladies were actually ill-bred tramps from town, who were acting as decoys to get the vicar’s permission to send Olivia and Sophia to London. Mr Burchell’s letter – which was actually insulting the reputation of these ladies, and not of the Primrose girls – scared them off, which is why the fake appointment to London spots never went through.
Olivia soon after married Squire Thornhill in a secret, Catholic ceremony, but was then removed to a type of brothel where other women lived. She learned soon enough that the squire had married eight other women in a similar manner. Realizing how some of the women had acclimated to their lives as prostitutes, she confronted the squire, who threatened to give her to a friend if she did not behave. She then fled the house and begged passage on a stage-coach that brought her finally to the inn where the vicar found her.
The vicar and Olivia depart for home, but he leaves her at a nearby inn so he can prepare the family for her return. However, he arrives to find his home violently aflame. The family is distraught outside, with the two youngest boys trapped in the house. The vicar burst inside and rescues them.
The family is amazed by their sudden loss, but are happy to be alive and safe. Nobody has been hurt save the vicar, whose arm was scorched in the rescue. Their neighbours prove generous in the aftermath, and the family is more prepared to accept Olivia back in the face of the calamity.
When Olivia arrives, Deborah initially acts coldly towards her. The vicar chides his wife, insisting that “the real hardships of life are now coming fast upon us, let us not, therefore, increase them by dissension among each other” (114). Deborah agrees and warms to her daughter.
The family works to recover from their calamity. Their neighbours continue to prove helpful, especially Farmer Williams, who cares for Olivia despite her recent shame. Nevertheless, she is not interested in him, and instead stews in her grief. The vicar tries to amuse his daughter with stories, but she only broods on her misfortune. Soon enough, her grief turns to jealousy and resentment of Sophia.
The family is further upset to learn that Miss Wilmot has been engaged to Squire Thornhill. The vicar sends Moses to Miss Wilmot with a letter describing the squire’s true character, but Moses finds it impossible to gain an audience with her. Therefore, he leaves it with a servant.
Eventually, the family (save Olivia) manages to find some cheerfulness by reflecting upon the kindness of their neighbours.
The family regularly breakfasts outside at the honeysuckle bank, even though it makes Olivia melancholy since this is the spot where she first met the squire.
One day, they are alarmed to see that man approaching. When he joins them, acting as though nothing has changed, the vicar angrily calls him a “poor pitiful wretch”(120). After attempting to feign ignorance, the squire angrily concedes that he will keep Olivia as wife and allow her to keep a lover. When the vicar more violently insults the squire, in turn, the latter threatens that the vicar will soon regret such animosity, and then leaves.
The Squire’s threat proves to be true. The next morning, a steward arrives to demand rent that the vicar obviously cannot pay. The family begs him to apologize to and negotiate with the squire, but he refuses to “tamely sit down and flatter our infamous betrayer” (122).
The next morning, two officers arrest the vicar for non-payment of rent. He instructs his family to gather their things and prepare to depart immediately.
Olivia’s ‘abduction’ in Chapter XVII is generally considered the novel’s climax. Not only is the moment exciting, but it also shifts the novel’s tone considerably, into what most critics call the novel’s second part. In this latter half, the tone, themes, and character development all escalate into a place more akin to tragedy than to the breezy sentimental nature of the first half. It is worth recounting the events of these chapters to establish how seriously the novel changes in tone. In this section: Olivia’s reputation is ruined (no small thing for a woman of the time); the vicar is struck seriously ill by a fever, and then later terribly wounded by the fire; George’s true wretchedness is revealed; George is sent on what the reader clearly understands is a disadvantageous voyage by the villainous squire; the Primrose family home burns down, and the vicar is separated from his family and thrown in jail. The calamities come quickly, one after the other. A darkness infuses a great deal of the tales.
One could perhaps criticize this flurry of calamity as exploitative if it was not so wonderfully set up by the family’s character flaws. The vicar’s misfortune is these chapters is paralleled by a reawakening of his virtue, a recognition of his own blindness. In this way, the novel explores the tragedy that often befalls human life, while also suggesting the comfort we might find by remaining strong and honest to ourselves throughout.
Thematically, Olivia’s disappearance illustrates most dramatically the vicar’s inability to judge those around him. Because he is so unaware of his own pride, he has been misled into terribly misunderstanding others. He is quickly convinced that Squire Thornhill is not the villain, and instead turns his attentions towards Burchell. This attitude suggests how fully class distinctions have affected him, even as he continually claims to venerate poverty over the pretensions of the rich.
Further, the vicar realizes that the truly virtuous characters are those he had begun to judge as inferior. The family’s grief is somewhat assuaged by the kindness of neighbours to whom they have thus far been rather cruel towards. They used Farmer Williams as a tool to ensnare the squire and consciously looked down upon the Flamborough girls. And yet these are the people whom truly help the family here.
These elements help to explain what made the novel so popular amongst its contemporary readers. However, the second half of the novel also explores larger questions, about the nature of narrative itself, questions that help explain its continued critical relevance. As scholar Robert Mack notes, the second half of the book “prominently includes a diversity of novelistic modes and voices, including traveller’s tales, politics, discussions on philosophy and aesthetics, digressions on subjects including penal reform and the state of urban depravity, and even sermons.” In other words, Goldsmith does not focus on a straightforward morality tale, but rather uses the novel form to explore a variety of digressions.
As the novel proceeds, the reader is confronted by the limitations of narrative itself, the way that great work does not fit into easy categories. Despite the possibility of interpreting the novel in a straightforward manner (as is done above), it also defies categorization. Critic Richard Passon wrote that Goldsmith’s works are “easy to read and enjoy, but they have been difficult to analyze, interpret, and evaluate.” Dr Primrose tries to be straightforward, but his story is inconsistent, illogical, and sometimes hypocritical. It is difficult for readers to believe this man’s tale when it is such a pastiche of genres and literary forms. While this could be read as a failure on Goldsmith’s part, the confidence of the writing and the strict structure of his other work actually suggest that he was attempting to explore a larger question, about how humans cannot be easily defined, and are in fact more often defined by their contradictions than by their simplicity.
Goldsmith’s interest in complication is further evident through the novel’s consistent train of disguises, deceptions, and linguistic riddles. For instance, the novel’s original title page suggested the work was written by Dr Primrose himself. It was described as, “a Tale, supposed to have been written by himself”. This makes little sense – why is it supposed to be written by himself? Also, it is odd that the novel is entitled The Vicar of Wakefield when Wakefield plays little to no role in the story. The curacy that the vicar takes over is not even given a name. In fact, the novel makes a point to explore the limitations of names. An analysis of its use of names undercuts the common assumption that this is a simple sentimental novel, lacking any greater depth below its charming and gilded surface. For instance, some of the names allude to contemporary writers, like Arnold and Burchell. Others are descriptive/symbolic, like Primrose and Pinwire. Others refer to contemporary political figures, like Thornhill and Wilkinson. Most tellingly, the names of the vicar’s daughters accurately predict their behaviour, particularly in Olivia’s case. However, though the names suggest they are romantic heroines, Olivia’s situation suggests the very opposite. She ends up fallen women, reliant on the forgiveness of her simple neighbours. The suggestion is unsubtly that the nature of the sentimental genre is fallacious.
Women cannot live in fairyland when the world does not allow it.
Goldsmith’s novel can be read, then, as a satire of, and not just an example of, sentiment. The inconstancies and illogicalities of the vicar’s narrative indicate that Goldsmith is doing something more than simply narrating a family’s rise and fall. Mack notes the presence of bathos in the novel, “moments when an attempt at the sublime is suddenly undercut by the revelation of the questionable perceptions and judgments of deeply flawed humanity.” In other words, a discerning reader is never given a simple key as to how to feel. In the happier first half, we are able to doubt the Primrose family because of their pride, and here, we are uncertain whether to hold them responsible for their own fall or not.
Passon’s article is useful in the way it attempts to find a balance between these two views of the novel. On one hand, many see it as a simple pastoral, idyllic novel. On the other hand, many see the flaws in that depiction and assume Goldsmith was crafting a satire. Passon tries to find a middle ground, suggesting that “these views are presented, in tension, in juxtaposition; one view constantly jostles and qualifies the other. Sentimentalism needs continually to be encountered and undercut by irony; satire needs continually to be softened, to be made less brittle, by romance.” In other words, the problem is not that both possibilities are present; the problem is a reader’s assumption that the novel must way in only one way.
Passon’s hypothesis is explored through the vicar himself. He acknowledges that the vicar can be pedantic, disingenuous, flamboyant, and pretentious. However, he also notes that the vicar is a virtuous man, despite his flaws. The reader is not supposed to think him deficient of heroic qualities, but rather as a flawed, complicated human. He is both a satiric and sympathetic character. In fact, Dr Primrose often calls attention to his own foibles.
Even Squire Thornhill, in many ways a terrible villain, is somewhat complicated. The extremity of his vice is all the more insidious because he seems entirely unaware of the morality involved. Without a doubt, the squire is a sociopath, who sees in country girls beasts whom he can herd into a sexual relationship that then leaves as prostitutes at his mercy. In many ways, Goldsmith makes an intense attack against the blindness of the landed gentry through the squire, who has been raised to not even understand the limits of human decency. His classist attitude is so intense that he does not even see the Primrose girls as people. However, Goldsmith’s portrayal of the squire also reflects his interest in complication and contradiction. The man is not pure evil, as he might be in a purely sentimental novel. Instead, he lacks even a conception of good or evil. Thus, while the novel may be easy to read, it offers plenty of fodder for interpretation and discussion. Like “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog,” which Bill sings, good and evil cannot be simply understood. The good dog can bite at any time, and the good man can be punished. It is in art that goodness is often rewarded – as is the case in Bill’s elegy and in The Vicar of Wakefield. And yet in the best of art, the audience is still not quite sure what they are supposed to believe. That Goldsmith can provide such an entertaining story while simultaneously commenting on the limitations and assumptions of story serves as a testament to his talent and imagination.