Analyzing Oliver Goldsmith’s 'The Vicar of Wakefield' as Charming Narrative

"Conscience is a coward, and those faults it has not strength enough to prevent it seldom has justice enough to accuse."
Oliver Goldsmith (1730 - 1774)

Oliver Goldsmith (playwright and novelist) (1730-74), Anglo-Irish playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist, best known for his witty comedy She Sloops to Conquer was not a regular novelist and yet his novel The Vicar of Wakefield, is an early best example of the form and well recognized. He became a novelist only by chance and necessity. He was in urgent need of money, a novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, was found ready in his desk, end Dr Johnson sold it for sixty guineas. Read More Novel The publication of The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is believed to have been hastily arranged by Johnson in order to save Goldsmith from going to jail for debt. In this way was the initial novel enriched by this charming, delightful, little piece. He has place in the history of the English novel by virtue of a single work, but that place is very high.

As W.L. Cross points out, “some years before Goldsmith wrote   charming narrative a rich store of subject matter was available to the novelist. There was the sentimental young lady, the villain, and the abduction, contributed to by Richardson. Read More Novel There was also the intrigue, the adventure, the singular character, and the kind hearted gentleman, contributed to by Fielding. There was also the sea and the seamen introduced by Smollett. There was also much sermonizing, much ridicule of prevailing vices and affectations. There was also light irony and humour of Fielding. Various methods of narration, the direct personal method, as well as narration through letters, had been used. Goldsmith took all this material from the common store, used it in his masterpiece and, “transfused it with his own spirit.” He put into his solitary novel his views on penal code and prison discipline; we get in it a sermon on hope, and an oration on liberty and patriotism.” In short, the novel is an embodiment of the writer’s experiences and views on life, and partakes of the charm of his personality.

The Vicar of Wakefield is a delightful novel. It is strong in the story-interest. The novelist has adopted the direct method of narration through the principal character, the plot is coherent and well-knit, and the story is gripping in its interest. The only fault that can be found with its plot is the way in which the final resolution has been hastily huddled up at the close. The restoration of the entire family of the vicar to happiness has been conducted in a summary and ineffective manner. However, this is merely a minor blemish in a work of extraordinary merit, and it, in no way, detracts from its story- interest. The plot of The Vicar of Wakefield is, however, poorly constructed, without doubt; but the book is one of the most delightful domestic tales ever written. Read More Novel The charm, the humor, the wholesome details, the fidelity to truth, the individuality of the vicar and his family all these give it a cherished place on our library shelves. The theme of the story is that a good man will not be affected by adversities. Dr. Primrose through a series of misfortunes is reduced to poverty; then by a series of happy events is reinstated in the vicarage. A class may trace out the fall and later the rise of the vicar's fortunes; it may discuss the qualities shown by the various members of the family; it may be on the lookout for descriptions of the customs and manners of the times, for clever sayings or bits of philosophy, and for odd words. Any of these will make a topic for an individual thesis. The most striking scenes may be talked over and the ballads noted. Regarding the author, one critic has said:"Goldsmith wrote the finest poem (The Deserted Village)', the most exquisite novel (The Vicar of Wakefield); and with the exception, perhaps, of The School for Scandal, the most delightful comedy (She Sloops to Conquer) of the period." 

Goldsmith’s profound knowledge of human nature is seen in the characterization of the novel. His characters are life-like, and they change and grow like real human beings. Oliver and Sophia, though butterflies of fashion they may be, “are the nearest approach to real country girls that had yet appeared in the novel” (Cross). Read More Novel  However, his greatest triumph is the character of Dr. Primrose who is among the immortals of literature. He is a self-portrait, a sketch of the novelist himself. It is through him that the novelist has presented his views on life and society. “The character of the Vicar”, says Raleigh, “is Goldsmith’s creation and his portrait must take rank very near Parson Adams and uncle Toby, both of whom he resembles in his simplicity and innocence”. He is the first country Vicar in English fiction. Though borrowing freely from Fielding’s Parson Adams, Goldsmith made quite interesting and vivid additions to this great figure in the portrait-gallery of English fiction.

Novelists till now had treated of London life, Goldsmith for the first time brings it to the village fireside. We get delightful, idealized pictures of English village life and in this respect the novel is unique. Goldsmith’s poetic imagination is everywhere at work and it turns the novel into a prose poem. “But it works on reality. Here is golden age once more, not however in Arcadia, but somewhere in England; here is the imagination idealizing real, not conventional, scenes” (Cross). It is an idyll in which reality shades off into poetry. In this respect, The Vicar of Wakefield has been a source of inspiration to countless writers in England and Europe.

Goldsmith introduced the pen picture of domestic middle-class into English fiction. Read More Novel The immortal Dr. Primrose, the Vicar, is the head of a happy, contended family, the members of which are united whether by strong ties of love and affection—each lives for the other. The Vicar himself is fond of his family and considers it the best in the word. He unites in himself the three great characters in the world, the priest, the husband, and the father. Misfortunes come upon the family as a result of the extreme simplicity and good-nature of the head of the family, but they are patiently borne and ultimately resolved because of the bonds of affection which unite all its members into a single whole. Their distress is great, but they are quite capable of hearing it. Their affection for each other makes them proof against, “the harshest shocks of circumstance”. The picture of family life as presented in the novel is lovely, natural and homely.

Another charm of the novel is its humour. Goldsmith’s humour is gentle and irresistible. Though having close affinity with Fielding. It has none of the coarseness or indecency of his predecessor. It is pure humour; there is nothing in it that can shock the nicest ear, or kindle blush on the face of innocence itself. The Vicar himself is a perennial source of humour, and joy. As Raleigh puts it, “He has the gentlest of laugh—an excellent thing in a humorist—and is untouched by the fierce satirical spirit that runs lot in many of the novels of the time.” This kindly, genial and all-pervasive humour of the novel did much to establish it as masterpiece and a model.

Goldsmith’s humour mingles with pathos. Just as the Vicar’s character is the source of humour, so also it is a source of pathos. His misfortunes and sufferings, the results largely of his simplicity, would bring tears to any eye. He suffers and the entire family suffers along with him.

The novel is also unsurpassable in description and dialogue. Natural scenes and sights have been described with great feeling. The style is remarkable for its simplicity, grace and loveliness, and the dialogue is witty, dramatic, and to the point. As Church emphasizes, the novel lives by, “the magic gold of his phrases”.

Another fine thing about the novel is its serene philosophy of life. The philosophy is conveyed not so much through direct moral preaching, as through the noble character of Dr. Primrose. In adversity, the noble Vicar hopes and works for a better turn of fortune, but endure in the meantime all that falls to his lot. It is this noble philosophy, says Goethe, which, “in the end leads us back from all the mistaken paths of life”. The lofty lesson of faith, patience and courage, which he teaches, establishes Goldsmith high among the moralists of the century.