Oliver Goldsmith’s essays reflect two significant literary transitions of the late eighteenth century. The larger or more general of these was the beginning of the gradual evolution of Romanticism from the Neoclassicism of the previous one hundred years. Oppressed by the heavy “rule of reason” and ideas of taste and polish, readers of this transitional period gradually began to respond more to the imaginative and the emotional in literature. This transition serves as a backdrop for a related evolution that played an essential role in the development of the modern short story. At this time the well-established periodical essay began a glacially slow movement away from its predominant emphasis on a formal exposition of ideas; contemporary essayists, none more prominent than Goldsmith, began to indulge more their taste for the personal approach and for narrative. The result was increased experimentation with characterization, story line, setting, and imagery; concurrent with these developments, style, theme, tone, and structural patterning received particular attention. Varying degrees and types of emphasis on these elements pushed the essay form in many diverse directions. Of all the contemporary essayists, Oliver Goldsmith best reflects these developments.
The Citizen of the World
Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World vividly illustrates the variety of experimentation in the contemporary periodical essay and is of great importance in the history of the Asian tale. With its vigorous appeal to the imagination and emotions, the Asian tale marked a major step toward Romanticism. More important, its popularity at a time of significant literary experimentation led to an interesting mixture of two literary traditions, the essay-sketch and the tale, which serves as a bedrock for the development of the modern short story.
Goldsmith incorporated the current enthusiasm for Asian motifs in his collection of essays. He used the device of the frame tale, associated with the recently translated The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1706-1708), to give the collection its unity. The frame is supplied by a traveling Chinese philosopher who observes the customs and society of London and writes his observations to friends in the East. This narrative point of view affords Goldsmith an infinite variety of techniques and subjects. His basic strategy is to start with a discursive essay that leads to one of two general avenues. On the one hand, from this point Goldsmith may proceed to build a soapbox from which the Chinese philosopher expounds on morality and philosophy; in these essays Goldsmith normally maintains the form of the didactic essay. On the other hand, Goldsmith may proceed to an appropriate observation on English culture by the Chinese philosopher; the observation may elucidate a philosophical point or a moral lesson. These essays illustrate the increasing interest in narrative and personality and place a larger than customary emphasis on glimpses of daily life. There are also variations on this idea; for example, the Chinese philosopher’s observation may take the form of a tale which completely dominates the essay, or he may focus almost exclusively on descriptive detail of action or people or settings—a strategy which culminates in a sketch rather than an essay.
The latter occurs in Letter 26 where the Chinese philosopher describes for friends in the East his English acquaintance, “the man in black.” The Chinese philosopher begins by remarking that his friend’s manners “are tinctured with some strange inconsistencies.” Curiously, “though he is generous even to profusion, he affects to be thought a prodigy of parsimony and prudence.” The Chinese philosopher has known him to “profess himself a man-hater while his cheek was glowing with compassion.” By way of example, the Chinese relates the adventures of a walk they shared; they begin by happening “to discourse upon the provision that was made for the poor in England.” This discussion fires the indignation of the man in black, who assures the Chinese that the poor “are imposters, every one of them and rather merit a prison than relief.” The two suddenly encounter an old man of reduced fortune, whose story has no influence on the Chinese who describes himself as “prepossessed against such falsehoods”; but at the same time he witnesses “it visibly operate” upon the man in black “and effectually interrupt his harangue.” His companion clearly burns with compassion yet is “ashamed to discover his weakness” to the Chinese who turns his head momentarily, affording his friend the opportunity to press coins into the outstretched hand. As they return to their walk, the man in black who “fancied himself quite unperceived” begins again “to rail against beggars with as much animosity as before.” His monologue is continually interrupted by more of the poor with the same result until finally he is so distracted he reaches to his pockets in plain view of the Chinese, who vividly portrays his friend’s “confusion when he found he had already given all the money he carried about him to former objects.” As a last resort the man in black gives this final beggar a “shilling’s worth of matches”—and thus the portrayal ends.
This letter brilliantly demonstrates Goldsmith’s dominant tendencies in the periodical essay or sketch. The focal character, the man in black, is realistically portrayed and psychologically interesting; Goldsmith subordinates the incidents to his description of the focal character’s responses to the beggars; the setting, vaguely in the countryside, is void of descriptive detail and lacks focus; Goldsmith’s prose style here is characteristically lucid, natural, and simple, yet capable of genuine subtlety and sensitivity; a characteristic touch of wit occurs when the Chinese turns his head and allows his friend to preserve his pride; Goldsmith structures his piece around his narrative persona, the Chinese philosopher, who describes the subject character, the man in black, in terms of the latter’s response to external events. The overall pattern indicates Goldsmith’s genius for seizing an idea, purifying and distilling his presentation, and unifying all his narrative elements in a complete development of his central concept.
Letters 48 and 49
In direct opposition to this approach, in Letters 48 and 49 Goldsmith chooses a...
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