Goldsmith, Oliver (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))
Oliver Goldsmith 1728(?)-1774
(Anglo-Irish novelist, dramatist, poet, essayist, journalist, critic, biographer, and translator. See also Oliver Goldsmith Drama Criticism.
The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is of the best-known novels of the eighteenth century. The story of the varying fortunes of a count y pastor and his family has entertained readers for over two centuries. Modern scholars have questioned Goldsmith's intent in The Vicar: most commentators interpret the story as a satire on the kind of sentimental novel that was popular at the time. However, Goldsmith's satiric touches are so subtle that the novel has also been read as a sentimental, pastoral novel.
The son of an Anglo-Irish minister, Goldsmith graduated from Trinity University in 1750. Unable to settle on a profession, Goldsmith traveled across Europe and returned to London penniless and without employment. He found critical success as a magazine writer and proofreader, but not financial security. When he was arrested in 1762 for failing to pay his rent, he showed the manuscript of The Vicar of Wakefield to his friend Samuel Johnson. Johnson sold the book for £60, enough to pay Goldsmith's debts. The novel was not published until 1766. In the intervening years Goldsmith wrote and published two books of essays and one of poetry, The Traveller (1764). His later works include the play She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and additional collections of poetry and essays.
Set in rural eighteenth-century England, The Vicar of Wakefield chronicles the life of Vicar Charles Primrose, his wife Deborah, and their children. Narrated by the protagonist, the novel recounts the reversal of the Vicar's modest fortunes and a series of blows to the family's unity. Daughter Olivia marries a scoundrel who subsequently deserts her. The family looses all their money, and son George must end his engagement. The family is forced to move to a smaller house, which catches fire. Primrose is injured saving his family. Although destitute, Primrose finds the inner strength to rise above circumstances and to comfort those around him. The novel ends with a series of improbable resolutions that restore the Vicar and his family to their previous happiness and good fortune.
The Vicar of Wakefield presents an almost unique callenge to readers and critics: it can and has been read as an entertaining, sentimental account of pastoral England with a strong moral. Alternately, some commentators assert that the novel is a satire of this genre and that Primrose is not meant to evoke sympathy but ridicule. Goldsmith does focus on moral matters and on the relationship between people and their religion. The plot is similar to the biblical story of Job from the Old Testament: Primrose suffers misfortunes but does not despair. He holds fast to his faith and in the end regains all that he has lost. In addition, Goldsmith addresses various social concerns, most notably penal reform, as well as manners, behavior, and the hypocrisy and snobbery of a rigidly stratified class system.
The Vicar of Wakefield was published in two volumes by Francis Newbery. The novel met with unexpected success and in its first year three London editions, one Dublin edition, and one unofficial Corke edition were published. In 1767 it was translated into French and German, and in 1768, it was translated into Dutch. The book continued to sell well, achieving even greater popularity after Goldsmith's death in 1774, and by 1800 another twenty-three London editions had appeared. An average of two editions were published per year throughout the nineteenth century, and the novel remained in print through the twentieth century. The popularity of The Vicar of Wakefiel puzzles critics, who generally agree that the novel is overly sentimental, the plot is hackneyed, the ending and the characters are unbelievable, and the work lacks unity. Much commentary on the novel attempts to identify its obvious appeal despite these flaws. Contemporary reviewers considered the novel an example of the current sentimental novel, noting that it shared with this didactic literary form a tendency to demonstrate the superiority of the simple Christian virtues of the middle class over the sophistication and worldliness of the wealthy. Most modern critics, however, maintain that the novel's seemingly sentimental touches are actually meant to be satiric thrusts at the conventions of sentimental literature. Much critical discussion focuses on the protagonist. By employing Primrose as both the main character and the narrator, Goldsmith allowed the reader to know only as much as Primrose knows himself. Primrose's own lack of insight, evident to the reader but not to him, supplies the narrative with irony and humor. Even those critics who agree that The Vicar of Wakefield is a satire often disagree about the extent to which Goldsmith was using the Vicar as a satiric figure. Richard J. Jaarsma contends that Goldsmith created the Vicar as one of literature's "most savage indictments of bourgeois values." Although many other critics agree that Primrose is presented somewhat ironically, the most common critical opinion is that Goldsmith intended the Vicar as an instrument, but not as the object, of satire.
SOURCE: "Sensibility among the Great and Near Great" in History of the Pre-Romantic Novel in England, Modem Language Association of America, 1949, pp. 104-38.
[In the following excerpt, Foster discusses Goldsmith's views on morality and sentimentality as expressed in The Vicar of Wakefield.]
Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74) was not such a strait-laced classicist that he could not see good in Richardson's brand of sentimentality. In fact, he approved of it: however, not without some reservations and the thought that a dash of whimsey and humor might improve it. As for those perfervid souls who yearned for something more intense and drastic in the way of sentiment, he would have none of them. One of the objectives of the Vicar of Wakefield1 was to act as a sedative and febrifuge, and at the same time to set an example of feeling properly controlled.
As a classicist Goldsmith could not believe in the natural goodness of man in theory, but his heart was tender and he sympathized with the unfortunate and refused to believe that any man was irredeemably depraved. Although not exactly a primitivist, he thought certain traits of the natural or uncivilized man superior to those of some Europeans. The savage, directed by natural law, seldom sheds blood except in revenge. But as society grows older and richer, it becomes morose and erects gibbets around its property. Severe and...
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SOURCE: "Duality of Theme in the Vicar of Wakefield" in College English, Vol. 22, No. 5, 1961, pp. 315-21.
[In the essay below, Adelstein argues that the key to understanding The Vicar of Wakefield is recognizing the transformation of Primrose.]
The overwhelming and continuous popularity of The Vicar of Wakefield has caused critics in recent years to reason that such success must be attributed to more unity and coherence in the novel than had formerly been recognized.1 Casting traditional evaluations aside, the latest appraisers of Goldsmith's novel have found harmony, contrapuntal balance, consistency, unity, careful planning, and elaborate pattern. The comments about The Vicar have run full cycle since Macaulay's frequently quoted statement that the plot was "one of the worst that ever were constructed."2
My contention is that truth in this instance is to be found somewhere between the polar extremes. I should like to suggest that Goldsmith did have the general outlines of his plot in mind but that he switched from the theme of prudence to that of fortitude. In this process, the central character was transformed from an innocent simpleton to a courageous, resolute hero. Much of the confusion about the novel has resulted from the failure to realize that Dr. Primrose, Part I, is not the same individual as Dr. Primrose, Part II....
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SOURCE: "The Novel of Manners" in Modern Critical Views: Oliver Goldsmith, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 7-14.
[In the following essay, first published in 1967 and reprinted in 1987, Paulson argues that Goldsmith creates a new style of novel of manners in the first seventeen chapters of The Vicar of Wakefield.]
The scene of the novel of manners … draws on both the satiric touchstone scene in which guilt is diffused and the satiro-sentimental scene of sexual threat and tears. Both the ironic observer of the Fielding novel and the Smollettian observer of delicate sensibility—one a controlling intelligence, the other a character—contribute to the heroine of the novel of manners. Those assistant satirists who surround the dumb man of feeling are as important as the spectra of different points of view in the Spectator Club and Humphrey Clinker. The essential elements, however, are the controlling and analytic intelligence of the Fielding novel and the Richardsonian concern with conscious-ness; but the latter, before it could influence the novel of manners, had to pass through satiric inter mediaries.
It is possible to trace a line from the anti-romance of Cervantes, Sorel, and Furetiere through the novels of Fielding, Smollett, and Burney to the novel of manners written by Jane Austen. The anti-romance contributes the basic structure for a study of manners not...
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SOURCE: "The Sentimentality of The Vicar of Wakefield" in Modern Critical Views: Oliver Goldsmith, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 15-19.
[In the essay below, first published in 1974 and reprinted in 1987, Brissenden considers the role of sentimentality in The Vicar of Wakefield.]
The Reverend Dr. Primrose, Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield, is, like Parson Adams and Parson Yorick, a Christian hero. He "unites in himself," says the author in the advertisement to his tale, "the three greatest characters upon earth; he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family." He is moreover the embodiment of some of the principal sentimental virtues. He is charitable, humane, optimistic and in general readier to think well rather than ill of his fellow men. All his family, he tells us, "had but one character, that of being all equally generous, credulous, simple, and inoffensive." Since his moral assessments of the situations in which he finds himself are spontaneous and unselfish, he could be described as a man of feeling, but feelings in his case are always grounded in a coherent set of Christian principles, and they are always vigorously implemented in positive action. He is a man of sentiment, of sense rather than sensibility; and his determination to govern his behaviour according to principle often gets him into comic trouble with the world. When his son George is about to marry...
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SOURCE: "The Vicar of Wakefield: Goldsmith's Sublime Oriental Job" in ELH, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 97-121.
[In the following excerpt, Lehmann explores Goldsmith's use of "Orientalized" interpretations of Job in The Vicar of Wakefield. The editors have included only those footnotes that pertain to the excerpted portion of the text reprinted below.]
Lowth on Job is of paramount interest when we consider the possibility of understanding the Vicar as a Job-figure in any "doctrinal" sense. The most sophisticated such view is that of Martin C. Battestin's The Providence of Wit.38 In the chapter entitled "Goldsmith: The Comedy of Job," Battestin confronts a problem that has vexed critics of this novel for some time, namely, the abrupt shift of tone and action that occurs midway through the book.39 Once Charles Primrose leaves his family to retrieve the abducted Olivia, we move from the story of a family to the pilgrimage of an individual, from a controlled comedy of manners with controlled narrator to a rambling tale, often interrupted by other tales, in which sentiment and pathos dominate. One approach to this structural problem has been to treat the first half of the book as novelistic success, while viewing the second half as a sort of failure in its succumbing to the use of romance motifs.40 Another approach to this...
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SOURCE: "The Redemption of Fatherhood in The Vicar of Wakefield" in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 465-80.
[In the essay below, Hilliard argues that The Vicar of Wakefield is a realistic account of fatherhood and an allegory about sin and redemption.]
The Vicar's many sanguine remarks on matrimony—"I wrote several sermons to prove its happiness,"1 he says—are contradicted by his narrative, from beginning to end an account of the troubles which beset a man who has undertaken to marry and bring up a large family. Though Dr. Primrose is given to celebrating domestic life as a "concert," his story can be read as a succession of marital disputes (over such parental concerns as the treatment accorded the suitor of a daughter) which he generally loses to Deborah, his domineering wife. As spiritual "instructor" to a family whose members are "refractory and ungovernable" (p. 182), he proves ineffectual, his wife and children paying little heed to his "lectures"; as "guardian" of his children, he is equally inept, as we see, for example, when his daughter Sophia has to be saved from drowning by Sir William Thornhill-Burchell because her father, characteristically, is overpowered by his emotions at a moment of family crisis ("My sensations were even too violent to permit my attempting a rescue"). He fails also in the two primary...
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SOURCE: "The Vicar of Wakefield and Other Prose Writings: A Reconsideration" in The Art of Oliver Goldsmith, edited by Andrew Swarbrick, Vision Press, 1984, pp. 17-32.
[In the essay below, Jefferson argues that in The Vicar of Wakefield, Goldsmith created a form which transformed his writing weaknesses into strengths.]
In the reassessment of authors that has taken place during the last half century, a process that has enhanced so many reputations, Goldsmith is not among those who have benefited, and the reason is not difficult to discover. His gifts were of the lighter kind. The aspects of eighteenth-century literature that he represents are akin to those associated with Addison, another Augustan who has not gained ground. Both writers had ease, grace, a pleasant humour. The present age attaches more importance to the deeper and weightier qualities of Samuel Johnson, whose work was scandalously underrated by critics in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, the supreme greatness of his finest prose going virtually unrecognized by generations of literary scholars and presumably of readers. That Johnson should now be receiving some of the praise so long withheld is very much as it should be, and it is not a matter for serious complaint if lighter talents should have suffered a degree of eclipse. But Goldsmith was greatly admired in Johnson's circle and he has been a much loved author...
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SOURCE: "Goldsmith's First Vicar" in Review of English Studies, N.s., Vol. XLI, No. 162, May, 1990, pp. 191-9.
[In the essay below, Taylor discusses the relation of Goldsmith's earlier work "The History of Miss Stanton" with The Vicar of Wakefield.]
Recent studies of Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield have focused on a question still unanswered, despite the efforts of W. O. S. Sutherland, Robert Hopkins, David Durant, and others: how do we account for the apparent sentimentality and implausibility of a novel written by an impassioned critic of 'romance' fiction? One obvious solution is that Goldsmith's novel is a satiric undermining of romance conventions. Sutherland sees The Vicar as a 'kindly satire' on the sentimental novel,1 and Hopkins finds it a sustained, sophisticated burlesque of sentimentalist and trite fiction.2 David Durant argues that the novel's sub-text demonstrates the impotency of didactic fiction.3 Attempting to revive flagging interest in Goldsmith, these scholars have contributed to a critical appreciation for the subtlety of Goldsmith's craft.
The problem with many of these studies, however, is that they have treated The Vicar as an isolated text rather than as the culmination of years of critical analysis and experimentation. By the time Goldsmith completed his novel, presumably in 1762, he had worked for...
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SOURCE: "The Vicar of Wakefield" in Oliver Goldsmith Revisited, Twayne, 1991, pp. 75-96.
[In the following excerpt, Dixon examines the literary devices Goldsmith employs in The Vicar of Wakefield.]
As a book reviewer Goldsmith was necessarily a student of title pages. In one of his earliest reviews he thus rebukes the author of Memoirs of Sir Thomas Hughson, and Mr. Joseph Williams; with the Remarkable History, Travels, and Distresses of Telemachus Lovet: "Fair promises! Yet like a Smithfield [i.e., Bartholomew Fair] conjuror, who, to draw company, exhibits at the door his best show for nothing, this author exhausts all his scanty funds on the title page." Another work may tempt us with hints of arcane thrills: The History of Cleanthes, an Englishman of the Highest Quality. From its title page "some readers may be induced to search into this performance for hidden satire, or political allegory," only to find an improbable and tepidly written romance.1 A book's title is a contract between author and reader that the former is bound to honor. Goldsmith was acknowledging the responsibility of the writer to his public, at a time when that public was rapidly displacing the patron and the subscriber as the writer's paymaster.
A title can be honest and yet characterful. In a later review Goldsmith approvingly cited Samuel Butler's maxim: "There is a kind of...
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SOURCE: "From Patrimony to Paternity in The Vicar of Wakefield" in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 3, April, 1997, pp. 327-36.
[In the following essay, Murray contends that ultimately The Vicar of Wakefield concerns the nature of authority and transformation.]
In his Advertisement to The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith declared that his hero, the Reverend Dr Primrose, "unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth; he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family."1 He is also the narrator of a story, and in all four of these positions of authority, Primrose is quixotically ineffective. As a priest he pursues his "peculiar tenet" (p. 13) of strict monogamy to the point of alienating parishioners, even before the initial loss of fortune that precipitates the novel's action. As a husbandman he proves to be comically inept in managing his resources. Throughout the first half of the novel he is an unreliable narrator. But it is in his role of father that the greatest disparity appears between his own image of himself and his actual authority.
Throughout the book Primrose attempts to exercise fatherly authority in three ways: through control of resources, through direct commands, and through wise adages. In all three ways he largely fails. He is "careless of temporalities" (p. 13) in the disposal of material resources, and...
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SOURCE: "Charlotte's 'Vicar' and Goethe's Eighteenth-Century Tale about Werther" in Narrative Ironies, edited by A. Prier and Gerald Gillespie, Rodopi, 1997, pp. 283-97.
[In the essay below, Prier argues that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungends Werther was influenced by Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield.]
"Indeed, pappa," replied Olivia, "… I have read a great deal of controversy. I have read the disputes between Thwackum and Square; the controversy between Robinson Crusoe and Friday the savage, and I am now employed in reading the controversy in Religious courtship."
The Vicar of Wakefield'
Olivia reads books, and the Vicar, seemingly satisfied with his daughter's intellectual qualifications in this instance, sends her off to help his wife concoct a "gooseberry-pye" (45), an act perhaps a bit more culinary than Charlotte's cutting bread and butter, but just as ironically amusing if one takes the position of early nineteenth-century English wags. Goethe read books too, perhaps even the same books as Olivia. The one book, however, that probably exerted the greatest influence over his own novelistic art was one Olivia could not have read because she was part and parcel of its fiction: The Vicar of Wakefield.
The nature of this influence is revealed in an experience...
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Ginger, John. "Goose-Pie and Gooseberries." In The Notable Man: The Life and Times of Oliver Goldsmith, pp. 157-85. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1977.
Discusses events in Goldsmith's life at the time he was writing of The Vicar of Wakefield.
Wardle, Ralph. Oliver Goldsmith. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1957, 330 p.
Comprehensive biography, utilizing contemporary sources and providing a less disparaging view of Goldsmith's personality than had previously appeared.
Wibberley, Leonard. The Good-Natured Man: A Portrait of Oliver Goldsmith. New York: William Morrow, 1979, 255 p.
Warmly sympathetic biography that is based solely on contemporary accounts of Goldsmith's life.
Battestin, Martin C. "Goldsmith: The Comedy of Job." In The Providence of Wit: Aspects of Form in Augustan Literature and the Arts, pp. 193-214. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
Argues that Goldsmith used the Book of Job as a paradigm for "his own tale of Christian suffering and redemption."
Dykstal, Timothy. "The Story of 0: Politics and Pleasure in The Vicar of Wakefield." ELH 62, No. 2 (Summer 1995): 329-46.
Considers the role of Olivia and suggests what her behavior reveals about the Vicar's political theories....
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