The Vicar of Wakefield Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield centers on Dr. Charles Primrose, the village priest, and his wife, Deborah, who live with their six children in affluent happiness in Wakefield. All look forward to the marriage of the Primroses’ eldest son, George, to Arabella Wilmot, daughter of a wealthy church dignitary. Dr. Primrose heatedly defends one of his favorite subjects, monogamy, with Arabella’s father, Mr. Wilmot, a man three times widowed and about to marry his fourth wife. When news arrives that Dr. Primrose has lost all his money through his broker’s embezzlement, Mr. Wilmot breaks the engagement of Arabella and George. George leaves to recoup the family fortune, and the other Primroses set out for a distant village to live more humbly. On the way, they meet Mr. Burchell, a wanderer who saves the Primroses’ young daughter Sophia from drowning. For his act, the family promises hospitality to Burchell.

The Primroses rent a cottage from Squire Thornhill, a loose-living young gentleman, who takes an immediate liking to elder daughter Olivia. Recognizing the advantages of a marriage between Olivia and the squire, Deborah strives to bring it about. Squire Thornhill, however, does not propose, while Burchell pays modest court to Sophia. Events reach a hopeful peak when two ladies, friends of Squire Thornhill, visit the Primroses. These ladies are amenable to taking Olivia and Sophia to London as companions. Squire Thornhill encourages the plan, but Burchell objects.

To improve the family’s finances, Dr. Primrose and his second son, Moses, go to a fair to sell their horses, but each is duped by the sharper Ephraim Jenkinson. Meanwhile, in spite of his repeated visits, Squire Thornhill refuses to propose marriage to Olivia. Dr. Primrose suggests that she then consider a proposal from...

(The entire section is 749 words.)

The Vicar of Wakefield Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Vicar of Wakefield, although published in March, 1766, was actually written years earlier. Scholarly evidence suggests that Goldsmith began writing the novel in 1760 and probably finished it in 1765. Mysterious stories surround the composition, sale, and publication of the work. One such tale concerns the venerable Samuel Johnson. According to his biographer, James Boswell, Johnson was summoned for immediate assistance by Goldsmith. It seems that Goldsmith was behind in his rent, and his landlady had him arrested. Johnson quieted the much disturbed writer, learned of an unpublished novel, and sold a one-third share to a bookseller. Goldsmith discharged the debts and eventually sold the remaining shares.

The work in question is strongly believed to be The Vicar of Wakefield. Why did he write it? Speculation suggests that Goldsmith wrote the novel because he was consumed with envy by the publication, in January, 1760, of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767) by Laurence Sterne. Though Goldsmith professed a long dislike for the novel, the celebrity status enjoyed by Sterne may have motivated the still little-known Goldsmith to match his rival’s success. Much has been made of the autobiographical portions to be found in The Vicar of Wakefield, including its faulty plot structure, the narrative technique employed, and the sentimental reversal-of-fortune conclusion. Goldsmith uses the...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

The Vicar of Wakefield Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Dr. Primrose and his wife, Deborah, are blessed with five fine children. The two daughters, Olivia and Sophia, are remarkable for their beauty. The Primrose family lives in a quiet rural community, where they enjoy both wealth and good reputation. The oldest son, George, falls in love with Arabella Wilmot, the daughter of a neighbor, and the two families make mutual preparations for the wedding. Before the wedding, however, Dr. Primrose and Miss Wilmot’s father quarrel over the question of a man’s remarrying after the death of his wife. Dr. Primrose stoutly upholds the doctrine of absolute monogamy. Mr. Wilmot, who is about to take his fourth wife, is insulted. The rift between the two families widens when news comes that Dr. Primrose’s broker has run off with all of his money. Mr. Wilmot breaks off the wedding plans, for the vicar is now a poor man.

George departs for London to make his fortune, and the rest of the family prepares to go to another part of the country, where Dr. Primrose finds a more modest living. On the way, they meet a man who wins the admiration of Dr. Primrose by a deed of charity to a fellow traveler. The man, Mr. Burchell, rides along with them. Suddenly, Sophia is thrown from her horse into a stream, from which Mr. Burchell is able to save her. The gratitude of Deborah assures Mr. Burchell of a warm welcome whenever he should choose to call on them.

Their new home is on the estate of wealthy Squire Thornhill, a young man known for his attentions to all the young ladies in the neighborhood. Deborah thinks that either of her daughters would make a good match for the young squire. Soon afterward, a fortunate meeting draws the squire’s attention toward Olivia, and her mother’s scheming makes Squire Thornhill a steady caller at the Primrose home, where Olivia blushingly protests that she thinks him both bold and rude. Mr. Burchell also calls frequently, but his interest seems to center upon Sophia, who does not deny her pleasure at his attention. Dr. Primrose, however, cannot approve of Mr. Burchell, for he lost all of his fortune and seems to live in relative poverty, which reveals an indifference to his fallen condition.

Two noble ladies from the city meet the Primrose family in their rustic retreat, and Sophia and Olivia become charmed by talk of city ways. When the women speak of their need for companions in their households, Deborah immediately suggests that Olivia and Sophia be selected. The two daughters are pleased at the thought of going to the city, despite Mr. Burchell’s vigorous objections. All is set for the journey, however, when Deborah receives a letter stating that a secret informant so slandered Olivia and Sophia that the city ladies will not consider them fit companions. At first,...

(The entire section is 1129 words.)