The Vicar of Wakefield is quite reflective of sentimental fiction, a genre that is typically associated with eighteenth-century English works. Novels of sensibility typically comment on human nature, exploring human virtue, human relationships, and moral and intellectual development. Goldsmith’s novel is emblematic of the genre because of his depiction of ordinary life, his frequent emotional appeals to the reader, and his use of literary elements such as irony.
One of the key characteristics of novels of sensibility is a focus on virtue and virtuous characters navigating difficult yet realistic situations. Consider how the Primrose family faces a stream of unpredictable difficulties, primarily through no fault of their own. For example, Dr. Primrose faces sudden trying financial times, his daughter Olivia is abducted, he falls sick, Olivia dies, and his other daughter Sophia is abducted.
The characters face many tragedies but always face them in straightforward, practical ways. Their approaches to their problems make them come across as innocent people who become more knowledgable through tough human experiences. Through these characters, Goldsmith suggests that humans are good, virtuous creatures at their core and acquire knowledge by experiencing the sinful realities of the world around them. He suggests that moral development happens as a result of what is learned from tough experiences—a defining theme of a novel of sensibility.