The Vicar of Wakefield

by Oliver Goldsmith
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"The novel becomes a spiritual autobiography of a Christian hero." How far this statement is true for the novel The Vicar of Wakefield? Discuss.

The statement "The novel becomes a spiritual autobiography of a Christian hero" is true of The Vicar of Wakefield. Dr. Primrose does not initially appear heroic, but he reveals his strength in the way he responds to adversity and retains his simple faith.

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The Vicar of Wakefield opens with a well-known statement in favor of matrimony:

I was ever of opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population. From this motive, I had scarce taken orders a year before I began to think seriously of matrimony, and chose my wife as she did her wedding gown, not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well.

The tone of the book is set by this simple beginning. The Reverend Dr. Primrose is not a romantic figure, nor an obviously heroic one. He says nothing about loving his wife but stipulates that he married out of a sense of public duty and chose a good woman for the purpose.

Dr. Primrose is clearly not a hero in the epic tradition, but as the book progresses, he does display a strength of character and Christian faith that are proof against everything he has to endure in the course of the narrative. In the initial advertisement, Oliver Goldsmith himself writes of Dr. Primrose,

The hero of this piece unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth; he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family. He is drawn as ready to teach, and ready to obey, as simple in affluence, and majestic in adversity.

The use of the word hero is not in itself significant. It may mean no more than "protagonist." The praise of Dr. Primrose, both in his social function and his character, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. The idea of the hero grew up before Christianity, and the first heroes are far from Christian in character. They are like Gilgamesh or Achilles: harsh, imperious warriors. Dr. Primrose is simple and sometimes mildly ridiculous, but he is a good Christian who comes to appear heroic in the way he adheres to his faith and his calling. His spiritual autobiography may not contain much development or any great epiphanies, but it does reveal a fine character, which the reader comes to respect, despite Dr. Primrose's flaws.

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There's little doubt that Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield is, to a large extent, a spiritual autobiography of a Christian hero. There's even less doubt that this is precisely what Goldsmith intended it to be.

The protagonist of the story, the devout churchman Dr. Primrose, is a true Christian hero in Goldsmith's eyes, largely because he holds fast to his faith no matter what life throws at him. Whether it's a con man cheating him out of his horse, his daughter running off, or his being slung into prison for not paying rent, whatever misfortune should befall him, the good doctor doesn't flinch in his devotion to God.

Like the true Christian hero that he is, he remains steadfast in his faith. Even in prison, his faith inspires him to overcome extreme adversity and preach the Word of God to his fellow inmates. He even manages to show true Christian love to Ephraim Jenkinson, the con artist who cheated him out of a horse.

Sadly for Dr. Primrose, his release from prison doesn't mean the end of his troubles. But even then, he remains as deeply wedded to his faith as ever before. His Christian heroism is undiminished.

By the time we've reached the story's happy ending, we can look back and see that we've been reading a spiritual autobiography in which a man of the cloth has drawn upon his unshakable faith in God to deal with the many problems that life has thrown at him, problems that would test the faith of a saint and would probably plunge most of us into a pit of despair.

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