Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 383
One could say that in “The Deserted Village,” the most important character is the village itself, the rural setting as an Edenic abstraction. The animals and the pastoral milieu, the brook, the "grass-grown foot-way," and "sober herd" are perhaps more important as symbols and types than the human characters. In all, the poem is a landmark in the pre-Romantic movement, setting the stage for Wordsworth and Coleridge twenty-five years later as they further were to idealize the uncorrupted past.
The village preacher is characterized as humble, generous, and compassionate. He helps strangers and provides them with charity. His house is modest in spite of his wealth.
The village master, or schoolteacher, is stern but kind. The students are afraid of him, but his severity stems from his love for knowledge: "if severe in aught, / The love he bore to learning was in fault." The people are amazed by his learning and skill.
The Man of Wealth and Pride
The "man of wealth and pride" is the one who now possesses the land where the village stands. Goldsmith characterizes him as a "tyrant" whose presence on the land brings "desolation." He is responsible for the loss of all the village's innocence and charm, as well as its ultimate depopulation.
“The Deserted Village” is populated by figures who are not so much characters in a novelistic sense as they are types. Goldsmith's point is to depict an idealized setting, which he believes rural England to have been before the great migrations from country to town began to occur. He gives us the village swain "with smutted face," the "bashful virgin," and the reproving "matron." In somewhat more detail, we're told of the village preacher and the village master. (Goldsmith shows us a more fleshed-out version of the former in his novel The Vicar of Wakefield.) The speaker who observes all of this and laments it is also a "character" in the drama.
If these figures appear to be stock types, it's because they are, and they probably were even in Goldsmith's time. But he nevertheless invests them with a kind of vitality, albeit a melancholy one. Still, the central message of the poem is something new, because it describes a process already occurring on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.
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