Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2634
Oliver Goldsmith’s essays reflect two significant literary transitions of the late eighteenth century. The larger or more general of these was the beginning of the gradual evolution of Romanticism from the Neoclassicism of the previous one hundred years. Oppressed by the heavy “rule of reason” and ideas of taste and polish, readers of this transitional period gradually began to respond more to the imaginative and the emotional in literature. This transition serves as a backdrop for a related evolution that played an essential role in the development of the modern short story. At this time the well-established periodical essay began a glacially slow movement away from its predominant emphasis on a formal exposition of ideas; contemporary essayists, none more prominent than Goldsmith, began to indulge more their taste for the personal approach and for narrative. The result was increased experimentation with characterization, story line, setting, and imagery; concurrent with these developments, style, theme, tone, and structural patterning received particular attention. Varying degrees and types of emphasis on these elements pushed the essay form in many diverse directions. Of all the contemporary essayists, Oliver Goldsmith best reflects these developments.
The Citizen of the World
Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World vividly illustrates the variety of experimentation in the contemporary periodical essay and is of great importance in the history of the Asian tale. With its vigorous appeal to the imagination and emotions, the Asian tale marked a major step toward Romanticism. More important, its popularity at a time of significant literary experimentation led to an interesting mixture of two literary traditions, the essay-sketch and the tale, which serves as a bedrock for the development of the modern short story.
Goldsmith incorporated the current enthusiasm for Asian motifs in his collection of essays. He used the device of the frame tale, associated with the recently translated The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1706-1708), to give the collection its unity. The frame is supplied by a traveling Chinese philosopher who observes the customs and society of London and writes his observations to friends in the East. This narrative point of view affords Goldsmith an infinite variety of techniques and subjects. His basic strategy is to start with a discursive essay that leads to one of two general avenues. On the one hand, from this point Goldsmith may proceed to build a soapbox from which the Chinese philosopher expounds on morality and philosophy; in these essays Goldsmith normally maintains the form of the didactic essay. On the other hand, Goldsmith may proceed to an appropriate observation on English culture by the Chinese philosopher; the observation may elucidate a philosophical point or a moral lesson. These essays illustrate the increasing interest in narrative and personality and place a larger than customary emphasis on glimpses of daily life. There are also variations on this idea; for example, the Chinese philosopher’s observation may take the form of a tale which completely dominates the essay, or he may focus almost exclusively on descriptive detail of action or people or settings—a strategy which culminates in a sketch rather than an essay.
The latter occurs in Letter 26 where the Chinese philosopher describes for friends in the East his English acquaintance, “the man in black.” The Chinese philosopher begins by remarking that his friend’s manners “are tinctured with some strange inconsistencies.” Curiously, “though he is generous even to profusion, he affects to be thought a prodigy of parsimony and prudence.” The Chinese philosopher has known him to “profess himself a man-hater while his cheek was glowing with compassion.” By way of example, the Chinese relates the adventures of a walk they shared; they begin by happening “to discourse upon the provision that was made for the poor in England.” This discussion fires the indignation of the man in black, who assures the Chinese that the poor “are imposters, every one of them and rather merit a prison than relief.” The two suddenly encounter an old man of reduced fortune, whose story has no influence on the Chinese who describes himself as “prepossessed against such falsehoods”; but at the same time he witnesses “it visibly operate” upon the man in black “and effectually interrupt his harangue.” His companion clearly burns with compassion yet is “ashamed to discover his weakness” to the Chinese who turns his head momentarily, affording his friend the opportunity to press coins into the outstretched hand. As they return to their walk, the man in black who “fancied himself quite unperceived” begins again “to rail against beggars with as much animosity as before.” His monologue is continually interrupted by more of the poor with the same result until finally he is so distracted he reaches to his pockets in plain view of the Chinese, who vividly portrays his friend’s “confusion when he found he had already given all the money he carried about him to former objects.” As a last resort the man in black gives this final beggar a “shilling’s worth of matches”—and thus the portrayal ends.
This letter brilliantly demonstrates Goldsmith’s dominant tendencies in the periodical essay or sketch. The focal character, the man in black, is realistically portrayed and psychologically interesting; Goldsmith subordinates the incidents to his description of the focal character’s responses to the beggars; the setting, vaguely in the countryside, is void of descriptive detail and lacks focus; Goldsmith’s prose style here is characteristically lucid, natural, and simple, yet capable of genuine subtlety and sensitivity; a characteristic touch of wit occurs when the Chinese turns his head and allows his friend to preserve his pride; Goldsmith structures his piece around his narrative persona, the Chinese philosopher, who describes the subject character, the man in black, in terms of the latter’s response to external events. The overall pattern indicates Goldsmith’s genius for seizing an idea, purifying and distilling his presentation, and unifying all his narrative elements in a complete development of his central concept.
Letters 48 and 49
In direct opposition to this approach, in Letters 48 and 49 Goldsmith chooses a quite different avenue with an entirely different result. He begins again with the discursive essay but now proceeds to establish a soapbox for the Chinese visitor. What issues from this soapbox is fairly atypical for Goldsmith, yet quite important in terms of the short story’s historical development.
At the beginning of Letter 48 the Chinese philosopher strolls into an artist’s studio to examine some paintings. He observes a young prince before a canvas surrounded by flatterers “assiduously learning the trade.” The scene strikes “very disagreeable sensations” in the visiting philosopher. He disapproves of seeing a youth who “by his station in life, had it within his power to be useful to thousands, thus letting his mind run to waste upon canvas, and at the same time fancying himself improving in taste, and filling his rank with proper decorum.” The prince asks for the philosopher’s opinion of his art, work filled with Chinese elements crudely used. The rational Chinese, feeling that “seeing an error, and attempting to redress it, are only one and the same,” spoke his true but harsh opinion and received a proportion of the same in exchange. Considering, however, that “it was in vain to argue against people who had so much to say without contradicting them,” the Chinese begged leave to repeat a fairy tale which would illustrate the “absurdity of placing our affections upon trifles.” He adds that he “hoped the moral would compensate for its stupidity.” The young artist protests a story with a moral but the Chinese pretends not to hear and proceeds to relate the tale of a young prince in the remote kingdom of Bonbobbin.
The Chinese warms to his tale describing the young prince whose physical beauty inspired the sun to “sometimes stop his course, in order to look down and admire him.” “His mind was no less perfect” for “he knew all things without having ever read.” His name was “Bonbennin-Bonbobbin-bonbobbinet which signifies Enlightener of the Sun.” After vividly detailing the prince’s courtship and wedding, the Chinese momentarily digresses to the prince’s affection for his collection of mice, with which he would “innocently” spend “four hours a day in contemplating their innocent little pastimes.” Returning to the wedding night, the Chinese relates how the joy of the young couple was abruptly interrupted by the appearance of a beautiful white mouse with green eyes, exactly the creature the young prince “had long endeavored to possess.” To the utter dismay of the prince, the mouse escapes capture and disappears. After all the efforts of the prince’s subjects fail to recover the mouse, the prince sets out to search the world until he finds the mouse, not knowing the mouse was secretly “sent by a discontented Princess and was itself a fairy.” In his travels, the prince’s only companion was a faithful blue cat with the power of speech. Far from home, the prince relates his story to an ugly old woman who promises him the mouse if he will marry her then and there. After seeking the counsel of the blue cat, the prince marries the old woman and is shocked when she admits to being the mouse. She offers the prince the choice of having her as a woman by day and a mouse by night or vice versa. Taking the advice of the blue cat, the prince decides on the first alternative and the three return to the palace. On the night of their arrival, the prince asks the old woman to resume the appearance of the mouse and to dance on the floor as he sings. As the mouse is gaily dancing, the blue cat rushes forth, gobbles up the mouse thus breaking the charm, and resumes the shape of the young princess. The prince realizes the error of his ways and reconciles himself to his happy marriage. The young couple live long and happily, “perfectly convinced by their former adventures, that they who place their affection on trifles at first for amusement, will find those trifles at last become their most serious concern.”
If the sketch of the man in black is contrasted with this pair of letters, it is found that in the latter Goldsmith has moved completely over to the tale tradition generally, to the Asian tale specifically. The focal character, the prince, is not comparatively realistic like the man in black but the epitome of idealized virtues. He has little inner life and is dominated by exotic and magical external actions. The setting, the remote kingdom of Bonbobbin, Goldsmith describes in vivid, exotic detail. The prose style is still lucid and natural but he chooses stronger and more dramatic words. The tone, far less personal than before, now becomes more public and socially directed, as the explicit moral tag demonstrates. The structural pattern is the framed oral retelling of an exotic Asian tale.
Successes by Goldsmith in the two quite different traditions of sketch and tale have been examined; Letter 13 appears to represent Goldsmith’s attempt to balance more perfectly elements of the two. The Chinese philosopher has just returned from a visit to Westminster Abbey where the “monumental inscriptions, and all the venerable remains of the deceased merit” have inspired his feelings of gloom. Upon entering the “temple marked with the hand of antiquity, solemn as religious awe, adorned with all the magnificence of barbarous profusion, dim windows, fretted pillars, long colonnades, and dark ceilings,” he stands in oppressed solitude drinking in the atmosphere and wondering at how pride has attended “the puny child of dust even to the grave.” He is aware that he possesses “more consequence in the present scene than the greatest hero of them all” who has toiled “for an hour to gain a transient immortality and are at length retired to grave where they have no attendant but the worm, none to flatter but the epitaph.” As the Chinese stands alone with his feelings, he is approached by the man in black, who offers to be his guide. While they walk, the Chinese philosopher questions his companion about the man entombed in a particularly magnificent monument, assuming his life to have been one of great merit. The man in black answers with the dead man’s biography, concluding that the latter is just one of many “who, hated and shunned by the great when alive, have come here, fully resolved to keep them company now they are dead.” When the two men reach the poet’s corner, the Chinese asks to be shown the grave of Alexander Pope. The man in black responds that “people have not done hating him yet.” The Chinese is amazed that a man who gave the world so much entertainment and instruction should be so hated and is shocked to learn how writers in general suffer at the hands of critics and booksellers and from the ignorance of patrons.
The two men next turn their attention to the tombs of kings. At the entrance gate the Chinese is expected to pay an admission fee which he likens to that required to see a show. Having paid the money, the Chinese expects to see something extraordinary since what he has already seen and heard without charge has genuinely surprised him, but he is disappointed by the “pieces of absurdity” with which the gatekeeper tries to impress him. At the next gate the Chinese is again requested to pay an admission fee. Completely disillusioned, the Chinese refuses, choosing instead to return to his lodgings “in order to ruminate over what was great, and to despise what was mean in the occurrences of the day.”
By combining elements of the essay-sketch and tale traditions in this letter, Goldsmith reached a new plateau in his writing and closely approached the short story. In addition to exterior action and emotional responses, Goldsmith added brilliant dialogue and more completely developed the focal character, the Chinese. While Goldsmith subordinated the narrow action, he also made it intimate and dramatic, thus using it to fulfill a thematic function. The theme, the consideration of fame, is universal and at the same time inherently personal. Goldsmith used the setting in much the same way. The setting is described in exotic detail and possesses a psychological dimension that sets the tone for the theme. Goldsmith’s style in this letter combines psychological subtleties with narration and buttresses the nonjudgmental tone essential to the theme. The tone and theme are significant, for Goldsmith now leaves the reader with no flat picture or moral but with the experience of his own feelings. By carefully controlling the exterior elements, Goldsmith holds time still for the reader and draws him in to share the questions and the feelings of the Chinese. With the open lyrical ending, Goldsmith leaves the reader to experience and reflect for himself.
If Goldsmith’s genius can be appreciated after a perusal of his essays, the appreciation can only grow when the variety and excellence of Goldsmith’s other writings are known. In addition to his essays, Goldsmith also applied his talents to drama and produced the timeless She Stoops to Conquer. While sentimental comedy was flourishing, Goldsmith was significant for reviving and purifying the comedy of manners and thus temporarily returning laughter to the stage. His many biographies are enduring and lively, for Goldsmith always maintained his lucid natural style. His poetry was his “solitary pride,” for within this form Goldsmith could harmonize both the sad and gay sides of his personality. His novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, is one of the best of the sentimental novels and represented an important step toward Romanticism. In addition to his versatility and excellence, Goldsmith is the writer who best exemplified the vast literary transitions of the later eighteenth century.
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