Oliver Goldsmith Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

Oliver Goldsmith Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The themes that run through Oliver Goldsmith’s long fiction are his philosophical inquiries into human nature, the problem of evil, the vying of the good and the bad within the human breast, and the conflict between “reason and appetite.” His fiction addresses at its deepest level the perennial problem of theodicy, or why God allows the innocent to suffer so grievously. Lien Chi in The Citizen of the World exclaims, “Oh, for the reason of our creation; or why we were created to be thus unhappy!” Dr. Primrose in The Vicar of Wakefield ruminates, “When I reflect on the distribution of good and evil here below, I find that much has been given man to enjoy, yet still more to suffer.” Both come to terms with the conundrum of evil practically, by resolving, in Lien Chi’s words, “not to stand unmoved at distress, but endeavour to turn every disaster to our own advantage.”

The Citizen of the World

The ninety-eight essays that make up The Citizen of the World were originally published as the “Chinese Letters” in various issues of The Public Ledger from January 24, 1760, to August 14, 1761. They were subsequently collected and published in book form in 1762. These essays purport to be letters from Lien Chi Altangi, a Mandarin philosopher from Peking who is visiting London, to his son Hingpo and to Fum Hoam, first president of the Ceremonial Academy of Peking. This work may be classified as long fiction because of the well-delineated characters it creates and the interwoven stories it relates.

The principal character is Lien Chi, a type made familiar in the eighteenth century by Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721; Persian Letters, 1722). Lien Chi represents the man who, through travel, has overcome provincialism and prejudice and has achieved a cosmopolitan outlook. More specifically, perhaps, he represents the sociable, sanguine, and rational side of Goldsmith, who himself had traveled extensively in Europe.

To reinforce the notion that these are the letters of a Chinese man, Goldsmith studs them with Chinese idioms and makes references throughout to Asian beliefs, manners, and customs. Lien Chi cites the philosopher Confucius, and he compares the enlightenment of the East with the ignorance and folly of the West. The Citizen of the World capitalizes on the enthusiasm in eighteenth century England for anything Eastern—particularly Chinese—in the way of literature, fashion, design, and art, a vogue that Goldsmith satirizes through the bemused observations of Lien Chi.

Through the character of Lien Chi, a naïve but philosophically astute observer of the human scene, Goldsmith presents a full-blown satire of English society that is reminiscent of his compatriot Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), but not so savage. In his letters, Lien Chi gives his impressions of the English, particularly of London society—their institutions, traditions, customs, habits, manners, foibles, and follies. He describes for readers a series of charming and funny pictures of London life in the eighteenth century, the literary equivalent of a William Hogarth painting. He shows readers coffeehouses, literary clubs, theaters, parks and pleasure gardens, churches, and private homes. Two scenes are particularly memorable: In one, Lien Chi describes a church service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he mistakes the organ for an idol and its music for an oracle. In another scene, he attends a dinner for some clergy of the Church of England and is shocked to find that their sole...

(The entire section is 1477 words.)