Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1477
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 topic of conversation is nothing more spiritual than the merits of the victuals they are intent on devouring. Aside from the entertainment and edification they afford, these letters are a document in social history, much like Samuel Pepys’s diary.
While touring Westminster Abbey, Lien Chi meets and befriends the Man in Black, who represents the “melancholy man,” a stock character of the Renaissance. He more particularly can be seen to represent Goldsmith’s introverted and melancholy side. Through the Man in Black, Lien Chi meets Beau Tibbs, “an important little trifler” who is a rather shabby, snobbish, and pathetic fop who lives by flattering the rich and the famous. In a particularly comic scene, Lien Chi, the Man in Black, the pawnbroker’s widow, Beau Tibbs, and his wife make a visit to Vauxhall Gardens. The Tibbses insist on having supper in “a genteel box” where they can both see and be seen. The pawnbroker’s widow, the Man in Black’s companion, heartily enjoys the meal, but Mrs. Tibbs detests it, comparing it unfavorably to a supper she and her husband lately had with a nobleman. Mrs. Tibbs is asked to sing but coyly declines; however, after repeated entreaties she obliges. During her song, an official announces that the waterworks are about to begin, which the widow is especially bent on seeing. Mrs. Tibbs, however, continues her song, oblivious to the discomfort she is causing, right through to the end of the waterworks. Goldsmith here anticipates Charles Dickens in his comic portrayal of character.
In addition to stories featuring the characters described above, The Citizen of the World includes Asian fables interspersed throughout, inspired no doubt by English translations of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (fifteenth century). The British Magazine aptly described The Citizen of the World as “light, agreeable summer reading, partly original, partly borrowed.” A. Lytton Sells regards the work as fundamentally a parody of the genre of satiric letters to which Montesquieu and Jean-Baptiste de Boyer had earlier contributed. It reveals Goldsmith at the top of his form as a humorist, satirist, and ironist.
The Vicar of Wakefield
The Vicar of Wakefield, Goldsmith’s only true novel, was published in 1766. It is a first-personnarrative set in eighteenth century Yorkshire. It is largely autobiographical, with Dr. Primrose modeled on Goldsmith’s father and brother and George modeled on Goldsmith himself. Goldsmith likely intended the work to satirize the then-fashionable sentimental novel, particularly Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767). Its style andconventions, such as digressions, charming pastoral scenes, and mistaken identities, are those of the eighteenth century English novel.
Dr. Charles Primrose, the vicar, narrates the story of his family’s misfortunes. In addition to his wife, there are six children, among whom George, Olivia, and Sophia figure most prominently in the story. The vicar loses most of his inherited wealth to an unscrupulous banker, necessitating the removal of him and his family to a humbler abode. Their new landlord is Squire Thornhill, a notorious rake, whose uncle is Sir William Thornhill, a legendary benefactor. The family is subsequently befriended by Mr. Burchell and cheated by Ephraim Jenkinson.
Olivia is abducted, and, after a search, her father finds her in an inn, where she informs him that the squire had arranged her abduction and married her, as he had other women, in a false ceremony. The squire visits and invites Olivia to his wedding with Miss Wilmot, assuring Olivia that he will find her a suitable husband. Dr. Primrose is outraged, insisting that he would sanction only the squire’s marriage to Olivia. He is subsequently informed of Olivia’s death and of Sophia’s abduction. Presently Mr. Burchell enters with Sophia, whom he has rescued from her abductor. It is now that Mr. Burchell reveals his true identity as Sir William Thornhill. Witnesses testify that the squire had falsely married Olivia and was complicit in Sophia’s abduction. However, on the occasion of the squire’s marriage to Olivia, the squire was tricked by Jenkinson with a real priest and marriage license. Jenkinson produces both the valid license and Olivia, having told Dr. Primrose that Olivia was dead in order to induce him to submit to the squire’s terms and gain his release from prison.
The Vicar of Wakefield can be read on many levels. First, it is a charming idyll depicting the joys of country life. Second, it dramatizes the practical working-out of virtues such as benevolence and vices such as imprudence. Third, it severely tests seventeenth century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s dictum that we live in the best of all possible worlds where all things ultimately work for good. The Vicar of Wakefield is thus a philosophical romance, like Voltaire’s Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759) and Johnson’s Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759), that challenges the shallow optimism of the Enlightenment.
The Vicar of Wakefield has been criticized for its overly sentimentalized and idealized picture of English country life, its virtuous characters whose displays of courage in the face of adversity strain credulity, and its villains bereft of any redeeming virtue. Some commentators, however, see these apparent faults as integral to Goldsmith’s ironic intention. E. A. Baker was the first to recognize that the work is ironic and comic. Robert Hopkins went further by claiming that Goldsmith intended Dr. Primrose “to satirise the complacency and materialism of a type of clergy.”
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