Oliver Goldsmith

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Oliver Goldsmith World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1922

Washington Irving wrote of Goldsmith that his genius “flowered early, but was late in bringing its fruit to maturity.” However, an abundance poured forth during the last fifteen years of Goldsmith’s life. Numerous studies have examined his separate contributions as essayist, novelist, dramatist, biographer, philosopher, and poet.

Goldsmith’s literary career was launched in the April, 1757, issue of the Monthly Review, but his first important work did not appear until two years later with the publication of his first book, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe. The author published it anonymously, and for good reason, since he was aiming at the decline of learning in general. Goldsmith’s work was self-serving. It allowed him to attack his enemies, particularly the pedantic critics who judged English literature by classic Greek or Latin standards. Needless to say, he raised a hornet’s nest of criticism and received the serious literary attention that he craved.

Goldsmith is difficult to categorize as a writer because he wrote so well on so many topics and in so many genres. William Hazlitt said of him:Goldsmith, both in verse and prose, was one of the most delightful writers in the language. His verse flows like a limpid stream. His ease is quite unconscious. Everything in him is spontaneous, unstudied, yet elegant, harmonious, graceful, nearly faultless.

Goldsmith was not a radical thinker like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but he infused his work with moderation, sensibility, and irony. In his essays, he denounced the evils of capital punishment, cruelty to animals, and excessive gambling; he noted the stupidity of revenge and the negative effects of luxurious living; and he made sensible suggestions about children’s education. He had strong feelings about the prevalence of sentimental comedy, which he despised and tried to destroy by bringing back boisterous humor to the English stage.

In verse, Goldsmith was certainly skilled. He could pen poetical epistles, prologues, epilogues, and ballads, as well as more conventional poems. His versifying was always spontaneous and humorous, and it reflected dignity. Goldsmith’s poetry could demonstrate strength, as well. In The Traveller: Or, A Prospect of Society (1764) and The Deserted Village (1770), he employed the similar theme of a man isolated from others, longing for his home. Goldsmith’s use of a narrator in these poems also appears in The Vicar of Wakefield. He engaged the device of speaking directly to the reader so that the vicar could comment on the criminal code and penal system. Such is his artistry, however, that the character always remains a true literary creation.

Poverty fueled Goldsmith’s genius. All his life, he struggled to survive. It was only his writing that kept him out of the poorhouse or debtors’ prison. The lack of financial resources helps explain why he was so prolific. To be blunt, Goldsmith was also a hack writer. Samuel Johnson says of Goldsmith that he was always able to adorn the most menial labor. Publishers often requested certain types of work, which may explain his versatility and why he never stayed with one genre for long. It was not uncommon for him to write in several genres at the same time. In 1766, he published his novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, and began his first comedic play, The Good-Natured Man (pr., pb. 1768).

A worse criticism of Goldsmith, besides the serious charge of hack writer, is that he often plagiarized others. The accusation was first leveled at him in 1759, when he became sole contributor to the Bee, a weekly magazine whose pages he had to fill. Week after week, he wrote a number of essays, many of which were lifted from volume 5 of the French Encyclopédie. Goldsmith never defended his practice, justifying it as hack work, not literature. Even his famous series of “Chinese Letters” was lifted or adapted from several other sources, particularly Lettres Chinoises (1739-1740) by Jean Baptist de Boyer, marquis d’Argens. In his lengthy two-volume An History of England in a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to His Son (1764), Goldsmith borrowed heavily from Voltaire, Paul Rapin de Thoyras, Tobias Smollett, and Edmund Burke. He freely admitted “borrowing” the character Croaker in his play The Good-Natured Man from Johnson’s periodical, The Rambler. He stole ideas, characters, words, and paragraphs from others throughout his career.

Goldsmith was no saint. He was highly irritable, possessing a mercurial temperament, envied other writers, gambled heavily, drank too much, borrowed money that he could not repay, lied to his friends and relatives, was often dishonest in his business dealings, and demonstrated a parasitic dependence on other writers. Goldsmith recognized his shortcomings and his absurd behavior. In the end, he triumphed over his imperfections. He became a warmhearted individual who gave freely of himself, always kept his integrity when it mattered, refused to write or dedicate work for people whom he did not respect, and always made his plagiarized borrowings more distinguished than the original. In short, he was a genius whose work revealed wisdom, seasoned judgment, and good humor. These attributes are best exemplified in two of his most famous works: The Vicar of Wakefield and She Stoops to Conquer.

The Vicar of Wakefield

First published: 1766

Type of work: Novel

This charming, comical, romantic tale features a pastoral setting and is about a simple vicar experiencing a series of family misfortunes.

The Vicar of Wakefield, although published in March, 1766, was actually written years earlier. Scholarly evidence suggests that Goldsmith began writing the novel in 1760 and probably finished it in 1765. Mysterious stories surround the composition, sale, and publication of the work. One such tale concerns the venerable Samuel Johnson. According to his biographer, James Boswell, Johnson was summoned for immediate assistance by Goldsmith. It seems that Goldsmith was behind in his rent, and his landlady had him arrested. Johnson quieted the much disturbed writer, learned of an unpublished novel, and sold a one-third share to a bookseller. Goldsmith discharged the debts and eventually sold the remaining shares.

The work in question is strongly believed to be The Vicar of Wakefield. Why did he write it? Speculation suggests that Goldsmith wrote the novel because he was consumed with envy by the publication, in January, 1760, of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767) by Laurence Sterne. Though Goldsmith professed a long dislike for the novel, the celebrity status enjoyed by Sterne may have motivated the still little-known Goldsmith to match his rival’s success. Much has been made of the autobiographical portions to be found in The Vicar of Wakefield, including its faulty plot structure, the narrative technique employed, and the sentimental reversal-of-fortune conclusion. Goldsmith uses the vicar, the delightful creation of Dr. Charles Primrose, as the novel’s narrator and through the character voices many of his own ideas and experiences.

The Vicar of Wakefield falls neatly into two equal segments. The first is humorous, a comically ironic idyll. The second is romantic, underscored by a series of unrelieved disasters that befall the Primroses. Most critics believe that the second section is superior. The novel’s central theme, that innocence can become contemptible in the face of evil or worldly wisdom, while never fully articulated by Goldsmith, supports the whole work. The vicar and his family are simple, innocent folk enjoying a pleasant, pastoral existence until they come into contact with reality. Their very virtues are turned on them as they suffer one disaster after another. Goldsmith reveals that the overthrow of their innocence is replaced by wisdom and compassion.

Perhaps that is why The Vicar of Wakefield achieved immediate popularity that increased substantially following Goldsmith’s death. During the nineteenth century, for example, the novel enjoyed at least two editions a year. It has been translated into many languages. The reason for its success may be that the novel can be interpreted in many different ways. It exudes irresistible charm and ebullience, demonstrating Goldsmith’s genius and absurdity. The Vicar of Wakefield remains one of the most popular books from the eighteenth century. The only other work by Goldsmith to match it in continuing popularity is his play She Stoops to Conquer.

She Stoops to Conquer

First produced: 1773 (first published, 1773)

Type of work: Play

This delightful comedy revolves around two youthful couples pursuing romantic intrigue against a background of deception, error, and the machinations of several eccentric characters.

She Stoops to Conquer: Or, The Mistakes of a Night was an immediate success for Goldsmith, his last literary triumph. The opening night audience at Covent Garden on March 15, 1773, roared its continued approval. Five days following the premiere, every copy of the published version of the play was sold. Yet the circumstances surrounding the production of the play were marked by enormous difficulty for Goldsmith because the theater manager anticipated certain failure. Goldsmith finished writing the comedy in September, 1771. He took it to George Colman, manager of the Covent Garden, who repeatedly postponed producing it. It was only through the firm intervention of Samuel Johnson that Colman reluctantly agreed to stage it. (Goldsmith inscribed the published work to Johnson.) The script was much revised and altered during the weeks of rehearsal. Several of the leading actors refused to appear in it and were replaced. The play’s approval was such a complete success that Colman was severely criticized for his delay.

Looking back, it is difficult to comprehend Colman’s reluctance to stage the comedy. She Stoops to Conquer was Goldsmith’s second play. (Five years earlier at Covent Garden, Colman produced Goldsmith’s first effort, The Good-Natured Man, also well received by the public.) The problem stemmed from the fact that Goldsmith’s views on comedy were different from prevailing taste. He had taken aim at the whole genre. In a piece published early in 1773 entitled “Essay on the Theatre: Or, A Comparison Between Sentimental and Laughing Comedy,” he had bemoaned the prevailing taste of audiences for “sentimental comedy,” which he called a bastard form of tragedy. In its place, Goldsmith proposed a new comic genre to be called “laughing comedy.” The new form of comedy, as his two plays aptly demonstrated, eliminated moralizing, false appeals to sentimentality, and extraneous song and dance and concentrated instead on mirth, the exposure of human follies, and using characters from the middle and lower classes and dialogue that was easy and natural. The general aim was laughter.

She Stoops to Conquer is a perfect example of Goldsmith’s theories. The play opens with two gentlemen from London looking for the home of Mr. Hardcastle. They are tricked into thinking that the home is an inn and conduct themselves accordingly. One of the young men is there to woo young Kate Hardcastle. Kate pretends to be a barmaid until the hero declares his love for her. The Londoners behave boorishly to all concerned, and the nonstop frolic escalates rapidly. She Stoops to Conquer contains vital energy, many farcical elements, and amusing irony. Goldsmith’s major theme is exploring the follies of blindness that all humans commit. After poking fun at all the characters, the playwright ends the comedy on a note of discovery. The hero, for example, finds himself and discovers the meaning of true love, marrying the perfect woman for him.

About a year after its premiere, Goldsmith died. She Stoops to Conquer endured, however, to become one of the most frequently produced plays of the English repertoire. Hardly a year passes in the United States that it is not staged by some professional, community, or university theater company. It has also been produced several times for television.

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