Oliver Goldsmith 1728(?)-1774
(Anglo-Irish novelist, dramatist, poet, essayist, journalist, critic, biographer, and translator. See also Oliver Goldsmith Drama Criticism.
The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is of the best-known novels of the eighteenth century. The story of the varying fortunes of a count y pastor and his family has entertained readers for over two centuries. Modern scholars have questioned Goldsmith's intent in The Vicar: most commentators interpret the story as a satire on the kind of sentimental novel that was popular at the time. However, Goldsmith's satiric touches are so subtle that the novel has also been read as a sentimental, pastoral novel.
The son of an Anglo-Irish minister, Goldsmith graduated from Trinity University in 1750. Unable to settle on a profession, Goldsmith traveled across Europe and returned to London penniless and without employment. He found critical success as a magazine writer and proofreader, but not financial security. When he was arrested in 1762 for failing to pay his rent, he showed the manuscript of The Vicar of Wakefield to his friend Samuel Johnson. Johnson sold the book for £60, enough to pay Goldsmith's debts. The novel was not published until 1766. In the intervening years Goldsmith wrote and published two books of essays and one of poetry, The Traveller (1764). His later works include the play She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and additional collections of poetry and essays.
Set in rural eighteenth-century England, The Vicar of Wakefield chronicles the life of Vicar Charles Primrose, his wife Deborah, and their children. Narrated by the protagonist, the novel recounts the reversal of the Vicar's modest fortunes and a series of blows to the family's unity. Daughter Olivia marries a scoundrel who subsequently deserts her. The family looses all their money, and son George must end his engagement. The family is forced to move to a smaller house, which catches fire. Primrose is injured saving his family. Although destitute, Primrose finds the inner strength to rise above circumstances and to comfort those around him. The novel ends with a series of improbable resolutions that restore the Vicar and his family to their previous happiness and good fortune.
The Vicar of Wakefield presents an almost unique callenge to readers and critics: it can and has been read as an entertaining, sentimental account of pastoral England with a strong moral. Alternately, some commentators assert that the novel is a satire of this genre and that Primrose is not meant to evoke sympathy but ridicule. Goldsmith does focus on moral matters and on the relationship between people and their religion. The plot is similar to the biblical story of Job from the Old Testament: Primrose suffers misfortunes but does not despair. He holds fast to his faith and in the end regains all that he has lost. In addition, Goldsmith addresses various social concerns, most notably penal reform, as well as manners, behavior, and the hypocrisy and snobbery of a rigidly stratified class system.
The Vicar of Wakefield was published in two volumes by Francis Newbery. The novel met with unexpected success and in its first year three London editions, one Dublin edition, and one unofficial Corke edition were published. In 1767 it was translated into French and German, and in 1768, it was translated into Dutch. The book continued to sell well, achieving even greater popularity after Goldsmith's death in 1774, and by 1800 another twenty-three London editions had appeared. An average of two editions were published per year throughout the nineteenth century, and the novel remained in print through the twentieth century. The popularity of The Vicar of Wakefiel puzzles critics, who generally agree that the novel is overly sentimental, the plot is hackneyed, the ending and the characters are unbelievable, and the work lacks unity. Much commentary on the novel attempts to identify its obvious appeal despite these flaws. Contemporary reviewers considered the novel an example of the current sentimental novel, noting that it shared with this didactic literary form a tendency to demonstrate the superiority of the simple Christian virtues of the middle class over the sophistication and worldliness of the wealthy. Most modern critics, however, maintain that the novel's seemingly sentimental touches are actually meant to be satiric thrusts at the conventions of sentimental literature. Much critical discussion focuses on the protagonist. By employing Primrose as both the main character and the narrator, Goldsmith allowed the reader to know only as much as Primrose knows himself. Primrose's own lack of insight, evident to the reader but not to him, supplies the narrative with irony and humor. Even those critics who agree that The Vicar of Wakefield is a satire often disagree about the extent to which Goldsmith was using the Vicar as a satiric figure. Richard J. Jaarsma contends that Goldsmith created the Vicar as one of literature's "most savage indictments of bourgeois values." Although many other critics agree that Primrose is presented somewhat ironically, the most common critical opinion is that Goldsmith intended the Vicar as an instrument, but not as the object, of satire.