Oliver Goldsmith Goldsmith, Oliver (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Bibliographical Information

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.

Main Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

James R. Foster (essay date 1949)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sensibility among the Great and Near Great" in History of the Pre-Romantic Novel in England, Modem Language Association of America, 1949, pp. 104-38.

[In the following excerpt, Foster discusses Goldsmith's views on morality and sentimentality as expressed in The Vicar of Wakefield.]

Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74) was not such a strait-laced classicist that he could not see good in Richardson's brand of sentimentality. In fact, he approved of it: however, not without some reservations and the thought that a dash of whimsey and humor might improve it. As for those perfervid souls who yearned for something more intense and drastic in the way of sentiment, he would have none of them. One of the objectives of the Vicar of Wakefield1 was to act as a sedative and febrifuge, and at the same time to set an example of feeling properly controlled.

As a classicist Goldsmith could not believe in the natural goodness of man in theory, but his heart was tender and he sympathized with the unfortunate and refused to believe that any man was irredeemably depraved. Although not exactly a primitivist, he thought certain traits of the natural or uncivilized man superior to those of some Europeans. The savage, directed by natural law, seldom sheds blood except in revenge. But as society grows older and richer, it becomes morose and erects gibbets around its property. Severe and indiscriminate penal laws and the licentiousness of the people make more convicts in England than in half of Europe. The enormous number of laws produces new vices, and these in turn call for new laws, and thus law becomes the tyrant, not the protector, of the people. In "The Deserted Village" he warned against the danger of luxury, and with the fall of Rome in mind, feared that disorders in England caused by luxurious and wasteful living might destroy the nation.

In his opinion the sentimentalist who uses his pretended virtue, his good heart, as a blind for selfish indulgence is a base hypocrite. Goldsmith censured certain playwrights for giving in their sentimental pieces a one-sided picture of domestic life, omitting its faults and presenting only its virtues, and teaching the spectators to pardon, or even applaud the foibles of sentimental characters in consideration of the goodness of their hearts, with the result that folly, instead of being castigated, was approved. Doubtless he expected the good novelist to avoid these faults. One should look squarely at life, refuse to apologize for the sentimentalist who seeks to escape from a moral-ity which galls his kibe, and avoid viewing things through the false lens of romance. Goldsmith believed in love and did not think that it should be put in chains by the Marriage Act, but as for romantic matches and ecstatic raptures, they were found only innovels.

The Narcissus who parades his benevolence before as many as he can get to look at him is a pretender. Better far than such ostentation is the mask of misanthropy worn by the Man in...

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Michael E. Adelstein (essay date 1961)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Duality of Theme in the Vicar of Wakefield" in College English, Vol. 22, No. 5, 1961, pp. 315-21.

[In the essay below, Adelstein argues that the key to understanding The Vicar of Wakefield is recognizing the transformation of Primrose.]

The overwhelming and continuous popularity of The Vicar of Wakefield has caused critics in recent years to reason that such success must be attributed to more unity and coherence in the novel than had formerly been recognized.1 Casting traditional evaluations aside, the latest appraisers of Goldsmith's novel have found harmony, contrapuntal balance, consistency, unity, careful planning, and...

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Ronald Paulson (essay date 1967)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Novel of Manners" in Modern Critical Views: Oliver Goldsmith, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 7-14.

[In the following essay, first published in 1967 and reprinted in 1987, Paulson argues that Goldsmith creates a new style of novel of manners in the first seventeen chapters of The Vicar of Wakefield.]

The scene of the novel of manners … draws on both the satiric touchstone scene in which guilt is diffused and the satiro-sentimental scene of sexual threat and tears. Both the ironic observer of the Fielding novel and the Smollettian observer of delicate sensibility—one a controlling intelligence, the other a character—contribute to the...

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R. F. Brissenden (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Sentimentality of The Vicar of Wakefield" in Modern Critical Views: Oliver Goldsmith, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 15-19.

[In the essay below, first published in 1974 and reprinted in 1987, Brissenden considers the role of sentimentality in The Vicar of Wakefield.]

The Reverend Dr. Primrose, Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield, is, like Parson Adams and Parson Yorick, a Christian hero. He "unites in himself," says the author in the advertisement to his tale, "the three greatest characters upon earth; he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family." He is moreover the embodiment of some of the principal sentimental virtues....

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James H. Lehmann (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Vicar of Wakefield: Goldsmith's Sublime Oriental Job" in ELH, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 97-121.

[In the following excerpt, Lehmann explores Goldsmith's use of "Orientalized" interpretations of Job in The Vicar of Wakefield. The editors have included only those footnotes that pertain to the excerpted portion of the text reprinted below.]


Lowth on Job is of paramount interest when we consider the possibility of understanding the Vicar as a Job-figure in any "doctrinal" sense. The most sophisticated such view is that of Martin C. Battestin's The Providence of Wit.38 In the chapter entitled...

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Raymond F. Hilliard (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Redemption of Fatherhood in The Vicar of Wakefield" in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 465-80.

[In the essay below, Hilliard argues that The Vicar of Wakefield is a realistic account of fatherhood and an allegory about sin and redemption.]

The Vicar's many sanguine remarks on matrimony—"I wrote several sermons to prove its happiness,"1 he says—are contradicted by his narrative, from beginning to end an account of the troubles which beset a man who has undertaken to marry and bring up a large family. Though Dr. Primrose is given to celebrating domestic life as a "concert," his story...

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D. W. Jefferson (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Vicar of Wakefield and Other Prose Writings: A Reconsideration" in The Art of Oliver Goldsmith, edited by Andrew Swarbrick, Vision Press, 1984, pp. 17-32.

[In the essay below, Jefferson argues that in The Vicar of Wakefield, Goldsmith created a form which transformed his writing weaknesses into strengths.]

In the reassessment of authors that has taken place during the last half century, a process that has enhanced so many reputations, Goldsmith is not among those who have benefited, and the reason is not difficult to discover. His gifts were of the lighter kind. The aspects of eighteenth-century literature that he represents are akin to those...

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Richard C. Taylor (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Goldsmith's First Vicar" in Review of English Studies, N.s., Vol. XLI, No. 162, May, 1990, pp. 191-9.

[In the essay below, Taylor discusses the relation of Goldsmith's earlier work "The History of Miss Stanton" with The Vicar of Wakefield.]

Recent studies of Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield have focused on a question still unanswered, despite the efforts of W. O. S. Sutherland, Robert Hopkins, David Durant, and others: how do we account for the apparent sentimentality and implausibility of a novel written by an impassioned critic of 'romance' fiction? One obvious solution is that Goldsmith's novel is a satiric undermining of romance...

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Peter Dixon (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Vicar of Wakefield" in Oliver Goldsmith Revisited, Twayne, 1991, pp. 75-96.

[In the following excerpt, Dixon examines the literary devices Goldsmith employs in The Vicar of Wakefield.]

As a book reviewer Goldsmith was necessarily a student of title pages. In one of his earliest reviews he thus rebukes the author of Memoirs of Sir Thomas Hughson, and Mr. Joseph Williams; with the Remarkable History, Travels, and Distresses of Telemachus Lovet: "Fair promises! Yet like a Smithfield [i.e., Bartholomew Fair] conjuror, who, to draw company, exhibits at the door his best show for nothing, this author exhausts all his scanty funds on the title...

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David Aaron Murray (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "From Patrimony to Paternity in The Vicar of Wakefield" in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 3, April, 1997, pp. 327-36.

[In the following essay, Murray contends that ultimately The Vicar of Wakefield concerns the nature of authority and transformation.]

In his Advertisement to The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith declared that his hero, the Reverend Dr Primrose, "unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth; he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family."1 He is also the narrator of a story, and in all four of these positions of authority, Primrose is quixotically ineffective. As a priest he...

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Raymond Adolph Prier (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Charlotte's 'Vicar' and Goethe's Eighteenth-Century Tale about Werther" in Narrative Ironies, edited by A. Prier and Gerald Gillespie, Rodopi, 1997, pp. 283-97.

[In the essay below, Prier argues that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungends Werther was influenced by Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield.]

"Indeed, pappa," replied Olivia, "… I have read a great deal of controversy. I have read the disputes between Thwackum and Square; the controversy between Robinson Crusoe and Friday the savage, and I am now employed in reading the controversy in Religious courtship."

The Vicar of...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Ginger, John. "Goose-Pie and Gooseberries." In The Notable Man: The Life and Times of Oliver Goldsmith, pp. 157-85. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1977.

Discusses events in Goldsmith's life at the time he was writing of The Vicar of Wakefield.

Wardle, Ralph. Oliver Goldsmith. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1957, 330 p.

Comprehensive biography, utilizing contemporary sources and providing a less disparaging view of Goldsmith's personality than had previously appeared.

Wibberley, Leonard. The Good-Natured Man: A Portrait of Oliver Goldsmith. New York: William Morrow, 1979, 255 p....

(The entire section is 363 words.)