The Vicar of Wakefield

by Oliver Goldsmith

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Last Updated October 9, 2023.

Oliver Goldsmith'sThe Vicar of Wakefield is the story of the trials and tribulations of a family. Told in the first person by the vicar, Dr. Charles Primrose, the story begins with contentment as the Primrose family loves each other "tenderly" in their "elegant house" in the country. The vicar and his wife, Deborah, have six children, George, Olivia, Sophia, Moses, Dick, and Bill, and they welcome their poor neighbors to their home and table. It seems like the perfect life, but then everything starts going wrong.

The First Misfortunes

First, the vicar argues with George's soon-to-be father-in-law. George is engaged to Arabella Wilmot, but the wedding is in jeopardy because of the fathers' disagreements. When the vicar is informed that nearly all his money is gone, thanks to a bankrupt merchant, Mr. Wilmot calls off the wedding. George goes off to seek his own fortune in town. The Primrose family must move to a new neighborhood, and the vicar tries to "bring down the pride of my family to their circumstances."

Along the way to their new dwelling, the family meets the rather strange Mr. Burchell, who saves Sophia from drowning. They become fast friends, and Mr. Burchell visits often, forming something of an attachment to Sophia. For a while, the family lives in contentment. They have less than they did, but they are relatively happy.

Then Squire Thornhill, the landlord, becomes part of their lives. The Squire pays special attention to Olivia, and soon, Deborah and the girls are indulging in all kinds of finery above their current station and means. The vicar is not pleased. "Let us keep to companions of our own rank," he advises.

The Squire brings two ladies from town who turn the Primrose ladies' thoughts to high society. "The distinction lately paid us by our betters," the vicar explains," awaked that pride which I had laid asleep." Soon, Olivia and Sophia receive an invitation from the Squire and the ladies to go to town for the winter season. To get money to supply their needs, Moses sells a horse but is tricked by a conman into investing in a useless trinket.

Mr. Burchell firmly advises against Olivia and Sophia going to town. The vicar goes to the market to sell the other horse but falls in with a scholarly-looking man named Ephraim Jenkinson, who flatters him and says he will buy the horse but only gives a note that turns out to be worth nothing.

The vicar goes home in disgrace only to learn that the trip to town is canceled. Someone has written an offensive letter to the ladies about the Primrose family. They soon discover a copy of the letter in Mr. Burchell's writing case, and they interpret it as an insult. Mr. Burchell maintains it is not, but the relationship breaks off.

More and Greater Misfortunes

Deborah and the girls turn their attention to marrying Olivia to the Squire. The vicar remarks, "the hopes of having him for a son-in-law, in some measure blinded us to all his imperfections." None of their schemes work, but one night, young Dick comes in with the news that Olivia has gone off in a carriage with two gentlemen. The family laments her fall from virtue, but the vicar resolves to search for his daughter.

The vicar visits the Squire first. The latter insists that he knows nothing about the matter but plants the idea in the vicar's mind that Olivia has run off with Mr. Burchell. The vicar goes in pursuit. He journeys far but ends up sick with a fever and...

(This entire section contains 955 words.)

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in a horrible state.

Eventually, however, the vicar finds himself at the Arnold home, where Miss Wilmot has come to visit her aunt and uncle. They see a play only to find that George is one of the actors. He tells the story of his many wanderings and adventures, including his encounters with the Squire and the Squire's famous uncle, Sir William Thornhill, who is well-known for his generosity and eccentricity.

Eventually, the vicar finds Olivia, who has run from the Squire but is now a miserable fallen woman. Her father quickly forgives her, and they go home only to find their house in flames. They rescue the family but have lost nearly everything.

Still Greater Misfortunes

When the vicar accuses the Squire of seducing Olivia, the Squire has him imprisoned for non-payment of his rent. In jail, the vicar meets the conman Jenksinson again, and the two become friends. Yet the misfortunes pile up. Olivia dies of a broken heart, and rogues capture Sophia. The vicar is near death, and George arrives in chains because he has sought to avenge his sister's honor against the Squire.

When things seem at their worst, Mr. Burchell appears with Sophia, whom he has rescued. Mr. Burchell turns out to be Sir William Thornhill, and he soon sets every situation to right with the help of Jenkinson, who was once the Squire's accomplice. Olivia is not actually dead, and Jenkinson proves that she is truly married to the Squire, saving her reputation.

Sir William punishes his nephew, gives a large sum to Olivia, and asks Sophia to marry him. All debts are canceled for the vicar, and the family is restored to prosperity. George even gets to marry his beloved Arabella Wilmot.

"To what a fortuitous concurrence do we not owe every pleasure and convenience of our lives," the vicar exclaims. "It now only remained that my gratitude in good fortune should exceed my former submission in adversity." Readers are left to consider the trials and tribulations of their own lives and to reflect on their attitudes and responses to the ups and downs of human existence.