Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 749
Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield centers on Dr. Charles Primrose, the village priest, and his wife, Deborah, who live with their six children in affluent happiness in Wakefield. All look forward to the marriage of the Primroses’ eldest son, George, to Arabella Wilmot, daughter of a wealthy church dignitary. Dr. Primrose heatedly defends one of his favorite subjects, monogamy, with Arabella’s father, Mr. Wilmot, a man three times widowed and about to marry his fourth wife. When news arrives that Dr. Primrose has lost all his money through his broker’s embezzlement, Mr. Wilmot breaks the engagement of Arabella and George. George leaves to recoup the family fortune, and the other Primroses set out for a distant village to live more humbly. On the way, they meet Mr. Burchell, a wanderer who saves the Primroses’ young daughter Sophia from drowning. For his act, the family promises hospitality to Burchell.
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The Primroses rent a cottage from Squire Thornhill, a loose-living young gentleman, who takes an immediate liking to elder daughter Olivia. Recognizing the advantages of a marriage between Olivia and the squire, Deborah strives to bring it about. Squire Thornhill, however, does not propose, while Burchell pays modest court to Sophia. Events reach a hopeful peak when two ladies, friends of Squire Thornhill, visit the Primroses. These ladies are amenable to taking Olivia and Sophia to London as companions. Squire Thornhill encourages the plan, but Burchell objects.
To improve the family’s finances, Dr. Primrose and his second son, Moses, go to a fair to sell their horses, but each is duped by the sharper Ephraim Jenkinson. Meanwhile, in spite of his repeated visits, Squire Thornhill refuses to propose marriage to Olivia. Dr. Primrose suggests that she then consider a proposal from Farmer Williams. Disappointed in Thornhill’s reluctance, Olivia agrees to marry Williams, but four days before the wedding she runs off. Because of an ambiguously worded letter, Dr. Primrose thinks that Burchell has abducted her.
A sad Dr. Primrose resolves to search for his daughter. Falling ill, he finds himself by chance in the house of the Arnolds, Arabella’s uncle and aunt, whom she is visiting. Now courted by Squire Thornhill, Arabella still loves George, who by greater chance arrives penniless at the Arnolds to tell of his wanderings, during which he met with continual deceit and shameless behavior. Squire Thornhill then arrives and, to get rid of George, buys him a commission in the army. Still in love with George, Arabella promises to wait for him.
Disappointed at not finding Olivia, Dr. Primrose leaves for home. En route he discovers her, abandoned at an inn. Olivia tells him that her seducer was not Burchell but Squire Thornhill, who married her before a Roman Catholic priest. The forgiving father and repentant daughter reach home, only to find their house ablaze. Most of the family having escaped, Dr. Primrose rushes into the flames to save his two youngest sons. Soon after, Squire Thornhill appears to announce his plan to wed Arabella and arrange a marriage for Olivia with hopes that she will also keep a lover. After Dr. Primrose rages against him, Thornhill demands his rent. Destitute and unable to pay, Dr. Primrose is sent to jail. There Dr. Primrose delivers sermons to the other prisoners. At first they mock him, but his preaching and concern make them reform their ways. One of the prisoners is Ephraim Jenkinson, the sharper who had defrauded Dr. Primrose and Moses at the fair. Now contrite, he vows to help Dr. Primrose.
More misfortunes befall the vicar when a report arrives that Olivia has died and Sophia has been abducted. Then George arrives in chains, jailed because he had wounded a man in a duel to redress the family’s honor, besmirched by Squire Thornhill’s seduction of Olivia. Coincidences tumble one after another: Burchell, revealing himself as the good Sir William Thornhill, arrives with Sophia, whom he has saved. Squire Thornhill (who is revealed to be Sir William’s nephew) arrives, only to be admonished by Sir William. Arabella arrives and reunites with George. Jenkinson appears with Olivia, whose reported death was erroneous, and a valid marriage license attesting that she is married to Squire Thornhill. Returning home, Dr. Primrose learns that the thief of his money has been caught and that his fortune will be returned. The next day, the family celebrates the double wedding of George and Arabella and Sir William and Sophia at church.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462
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.