The Vicar of Wakefield

by Oliver Goldsmith

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Last Updated October 9, 2023.

Dr. Charles Primrose, the Vicar of Wakefield

Dr. Charles Primrose, the vicar of Wakefield, is a sympathetic yet flawed character who comes to a greater understanding of truth and human nature through trial and suffering. When the novel opens, the vicar complies with his faith and life. He is well-off, content in his family and profession, and generous to those less fortunate. Life is treating him kindly so he can relax.

Yet there is a stubborn, prideful streak in the vicar. He is so positive that his views as a "strict monogamist" are correct; for instance, he endangers his oldest son's potential marriage by arguing with Mr. Wilmot and refusing to budge one inch from his position. This flaw appears again when the vicar refuses to admit that Mr. Burchell may have a positive motive for preventing the girls' journey to town and when the vicar's appreciation for flattery ends in Jenkinson's all-too-easy swindle.

The vicar, however, is a dynamic character who grows and changes throughout the tale. When he is challenged to put his faith into action, he does so with success. Although his wife is ready to forever abandon Olivia because of the scandal and hurt she brought to the family, the vicar declares that he would gladly forgive and embrace her if only she repents. When she does, he keeps his promise: "Yes, my child, from my heart I do forgive thee!"

By the novel's end, the vicar has been brought to his very lowest point, stuck in prison and near death, yet he preaches a message of love to the other prisoners, patiently coping with their jokes until they start to believe his words and change their ways. He shows love in a loveless place and realizes that his goal and focus must be eternity. He discovers the critical truth that everything in the world fades and passes, but God and Heaven remain. Perhaps he would never have come to this realization if he had not suffered and persevered in his faith.

Deborah Primrose

The vicar's wife, Deborah Primrose, is a relatively shallow woman. While she is a loving wife and mother, she is also ambitious. Deborah wants to rise up the social ranks and at least make the appearance of style and good taste. She is worse than her daughters when it comes to schemes designed to nudge the Squire into proposing to Olivia, and she enjoys hosting such extravagant entertainment that "our family was pinched for three weeks after."

Indeed, Deborah does not have much in common sense, and she tends to hold grudges (especially against Mr. Burchell). But in the end, she does reveal a hidden strength. Many women would not have been able to cope with the hardship of caring for their husbands and children while the former is in prison and the family has next to nothing. Yet Deborah does this, proving there is more to her than her frivolous image.

Mr. Burchell

Mr. Burchell turns out to be one of the greatest surprises of the novel. He appears to be little more than a beggar who is generous to a fault. But he is nearly completely free. He goes where he wants and befriends and serves whom he wants with little thought to himself.

Mr. Burchell is the best of friends to the vicar and his family, even though they do not appreciate it. He rescues Sophia from drowning but also saves the young ladies from the almost certain moral destruction of a season in town surrounded by bad characters. When the vicar and Deborah berate him for his interference,...

(This entire section contains 894 words.)

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he merely "with looks of great composure" says he has "secret reasons" for interfering. In other words, he knows better.

Indeed, Mr. Burchell does know better, for he is actually Sir William Thornhill, the eccentric philanthropist who prefers to travel incognito to get to know people sincerely rather than stand apart because of his social status. Love and service are his primary focal points, which he proves by managing the resolution of the story's conflicts and his marriage to Sophia.

Olivia and Sophia Primrose

The sisters Olivia and Sophia Primrose are often opposites. Olivia is flighty, easily distracted, and easily deceived. She is so caught up in being in love with the Squire that she does not recognize his flaws until she allows herself to be seduced. Then, her guilt and grief nearly overwhelm her.

Sophia is more practical. She recognizes the value of Mr. Burchell beneath his shabby exterior, and she is willing to marry him whether he is Mr. Burchell or Sir William Thornhill. She knows what true love is.

Squire Thornhill

Squire Thornhill is the villain of the novel. As "a young gentleman who enjoys a large fortune," he is an impressive figure, smooth, flattering, and utterly disdainful of those beneath him socially, even though he usually does not show that side of himself. He merely amuses himself with the Primrose family, accepting their hospitality before using Olivia to satisfy his lust and then casting her away scornfully.

The Squire, however, is brought low by his uncle Sir William and the conman Jenkinson when the latter reveals a real marriage between the Squire and Olivia. The Squire's dependence on his uncle catches up with him as he loses his fortune and is reduced to the level of those he once scorned.