Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997
Two themes dominate Oliver Goldsmith’s story of domestic tragedy and joy: The first is a satiric look at the insidious workings of vanity, even on such unpretentious people as Dr. Primrose and his family; the second is the instability of fortune, which ensures that happy people must expect disaster and miserable people may expect relief.
The first theme is the more significant. As the novel’s narrator, Dr. Primrose portrays himself as a man committed to intellectual pursuits and charitable actions, one who rejects the world’s vanities. His self-evaluation is not inaccurate. He assigns his income to the relief of the poor (although he does so unwisely, as he learns), and he certainly commits himself to rarefied intellectual activities, although his subjects—specifically his promotion of a religious dogma of monogamy that disallows second marriages even on the death of one’s spouse—are of only minor interest to the world.
What Dr. Primrose does not understand, however, is his own naïveté, and that blindness is the source of the novel’s ironic humor. While Primrose tells his story through the filter of his own innocence, Goldsmith arranges that the reader will understand—or at least suspect—the things that Primrose ignores. This disparity between the narrator’s limited vision and the reader’s insight creates an ironic point of view that allows the reader to laugh at Dr. Primrose even while sympathizing with him.
The irony of Primrose’s limited self-understanding colors much of what he does. He fails to imagine that his family might come to need the income he signs over to charity. He fails to imagine that financial advisers might be dishonest. Importantly, he fails to recognize the difference between the honest values of Mr. Burchell and the false values of the attractive Squire Thornhill and his flashy companions.
As a result of the vicar’s limited understanding of the world, his responses to it are frequently wrong. They are often the result of his own vanity, particularly of his intellectual capabilities, which are not nearly so penetrating as he imagines. These limitations lead him to various errors. His intense commitment to the minor doctrine of monogamy leads him to offend his son George’s future father-in-law and thus to spoil the prospects for his son’s marriage. His reverence for the classics and the limitations of his ability in disputation lead him to confuse the flimflam of the deceitful Jenkinson for real learning, again with disastrous results for his family.
It would be wrong simply to dismiss Primrose as a fool, however, for Goldsmith underscores that Primrose’s understanding may be limited, but his heart is golden. Primrose is quick to offer aid to those who need it; he is quick to forgive Olivia in her disgrace and devastated at the news of her death; he is genuinely devoted to his family and finds their presence enough to give him courage even in debtors’ prison. Goldsmith never suggests that shrewdness is to be preferred to love as a value by which to live.
Primrose’s innocence and his vanities are shared by his family; they, too, mistake things that glitter for true gold. No one in the family seems able to see beyond the glamorous clothes and pretentious talk of the town ladies whom Thornhill brings to the house. No one recognizes the virtue of Burchell’s offering unpopular opinions about the family’s actions. No one suspects that his damning letter might be interpreted as a condemnation of the town ladies rather than of the Primrose daughters. Olivia is quick to be attracted to Thornhill, even though she has every reason to believe in his reputation as a rake.
Olivia’s situation demands closer examination. Her elopement with Thornhill on his false promises of marriage, his betrayal of her with what seems to be a fraudulent wedding ceremony, and her subsequent decline because of her shame—all are common elements of eighteenth and early nineteenth century fiction. Similar events occur in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-1741) and Clarissa (1747-1748), and in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). The values of the age demanded that respectable women be virgins when they married, and custom assumed that any woman who eloped surely was involved in sexual relations with her partner. The rakehell young man who would go to any lengths to seduce women who attracted him—even arranging false marriages—is another conventional character in fiction of the period. Goldsmith never challenges these conventions; like the Primroses, he assumes that marriage, even to one who proves himself to be a scoundrel, is a satisfactory solution to Olivia’s disgrace.
The eighteenth century saw a vogue for sentimental fiction, and The Vicar of Wakefield is an example of that fashion. It is characterized by the idealized pictures of rural family life that appear throughout this novel as well as in the pathos of the disasters that befall Primrose and his family. The family’s lost income, the fire, the disgraced daughter, Primrose’s unjust imprisonment, all exemplify the taste of the age for exercising one’s tender emotions. Olivia’s sad song, which asserts that “when lovely woman stoops to folly” the only fate appropriate to her is to die, offers another example of this sentimentality. That such fiction is not intended to be realistic can be seen from this novel’s use of coincidences and disguise.
Through all the family’s disasters, however, Dr. Primrose remains faithful in his belief that better things are surely in store for them all, just as he continues to assert that the loving presence of his family can make up for any losses. Along with its gentle humor, this theme must be the source of much of this novel’s appeal. For all of their follies, the Primrose family clings to love as a main strength for enduring adversity, feeling certain that the fortunes of the miserable must surely rise if they only endure.