The Vicar of Wakefield

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Dr. Primrose rejects a suitor for his daughter’s hand because the man has lost his fortune and seems to live in near poverty. What the Vicar does not discover until the end of the novel is that the impoverished Mr. Burchell is actually Sir William Thornhill, the uncle of Squire Thornhill, a man the vicar respects but who in the course of the novel does him and his family great evil.

The good Vicar does not see things very clearly, but the warm humor of this first-person narrative--the vicar tells his own story-- lies in his many trusting and moral observations. The way he sees the world is nowhere near the way it is, but neither is his goodness completely foolish. He wants all the right things for his children: humility, civility, and true simplicity. Instead, they are seduced and jailed. Nevertheless, Dr. Primrose is not rendered absurd by his trusting ways. He is too easy a mark, and his near destruction by the vicious Squire is too easy a victory for evil to enjoy.

Goldsmith’s book was admired by sages such as Goethe for the way it made goodness respectable. The Age of Reason had sunk to depths of cynicism and despair, perhaps best expressed in Voltaire’s CANDIDE (1759). Goldsmith’s gentle fable has a philosophical depth as tough-minded as Voltaire’s famous fable is savage. A writer who can please us with his wit and charm us with his characters and scene painting has the right to ask us to deem his belief in human goodness...

(The entire section is 496 words.)