The Vicar of Wakefield

by Oliver Goldsmith

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630


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Wakefield. English town in which the vicar, Dr. Primrose, settles after losing his fortune. Its locale is never named, but to Primrose it is more than a place where there is a cure available and a farm that he can manage—it is a refuge, where he can keep his family safe from the world.

Although Primrose’s new home is clearly in England, Goldsmith’s description of it probably draws upon his childhood memories of Lissoy, Ireland, which was undoubtedly also the model for the town celebrated in his meditative poem The Deserted Village (1770). In The Vicar of Wakefield, the hero comments on the fact that the farmers still hold to the old ways and live by the old virtues. They work hard, live frugally, go to church on the Lord’s Day, and find their pleasure in the traditional festivals that every season brings. However, when the vicar returns home one evening, he sees his house on fire and his family in danger and realizes that no place on Earth is truly safe. Moreover, though the local villagers are mostly virtuous people, the vicar’s neighbor and landlord, wealthy Squire Thornhill, has all the vices of “the town,” that is, London.

“The town” (London)

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“The town” (London). Eighteenth century term for London, the center of English society, luxury, and pleasure. It is a place of great appeal but of even greater peril. After the vicar’s son George is dissuaded from applying for a job in a London boarding school, he tries to become a writer, but fails, then becomes a dependent of Squire Thornhill, only to be used and finally abandoned. The evils associated with the town can also invade the country, exemplified by Squire Thornhill’s success in bringing his easy manners and easier morality into the vicar’s cottage, where he seduces the vicar’s susceptible daughter Olivia, who he carries off to London in his coach. Because he is wealthy, there is little that the Primroses can do to set matters right.


Road. Path leading away from the vicar’s cottage. The road is not the biblical narrow way of the virtuous but the broad path that leads toward town and temptation. When the vicar’s son Moses takes the road to a village fair, he is cheated out of his horse; when Olivia steps into the coach, she forfeits her virtue; and when George reaches London, he finds only disappointment and betrayal. At the same time, however, the vicar’s venture onto the road ends with his finding and rescuing Olivia. Moreover, the same road brings back Mr. Burchell—who turns out to be Squire Thornhill’s uncle, the virtuous Sir William Thornhill—thus assuring that good will be rewarded and evil punished.

Arnold country house

Arnold country house. Estate visited by the vicar while he is on the road looking for Olivia. He is invited to the house by a well-dressed man who is actually the butler; however, when the Arnolds arrive with their niece Arabella Wilmot, George’s former fiancé, they invite the vicar to stay on. He appreciates the beauty of the country house, its impressive facade, its elegantly decorated rooms, and its magnificent grounds and gardens. However, he assumes that because of his own carelessness, his children can never become part of the world the estate represents.

Village gaol

Village gaol. Jail in which the vicar is briefly held prisoner. The gaol consists of one large common room and a number of cells, in which the prisoners sleep on straw with only their garments for covers. Because the vicar utilizes his imprisonment there as a heaven-sent opportunity and betters the lives of the other prisoners, for him the gaol symbolizes not defeat and disgrace but spiritual triumph.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

Sources for Further Study

Adelstein, Michael E. “Duality of Theme in The Vicar of Wakefield.” College English 22 (February, 1961): 315-321. Argues that Goldsmith changed his theme in the course of writing this novel, shifting from the theme of providence to that of fortitude, thus changing Dr. Primrose from an innocent simpleton to a resolute hero.

Battestin, Martin C. The Providence of Wit: Aspects of Form in Augustan Literature and the Arts. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1974. Accounts for the biblical allusions, Christianity, and providence in the design of the novel.

Bellamy, Liz. Commerce, Morality, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Addresses several eighteenth century novels, including The Vicar of Wakefield, in an attempt to see the rise of the novel as a genre in the context of the century’s concern with economic theory, public versus private morality, and commercial versus anticommercial ethics.

Church, Richard. The Growth of the English Novel. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1961. Analyzes the novel and sees its tone as characteristic of the national style, praising particularly the ease of his writing.

Dahl, Curtis. “Patterns of Disguise in The Vicar of Wakefield.” English Literary History 25 (June, 1958): 90-104. Dahl addresses the issue of the novel’s coherence; its coincidence and improbabilities are counterbalanced, he asserts, by the unifying effects of the disguise theme. Characters disguise themselves both literally and figuratively and exhibit their growth by their ability to see through deceptions.

Emslie, Macdonald. Goldsmith: “The Vicar of Wakefield.” Great Neck, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1963. Assesses the vicar, nature and society, wealth and charity, and language.

Ferguson, Oliver. “Dr. Primrose and Goldsmith’s Clerical Ideal.” Philological Quarterly 54 (1975): 323-332. Examines Primrose in the context of the eighteenth century Church and clergy.

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. Edited by Arthur Friedman with an introduction and notes by Robert L. Mack. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Mack’s introduction to Friedman’s edition provides context and background for the novel.

Hopkins, Robert H. The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969. Argues that the novel is more satiric than comic and sentimental.

Jeffares, A. Norman. Oliver Goldsmith. London: Longmans, Green, 1965. Discusses how the novel’s theme of Primrose’s submission to adversity joins with Goldsmith’s gentle irony, which emerges from the straight-faced style of the vicar-narrator. Notes the similarity between Goldsmith’s vicar and Fielding’s Parson Adams.

Phelps, Gilbert. A Reader’s Guide to Fifty British Novels, 1600-1900. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. Offers a brief biography, a summary of the novel’s plot, and a section of critical commentary. Faults the novel’s proportions but praises its clarity of style.

Quintana, Ricardo. Oliver Goldsmith: A Georgian Study. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Explains the comedy in the novel.

Rothstein, Eric, and Howard D. Weinbrot. “The Vicar of Wakefield, Mr. Wilmot, and the ’Whistonean Controversy.’” Philological Quarterly 55 (1976): 225-240. Argues that this controversy on marriage was quite minor and that Primrose’s disputing it so heatedly is comic.

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