The Vicar of Wakefield

by Oliver Goldsmith

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What makes The Vicar of Wakefield a novel of sensibility?

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The Vicar of Wakefield is a novel of sensibility because of its focus on virtue, human nature, and moral development. This genre was popular in England in the eighteenth century, and these books usually feature everyday people facing everyday challenges. The characters in Goldsmith's novel are innocent, virtuous people who become more knowledgeable as they face many hardships. This subject makes the book a prime example of a novel of sensibility.

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The term "novel of sensibility" is synonymous with the term "sentimental novel." These are books which focus on emotions, moral development, and virtue. They were incredibly popular in the eighteenth century, and The Vicar of Wakefield is considered a prime example of the genre as a whole. While not well-known today, it was quite popular into the early twentieth century due to its mix of melodrama and morality.

The Vicar of Wakefield qualifies as a novel of sensibility because of its emphasis on virtue in the face of adversity. The main characters are all good people, particularly the titular vicar, Dr. Primrose, whose economic downturn sends his family into great danger. These morally upstanding characters are threatened with all kinds of unpleasantness, from one of the vicar's daughters nearly being tricked into a sham marriage to the son George being sent off to prison after trying to defend his sister's honor. The melodramatic series of events are meant to inspire sympathy in the audience as they watch these characters struggle not to succumb to hardship. However, as is the case with many sentimental novels, at the finale, the fortunes of the good are restored, and the wicked are punished. These qualities are what qualify the book as a prime example of the novel of sensibility as a genre.

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The status of The Vicar of Wakefield as a novel of sensibility can be seen in the relative lack of description that is noticeable throughout the book. As Goldsmith's main focus is on the emotions of his characters, he tends to ignore their outward physical appearance and the appearance of the world in which they live.

This lack of visual information allows the author to concentrate on what really matters for him: the emotional and moral lives of his characters. When Olivia elopes, Goldsmith is not remotely interested in providing us with minute descriptions of the countryside that her father traverses in order to find her. What matter are Primrose's emotions, rather than the physical landscape against which the vicar expresses them.

For some readers, this lack of description is a problem. It appears to them that the story takes place in a kind of empty void without the color and shape one would expect from a novel by Dickens, for example.

Although the action of the story is embedded within a recognizable social milieu, the emotions, the sensibilities on display, are universal and transcend the limitations of time and place. Somewhat inevitably, such universality is bought at the cost of specificity, which we would normally expect to see depicted through detailed descriptive writing.

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The word sensibility had a different meaning in eighteenth and early nineteenth century than it does today. A synonym today would be sentimentality. The Vicar of Wakefield is considered a novel of sensibility because it is drenched in feeling or emotion. The second half, especially, is considered emotional or melodramatic, meant to excite the reader's compassion.

Sensibility is closely associated with Romanticism, a literary movement that tried to touch the emotions of readers, especially by depicting poor, distressed, marginalized, or despised people in the most favorable light possible. This, it was hoped, would raise people's sympathy for those who suffered. In both his poetry and prose writing, Goldsmith is seen as a precursor to the Romantic movement.

The novel engages readers' emotions because the virtuous Primroses suffer a series of misfortunes that begin with losing their money and being forced to live in humbler circumstances. Life for the Primroses becomes worse and worse as Olivia runs off with the evil Squire Thornhill, who deceives her with a false marriage ceremony. As events go from bad to worse, the Primrose house burns to the ground, and Dr. Primrose is thrown into prison for not being able to pay his rent. Heartstrings are tugged as well when readers are led to believe Olivia is dead.

Such idealized tableaus as the following are typical of the sentimental novel:

She [Olivia, falsely reported] was dead!—The next morning he returned, and found me with my two little ones, now my only companions, who were using all their innocent efforts to comfort me. They entreated to read to me, and bade me not to cry, for I was now too old to weep. "And is not my sister an angel, now, pappa," cried the eldest, "and why then are you sorry for her?"

It should also be noted that the novel is laced with a biting critique of the abuse of the poor and of the world's often corrupt morals.

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The Vicar of Wakefield is quite reflective of sentimental fiction, a genre that is typically associated with eighteenth-century English works. Novels of sensibility typically comment on human nature, exploring human virtue, human relationships, and moral and intellectual development. Goldsmith’s novel is emblematic of the genre because of his depiction of ordinary life, his frequent emotional appeals to the reader, and his use of literary elements such as irony.

One of the key characteristics of novels of sensibility is a focus on virtue and virtuous characters navigating difficult yet realistic situations. Consider how the Primrose family faces a stream of unpredictable difficulties, primarily through no fault of their own. For example, Dr. Primrose faces sudden trying financial times, his daughter Olivia is abducted, he falls sick, Olivia dies, and his other daughter Sophia is abducted.

The characters face many tragedies but always face them in straightforward, practical ways. Their approaches to their problems make them come across as innocent people who become more knowledgable through tough human experiences. Through these characters, Goldsmith suggests that humans are good, virtuous creatures at their core and acquire knowledge by experiencing the sinful realities of the world around them. He suggests that moral development happens as a result of what is learned from tough experiences—a defining theme of a novel of sensibility.

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