The Vicar of Wakefield

by Oliver Goldsmith

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How does The Vicar of Wakefield explore deception?

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The Vicar of Wakefield explores the theme of deception primarily through Sir William Thornhill and his nephew. Sir William deceives everyone by disguising himself as Mr. Burchell, although his motives are good. Young Squire Thornhill, in contrast, deceives many people in order to achieve his own selfish goals. He not only seduces and abandons Olivia, but steals Arabella from George. The vicar’s gullibility can also be understood as self-deception and a factor in his family’s misfortunes.

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Throughout The Vicar of Wakefield, numerous characters deceive each other and cause multiple problems by doing so. The vicar also seems to engage in self-deception, as he is unwilling to see people’s bad qualities.

An ongoing act of deception is practiced by Sir William Thornhill, who spends much of the novel disguised as Mr. Burchell. He aims to gain a better understanding of the local society as well as to observe the behavior of his nephew, who tends to be a reckless spendthrift. William’s deception is exposed in time to prevent some but not all, of the potential catastrophes.

His nephew represents the other side of the coin. Squire Thornhill’s multiple acts of deception are intended to advance his selfish, greedy interests. Intending to marry Arabella for her money, he pretends to be interested in Olivia. Rather than actually marry her, he encourages her to run away and seduces her by making her think she is married, following a sham ceremony. He also contrives to get George out of the picture, ostensibly helping him enter the service so he can steal Arabella away from him.

The vicar, Dr. Primrose, is always eager to see the best in people. This extreme gullibility is a form of self-deception because, from his religious studies, he knows that not everyone can be wholly good. He trusts his dishonest banker, which leads to the family going bankrupt, and later is cheated in the sale of a horse. Trusting Squire Thornhill contributes to landing him in jail.

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