The Vicar of Wakefield

by Oliver Goldsmith

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Last Updated October 9, 2023.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Life

The Vicar of Wakefield delves deeply into the twists and turns of good and bad life and explores how people react to them. It looks at fortune from different perspectives, presents a set of increasingly horrible misfortunes, and offers suggestions about how to rise above the fortunes and misfortunes of human life to embrace a higher reality. The vicar realizes that his family possesses fortunes far beyond what he first imagines.

First, fortune can mean different things to different people. As the story opens, the Primrose family possess good fortune (as in good luck) and a modest but adequate fortune (as in enough wealth to allow them to live comfortably). Both of these disappear as the story progresses, and one misfortune after another robs them of nearly everything they own, including their money, their home, and their reputation. They are left to discover the real nature of fortune.

The vicar eventually realizes what fortune is, although he does so gradually. When his wealth disappears, he finds great comfort in his family. They are his real treasure, he learns. His fortune lies in the intimate relationships of people who love and support each other. "The happiness of a country fire-side" with loved ones gathered close is true wealth.

However, as the tale progresses, the vicar loses even this comfort through more great misfortune. When Olivia, seduced by the Squire, leaves the family, the vicar must once again reassess what fortune really is. Now, he finds it in forgiveness and hope for reunion. "Ever shall this house and this heart be open to a poor returning repentant sinner," the vicar declares to his wife before he sets out to recover his daughter. When he finally finds Olivia, he embraces her with great love and forgiveness and feels the smile of fortune again.

Of course, the vicar has more trials to encounter, misfortunes that make him reevaluate his notions of fortune yet again. From the depths of prison, thinking Olivia is dead and George soon will be, he finally turns to an eternal view. True fortune is not found in anything on earth but in God and, finally, in Heaven. He reaches for eternity, saying, "I am now raised above this world, and all the pleasures it can produce." The only way to conquer life's misfortunes and embrace the highest fortune is to put one's faith, trust, and hope in God.

Readers are encouraged to ponder the truths of fortune and misfortune along with the vicar. The vicar reflects the ideas of his time and presents his meditations through the lens of the Christian faith. Readers may encounter different ideas in the modern world and may or may not share the vicar's faith.

Yet, everyone faces ups and downs in life. Everyone must cope with trials and tragedies and sufferings in some way. The vicar presents one set of conceptions that readers can use to examine the fortunes and misfortunes of their own lives and to discover for themselves what true fortune looks like in their own situations.

Social Class

The Vicar of Wakefield examines the theme of social class through various lenses, looking at everything from ambition to interactions between classes to the insight that comes from a sharp drop in social class. When the novel was written in mid-eighteenth-century England, social classes were sharply defined and often sharply separated. People could move up and down through the social ranks, but finding acceptance, especially within a higher social class, was difficult and rare.

The Primrose family is comfortably middle class when the story opens, although they...

(This entire section contains 970 words.)

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are not entirely satisfied with this and have some ambition to move up and taste the finer things of life. When they lose their wealth and home, they drop in class rank, which does not curb their ambition. After the Squire begins to pay attention to them, Deborah and the girls are no longer content with a simple family life. They long for the benefits and pleasures a higher social class can bring, and Olivia's ambition (and misplaced love) carries her so far as to leave her family and accept the seductions of the Squire.

Mr. Burchell stands in sharp contrast to this ambition. To all appearances, he is a poor man, a wanderer with no money who merely seeks to do as much good to others as he can. The vicar looks down upon him yet considers him a friend. But appearances and reality are two different things, for Mr. Burchell is none other than the "celebrated Sir William Thornhill...a man of large fortune and great interest, to whom senates listened with applause, and whom party heard with conviction."

Sir William possesses the highest rank and does not care. He uses what he has for the good of others and prefers to disguise himself to move about freely, apart from the restrictions his class brings. Ultimately, he scorns social norms and ambition to marry Sophia, whom he truly loves.

Interactions between social classes are prominent in the story. The vicar and his family, for instance, often invite poor people to their home, but while their charity is sincere, they retain a sense of superiority over these lower-class neighbors. On the other hand, the Squire and his friends appear to show friendship for the Primrose family but offer little but disdain. In the Squire's eyes, Olivia is merely a low-ranking woman to be used for his pleasure.

Finally, the vicar comes to an important insight when he and his family fall all the way down to the bottom of the social ladder. In prison, among the lowest people in society, he recognizes that they are all human beings regardless of class. Human beings are all God's people who must be treated with respect. This is true nobility.