The Vicar of Wakefield

by Oliver Goldsmith

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Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703

Goldsmith writes of his protagonist, Dr. Primrose, “The hero of this piece unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth; he is a priest, an husbandman [farmer], and the father of a family.” With Primrose also the narrator, the novel becomes a spiritual autobiography of a Christian hero, whose warning is a Latin epigraph on the title page: “Take heart ye who are miserable; take heed ye who are happy.”

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From this spiritual journey of a fall and a rise, three Christian themes emerge. The first is marriage. Because so much in eighteenth century England depended on rank and station, marrying well was crucial to the hopes of every family. After Primrose loses his money, it becomes hard for his children to marry well, so he relies on farming as a second income to cultivate marriage proposals from Squire Thornhill and Farmer Williams. More than its social consequences, marriage has religious significance. Primrose argues that priests should marry only once (the “Whistonean Controversy”), and throughout the novel Primrose’s own strong marriage sustains him. That the novel closes with the recognition that Olivia’s marriage to Squire Thornhill is legal and the double wedding of two of Primrose’s other children affirms the importance of the marriage theme as more religious than romantic.

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Clerical life is another Christian theme. The novel shows that the life of a country parson was hard. Even with his university education, the learned Dr. Primrose must struggle as a farmer to provide for his family. Priestly pay—Queen Anne’s Bounty, dating from the early 1700’s—was so low that many parsons had to work to supplement it. Never complaining, Primrose exemplifies the Christian idea of the dignity of labor. Another difficulty for a priest was his allegiance to two “families,” one by marriage, the other by holy orders. Just as Primrose balances the two demands of preaching and labor, he balances the demands of family and congregation. Still another obstacle to the clerical life is the prominence that the Church had lost under the Whig government by mid-century. Primrose complains that “sacred power . . . has for some years been every day declining, and losing its due share of influence in the state.” As the established religion, the Church of England had been devalued by a Whig government, composed largely of “Dissenters,” Presbyterians and others who refused to join the national church.

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A third theme is virtue, exemplified throughout by Primrose. With the seven cardinal virtues as its ethical architecture, the novel is a monument to Christian morality. Goldsmith measures Primrose first by the criteria of the four classical virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. On prudence, Primrose too often falls short. An intellectual virtue, prudence is crucial to piercing the frauds that beset Primrose. His lack of prudence leaves him open to deceptions by Squire Thornhill, the “ladies,” Wilkinson, and Ephraim Jenkinson. Believing the best in people, the gullible Dr. Primrose too often fails to suspect their worst. Justice prevails, however, in Primrose’s character. Despite his powerlessness, the parson stands squarely against the powerful Squire Thornhill to denounce him as a whoremonger. In fortitude, Primrose is a modern Job. He searches, despite his illness, for his daughters when they are abducted; he stands firm when he and his son are imprisoned; and he courageously rushes into the fire to save his children. While Primrose’s temperance leaves something to be desired as it leads to the detriment of his family, his zeal is driven by righteousness in incriminating Wilmot and inveighing against Squire Thornhill.

While his vanity about his prowess in preaching and arguing is a minor vice, Primrose is an exemplar of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. His faith is unimpeachable, expressly in his justifying the many coincidences as acts of providence. His hope is constant. Even in his darkest hours—his home lost, daughters lost, son lost, himself imprisoned and injured—hope allows Primrose to endure. Charity, Saint Paul’s greatest virtue, is Primrose’s in full measure. He deeds his salary to the families of deceased clergy; he loves everyone; and he forgives all, from Olivia, who brings shame to the family, to the hard-boiled prisoners he meets in jail.

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