Conceit and Misfortune in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield
From three hundred years of Ireland’s history, The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction1 collects a combination of complete works and samples of the works of many great Irish authors. Among the authors included in this volume is Oliver Goldsmith, an Irishman of great diversity in his writings and remembered perhaps as well for his individuality, character and generosity as for the various poems, essays, and works of fiction that he contributed to literary world. The Vicar of Wakefield, the selection chosen for the anthology, is not only significant because it is often considered his best work, but also as it is the only novel that Goldsmith ever wrote.2
The Vicar of Wakefield is an amusing and captivating tale that follows the life and hardships of the Vicar Primrose and his family, as they journey from happiness, through calamity, to the bare escape of complete ruin. The story’s humor as well as its plot result both equally, and to a great extent, from Goldsmith’s creation of the Primrose family’s hot and invariable desire to rise again to happiness by finding ways to better their dire financial straits and to reverse their societal decline. Although the passage in the anthology presents only four chapters from the novel, may of the ideas there presented introduce in, comment on, or foreshadow to various themes, lessons, and events of great importance to the work as a whole. These ideas will carry through the plot, and culminate in the story’s denouement at which time, if not previously, they will all be finally understood and their significance revealed. Among them are the here apparently definite social boundaries that divides the rich from the poor, the folly in vanity and in attempting to blur, disregard or break down these boundaries, and the ultimate victory achieved in seeing past them.
Goldsmith’s development of the Vicar’s personal ideologies plays a vital roll in construction of the work’s themes as well as its plot. Primrose places substantial importance on the value of virtues such as his favorite “monogamy” and of course charity. He is himself a charitable man, almost to a fault. “The profits of my living, which amounted to but thirty-five pounds a year, I made over to the orphans and widows of the clergy of our diocese” (p.40). Although selfless and commendable, the Vicar’s extreme acts of personal charity are very soon seen as folly on his part. When his entire inherited fortune is suddenly lost, the Primroses are left with nothing because he saved nothing of his earnings for them.
This not only starts the chain of ill fate for the Primrose family as a whole, but one speedy result of this loss is incurred particularly by the eldest son, George. He was about to be married to Miss Wilmot, a girl of no little fortune, but the engagement is broken immediately and without ordeal. Goldsmith writes, “Wilmot, who...