Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

The Vicar of Wakefield is the first and only novel of Oliver Goldsmith. I learned from Wikipedia, that Goldsmith was so poor after finishing the manuscript, that he could not pay his rent and was held hostage by his landlady. He sent for his close friend, a Dr. Samuel Johnson, who came and read Goldsmith's manuscript, found it worthy of publication, then sold it to a bookstore, and by giving the money to the landlady, freed poor Goldsmith.

Doctor Charles Primrose is the Vikar of Wakefield. He lives contentedly and comfortably in a country parish with his wife and seven children, thanks to his inheritance from a close relative and an investment. On the wedding night of his eldest son, George, with a wealthy girl, the vicar lost his fortunes through the bankruptcy of the investor, to whom he has invested the money. This is only the first of a series of calamities which will befall the family.

When they were on the journey to a small parish, where they would live a new life, Sophia - the youngest daughter - was thrown from the horse and nearly sunk into the river, but for the help of a Mr. Bulcher - a kind, sympathetic gentleman who has been travelling with the family.

The new landlord is the 'Squire Thornhill, who is infamously a womanizer. He introduced himself, to the family, befriended them, and seemed to be attracted the girls. Now, it's Mrs. Primrose's secret ambition to marry her two daughters - Olivia, the eldest and Sophia - to their better ones. She and the girls found hopes in Mr. Thornhill, and began to work up things to appear above their real circumstances, despite the vicar's disagreement. This brought more calamities to the family; until the vicar went to the debtor prison, and three of his children were apparently ruined. That's the deepest abyss any family could be plunged into. But don't worry, they will get salvation in the end, and the story will be closed in a happy ending.

The Vicar of Wakefield is a tale, and was intended as a comic novel. No wonder, the plot is too romantic and unreal. There are so many calamities alternately befall on the family, and with "perfect" timing too, that makes it unreal. Too many, that it instantly reminded me of Job (from the Book of Job). This style is not quite suitable for my taste (is most 18th century novels like that? I haven't read many, so I can't say). But the message is quite clear. Even if it's not, a parable told by one of the vicar's boys (I forgot which) highlights this single message Goldsmith wanted to convey. The parable is titled "A Giant and a Dwarf".

It's about two close friends, the giant and the dwarf, who, despite of their differences, decide to go for adventures together. However, with all his disadvantages, the dwarf sacrifices more that the giant, because to fight the same battle, the dwarf must take more effort than his friend, that in the end the reward doesn't worth the pain. And so, when the giant proposes to go for their last adventure, the dwarf rejects: [giant] 'My little heroe, this is glorious sport; let us get one victory more, and then we shall have honour for ever. No, cries the Dwarf who was by this time grown wiser, no, I declare off; I’ll fight no more; for I find in every battle that you get all the honour and rewards, but all the blows fall upon me.’ 

Most interestingly, the vicar didn't have time to 'preach' the morality of the parable. For otherwise, it would be very obvious that he's a hypocrite. And that's how clever Goldsmith was. For, by putting the pen in the vicar's hand, he couldn't have taken the role as the omniscience voice, and thus he'd let us readers to realize and learn it by ourselves. And that makes this satire becomes more satirical than if the tale has been told in first POV.

For me, it's an okay reading. Quite entertaining, though not of my taste.

Rating: 3,5 / 5


  1. I read this a few years ago and didn't care for it either. I also thought of the story of Job while reading this novel. It's one of those classics that I wanted to experience but cannot imagine feeling the urge to reread.

    1. I think I rarely love 18th century novel - but I don't read much of it. Is it the style? 19th century novels suit me better.


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