Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield.
The Family of Wakefield: The author prefaces the novel with an "Advertisement" pointing out that the protagonist possesses the three best qualities in a man: that is being a priest, a husband, and a father. The novel is narrated in the first person by Charles Primrose, a priest of the country parish of Wakefield. He and his wife Deborah have six children, from the eldest to the youngest, George, Olivia, Sophia, Moses, Dick, and Bill. The vicar describes the simple idyllic happiness of his family. His means are modest, but he leads his family not to indulge in luxuries, and he can spare enough to be able to help the poor. The diversion of the male family members are philosophical discussions, the females are occupied with housekeeping, reading, and singing. The vicar calls his family "the little republic to which [he gives] laws" (p. 27). He is the family patriarch, the moral example, and the teacher of humbleness, modesty, and charity.
George and Arabella: The uneventful life of the family is interrupted by the preparations for the marriage of the eldest son George to Arabella Wilmont, daughter of a neighbouring clergyman. In the evening before the wedding, the vicar falls into an argument with Arabella's father. The vicar is a strict monogamist, author of a thesis against remarriage, which is his favourite topic. His friend Mr William Whiston, who shares his views, had already prepared a tombstone for his wife, though still alive, with the inscription saying that she was his only wife. This inspired the vicar to prepare an epitaph for his wife in the same sense, which he hanged above the mantelpiece. Arabella's father opposes the vicar's view for he is just courting his fourth wife. Their disagreement on the point results in cancelling their children's marriage.
Sophia and Mr Burchell: In the same evening the vicar learns the news of the loss of his fortune. He receives the misfortune with calm patience, his only apprehension concerns the welfare of his family. The Primroses move to another rural parish, Thornhill, where the vicar can obtain a post and start supporting his family by farming. On their way they are acquainted with Mr Burchell, a young man, formerly wealthy, whose excessive generosity made him destitute. The vicar helps him when he learns that he paid off an old soldier to save him from whipping but consequently he could not pay for his lodgings. The vicar finds pleasure in discussing with him. Mr Burchell saves Sophia from drowning when she slips from horseback in a ford. On Mr Burchell's following visits to the new home of the Primroses, Sophia develops a romantic attachment to him.
Olivia and Squire Thornhill: The family is visited by their young landlord, Squire Thornhill, nephew of the worthy gentleman Sir William Thornhill. The squire is friendly and amiable, but gives the impression of a dissipated youth. The vicar is displeased by the vanity of the females who dress up for his announced visit. When he notices that the two eldest daughters are preparing themselves a face potion before the squire's visit, he resorts to pretending an accident and overturns the pot. The vicar strongly adheres to nature and simplicity in both manners and dressing. On their introduction to the parish, he had succeeded in convincing his daughters to abandon elaborate gowns and change into simple dress. The following day he was content to observe that they were cutting the trails of their gowns to make waistcoats for the youngest boys. The vicar strongly opposes fortune-hunters as well as disproportioned friendships, therefore he is discomforted by Olivia's apparent fondness for the squire.
High Society: The squire invites the Primroses for a dancing entertainment. Mrs Primrose and the two eldest daughters are enchanted by the two fashionable ladies who came from the city and they set their minds on imitating the high society manners. Their efforts are marred by their own humble conditions. They try to travel on horseback to the church on Sunday, but they miss the sermon for their horses are whimsical creatures used but for the plough. They send Moses to the fair to sell one of the old horses and buy a more representative one, but Moses is talked into buying a useless pair of spectacles instead. The vicar sells the other horse, but is deceived by the very same man as Moses was and receives a worthless draft instead of money.
Failed Aspirations: The city ladies, Lady Blarney and Miss Carolina Wilelmina Amelia Skeggs, reappear on the Michaelmas-Eve feast held in the neighbouring house of the Flamboroughs. Mr Burchell displeases all by treating the city ladies with contempt. There are hopes that the two eldest daughters could be employed in London, win some income, and polish their manners. They receive excellent references from the squire, but they eventually do not get the jobs because of a malicious report. The author of the report turns out to be Mr Burchell who appealed to the city ladies not to have vice planted where virtue resides.
Olivia's Elopement: The family hopes to marry Olivia to the squire who seems to be fond of her. The Flamboroughs have their portraits painted and the Primroses seek to have a similar but superior portrait of their own family. The squire poses with them for the picture as if he were a family member. The resulting painting is however so large that it is impossible to hang it on the wall or even to carry it through the door. Artful intrigues are planned in order to make the squire propose to Olivia. Mrs Primrose pretends to ask the squire advice concerning the choice of husband for Olivia. A rival, farmer Williams, is introduced, but the squire still fails to propose. The vicar gives Olivia a reasonable period of time after which she either makes the squire marry her or she marries the simple but good farmer. When the day of the nuptials approaches, Olivia elopes. The vicar suspects the squire, who denies knowledge of Olivia's elopement, so the suspicion falls on Mr Burchell.
Search for Olivia: The vicar sets off in pursuit of his child to win her back to virtue. He falls gravely ill and spends three weeks in fevers in an alehouse. Not having found Olivia, he starts his way back. He joins an itinerant theatre group and discusses with a player the lack of taste in contemporary audience. He meets a gentleman who invites him to his mansion where they discuss liberty, democracy, and tyranny. The vicar argues for monarchy. Equality is impracticable as people naturally differ in qualities so that the most cunning men necessarily exploit the others. The vicar's host Wilkinson turns out to be but a butler of the house which belongs to Mr and Mrs Arnold, the uncle and aunt of Miss Arabella Wilmont.
George's Story: The vicar is received as a guest by the Arnolds. They attend a drama performance and find that the celebrated new actor is the vicar's son George. George tells his story. He left the family with a letter of recommendation to his cousin to be employed as a teacher in London. The cousin encourages him to a writing career instead. George attempts at novelty, but his writing meets with neglect. He serves to his former university mate Ned Thornhill, now the vicar's landlord, and fights a duel on behalf of him. With a letter of recommendation, George seeks employment with the squire's uncle but is rejected. He then travels to Holland to become a teacher of English but realizes too late that he does not speak Dutch. He attempts to become a teacher of Greek at an Amsterdam university but the principal believes the study of Greek is superfluous. He travels to Paris as a singing beggar, returns to England as an itinerant disputant in philosophy, and eventually becomes an actor. During the vicar's stay with the Arnolds, the squire appears and woos Arabella. Arabella remains faithful to the promise she gave to George. The squire offers George a post of a soldier in West Indies, which George and his patriotic father happily accept. Shortly afterwards the vicar learns that the squire is to be married to Arabella.
Olivia's Story: On his way home, the vicar stops at Mr Symonds's pub, where he accidentally encounters the lost Olivia. She tells her story. She was seduced by the squire and they were privately married by a popish priest by whom the squire had married several other girls before. Olivia realized her position and left the squire. The penitent is received by her family but keeps on being tortured by guilt. The vicar's house burns down and the vicar severely burns his arm while he is delivering his two youngest children from the fire. The family is dependent on charity of neighbours who provide them and help them with fixing their house. The squire appears and offends the vicar with his nonchalant behaviour. The vicar treats him scornfully and the squire threatens with revenge. The following day the squire demands the annual rent to be paid. The vicar cannot pay, so his cattle is sold, and he is removed to the debtors prison.
Debtors Prison: In the prison the vicar meets Ephraim Jenkinson, the man who tricked him and his son at the fair when they were selling their horses. The felon repents and observes with pity that Mr Flamborough grew rich though he kept on cheating him, while he himself grew destitute without having the comfort of honesty. The vicar executes the scheme of reforming the fellow prisoners. They at first laugh at him, but his perseverance succeeds in making them repent. The vicar develops an argument considering the inefficiency of criminal laws which impose capital punishment even for trifling offences and fail to reform the sinners in contributing to their further corruption instead. The vicar delivers a highly appreciated sermon to the gathering of prisoners. In the sermon he praises the consolation of religion above the dreariness of philosophy and concludes that suffering on this world is necessary as a preparation for the joy of the next world.
George's Imprisonment: The vicar is reproached by his wife for his having refused to give consent to the squire's marriage to Arabella, which was the underlying reason for his imprisonment. His refusal cannot prevent the marriage but only brings suffering on his family. Mrs Primrose writes a letter to George and urges him to punish the malevolent squire. George has been successful as a soldier and became a favourite of the colonel, but on receiving the mother's letter, he acts on her instruction. He challenges the squire, but the squire calls officers and has him arrested. George is delivered to the same prison as his father. The vicar observes that as long as Olivia lives, it is her who is the lawful wife of the squire. Olivia's health keeps on declining until she dies. Consequently the vicar submits to the squire but does not obtain the expected release from prison for it is now too late.
Sophia's Abduction: Sophia is abducted by an unknown man but is saved by Mr Burchell. Mr Jenkinson identifies the abductor according to Sophia's description as Timothy Baxter. The man is captured and imprisoned. Mr Burchell discloses his true identity and reveals that he is Sir William Thornhill, the uncle of the squire. Sir Thornhill confronts his nephew who claims himself not guilty for the vicar's misfortunes. The squire's butler however confirms that the criminals Jenkinson and Baxter acted as the squire's associates and Sir Thornhill immediately starts correcting the results of his nephew's misconduct.
Happy Ending: Jenkinson tells the story of the squire's mischiefs. The squire plotted the abduction of Sophia and planned to show himself as her rescuer in order to win her affection. When the squire ordered Jenkinson to get a false priest to marry him to Olivia, Jenkinson played a trick on him and procured an actual priest so that his marriage to Olivia is valid. Jenkinson made the vicar believe that Olivia is dead in order to make him submit to the squire and be released from the prison. Olivia actually lives and is now restored to health, honour, and a husband. Arabella recognizes the falsehood of the squire and cancels the marriage. She is to be married to the faithful George instead. Sophia is to be married to Sir Thornhill, aka Mr Burchell, who had assumed the disguise in order to find himself a wife to love him for his character rather than his wealth. The whole family is restored to fortune.
Mixing of Genres: The novel at the same time tells a story and develops a serious discourse on moral, religious, and political issues. The serious-minded arguments are somewhat inconsistent with the use of devices appropriate rather for a light-hearted comedy: the mistaken characters, disguises, plots of aristocratic rakes, and the conclusion in which all the confusions are happily resolved.
Pride: The virtuousness of the central character would render him incredible as a human being, were it not for his excessive pride and his stubborn holding to his principles. The vicar's conviction of the superiority of his views renders his behaviour comical but at the same time is the cause of his tragic downfall. The vicar prevents the marriage of George and Arabella only because he disagrees with the views of Arabella's father. He brings suffering on his family only because he is too proud to consent to the squire's marriage with Arabella. In the conclusion he is ironically restored to fortune by the intervention of a penitent criminal.
Vanity: Another reason for the vicar's misfortune could be his vanity and even more the vanity of his wife. She aspires to a higher social status than her natural one in trying to marry her daughter high. With the vicar's consent, she pretends for her family to be genteel, but her efforts are productive only of tragicomic failure: e.g. the incidents of riding the horses to the church, having the family portrait painted, etc.
Job: The vicar could be also paralleled to the Biblical Job. At the beginning, both Job and the vicar live happily without hardships, therefore they can be virtuous and god-fearing without effort. Both undergo a trial which eventually proves that even in the extremes of misfortune they are able to keep their virtue and faith. Only after this, they are restored to their former well-being and wealth.
AuthorGoldsmith, Oliver. (c. 1730 - 1774).
Full TitleThe Vicar of Wakefield.
Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. 1766. Boston: T. Y. Crowell & Co., 1892.