How does the vicar change throughout the novel?
In the first part of the novel, the vicar is confident and prideful, concerned primarily with his family's well-being and social status. Though he does admonish his family for their sins, as one would expect from a religious figure, he does so in an extremely gentle way, revealing that his sense of virtue is not as air-tight as even he himself believes. As the novel progresses into its second half, however, the vicar ceases moralizing as he grows more anxious and confused. Realizing that virtue is not enough to stem life's tide of woe, he comes to understand that fortitude in the face of life's tragic forces is more powerful than an unshakable sense of virtue and prudence. Though one could argue that he does not fully internalize these lessons by novel's end, he unquestionably does grow to accept a different worldview through his troubles.
Discuss the novel's tone, style, and genre. How are each of these complicated throughout the work?
Most notably, The Vicar of Wakefield employs a light and charming tone that makes it a breezy read. However, this tone is tinged with a bit of irony from the very beginning, suggesting that more is going on beneath the surface than one might initially believe. Similarly, the style is charmingly straightforward in the novel's first half, reflecting the vicar's simple life and pleasures. As the world grows more complicated for him, however, the style becomes more complicated, employing more digressions and tangents than the first half uses. These malleable elements are paralleled by the novel's genre, which has proven difficult for scholars to pinpoint. Though it is often classified as a sentimental novel, there are many aspects and ironies that make it easy to read it as a satire.
The Primrose family is frequently duped throughout the novel. What makes them so susceptible to being fooled?
All of the Primrose family members find themselves the victims of at least one other character's disguises or machinations. Over and over again, they find it difficult to discern who is good and who is bad. This shared shortcoming stems from two places. First is the extremely cloistered and insulated way in which they live their lives. Second is their patriarch's emphasis on virtue and prudence at the expense of worldly wisdom and understanding. Because the vicar keeps them separated from the world, they are significantly confused when people from the outside world come to them. This naïveté is compounded by the family's pride, which makes them even more susceptible to manipulation. Ultimately, their struggles serve as something of a cautionary tale, since the family so easily facilitates the ruses that cause them trouble.
In what way is this novel a satire?
Critics disagree as to whether to consider this novel a satire. While some see it as an earnest expression of sentimentality, others point to Goldsmith's use of irony to defend it as a satire. There are many ways to argue this latter perspective. First, the vicar's narrative cannot be trusted. There are frequent occasions of dramatic irony, when the vicar is clearly less devoted to virtue than he himself believes. Secondly, disguise and deception run rampant, suggesting that Goldsmith's intent was to explore man's penchant for lying. Overall, Goldsmith proves to be interested in a much more clever work than one simply indebted to the expectations of sentimental fiction. As critic Robert Mack puts it, "the novel's seeming artlessness is in fact nothing more than a self-conscious pose that has been assumed by the author -part of a disingenuous attempt deliberately to trick his readers and to raise false generic and narrative expectations." It really does appear to be a question that cannot be answered - did Goldsmith set out to write a satire, or did the novel accidentally veer towards satire because the author lost control of his work?
How are the events of the novel similar to those of Goldsmith's own life?
Many readers and critics have noted the similarities between the events of the novel and those of Goldsmith's life. For instance the pastoral setting of Wakefield and the next town are based on the author's own experience in Ireland, particularly in Lissoy. The character of the vicar is commonly assumed to be modeled on Goldsmith's own clergyman father. Furthermore, the adventures of the vicar and his son George in the novel's second half are certainly similar to what Goldsmith experienced. Like George, Goldsmith spent a large period of his life traveling and experiencing a string of misfortunes. It is difficult to separate what is true from what is fictitious, since they are so easily blended. Please see the "About Oliver Goldsmith" section of this ClassicNote for more details.
Why are the stakes so high for Olivia's "abduction" in the novel?
In the 18th century, a woman's virtue - i.e., her virginity and her moral character - were her most important attributes. She was supposed to remain a virgin until she was married, and then do nothing to compromise her reputation as a wife and mother. Because it was her most valuable commodity, a woman's virtue was to be carefully guarded by herself and her family members. In fact, virginity was almost an obsession in the patriarchal society of 18th century England. Thus, Olivia's elopement upends all the conventions of her society. She yokes herself to a man who was not her husband, loses her virginity, and is forced to consort with other ignoble women. The excessive suffering she experiences almost makes the point seem cautionary, like a tale a paranoid mother might tell a daughter. It can sometimes be difficult for modern readers to understand the extreme stakes of Olivia's actions. Further, when the family is relieved to learn that her marriage to the squire was not actually false, it can be seen as a somewhat perverse relief, since she hates the man so much.
How does Sir William fit into the novel's moral themes?
Sir William represents the model character in Goldsmith's novel. He passed a dissolute youth but corrected himself, becoming thereby a paragon of virtue, humility, and charity. He used his litany of mishaps to learn how to become a better person. In many ways, he understands how to live a virtuous life without ignoring the world, whereas the vicar initially only understands the former. By the end of the novel, it is he who fixes most of the Primrose family's problems, including the less glaring ones (only he is able to cure the pain of the vicar's burns). Some critics have gone as far to claim that Sir William, or rather the Mr. Burchell version of Sir William, works as a sort of Christ figure. While this may have faint echoes of truth, it is important to remember that Sir William is not in fact perfect; like the others, he is duped by his nephew for many years before realizing the truth.
What are the literary predecessors to [The Vicar of Wakefield]?
The novel has most often been compared to the Book of Job because of the unrelenting string of calamities that befall its protagonist, a generally nice, moral, and upstanding man who is bemused by this turn of events. The novel also falls into the tradition of the 18th century sentimental novel, and is similar to works such as Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, and Francis Burney's Evelina. Those novels also feature a hero/heroine who possesses virtue but must navigate a perilous and confusing world. Despite how closely the novel can be connected to these other works, however, it eventually reveals itself a rather singular expression of one man's worldview.
What is the significance of the novel's title?
Curiously, the novel's title poses questions for the reader. It specifically refers to the vicar as being from Wakefield, although Wakefield occupies a very short and inconsequential place in the story. It is only a few pages before the vicar is cast off from Wakefield and has to make his home somewhere else, a place which is oddly never named. There may be a simple answer to this confusion, however; perhaps Goldsmith wants the readers to think of the vicar as prosperous, rational, calm, and loving, as he is at Wakefield, even when he is undergoing his crises later in the novel. The fact that the vicar is later restored to a situation very much like that of Wakefield reinforces this idea. There may be a more complicated answer, however. The strangeness of the title may further reinforce some of the book's narrative complexity, and call attention to the veracity of the narrator and his tale.
One could easily argue that the string of calamities in the novel's second half is exploitative and unrealistic. Defend the extremity of these events.
As discussed elsewhere, The Vicar of Wakefield is largely about its protagonist's growth, which is largely contingent on his developing a more realistic view of the world. In many ways, this view involves simply recognizing that the world is a bad place. However, one could also define this worldview as a tragic one, one that acknowledges the forces that work against the individual. If the events were equivocally terrible, then the vicar might have room to blame them on circumstance or his own failings. That so many terrible things happen in quick succession stresses that the universe does not necessarily care about anyone in particular. If the events were less extreme, then the vicar's ability to embrace fortitude would be less dramatic and satisfying.