"Our second child, a girl, I intended to call after her aunt Grissel; but my wife, who during her pregnancy had been reading romances, insisted upon her being called Olivia."
Names are more important in the novel than the reader might initially suspect, as this example indicates. The vicar wanted to name Olivia "Grissel", which is an Anglo-Saxon name signifying battle; it was used by Chaucer for the name of a patient wife character. By contrast, "Olivia" is associated with the olive branch and peace, and, largely because of how Shakespeare used it in Twelfth Night, came to signify misplaced romantic infatuation. This name for Olivia proves prescient, for she indeed places her love in the hands of the wrong man - Squire Thornhill. She is also characterized, at times, by silliness, vanity, and social-climbing aspirations. Goldsmith may be often accused of dashing this novel off without a great deal of thought or preparation, but small details such as this indicate that there is much more beneath the surface than one might suspect.
"My farm consisted of about twenty acres of excellent land, having given a hundred pound for my predecessor's good-will. Nothing could exceed the neatness of my little enclosures: the elms and hedge rows appearing with inexpressible beauty."
This quote, and the rest of the passage that contains it, exemplifies one of the novel's great strengths: its evocation of an idyllic, pastoral environs. Though critics have often lambasted these characters for being two-dimensional, few critics find disfavor with the domestic harmony that Goldsmith reflects through the family's natural surroundings. Goldsmith's literary style here fits his subject. One critic identifies his work with the ethos of Augustan poetics, since the vicar's home and interests are akin to the things praised by poets earlier in the century. The ideals are of the picturesque, not the sublime or the primitive. What is also interesting about the lovely natural surroundings of the Primrose family's new home is that, in the second half of the novel, it strongly contrasts with the misfortunes they experience. Of course, even the pastoral does not prove immune to the vagaries of fate - the house goes up in flames, the honeysuckle seat becomes a psychological reminder of Olivia's shame, and the land and house are eventually taken from the family. Overall, Goldsmith uses the pastoral to both fulfill and subvert genre expectations.
"The distinctions lately paid us by our betters awaked that pride which I had laid asleep, but not removed."
Here, the vicar notes how he is falling prey to tendencies he otherwise believes himself free from. In the first few chapters of the novel, the vicar presents himself as adamantly opposed to the trappings of wealth and material goods. For instance, he chastises his daughters and wife for trying to maintain their previous lifestyle despite being relegated to a lower social class. However, it is not long before the possibilities awakened by Olivia's possible engagement to the squire lead even the vicar to daydream about a raised social status. His embrace of such an attitude is quite surprising, especially since it makes him blind to what the reader realizes. He begins to resent Mr. Burchell's attentions to Sophia despite having previously extolled the man's merits, and overlooks the squire's reprobate tendencies. Eventually, the vicar reveals himself as equally susceptible to vanity as his family members are. Through this character shift, Goldsmith both reflects a level of pessimism in his worldview, and suggests that too much pride in one's own virtue can often prove a liability in a world full of rascals.
"Our family had now made several attempts to be fine; but some unforeseen disaster demolished each as soon as projected."
Here, the vicar notes the cost of his family's pride, and yet does not quite realize that the universe is practically giving them warnings against such pride. The Primrose family grows progressively more infatuated with Squire Thornhill as his intentions to Olivia seem progressively more apparent, and with that infatuation comes a rather nasty increase in pride. The girls treat the Flamborough girls with disdain, the family commissions a ridiculous painting, and the men are duped in trying to sell their horses. Especially in these latter two instances, the family has the opportunity to realize that they are dabbling in a world they do not understand. And yet their pride is so intense that they persist nevertheless, thereby opening the door for the greater misfortunes of the novel's second half. The novel presents a very clear moral message here: one should not try to vault oneself above one's ordained social position, lest it make one blind to reality. In this way, the novel conforms to the expectations of the sentimental novel, wherein a virtuous protagonist encounters the ways of the world and is taught to maintain his humility and virtue.
"Our breach of hospitality went to my conscience a little: but I quickly silenced that monitor by two or three specious reasons, which served to satisfy and reconcile me to myself."
This quote exemplifies the vicar's movement towards pride and irrationality. He has allowed himself to be fooled by the squire and hence cannot judge Mr. Burchell's true merits. Instead, he unconsciously allows his disdain for the man's poverty to blind him to Burchell's true character, and neglects his commitment to hospitality and upright behavior. The most telling aspect of this quote is the way he represses his twinges of his conscience in order to justify his behavior. One of the reasons for this may be that his pride in his family has begun to trump his other virtues. He cares too much for his cloistered and content family circle, and cannot think rationally about the people who try to penetrate it. He misplaces his trust because he is too blinded by his pride as well as by his not-so-latent concern for social status. These two flaws quicken the family's downfall, as the vicar's inability to discern who is good and who is bad leads to Olivia's abduction and the expulsion of the one man who could have assisted them sooner.
"It seems my entertainer was all this while only the butler, who, in his master's absence, had a mind to cut a figure, and be for a while the gentleman himself; and, to say the truth, he talked politics as well as most country gentlemen do."
This moment marks only one of many times when the vicar or his family is deceived by someone in the novel. This incident is certainly embarrassing, as the vicar finds himself dining in a wealthy man's house with that man's butler, but it also proves to be of some consequence, since the vicar here reunites with Arabella. The rather fanciful chain of events reflects Goldsmith's tendency towards coincidental encounters. The vicar himself even marvels at one point "how many seeming accidents must unite before we can be cloathed or fed" (159). It seems impossible that the vicar could happen to be in Arabella's uncle's house, especially under such ridiculous circumstances, and yet it is crucial towards furthering the plot. While incidents like these might try the reader's imagination, they also give the novel its slightly fantastical charm.
"I cannot tell whether it is from the number of our penal laws, or the licentiousness of our people, that this country should shew more convicts in a year, than half the dominions of Europe united. Perhaps it is owing to both; for they mutually produce each other."
The second half of the novel deviates from the first in that it is much more of a pastiche of literary forms. There are letters and speeches and sermons and multiple digressions. Here, the vicar ruminates on the new sense of order and purpose he has instilled in the jail and its inmates. He wonders why England has so many convicts, and concludes that it is because the punishments doled out for crimes no longer have conspicuous distinctions; thus, people no longer distinguish between the severity of the crimes they commit. By extension, he is suggesting that morality consists of making such designations. Certainly, one could argue that this digression shows the vicar's personal growth, as he learns how he can be a part of the world rather than being sheltered in his family life. He is finding a new talent that comes from his virtuous vocation. However, one could also see this digression (and many others) as simply an expression of Goldsmith's wandering imagination. Either way, it's a fascinating moment in a novel full of them.
"Hold, Sir...or I shall blush for thee. How, Sir, forgetful of your age, your holy calling, thus to arrogate the justice of heaven, and fling those curses upward that must soon descend to crush thy own grey head with destruction!"
When George here rebukes his father for cursing God after George is arrested, it is not the first time the vicar has been corrected by a family member. And yet this is one of the most important moment, since George's attack is precisely about the vicar's tendency to lose sight of the values he deems important. Moments like these are important because they demonstrate that the vicar is indeed human; he is not always moral and self-possessed. His extreme emotion in this section - in which a series of calamities strike the family in quick succession - shows how the rationality and prudence on which he prides himself in the novel's first half now escape him. Ultimately, George's rebuke prompts the vicar to discover his inner fortitude, thereby providing one of the novel's central speeches and the primary theme of the novel's second half.
"Then let us take comfort now, for we shall soon be at our journey's end; we shall soon lay down the heavy burthen laid by heaven upon us, and though death, the only friend of the wretched, for a little while mocks the weary traveller with the view, and like his horizon, still flies before him; yet the time will certainly and shortly come, when we shall cease from our toil; when the luxurious great ones of the world shall no more tread us to the earth; when we shall think with pleasure on our sufferings below; when we shall be surrounded with all our friends, or such as deserved our friendship; when our bliss shall be unutterable, and still, to crown all, unending."
The theme of fortitude is most ably expressed in this passage, taken from the vicar's sermon in the prison. It seems he has finally attained an understanding of what one is called to do in life, and of what one needs to persevere. He originally understood virtue to be the most important aspect of one's character, but now understands that virtue alone is insufficient in the face of the world's evils. Instead, it is fortitude - an ability to endure, to withstand, to remain stoic and rational - that is needed in order to endure strife and calamity. In this speech, the vicar both reaches a climax in his character growth, and expounds upon the primary theme of the novel's second half, and hence, of the novel overall.
"I had nothing now on this side of the grave to wish for, all my cares were over, my pleasure was unspeakable. It now only remained that my gratitude in good fortune should exceed my former submission in adversity."
This line, which ends the novel, has attracted much critical attention. What the vicar appears to be saying is that he is happy that everything has worked out, and that he hopes that he can remain as thankful to God during future bad times as he is during these very good times. One critic, Thomas R. Preston, believes these lines point to the vicar's "new life of interior detachment from the world," his new ability to remember that "his real treasure resides on the other side of the grave." However, other critics have found it slightly disingenuous, noting that Goldsmith did not provide the vicar another test, thereby indicating that the vicar will be again overcome by superficial, material concerns. It does seem rather pat for the vicar to announce his thankfulness when nearly every possible scenario has worked out in the best possible way. The statement therefore suggests a sense of irony, though as another critic, Richard Passon, wonders, "is the Vicar completely aware of it [the irony], and is it simply at his expense?" That Goldsmith could create such a layer of meanings onto a relatively simple proclamation, spoken by a character often criticized for being flat, is a testament to his brilliance.
The Vicar of Wakefield Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Vicar of Wakefield is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.