The vicar, Dr. Primrose, narrates the novel. In chapter 1, he tells his backstory.
Not long after taking his vow, the vicar decided to marry. He chose a good-natured Englishwoman - Deborah - and they loved each other dearly. They live in an elegant home in a pleasant neighborhood, even though he sometimes laments the rambunctious school-boys and obnoxious kindred who live near them.
The vicar and Deborah have six children: in order of decreasing age, George, Olivia, Sophia, Moses, Dick, and Bill. He describes the girls as capable of being both vivacious and serious depending on their moods. The vicar dotes on his children, and proudly explains how his son George studied at Oxford, and intends to pursue a learned profession. Overall, he finds his family "all equally generous, credulous, simple, and inoffensive" (12).
The vicar mentions that he has a fortune of his own, and thus donates his small clergyman's salary to orphans and widows. As he keeps no curate (an assistant), he personally knows everyone in the parish.
One of his favorite topics to discuss is that of matrimony. In fact, he has written and published passionate tracts arguing that a husband or wife should never remarry if his or her partner dies. He believes a person should remain chaste in his or her beloved's memory.
George, the eldest son, becomes engaged to Miss Arabella Wilmot. Both families are overjoyed, and spend months celebrating, even though the couple has not yet set a date. Together, the families dine, the ladies dance and study, the men hunt, and everyone has a delightful time.
One day, unfortunately, the vicar shows Mr. Wilmot (Arabella's father) his study on matrimony. Mr. Wilmot vehemently disagrees with the vicar's position, and has in fact been married more than once. The marriage agreement is threatened by the intense argument. However, in the midst of the argument, the worst news arrives: the vicar's fortune is gone, embezzled by the merchant who was responsible for guarding it.
Faced with this new discovery, Mr. Wilmot definitively refuses to grant Arabella's hand to George.
Finding themselves poor, the vicar's family has few options. Therefore, he is encouraged by the offer of a vicar job in a distant neighborhood, which would pay fifteen pounds a year and allow the family some farmland to manage. The family is discouraged by the prospect of moving, but he reminds them that they are now poor and much acclimate to fewer luxuries. Before they move, he sends George to town, hoping that the young scholar might find some work through which to support his family.
Despite their reticence, the family sets out for their new home. Along the way, they spend the night in an inn. There, the vicar tells the innkeeper about their situation, and the latter tells them about their new landlord, Squire Thornhill, who has a reputation for both the world's pleasures and women.
At the inn, the vicar and his family meet Mr. Burchell, a young and intelligent man who is also poor. They pass pleasant conversation together, and the young man rides with them to their new neighborhood, to which he was also traveling. Along the way, the vicar and Mr. Burchell discuss philosophy.
At one point, Mr. Burchell points out Squire Thornhill's home, and explains how the squire is dependent on the generosity of his introverted uncle, Sir William Thornhill. The vicar has heard of Sir William, and knows his excellent reputation of "consummate benevolence" (19). Mr. Burchell confirms this impression, explaining that Sir William was dissolute and foolish when he was young, but has since grown more respectable in penance for those youthful follies.
At one point during the journey, Sophia falls from her horse into a stream. Without a moment's thought, Mr. Burchell heroically leaps after her and saves her life.
The vicar describes his new neighborhood. It is mostly comprised of middle class farmers who are polite, but lack gentleness and good manners. However, the local citizens are happy to have a new vicar, and welcome the family. The family's new house is located at the foot of a sloping hill, before twenty acres of excellent land for which they are responsible.
Soon enough, the family settles into its new life and routine, the ladies maintaining the vestiges of good breeding despite the change in circumstance. For instance, the ladies insist on entertaining new friends and dressing up. On their first Sunday in town, the vicar reprimands them for wearing fancy dresses, insisting they will draw scorn from their poorer, less genteel neighbors. They agree with him, and cut up their fine clothes to make Sunday waistcoats for Dick and Bill.
Often, the family spends time outside, in a beautiful area where honeysuckle and hawthorn grow, amusing themselves with reading and song.
One day, a young man darts by in pursuit of a stag. He stops to introduce himself as Squire Thornhill, and begs the young ladies for a song. Though it displeases the vicar, Deborah encourages the girls to comply. The vicar notes that the whole family seems taken by the squire, eager to please him.
After the squire leaves, Deborah describes the day as "a most fortunate hit" (26). The vicar discerns that Sophia does not much care for the squire, but that Olivia fancies him. He warns the family against pursuing a friendship with someone outside of their social class, insisting that "disproportionate friendships ever terminate in disgust" (27). Nevertheless, the family rejoices later that night when the squire sends a gift of venison. The vicar remains silent, believing he has already made his point.
While the girls prepare the venison, Mr. Burchell arrives to visit. The vicar is happy to see him, as he respects Mr. Burchell and knows his reputation in the neighborhood as the poor gentleman who frequently moves between friends, relying on their hospitality before traveling to another friend's home.
However, the vicar is disconcerted to observe Mr. Burchell's attentions towards Sophia. He later criticizes the man to his family, but is admonished for his harshness by Sophia and Moses.
The family holds a party for their landlord and his friends, the chaplain and the feeder. It is a great success. At dinner, the vicar toasts the church, and the chaplain commends him on it. Moses and Squire Thornhill attempt to debate religion, but the squire's arguments are too convoluted and silly for Moses to understand. Throughout the evening, the vicar continues to note how Olivia is taken by the squire.
After the Squire and his friends leave, the family discusses him. Deborah is proud to note his attentions towards Olivia, and "exult[s] in her daughter's victory as if it were her own" (33). The vicar voices his disapproval of the man, insinuating that that the squire is immoral and insisting that no "free-thinker" will ever have his daughter's hand (33). Moses counters that it is not the squire's opinions, but rather his actions, that should matter. Deborah follows to say that she knows several young women who have happy marriages with "free-thinkers," and that Olivia is well enough versed in modern subjects to manage controversy. Olivia defends herself, insisting she has read a great deal on the subject.
Mr. Burchell visits the house again, but the vicar is less pleased with the man than before because of Burchell's apparent attachment to Sophia. Interestingly, the vicar and his family notice that Burchell's wit and wisdom seems to improve with each visit.
One day, the family and Burchell begin to discuss poetry while dining outside. Mr. Burchell believes that contemporary English poetry boasts only a combination of "luxuriant images" at the expense of a plot. It is, he continues, full of "epithets that improve the sound, without carrying on the sense" (35).
He then recites a long ballad, which tells of a hermit who invites a lost traveler to spend the evening in his cell. While they rest by the hermit's fire, the hermit tells the traveler how he is at peace with his surroundings, but notices that the traveler seems heartbroken. As he tries to convince the traveler to forget about his earthly love, the hermit realizes that the traveler is in fact a woman. The woman then tells her story, about how her father once tried to marry her to all the worthwhile suitors in the land, while she loved only a poor but wise man named Edwin. Eventually, a dejected Edwin left to die in solitude, and she now seeks a place to die as he did. The hermit then joyously reveals that he is in fact the very Edwin, and the lovers reunite.
The vicar notes that Sophia is taken with the ballad. Suddenly, they hear a gunshot nearby, and Sophia leaps into Mr. Burchell's arms for protection. A moment later, the chaplain appears, having shot a blackbird. After asking pardon, the chaplain sits with them and flirts with Sophia.
Deborah whispers her approval to the vicar, noting that Sophia has potentially made a "conquest" as Olivia had with the squire (40). The chaplain tells them that that the squire intends to throw a ball for the girls on the following night, and then asks Sophia if she will grant him her first dance. However, she refuses, saying that she should grant her first dance to Mr. Burchell. To the vicar's surprise, the young man politely refuses to attend.
The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith's most famous work, is often classified as a sentimental novel, and many of that genre's elements are already apparent in these early chapters. These elements include: main characters who are paragons of virtue; an idyllic pastoral setting; and most importantly, a change in fortune that challenges their morality and delicacy. (See the Additional Content section of the study guide for more information on sentimental fiction). Misfortunes will continue to beset the family as the novel proceeds, and it is already clear that the primary conflict will lie in how they adapt their virtue in the fact of these troubles.
These first chapters might strike many readers as light and elegant. Indeed, critics usually divide the novel into two easily recognizable parts: the first section (chapters 1-16) contains a much more superficial account of country life and romance, while the second section (chapters 17-32) offers a heavy-handed critique of pride, and a lesson on how virtuous people ought to negotiate life's difficulties. Robert L. Mack, in his introduction to the Oxford World's Classic edition of the novel, describes how "the vicar's story is perfectly divided into two halves – the first half being essentially a comedy, its episodes (apart from the initial expulsion from Wakefield) relatively minor and even comfortably domestic in nature." The second half, however, "is a quasi-tragedy rich in the pathos of multiple misfortunes and catastrophes." Though the groundwork for those "multiple misfortunes" is laid in these early chapters, it reads as though such tragedy will never appear.
Most of the characters are established in these chapters, and do not change significantly throughout. (The primary exception is the vicar, whose evolution will be discussed in later Analysis sections.)
The vicar is a virtuous, religious man who encourages his family to avoid the traps of worldly pleasures, especially after they lose their money. It is telling that he loses his money to a shrewd crook; the fact that he placed all of his money in the hands of one merchant indicates that he truly does not concern himself with financial matters. Instead, the vicar is concerned with his family, and values their hermetic, sheltered life in Wakefield. Some critics, like Thomas Preston, have excoriated the vicar as a "pious fraud who is really a money-conscious, fortune-hunting materialist, practicing benevolence as a good business investment and his children as annuities for old age." Certainly, one can see that despite his assertions that money should not matter, he sees the world largely in terms of how much money a person has. Regardless of how one interprets this issue, it in undeniable that he takes great pride in his family.
One of the novel's most notable qualities is its first-person address. The vicar frequently contradicts himself without realizing it, especially in terms of his virtues and values. Though he speaks of his faith in God as supreme, it is frequently clear that he is as affected by base desires and pride as his family is. Ultimately, his pride in his family supersedes his pure virtue, indicated by the harshness with which he judges men like Burchell, who are otherwise great friends to him. Further, his tendency towards sanctimony - especially as regards the concept of marriage - reveals a personal pride that he is unaware of. Especially in these early chapters, Goldsmith uses this disconnect as a source of a humor, a good-natured critique of religious pride that the vicar delivers without ever explicitly spelling out the theme.
The clearest instance of this disconnect comes through the vicar's feelings about the women in his family. The vicar's daughters – both tellingly named after romance heroines – are lovely but silly, and Deborah, though intelligent, is a mother overly-concerned with social status, who lives vicariously through her daughters' successful romantic matches. Much of the novel's comedy comes from the mis-match of the vicar with these women. Though he recognizes their vanity, he frequently capitulates to them and gets privately invested in their potential partners even though he refuses to admit it aloud. By chapter ten, the vicar's entire family "began to think ourselves designed by the stars for something exalted, and already anticipated our future grandeur" (45).
One could see this inconsistency in the vicar as an expression of his love for family. Because he values them above all else, he wishes great things for them, even if what they want contradictions his virtue. Of course, this attitude necessarily means a compromise in virtue. Thomas Preston suggests that one of the novel's main themes and arcs comes with the vicar's "purging of his pride of family" so that he can return them to the purity of the hermetic life that enjoy at the novel's beginning.
The nature of Squire Thornhill's character is also pretty obvious to the reader, even if the Primrose family does not glimpse it. Largely, their obliviousness is a result of their pride; they want to be liked by the rich landlord, and hence see him as best serves that goal. Even though the innkeeper tells them "no virtue was able to resist [the squire's] arts and assiduity, and scarce a farmer's daughter within ten miles round but what had found him successful and faithless," they are immediately taken by the squire's "easy" manner when they finally meet him (17). Instead of finding his jests obnoxious, the vicar notes to himself that "the jests of the rich are ever successful" (31). And for a man so obsessed with intellectual discussion, the vicar quickly forgives the squire's inability to carry on an intellectual conversation. The vicar knows enough to profess skepticism of the squire, but it is clear to the reader that he is slowly seduced by the man's charms. In a word, the family is too taken by pride, which is all the more dangerous because their patriarch believes himself definitively above such pride.
Finally, Mr. Burchell's presence in these early chapters provides the alternative that the family is too proud and money-obsessed to see. With the exception of Sophia, everyone slowly turns their attentions from Burchell to Squire Thornhill. The fact that Mr. Burchell possesses the virtues they pretend to profess (ability to discuss intellectual matters, simple kindness, humility) ultimately mean less to the family than do the delusions of grandeur with the squire allows. It is telling that the squire's ballad - which is also included as an example of Goldsmith's proficiency with language and theatrical sense - warns against this very sin. It tells of a family whose obsession with money almost costs the daughter her future happiness. The ballad foreshadows the trouble yet to come, and serves as a warning that the family is simply too proud to hear. They cannot see the truth that is right in front of their faces - a fact doubly apparent when Burchell's true identity is later revealed.