Farmer Williams visits the family one day when the squire is there. The farmer's clear passion for Olivia seems to bother Squire Thornhill, and Olivia suggests to her father that the squire must have a reason for delaying in his proposal. The vicar and Deborah then decide to set a date by which Squire Thornhill must act, after which they will give Olivia's hand to Farmer Williams. Slyly, they let the squire know about this date.
When the allotted time passes, the disappointed family prepares for Olivia's impending marriage to the farmer. One day, they are having a nice time together, during which the youngest son Bill sings a song entitled "An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog." In the song, a man is bitten by a dog he loved, which saddens his neighbors, who believe he will die of the bite. However, they are happy when the man survives and the dog dies instead.
Happy, the vicar notes how grateful he is that his family has such "tranquility, health, and competence" (76).
Suddenly, Dick arrives with news that Olivia has left in a post-chaise with a gentleman who kissed her and said he loved her. Incensed, the vicar demands his pistols and prepares to set out after whomever this man is, but Deborah and Moses chide him for his excessive passion, and he calms down. After settling, he reflects on how he has lost his worldly happiness, and will have to find it in the afterlife.
The next morning, the calm and confident vicar prepares to set out after Olivia, whom he will welcome back despite her sin, hoping to guide her to repentance.
The vicar first suspects Squire Thornhill of the crime, but finds the man alone at home. Thornhill is shocked to learn of what has happened. The vicar then suspects Mr. Burchell, whom he remembers recently seeing in conversation with Olivia. He walks towards the races, where he sees a crowd of people. There, he believes he sees Burchell, but is not certain.
After walking about seventy miles from home, the vicar falls into a fever from stress and despair. He is forced to stop at an inn, where he stays for three weeks while recovering. Left to his thoughts, the vicar develops a shame in his pride, since it had caused him trouble.
After recovering, he sets off back towards home. On his way, he comes across a company of actors, and enjoys conversing with them as they travel together. However, he is embarrassed to be in their company when they arrive in the village, so he breaks off for an ale-house. There, a man asks him about his relationship to the company, and the vicar denies any association with them. The men then discuss politics for a while, and the man (who later is revealed as the butler) invites the vicar to dine at his home.
The vicar accompanies the man to a magnificent mansion, where they continue to discuss politics over dinner. The man proves to be almost radical in his opinions, boasting that liberty is his ultimate goal. The vicar agrees that liberty is important, but believes that some men are born to rule while others are born to submit. He also argues that the rich are helpful because they diminish monarchial power by trying to claim it for themselves. It is within the middle class that art, wisdom, and virtue may be found. The vicar concludes by saying that he has known of many people who claim to be for liberty even though they are truly tyrants.
The man insults the vicar over his opinions, but they are interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Arnold, the house's true master. It turns out that this man was only the butler, pretending to be the master.
Mr. Arnold apologizes to the vicar, but the latter is distracted to see Miss Arabella Wilmot, the young woman who was engaged to his son George at the novel's beginning. It turns out that Mr. and Mrs. Arnold are her aunt and uncle. Seeing that his niece cares for the vicar, Mr. Arnold invites him to stay for a few days.
The next morning, Miss Wilmot asks after George, and the vicar sadly explains that he has not heard from his son for over three years. They talk through the afternoon, until they encounter the company manager of the theatre troupe, who sells them tickets to the show, in which Horatio will be played by a young man who is perfect for the role even though he lacks any acting experience.
At the show that night, Miss Wilmot and the vicar are shocked to realize that this young man is in fact George Primrose. When George sees them in the audience, he bursts into tears and flees the stage. When the vicar later explains the situation to Mr. Arnold and his wife, they send a coach for him so he can join them at the Arnold home. Though seemingly very sad, Miss Wilmot also expresses some happiness at the impending reunion.
George joins the Arnolds, his father, and former fiancée. The vicar is surprised to discover that George lives in poverty, since he was supposed to earn money for the family.
Eventually, George tells the story of his adventures. He first went to London and met up with his cousin, as planned. He intended to work as an usher at the academy, but the cousin discouraged him from this plan, instead suggesting he become a writer. George liked the idea, but found little success in writing about topics that actually interested him.
One day, he ran into a classmate from Oxford - Ned Thornhill, whom the vicar knows as Squire Thornhill. Pitying George, the squire hired him as a personal assistant. Though George performed well in the position, the squire was generally more impressed by a sycophantic marine captain. Over time, George became less impressed with the squire, whom it seemed loved flattery above all else.
Eventually, the squire asked George to fight a duel on his behalf, in a matter concerning a lady's honor. Though he felt terribly about it (especially since he did not know whether his opponent's accusations were sound), he performed well.
When Squire Thornhill had to leave town and could not take George with him, he suggested George contact his uncle, Sir William Thornhill, to secure a post there. Carrying a recommendation letter from the squire, George bribed one of Sir William's servants to secure an interview with the man. However, Sir William discerned from his nephew's recommendation that George must have fought a duel for the squire, and dismissed him as an unsuitable man.
Exhausted and discouraged, George visited a man named Mr. Cripse, who arranges for people to work in America as veritable slaves. Mr. Cripse promised to appoint George as a secretary to a Pennsylvania synod on Indian relations, and though George doubted the man, he was desperate enough to agree. However, an old captain friend learned of George's plan, and instead convinced George to sail to Amsterdam, where he could teach English to the Dutch.
George spent his last money on passage, but realized when he arrived in Amsterdam that he could not teach English without first knowing Dutch. He then traveled to Louvain (in France) to teach Greek, which he learned at Oxford, but found little demand for it. He turned then to music, but found that France had much better musicians than him.
While in France, he reunited with his cousin, who set George up with a job buying pictures for rich people. Though George knew little about paintings, the cousin convinced him that it was more about conning people than actually knowing about the work. After working shortly in this field, George worked as a tutor with a young man traveling through Europe. Eventually, the student left him behind, and George was stranded again.
He made his way back to England, where he earned a living by disputation (arguing). He intended to make his way back to his family, but along the way encountered the acting company. He knew one of the actors, and was hired by them to play Horatio.
The butler has become a friend to the vicar since the latter convinced Mr. Arnold not to fire him. He informs the vicar that Squire Thornhill has made overtures to Miss Wilmot, and will be visiting. When the squire does arrives to pay his compliments, he is surprised to find the vicar there, and asks after Olivia.
It is clear that the squire is pursuing Miss Wilmot, but she does not seem pleased by it, instead mostly devoting her attention to George. One day, the squire happily announces that he has found George an ensign's commission in a regiment traveling to the West Indies. George is pleased, but the rest of the group (especially Miss Wilmot) is sad to see him go.
After George leaves, the vicar sets off for his own home. Along the way, he stops at a public-house for a drink, and converses with the affable innkeeper, who tells him how loathed the squire is by his tenants in the area. While they talk, the landlord's wife enters, complaining about a female guest who continues to stay there even though she has no money. The vicar hears the girl pleading for pity, and realizes it is Olivia. He rushes to her, finding her in a wretched state, and forgives her.
Olivia tells her story. It was indeed Squire Thornhill who abducted her. It turns out that the fashionable ladies were actually ill-bred tramps from town, who were acting as decoys to get the vicar's permission to send Olivia and Sophia to London. Mr. Burchell's letter - which was actually insulting the reputation of these ladies, and not of the Primrose girls - scared them off, which is why the fake appointment to London spots never went through.
Olivia soon after married Squire Thornhill in a secret, Catholic ceremony, but was then removed to a type of brothel where other women lived. She learned soon enough that the squire had married
eight other women in a similar manner. Realizing how some of the women had acclimated to their lives as prostitutes, she confronted the squire, who threatened to give her to a friend if she did not behave. She then fled the house, and begged passage on a stage-coach that brought her finally to the inn where the vicar found her.
The vicar and Olivia depart for home, but he leaves her at a nearby inn so he can prepare the family for her return. However, he arrives to find his home violently aflame. The family is distraught outside, with the two youngest boys trapped in the house. The vicar burst inside and rescues them.
The family is amazed by their sudden loss, but are happy to be alive and safe. Nobody has been hurt save the vicar, whose arm was scorched in the rescue. Their neighbors prove generous in the aftermath, and the family is more prepared to accept Olivia back in the face of the calamity.
When Olivia arrives, Deborah initially acts coldly towards her. The vicar chides his wife, insisting that "the real hardships of life are now coming fast upon us, let us not therefore encrease them by dissension among each other" (114). Deborah agrees, and warms to her daughter.
The family works to recover from their calamity. Their neighbors continue to prove helpful, especially Farmer Williams, who cares for Olivia despite her recent shame. Nevertheless, she is not interested in him, and instead stews in her grief. The vicar tries to amuse his daughter with stories, but she only broods on her misfortune. Soon enough, her grief turns to jealousy and resentment of Sophia.
The family is further upset to learn that Miss Wilmot has been engaged to Squire Thornhill. The vicar sends Moses to Miss Wilmot with a letter describing the squire's true character, but Moses finds it impossible to gain an audience with her. Therefore, he leaves it with a servant.
Eventually, the family (save Olivia) manages to find some cheerfulness by reflecting upon the kindness of their neighbors.
The family regularly breakfasts outside at the honeysuckle bank, even though it makes Olivia melancholy since this is the spot where she first met the squire.
One day, they are alarmed to see that man approaching. When he joins them, acting as though nothing has changed, the vicar angrily calls him a "poor pitiful wretch"(120). After attempting to feign ignorance, the squire angrily concedes that he will keep Olivia as wife and allow her to keep a lover. When the vicar more violently insults the squire in turn, the latter threatens that the vicar will soon regret such animosity, and then leaves.
The Squire's threat prove to be true. The next morning, a steward arrives to demand rent that the vicar obviously cannot pay. The family begs him to apologize to and negotiate with the squire, but he refuses to "tamely sit down and flatter our infamous betrayer" (122).
The next morning, two officers arrest the vicar for non-payment of rent. He instructs his family to gather their things and prepare to depart immediately.
Olivia's 'abduction' in Chapter XVII is generally considered the novel's climax. Not only is the moment exciting, but it also shifts the novel's tone considerably, into what most critics call the novel's second part. In this latter half, the tone, themes, and character development all escalate into a place more akin to tragedy than to the breezy sentimental nature of the first half.
It is worth recounting the events of these chapters to establish how seriously the novel changes in tone. In this section: Olivia's reputation is ruined (no small thing for a woman of the time); the vicar is struck seriously ill by a fever, and then later terribly wounded by the fire; George's true wretchedness is revealed; George is sent on what the reader clearly understands is a disadvantageous voyage by the villainous squire; the Primrose family home burns down; and the vicar is separated from his family and thrown in jail. The calamities come quickly, one after the other. A darkness infuses a great deal of the tale.
One could perhaps criticize this flurry of calamity as exploitative if it was not so wonderfully set up by the family's character flaws. The vicar's misfortune is these chapters is paralleled by a reawakening of his virtue, a recognition of his own blindness. In this way, the novel explores the tragedy that often befalls human life, while also suggesting the comfort we might find by remaining strong and honest to ourselves throughout.
Thematically, Olivia's disappearance illustrates most dramatically the vicar's inability to judge those around him. Because he is so unaware of his own pride, he has been misled into terribly misunderstanding others. He is quickly convinced that Squire Thornhill is not the villain, and instead turns his attentions towards Burchell. This attitude suggests how fully class distinctions have affected him, even as he continually claims to venerate poverty over the pretensions of the rich.
Further, the vicar realizes that the truly virtuous characters are those he had begun to judge as inferior. The family's grief is somewhat assuaged by the kindness of neighbors to whom they have thus far been rather cruel towards. They used Farmer Williams as a tool to ensnare the squire, and consciously looked down upon the Flamborough girls. And yet these are the people whom truly help the family here.
These elements help to explain what made the novel so popular amongst its contemporary readers. However, the second half of the novel also explores larger questions, about the nature of narrative itself, questions that help explain its continued critical relevance. As scholar Robert Mack notes, the second half of the book "prominently includes a diversity of novelistic modes and voices, including traveler's tales, politics, discussions on philosophy and aesthetics, digressions on subjects including penal reform and the state of urban depravity, and even sermons." In other words, Goldsmith does not focus on a straightforward morality tale, but rather uses the novel form to explore a variety of digressions.
As the novel proceeds, the reader is confronted by the limitations of narrative itself, the way that great work does not fit into easy categories. Despite the possibility of interpreting the novel in a straightforward manner (as is done above), it also defies categorization. Critic Richard Passon wrote that Goldsmith's works are "easy to read and enjoy, but they have been difficult to analyze, interpret, and evaluate." Dr. Primrose tries to be straightforward, but his story is inconsistent, illogical, and sometimes hypocritical. It is difficult for readers to believe this man's tale when it is such a pastiche of genres and literary forms. While this could be read as a failure on Goldsmith's part, the confidence of the writing and the strict structure of his other work (especially his play She Stoops to Conquer) actually suggest that he was attempting to explore a larger question, about how humans cannot be easily defined, and are in fact more often defined by their contradictions than by their simplicity.
Goldsmith's interest in complication is further evident through the novel's consistent train of disguises, deceptions, and linguistic riddles. For instance, the novel's original title page suggested the work was written by Dr. Primrose himself. It was described as, "a Tale, supposed to have been written by himself". This makes little sense – why is it supposed to be written by himself? Also, it is odd that the novel is entitled The Vicar of Wakefield, when Wakefield plays little to no role in the story. The curacy that the vicar takes over is not even given a name.
In fact, the novel makes a point to explore the limitations of names. An analysis of its use of names undercuts the common assumption that this is a simple sentimental novel, lacking any greater depth below its charming and gilded surface. For instance, some of the names allude to contemporary writers, like Arnold and Burchell. Others are descriptive/symbolic, like Primrose and Pinwire. Others refer to contemporary political figures, like Thornhill and Wilkinson. Most tellingly, the names of the vicar's daughters accurately predict their behavior, particularly in Olivia's case. However, though the names suggest they are romantic heroines, Olivia's situation suggests the very opposite. She ends up a fallen women, reliant on the forgiveness of her simple neighbors. The suggestion is unsubtly that the nature of the sentimental genre is fallacious. Women cannot live in a fairyland when the world does not allow it.
Goldsmith's novel can be read, then, as a satire of, and not just an example of, sentiment. The inconstancies and illogicalities of the vicar's narrative indicate that Goldsmith is doing something more than simply narrating a family's rise and fall. Mack notes the presence of bathos in the novel, "moments when an attempt at the sublime is suddenly undercut by the revelation of the questionable perceptions and judgments of a deeply flawed humanity." In other words, a discerning reader is never given a simple key as to how to feel. In the happier first half, we are able to doubt the Primrose family because of their pride, and here, we are uncertain whether to hold them responsible for their own fall or not.
Passon's article is useful in the way it attempts to find balance between these two views of the novel. On one hand, many see it as a simple pastoral, idyllic novel. On the other hand, many see the flaws in that depiction, and assume Goldsmith was crafting a satire. Passon tries to find a middle ground, suggesting that "these views are presented, in tension, in juxtaposition; one view constantly jostles and qualifies the other. Sentimentalism needs continually to be encountered and undercut by irony; satire needs continually to be softened, to be made less brittle, by romance." In other words, the problem is not that both possibilities are present; the problem is a reader's assumption that the novel must way in only one way.
Passon's hypothesis is explored through the vicar himself. He acknowledges that the vicar can be pedantic, disingenuous, flamboyant, and pretentious. However, he also notes that the vicar is a virtuous man, despite his flaws. The reader is not supposed to think him deficient of heroic qualities, but rather as a flawed, complicated human. He is both a satiric and sympathetic character. In fact, Dr. Primrose often calls attention to his own foibles.
Even Squire Thornhill, in many ways a terrible villain, is somewhat complicated. The extremity of his vice is all the more insidious because he seems entirely unaware of the morality involved. Without a doubt, the squire is a sociopath, who sees in country girls beasts whom he can herd into a sexual relationship that then leave as prostitutes at his mercy. In many ways, Goldsmith makes an intense attack against the blindness of the landed gentry through the squire, who has been raised to not even understand the limits of human decency. His classist attitude is so intense that he does not even see the Primrose girls as people. However, Goldsmith's portrayal of the squire also reflects his interest in complication and contradiction. The man is not pure evil, as he might be in a purely sentimental novel. Instead, he lacks even a conception of good or evil.
Thus, while the novel may be easy to read, it offers plenty of fodder for interpretation and discussion. Like "An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog," which Bill sings, good and evil cannot be simply understood. The good dog can bite at any time, and the good man can be punished. It is in art that goodness is often rewarded - as is the case in Bill's elegy and in The Vicar of Wakefield. And yet in the best of art, the audience is still not quite sure what they are supposed to believe. That Goldsmith can provide such an entertaining story while simultaneously commenting on the limitations and assumptions of story serves as testament to his talent and imagination.