The Vicar of Wakefield

The Vicar of Wakefield Study Guide

The Vicar of Wakefield, published between 1761 and 1762, is Oliver Goldsmith's most famous work and one of the most beloved and widely-read 18th century English novels. It is also considered a model example of the sentimental novel, one of the era's most popular literary genres.

Goldsmith wrote the novel during a period of personal duress, under a great deal of emotional strain due to his finances. He had already gained some prominence as a "Grub street hack," a writer for hire whose work helped fill the pages of the proliferating newspapers, journals, and magazines, but could hardly support himself. Jealous of the success writer Laurence Sterne had found with his novel The Life of Tristam Shandy (1759), Goldsmith decided to model a novel on on that work, and thereby wrote The Vicar of Wakefield.

The story of the novel's publication has become famous in literary circles, although some aspects of it are disputed. The basic facts of the story are that Goldsmith, badly in danger of being imprisoned because of debt, prevailed on Samuel Johnson to find something publishable from his work. That venerable man then plucked this manuscript from a pile and sold it for 60 pounds. The publisher, Francis Newbery, held on to it for two years, erroneously fearing it was too similar to the popular horror tales of the day.

The novel was slow to find an audience, though it passed through five authorized London editions by 1774. It was only in the decades following Goldsmith's death, when authors like Sir Walter Scott, Byron, and Goethe lauded his work, that it became a sensation. William Hazlitt commented in 1851 that if Goldsmith had never written anything else but the first two or three chapters of Vicar, then "they would have stamped him a genius." In the 19th century, two English editions were published each year, and French and German translations almost equaled them in number. The novel has never passed out of print, and, interestingly enough, bits of the text are used to illustrate hundreds of words in the Oxford English Dictionary; examples include "blarney", "monogamist", "palpitate", and "overcivility".

For many years, the novel seemed mostly impervious to criticism. Most 19th century critics thought the novel simple and delightful. Henry James said it best when he wrote that The Vicar of Wakefield was "the spoiled child of our literature," and observed that "it remains, by a strange little law of its own, quite undamaged – simply stands there smiling with impunity." For him, the novel's charm dismissed critics from dissecting it.

However, later critics became more forthright in their responses. They both realized that the narrative was more complicated than previously understood, and that it had a markedly unrealistic air in the awkward way it links together all the calamities that befall the Primrose family. The characters can be seen as one-dimensional, and many of the plot elements were lifted from the work of contemporary writers such as Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Further, critics found striking parallels between the novel's events and those of Goldsmith's life. The novel has thus inspired a great deal of modern criticism. Both for its enduring charm and for its unassuming depth, the novel has certainly stood the test of time.