The Vicar of Wakefield

The Vicar of Wakefield Summary and Analysis of Chapters XXV-XXXII


Chapter XXV

The family walks with the vicar and the officer towards prison, followed by fifty of the county's poorest parishioners, who are sad and angry to see their curate taken. When the parishioners grows angry enough to assault the officer, the vicar rebukes them, and they fall back.

The travel is slow, largely owing to the vicar's injuries from the fire. Eventually, they arrive at an inn near the prison, where the family stays while the vicar and officer continue to prison. When the vicar arrives there, he is surprised to find the prisoners engaged in revelry and merriment. He generously purchases more liquor for them, and the party continues.

At the party, the vicar sits alone until a young, friendly man offers him some blankets for the night. The vicar enjoys conversing with this intelligent person until he recognizes some of the man's ideas, and pieces together that it is the scoundrel Ephraim Jenkinson. Ephraim offers profuse apologies for previously cheating the vicar, noting that his sins have caught up to him and landed him in prison. The vicar forgives him, and notes that Ephraim looks much younger than he did before. Ephraim then explains that he has several disguises that allow him to look younger or older at will.

Chapter XXVI

The next day, the vicar's family visits him. They have rented rooms in the area for the girls, while the boys are allowed to stay in the prison with him. Olivia does not join the family, as she has taken ill.

The vicar instructs his family on how they will weather this situation: Sophia must take care of her sister, Deborah must care for him, Moses must find work to support the family, and the young boys must read to the vicar.

Over the next days, the prisoners prove themselves a rather lewd and raucous bunch, so the vicar decides to reform them. He delivers an impromptu sermon about good behavior in the common room, and the prisoners actually respond well to it.

That night, when the family returns for dinner, they welcome Jenkinson to join them. Though he is friendly towards the boys and admiring of Sophia, Moses is bothered when he recognizes the criminal's voice and remembers the spectacles con. However, he accepts Jenkinson's sincere apologies.

Jenkinson then asks the vicar how he ended up in the prison, and the older man tells his story. When the story finishes, Jenkinson suddenly runs out of the room, strangely saying he will soon find a solution.

Chapter XXVII

The vicar continues with his plan to reign in the debauchery of the inmates, hoping to bring them closer to God. For a few days, they make fun of him for his sanctimony, but eventually come to respect and appreciate him. He also devises plans to make their situation more comfortable, such as assigning them little jobs and instituting rewards for good behavior. By the end of a fortnight, he "had formed them into something social and humane, and had the pleasure of regarding [himself] as a legislator" (133).

One day, he gives a speech about how the best way to reform a state is by encouraging virtue rather than by harshly punishing vice. That way, men would be encouraged to improve society, rather than learning to disdain it.

Chapter XXVIII

Olivia visits her father, and he is struck by the terrible change in her appearance. She begs him to submit to Squire Thornhill, but he refuses to implicitly condone the way he treated her.

Jenkinson overhears their conversation, and questions the vicar about his reasons for refusal. The vicar explains that he could never approve of Thornhill's marriage to Arabella, since he believes the man has already given his hand to Olivia. Jenkinson then suggests he write to Sir William Thornhill, to explain the nephew's conduct. Agreeing, the vicar sends the message and waits anxiously for a reply.

The vicar's health, meanwhile, is suffering, due to both distress and his burnt arm. Jenkinson brings even more terrible news: Olivia has died from her heartbreak. Beaten, the vicar dismisses his pride and agrees to submit to Squire Thornhill. However, his message of acquiescence is refused. The squire had intercepted the vicar's message to his uncle, and now wishes only ill to the older man.

Right after the vicar receives the squire's reply, a distraught Deborah arrives with the terrible news that Sophia has been snatched away by ruffians in a post-chaise. The villain did not appear to be Squire Thornhill.

A few minutes later, Moses arrives with a letter from George, bearing good news. Deborah is relieved to receive this message, noting that it means George must not have received a letter she sent him, asking him to avenge Olivia's shame upon Squire Thornhill. Though the vicar is incensed that she attempted to prompt violence, he too is relieved that the letter did not reach George. Together, they read George's letter, which expresses great contentment with his post.

The vicar earnestly thanks God for his son's safety and happiness, but is minutes later distraught when a bloody prisoner is brought to his cell. It is George, bound in chains for having attempted to attack the squire. After calming his father down, George tells his story: before he reached the squire, four of that man's servants beat him senseless and then had him arrested. Feeling guilty, George asks his father for some advice on fortitude, and the vicar decides to deliver that advice to the whole prison population.

Chapter XXIX

The vicar delivers his sermon to the prison. He argues that life is built more on suffering than on happiness, which is why religion is important. Religion promises greater rewards to the poor and unhappy than it does to the happy, since the former will better appreciate the joys of heaven once they arrive. He ends by begging his audience to take comfort in their situation, since impending death will bring ultimate bliss with it.

Chapter XXX

Soon afterwards, the vicar learns that Sophia has been recovered. Mr. Burchell brings Sophia to the prison, and the vicar apologizes to that man for his false accusations. Mr. Burchell forgives him, explaining that he was not at liberty to correct the vicar's otherwise understandable assumptions about his (Burchell's) character.

Sophia tells her story. She was walking innocently one day and then was suddenly snatched up. Luckily, she saw Mr. Burchell through the coach window, and screamed for help. Though he was able to stop the coach, the villains escaped.

The relieved vicar offer Sophia's hand to Mr. Burchell, who reminds the vicar that he has no money to offer. The vicar dismisses the concern, insisting that Burchell is a worthy man. Though he makes no promise one way or the other, Mr. Burchell then orders refreshments from the inn to be brought to the family.

The vicar is sad to tell Sophia about her brother. Overhearing the story, Mr. Burchell asks if the young man's name is George. When George enters the room, he and Mr. Burchell recognize one another, and George seems ashamed. Before they can speak in depth, however, a prison servant enters with news that a man in a coach has arrived and expects to see Mr. Burchell. The latter sends word that he will arrive soon, and then confronts George about trying to attack Squire Thornhill. The vicar intervenes to offer the letter George received from Deborah. Though Mr. Burchell still considers the attack a crime, he admits the letter does offer some justification.

Then, to the family's surprise, Mr. Burchell reveals that he is truly Sir William Thornhill. Everyone is overjoyed and shocked, though Sophia seems a bit disconcerted to discover that her love is so far above her station. Deborah begs forgiveness for having once spoken so coarsely to him, but Mr. Burchell dismisses her concern.

Sophia is asked to describe her captor, and Jenkinson (who is also in attendance) recognizes the description as belonging to Timothy Baxter. With Sir William's blessing, Jenkinson convinces the jailor to grant him two men with which to apprehend Baxter.

Sir William, having medical experience, then prescribes a medicine to help alleviate the vicar's arm pain. The jail servant reappears, now identifying the man in the coach as Squire Thornhill, who wishes to be seen. Sir William agrees.

Chapter XXXI

Squire Thornhill enters, and refuses to answer to any accusations. He denies having seduced Olivia, and insists that the vicar has been jailed for a legitimate offense. Faced with a lack of evidence, Sir William can accuse his nephew of nothing except for a lack of mercy.

When Jenkinson and the two servants return with Baxter, however, the squire shrinks back in alarm. Jenkinson identifies himself and Baxter as the squire's criminal accomplices, and notes that Baxter has confessed to having kidnapped Sophia so that the squire could then pretend to rescue her and thereby gain her confidence in hopes of seducing her as he did Olivia. The squire calls upon his servants to defend him, but they realize he is now powerless, and confess their dislike for him. They also offer further proof of his insidious behavior, and Sir William laments the "viper I have been fostering in my bosom" (157). He then demands George be released, and promises to settle all affairs before the magistrate.

At that moment, Miss Arabella Wilmot and her father arrive. They were in town preparing for the wedding the next day, and saw little Bill Primrose playing. He told them of his father's plight, and they have come to visit. The vicar muses on the nature of coincidences and "how many seeming accidents must unite before we can be clothed and fed" (159).

Sir William tells Arabella the truth about Squire Thornhill, and she is overjoyed to be released from such a villain. She further confesses that she has always loved George, but that the squire lied to her by sending George away and then convincing her he had left to marry someone else. When the family presents George, who has by this time has cleaned up and dressed in his regimentals, she pronounces her love for him.

The squire, now incensed, then reveals that he no longer needs his uncle's protection or fortune, since he has already signed the contract ensuring him the Wilmot fortune. Whether or not he marries Arabella, she now lacks control of her dowry. Despite this distressing news, the lovers are unfazed. Mr. Wilmot panics a bit, but Sir William rebukes him for valuing money over his daughter's happiness and salvation from such a rascal.

Jenkinson then inquires whether the contract would be valid if the squire was already married. Startled, Sir William insists that a previous marriage would negate any contract. Jenkinson then reveals that though the squire asked him to create a false marriage license for the ceremony with Olivia, he had actually obtained a real license, hoping to one day use it to blackmail the squire. Therefore, Olivia and the Squire were actually married, and the contract for the Wilmot fortune negated.

Suddenly, Olivia herself arrives. It turns out that Jenkinson had lied about her death in hopes that it would inspire the vicar to submit to Squire Thornhill and thereby be released from prison, where he would otherwise surely die from his wounds.

The squire's fate now solidified, he drops to his knees and begs mercy before his uncle, who promises him a meager allowance and nothing more.

After the squire leaves, everyone rejoices in their happiness. Only Sophia remains distressed, and is doubly saddened when Sir Williams asks whether she would like to marry Jenkinson, a handsome young man of character. When she refuses, he jokingly notes that she must then marry him. He then earnestly admits he has never met a woman who loved him for himself (and not for his fortune), and that he is rapturous to have met such a beautiful woman like her.

Everyone prepares to retire to the inn next door, and Sir William and Arabella leave some money for the grateful inmates. Later than night, alone, the vicar pours his heart out to God in thankful prayers.

Chapter XXXII

The vicar soon learns that his own fortune has been recovered from the merchant who stole it. He personally marries Sophia to Sir William and then Arabella to George. He then throws an elegant feast for them, and his many parishioners arrive to congratulate him.

The vicar also mentions what he knows about Squire Thornhill. The man lives alone with a relative, and is trying to learn the French horn.

The vicar ends his narrative by remarking that "I now had nothing on this side of the grave to wish for, all my cares were over, my pleasure was unspeakable. It now remained that my gratitude in good fortune should exceed my former submission in adversity" (170).


With these last chapters, the novel concludes. The train of terrible events, which include the vicar's imprisonment, George's imprisonment, Sophia's abduction, and Olivia's (fake) death, are resolved by a decidedly happy ending that metes out justice for villains and innocents alike. Two marriages take place, the vicar's fortune is restored, and virtue triumphs over deception and vice.

The end certainly supports claims that the novel belongs to the sentimental genre. Despite the vicious occurrences of the narrative's second half, good wins out, and everyone is made wiser. However, there are several ways in which the novel confounds this simple understanding, revealing itself to transcend simple charm and artifice.

First, it is useful to think of the novel as an allusion to the biblical Book of Job. In both the biblical story and the novel, a virtuous man is suddenly deprived of everything he had worked and cared for. Job's family and friends forsake him, and yet he continues to trust in God. Similarly, the vicar refuses to ever denounce God, even as calamities pile up before him. The critic Robert Mack points out that the strongest similarity between the two men is "the corresponding degree to which both tend to regard their own 'goodness' –their own practice of virtue and due deference –as 'money in the bank'." Vicar chronicles the title character's increasing anxiety and panic about the world around him, a decided shift from the serenity which defines him at the beginning. Mack notes that the main difference between the Book of Job and Vicar is that Goldsmith does not give his hero any "bold and enlightened spiritual insight" by the end. He never arrives at Job's sublime insight, and is comforted more by the renewal of his familiar "ceremonies" than by any genuine repentance or comprehension of his mortality.

In this way, Goldsmith's novel can be seen as an attack on simplistic morality. What heartens the vicar at the end is that he gets his satisfied material life back. Certainly, the family was primed to accept an impoverished life before Jenkinson reveals the trick with the marriage license, but their true happiness is recovered only when money is returned to the situation. The idea is that humans do not truly reach insight like that Job reaches, since they are too distracted by self-interest to transcend it. By employing the allusion, Goldsmith is able to suggest the fickleness of humanity, without ever making such an explicitly cynical claim. He is able to please his audience while challenging them as well.

Another important approach to understanding the novel is its evolution from prudence to fortitude. This view is most ably articulated by the critic Michael Adelstein in his famous article. In the first half of the novel, the vicar and his family are described as "generous, credulous, simple, and inoffensive" (12). They are decidedly naive about the world, evidenced by how easily Jenkinson dupes both Moses and the vicar, and by how terribly the vicar confuses the characters of the squire and Mr. Burchell.

But what is most damning is that the vicar has the self-satisfaction of his virtue to blind him. Because he believes he possesses the tools to navigate the world, he is all the more easily defeated by it. He praises prudence above all; the word itself is used fifteen times in the novel's first half. However, the entire family suffers from a similar delusion: George makes countless errors, the girls are duped by the 'fashionable' ladies, and Deborah is blinded by fashion. All of these things suggest that mere virtue is not enough to withstand the the world's temptations and evils. Despite the vicar's insistence on prudence and virtue as paramount, Adelstein shows "the general ineffectiveness and insignificance of virtue is dominant early in the novel."

However, the novel's second half realigns the vicar's worldview, suggesting that fortitude is more valuable than self-satisfied prudence. In this part, the vicar ceases to become a comic character, and is "transformed into an authority on monarchy, commerce, drama, penology, and the criminal code," as Adelstein puts it. As his wisdom becomes more predominant, Adelstein argues that the novel's theme shifts. It is no longer concerned with how man can be happy; instead, it is focused on "the more realistic concern about how man can accept and learn to tolerate the suffering and misery of his plight." In other words, true wisdom is about accepting vice, rather than about assuming virtue. The vicar's speech on fortitude serves as the apotheosis of this theme. It reflects how the vicar has managed to resolve the wrath and confusion that might otherwise consume him.

And yet, as noted above, one has to wonder how full this transformation truly is. Though Goldsmith does give his protagonist this new wisdom, he neglects to have the character suffer any subsequent trial. Together, the two above-discussed approaches provide insight into Goldsmith's understanding of humanity. He believes we have the capacity to improve ourselves, to truly make ourselves strong enough to withstand tragedy, but also believes we are fickle and silly enough to forget this lesson as soon as we no longer need it. That Goldsmith can balance such a magnificent contradiction is evidence of his great talent.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Goldsmith was above all an entertainer. For instance, there are two notes worth making about the law as he uses it. Firstly, the statute under which George is imprisoned did not actually exist in his day. Not until 1851 could a man be fined or imprisoned for challenging another man to a duel. In the case of Arabella's fortune, however, Goldsmith did exploit a real law for dramatic purposes. In 1753, Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act was passed to prevent clandestine marriages and marriages by those under 21 without parental consent, but it also resulted in conditions whereby men had more control over a woman's fortune. The squire almost employs this law to great effect.

These points serve to remind us that Goldsmith, a natural comedian, knew that his profundities about human character were useless if he did not first entertain. As discussed throughout this Note, he balances genre expectations with fascinating deviations from those expectations, thereby keeping his readers on their toes without ever totally confusing or alienating them. The novel has managed to maintain its reputation for so long because it delivers such a satisfying and recognizable story while also forcing us to question our very assumptions and expectations. Even in terms of its final pronouncements on morality, the novel is neither simplistic nor unduly challenging. Some readers can take a self-satisfied lesson from it, while others can dig deeper to ask larger questions. Goldsmith balances these opposites not from imperfection, but from a singular understanding of narrative and humanity.