Here’s another undergraduate paper (senior year at TMC), this one a straightforward thematic reading of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. I remember being told, I believe by Dr. Hotchkiss, to enjoy those undergraduate days of such reading and writing, because from graduate school forward there would always be loads of criticism in the way. He was not wrong. There are certainly compensations; but there are costs, and the simple pleasure of reading, understanding, and explaining has often been obscured by many another concern for months, even years, on end.
Here, then, something simple, with a lot of little hints (often pretty unformed) of some of the key issues that would recur in my Religion & Literature work: an anti-dualist theme, coded as suspicion of the “Platonic” here (the Vicar is nothing if not a Boethian, methinks); a very Milton-inflected insistence on “conscience” that provided a few more years of fuel for a misguided, defiant individualism; an interest in the temporal workings of Providence, and the integration of interior with public life.
The hero of this book . . . is drawn as ready to teach, and ready to obey, as simple in affluence, and majestic in adversity. In this age of opulence and refinement whom can such a character please? Such as are fond of high life will turn with disdain from the simplicity of his country fire-side. Such as mistake ribaldry for humour will find no wit in his harmless conversation; and such as have been taught to deride religion will laugh at one whose chief stores of comfort are drawn from futurity (Goldsmith 305).
In The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith presents both an easy, comfortable novel—and an horrible picture of a Job scenario acted out in eighteenth-century England. The interesting progression of the Vicar’s reduction from affluence to debtor’s prison, from a happy family to a more-than-decimated one, is told with all the charm of a pious (if somewhat pedantic) rustic. The Vicar and his family, though in many ways caricatures, are at the same time well-developed and likeable characters. Thus the reader’s sympathies are directed to the Vicar, and the points the Vicar makes at the depth of his suffering are as direct and true as the points he makes before it are often fatuous. The Vicar’s progress from affluence to poverty to affluence again is more than just a story, however; it is a learning process, at the end of which the Vicar and those around him have “learned their lessons” and are fit for a Providential change of fortunes once more. Along the way, however, a view of God’s relation to man is presented which is an mixture of truth, error and good intentions. In allowing the Vicar’s theodicy to be the crux of his return to good fortune, Goldsmith sets before the reader an idea and leaves it up to his good judgment to learn from the example, as he makes clear from his own preface (quoted above).
The Vicar’s beginning state, that of unsuspecting and comfortable affluence, is best characterized by simplicity. With his wife and family, frequent visits from neighbors and relatives, and good prospects for the future, the Vicar’s happiness is real but untried. Perhaps the best description of the “good life” for the Vicar can be found in the catalog of “those little rubs which Providence sends”:
My orchard was often robbed by school-boys, and my wife’s custards plundered by the cats or the children. The ‘Squire would sometimes fall asleep in the most pathetic parts of my sermon, or his lady return my wife’s civilities with a mutilated curtesy. But we soon got over the uneasiness caused by such accidents, and usually in three or four days we began to wonder how they vext us (306,7).
The family living is resigned to the Vicar’s wife’s care, while the Vicar bestows his salary to the unfortunate as the family has sufficient wealth to be able to afford such gifts. Thus there is no criticism to be made against the Vicar’s state of affluence, except that in his simplicity the Vicar wants some prudence; which is no grave fault, he never having had need of much. The parson’s plan for managing his parish is charming in its simplicity; he “set a resolution . . . of being acquainted with every man in the parish, exhorting the married men to temperance and the bachelors to matrimony . . . it was a common saying that there were three strange wants at Wakefield, a parson wanting pride, young men wanting wives, and ale-houses wanting customers” (308,9). Surely there is nothing in this to criticize. There is already present, in seedling form, the message which will become the book’s theme: “those little rubs which Providence sends to enhance the value of its favours” (306) are here minor mishaps; later, as the trouble grows and the Vicar learns greater prudence, he will also deepen out this view into an entire theodicy—and an evangelistic message.
The Vicar’s troubles begin when his pedantic pursuit of a minor theological battle ends up barring his son’s marriage; immediately on the heels of this gap between his simplicity and necessary prudence comes the loss of his fortune. Still, in the face of his own principles, the Vicar is honest when he refuses to dissemble until after the wedding. Here a paradox begins to open up. It is obvious that the parson’s scruple over remarriage (after the death, not divorce, of a spouse) is spurious; at the same time, it is obvious that he is right to stick to his conscience, rather than prudential considerations which might press him to dishonesty. This upholding of even a meaningless scruple against strong motives to bend becomes one of the Vicar’s primary characteristics throughout the story.
The descent takes several stages. First, the family is financially driven down into middle-class living, compelled to move to a new parish and take up farming to add to their living. The Vicar presses the family to adjust their standard of living to the new situation, with some success. The temptation to press up to the level of affluence is subdued, and the simplicity of affluence is replaced by a readily discovered sufficiency. In learning to be content with enough, rather than to rely upon the comforts of wealth, the family becomes able to live within its means and to provide for itself well enough.
The next level of the decline is when the family begins to be torn apart by the struggles of maintaining their standard of living, with the various social agendas attached to bourgeois life. From portraits to horses, the family tries to live up to the imagined expectations of those who style themselves better—often over the protests of the Vicar, though he acquiesces in them when he believes they may have some practical benefit. These attachments which seem to have so much promise fall through quickly, and the family are left with only the struggles. As they descend below the middle class toward the lower class, the struggle to hold the family together becomes greater. The desires of each to be more than their present circumstances will allow is difficult for even the Vicar to deny; and a series of unwise attempts to improve their economic condition result only in further losses. The family dissolution continues when Olivia, the oldest girl, elopes with the profligate Squire Thornhill. In pursuing her (by a false trail carefully laid to deceive him), the Vicar exhausts his health and his resources, finds his son George who has been wandering the continent since the loss of funds to support his education, and sees him off to a commission in the Army. Returning home, he finds Olivia nearly dead in an inn near town; he brings her back with him just in time to see the house burn down.
With the burning down of the house, the Vicar’s family begins its slide from the lower class into the underclass. This is completed when the Vicar is cast in debtor’s prison and his family dispossessed of their lands by the Squire, when the Vicar refuses to withdraw his objection to the Squire’s marrying another woman. The social context is complex and largely irrelevant to this exposition: the key fact is that the Vicar is once more standing on a scruple that many would vacate to the prudential considerations that weigh against his stand. In this case, however, it is more than a matter of his beliefs in some arcane theological controversy; it is his daughter’s honor which is at stake. In taking his stand, the Vicar ends up imprisoned, burned from the fire and ill; Olivia is believed dead, Sophia kidnapped; George (the eldest son) is arrested on a capital charge (for challenging the Squire). The dissolution of the family is complete; though the younger sons remain, the underclass pattern of living disrupted by constant chaos and the seducing influence of lower characters has manifested fully.
However, the Vicar remains faithful, preaching to the prisoners until some actually begin to reform their lives; and it is in this context, on the occasion when the misfortunes have been capped by the news of George’s imprisonment, that the Vicar delivers at last the full message which has been weaving itself throughout Goldsmith’s dialectical narrative. In the message, the Vicar distinguishes between philosophical and religious modes of dealing with the pain in the world:
“philosophy . . . tells us that life is filled with comforts, if we will but enjoy them; . . . that though we unavoidably have miseries here, life is short, and they will soon be over. Thus do these consolations destroy each other; for if life is a place of comfort, its shortness must be misery, and if it be long, our griefs are protracted. Thus philosophy is weak; but religion comforts in an higher strain” (437).
The error, according to the Vicar, lies in the shortness of the view; the exigencies of this life cannot be stretched into anything like a fulfilling pattern. Rather, the Vicar advocates an Irenic view of the world’s troubles: “Man is here . . . fitting up his mind and preparing it for another abode” (437). Of course, the Vicar’s religion has more than a little Platonist philosophy in it; he speaks of the “good man” who “leaves the body and is all a glorious mind” (437). Therefore, “to religion . . . we must hold in every circumstance of life for our truest comfort; for if we are already happy, it is a pleasure to think that we can make the happiness unending; and if we are miserable, it is very consoling to think that there is a place of rest. Thus to the fortunate religion holds out a continuance of bliss, to the wretched a change from pain” (437).
It is at this point that the critique becomes applicable; to steal a march from the Marxists, this sort of religion is the “opiate of the masses” if not carefully tempered. It gives to those who are downcast hope in the hereafter rather than temporal hopes, and directs them to accept the exchange as for their benefit. It gives to those who are wealthy and stay within the bounds of religion no direct connection with the well-being of those around them; after all, their concern is with the way they are presently building toward their eternal happiness. However Goldsmith may shape the plot in The Vicar of Wakefield, teaching such as this tends to dull the daily activity of the poor in acquiring means of betterment and the rich in aiding them.
The dialectic is completed; having uttered the whole truth at last, the Vicar is soon delivered from his trials: he is released from prison, finds Olivia alive and Sophia rescued; George is freed; the family is restored to affluence; and Olivia’s honor is upheld. Sophia and George are married, and all is well. Though there is no causal link between the Vicar’s speech and the resolution which immediately follows, the thematic relation is too obvious; having realized the understanding necessary to his fuller appreciation of Providence, the Vicar is Providentially delivered and restored to that simplicity of life—but now with greater wisdom. Thus does Goldsmith, under the guise of a tale, take the reader through the entire development of a worldview; and thus does the Vicar end by saying, “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” (461).
Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield and other writings. (New York: Random House, 1955)