5.09.2011

Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield

Everything ill that can happen to a person happens to the Vicar of Wakefield: death, fire, treachery, theft. In a broad sense, the story functions as an 18th century Book of Job. It's a charming look at how a person's faith in God and adherence to morals can sustain a person through hard times. The novel, Goldsmith's only fiction, is a charming read, more simple than Austen but less funny than Smollett. Written in the 18th century, it is an example of the novel in its earliest form, and Goldsmith follows the prevailing fiction habits of the day, creating a story that functions not only as satire, but also as morality tale. Goldsmith resists the epistolary form and opts for a first-person narrative, allowing us to the see events through the benevolent, and stubborn, eyes of the Vicar himself, Dr. Primrose. (I suspect this is where one of my favorite sayings derives: led down the primrose path. Dr. Primrose is misled quite often.)

Some critics have argued that Primrose is a silly man, a person easily double-crossed because he trusts too easily. There is some evidence to support this, but Primrose can also be interpreted as patient, faithful, well-meaning, a man who follows his values even if it would be easier to forget them. Heaven is the ultimate goal, and, though having a pleasant time in the temporal world isn't a bad thing, the most important point to consider is one's relationship with God, not how you're faring in wealth or comfort. By the end of the novel, Primrose's spate of bad luck begins to stress credulity, but Goldsmith is quick to point out the happenstances of life, the bits of coincidence that either shine propitiously or ruinously on someone's fate. Good things happen just as quickly as bad things, and one has to be prepared with good behavior and a strong family to take advantage. Just when I began to wonder if this novel is merely a list of bad moments, luck returns, concluding the novel with a satisfying wedding - another habit of (some) 18th century fiction. Primrose is anything but silly. He is an example of someone who believes in the divine plan, the notion that life will work out if one follows the rules, and if it doesn't, heaven exists to salve the wounds life imposes.

As with all great fiction, though, The Vicar of Wakefield asks us to reflect on our own behavior - in this instance, how one acts in the face of adversity. Regardless of belief in God, Primrose's behavior broadly stresses the importance of acting well as its own means to an end. Things may not always work out - though they ultimately do for Primrose - but at least a person can adhere to correct values and good behavior in the process. Those who do usually end up in a good place.

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