Friday, November 18, 2011

The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith

Part fairy tale, part comedy, part Christian endurance test, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield juggles all these components in a perfectly handled performance. What the reader must decide is whether it is a spoof on Christianity, in the manner of the Marquis de Sade, or a work of genuine religious sentiment. As disaster and tragedy befalls narrator Dr Primrose, the vicar of the book’s title, the only impulse is to laugh.

Horace Walpole, a contemporary of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1730-1774), once described the Irish writer as an ‘inspired idiot’. Goldsmith mixed vices such as gambling and chronic indebtedness with an exalted literary style, hence Walpole’s ironic characterisation. If only the novelist, playwright and hack writer had followed the example of his inspired pen, rather than his baser instincts.

Goldsmith’s one and only novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), was sold to a publisher by the famous lexicographer and poet, Samuel Johnson, who was also a good friend. As Johnson describes it, Goldsmith was behind on his rent and in want of money. Goldsmith showed the manuscript to Johnson, who quickly saw its potential. The manuscript was sold, and Goldsmith was saved from the debtor’s prison.

The Vicar of Wakefield has been likened to the Old Testament’s Book of Job, as most of its plot is one long Christian endurance test. It centres on Dr Primrose, a vicar living on a reasonably comfortable competence. He has a family of six children, and a socially ambitious wife, Deborah. Dr Primrose’s troubles begin early in the novel, when he loses his fortune, and must take on a new living under the patronage of Squire Thornhill. More troubles ensue for the vicar and his family when the villainous Thornhill takes a liking to his two adult daughters, Olivia and Sophia. Things get worse and worse when Dr Primrose's house is burnt down, and he can’t pay his debts. Eventually he is thrown into a debtor’s prison.

Through all of these misfortunes and reversals, Dr Primrose sticks rigidly to his Christian values, even when a bit of flexibility seems to be the more prudent course. Everywhere through Dr Primrose’s narrative (the novel is written in the first person), it’s implied that the misfortunes that befall him form some sort of test of his Christian faith, hence the allusions to the Book of Job.

Dr Primrose’s narrative is full of sombre and dainty Christian homilies, yet despite this The Vicar of Wakefield has the overwhelming force and energy of a great comedy. While Dr Primrose’s mode of life in the end is vindicated, as the good end happily, and the bad unhappily, the novel’s pat resolution of complex, worldly troubles makes its Christian moral wholly insubstantial and largely unbelievable. Dr Primrose’s slightly pompous Christianity functions more as a device to work the gags off. Time and time again, when bad luck befalls Dr Primrose, he responds with his preposterously high minded attitude, unwilling or unable to see how the rapacious real world works around him. Dr Primrose, in fact, perfectly resembles an ‘inspired idiot’

The Vicar of Wakefield has, in fact, many similarities to the writings of the Marquis de Sade, more pointedly, his novel Justine (1791). In that upside down morality tale, Justine follows Christian precepts to the point of madness. After receiving so many real life lessons about how villainous people are, and how crime is the secret energy of the world, she continues to trust the world and trust in the Christian teaching that the meek shall inherit the earth. We cruelly laugh at Justine as she is clobbered and robbed because of her stubborn naivety.

Oliver Goldsmith doesn’t go this far, but the text points in that direction. The world in The Vicar of Wakefield moves at a fast pace, and is populated with rogues and unscrupulous villains. In this dangerous landscape, where street smarts are a necessity, Dr Primrose canters along at his own pace, almost willfully blind to the dangers and pitfalls around him. Lessons abound in the vagaries of human nature, but he remains wedded to his personal ideology despite the evidence of his own eyes. Dr Primrose, with his ridiculous self-assurance about his Christian world view, is more of a lovable buffoon than a spiritual teacher.

The Vicar of Wakefield reads like a comic fairy tale. So much plausible bad luck befalls Dr Primrose, yet quite unbelievably, all good fortune is fully restored to him in the end. The moral is, follow Dr Primrose’s good example, and such good luck will eventually fall to you. But as any rational reader of Dr Primrose’s misfortunes will realise, this is entirely laughable.

One wonders how the devout Samuel Johnson saw into print what appears to be a mild spoof on Christian teachings.

The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith. Published by Oxford World Classics. ISBN: 978-0199537549

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