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Thread: February '14 Romanticism Reading: The Vicar of Wakefield by Goldsmith

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    Pièce de Résistance Scheherazade's Avatar
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    February '14 Romanticism Reading: The Vicar of Wakefield by Goldsmith

    In February, we will be reading The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith.

    Please share your thoughts and comments in this thread.

    You can download it from here.
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    "It is not that I am mad; it is only that my head is different from yours.”
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    Some comments on the first five chapters:

    Having looked up some biographic facts about the author, Oliver Goldsmith, I found that there is some disagreement about the exact year of his birth, listed in one source as 1728 and in another as 1730 (with a question mark.) Evidently there is no dispute about the date of his death, in April 1774.

    What is more intriguing for me is discovering three parallels between the author himself and the character he created, and in each case, the real life incidences are quite the opposite of their fictional manifestations.

    For instance, in Chapter II, when the Vicar describes his fellowship with a townsman, Wilmot -- the father of the girl the Vicar’s son hopes to marry –- one of their activities involves some minor wagering. As the Vicar confesses, “. . .I hated all manner of gaming, except backgammon, at which my old friend and I took a two-penny hit.” That sentence sparkles with the gentle humor which is the hallmark of this novel, but what I find even funnier is the fact that one of the subjects about whom Goldsmith chose to write a biography was Richard Nash. Richard “Beau” Nash was “a gamester in London,” apparently “amassing a fortune” to become an “unquestioned autocrat of society.” (Oxford Companion to English Literature.) “The Gambling Laws of 1740-5 deprived [Nash] of his source of income and his popularity waned after 1745. . .Goldsmith’s life of Nash, published in 1762, was probably written without personal knowledge of its subject, despite Goldsmith’s hints to the contrary.” (Ibid.) Whether Goldsmith was a gambler himself or an crusader against it, I guess we can agree that rather than “hating” it, as the Vicar announces, the author himself apparently found the subject fascinating.

    That same chapter contains another example of how Goldsmith’s biography differs from this novel. For reasons not entirely known, Goldsmith never married, but his most popular character holds matrimony in the highest esteem. Indeed the Vicar holds monogamy to such a sacred standard that he believes that widowers should not remarry. Since the prospective in-law himself plans to wed for a fourth time, he bristles at the Vicar’s stance, thus placing the impeding nuptials in doubt, along with the crash of the family finances, the bad news of which comes from the mouth of Wilmot himself.

    In a later chapter, in which the Vicar and his family are in the process of pulling up stakes and relocating to another parsonage, we are introduced to a new character, the family’s young landlord. Thornhill “. . .enjoys a large fortune, though entirely dependent on the will of his uncle, Sir William Thornhill.” The elder Thornhill’s good fortune, however, had not always been consistent. Blessed– -or perhaps cursed --with a preternatural sense of empathy and an overly generous nature, he had given away his entire bankroll, yet kept making promises because of inability to say “No.” Truly suffering from the loss of esteem from his former beneficiaries, he became determined to recoup more money, for the sole purpose of making good on his promises and thus redeeming his tarnished reputation. The older Thornhill “resolved to respect himself and laid down a plan of restoring his shattered fortune. For this purpose, in his own whimsical manner, he travelled through Europe on foot, and before he attained the age of thirty, his circumstances were more affluent than ever.”

    Again there is a direct parallel between that of the benevolent Thornhill and the author who created him, but once again both are direct opposites. Goldsmith himself traveled through Europe on foot; “during 1755-56 [he] wandered about France, Switzerland, and Italy reaching London destitute.” (Source: Oxford Companion. Italics mine.) He did physician’s work for a time, and possibly earned a medical degree from Trinity. But he soon dropped medicine to pursue a writing career.

    About Goldsmith’s writing style: Before I opened the novel, I had misgivings about reading 18th century prose. I feared that it might be ornate, impenetrable, or “old-fashioned”; at least in the modern print of the edition I have, all the “s’s” don’t look like “f’s”! (Apologies to Stan Freberg for stealing his joke.) Actually, I find Goldsmith’s prose to be clear and concise, quite elegant in its simplicity. This is a delightful surprise.

    It’s what a contemporary audience calls a “fast read,” and the only times I had to stop involved looking up a couple of terms with which I was unfamiliar:

    From Chapter IV:
    “They kept up the Christmas carol, sent true love-knots on Valentine morning, ate pancakes on Shrovetide, showed their wit on the first of April, and religiously cracked nuts on Michaelmas eve.”
    I was familiar with “Shrovetide,” which is equivalent to Mardi Gras in the Western hemisphere, where pancakes are part of the pre-Lenten delicacies. I’d never heard of “cracking nuts on Michaelmas,” though. I did realize that the term referred to the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel. I looked it up and found that the date was September 29.

    In the same chapter:
    “. . .[M]y wife herself retained a passion for her crimson paduasoy, because I formerly happened to say it became her.”
    Another sweetly humorous sentence, but I had to look up “paduasoy.” It’s a garment made of a rich material of roped silk, the origin of which is Padua, Italy.

    From Chapter V:
    “. . .[M]y wife and I would stroll down the sloping field, that was embellished with blue-bells and centaury. . .”
    With my pre-existing prejudice about eighteen century culture, I mistakenly assumed that “centaury” referred to a sculpture of the mythical creature in garden topiary. Actually,centaury is a small plant of the gentian family with flat clusters of red or rose flowers. The name does derive from a generic centaur, but a specific one, Chiron, who was believed to have discovered medicinal properties in this plant.

  3. #3
    The Poetic Warrior Dark Muse's Avatar
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    I got a bit of a late start on this one, but I am beigning to read it now.

    About Goldsmith’s writing style: Before I opened the novel, I had misgivings about reading 18th century prose. I feared that it might be ornate, impenetrable, or “old-fashioned”; at least in the modern print of the edition I have, all the “s’s” don’t look like “f’s”! (Apologies to Stan Freberg for stealing his joke.) Actually, I find Goldsmith’s prose to be clear and concise, quite elegant in its simplicity. This is a delightful surprise.
    This is quite amusing because I have something of an opposite reaction to Goldsmith's prose. I am finding reading it feels quite awkward and a bit cumbersome in a way. I really cannot get into the flow of the writing style which is making the reading of the book difficult because I find the cumbersome writing somewhat hard to follow at points so a few times I had to go back an reread paragraphs.

    I do enjoy the humor within the book, and it seems even when speaking of the misfortunes of the family there is something almost upbeat within the tone.

    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. ~ Edgar Allan Poe

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    Thank you so much, DM, for posting. I was beginning to feel a little lonely here.

    Once thing I'm starting to pick up about the kindly Vicar-- he certainly goes out of his way to avoid being too conspicuous or flashy, doesn't he? How about that section where he feels uncomfortable when his wife and daughters dress TOO well.
    The Vicar is so conscientious about appearing "humble" that it's become a source of pride. A little bit of a paradox, and thus another example of Goldsmith's humor.

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    The Poetic Warrior Dark Muse's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    Thank you so much, DM, for posting. I was beginning to feel a little lonely here.

    Once thing I'm starting to pick up about the kindly Vicar-- he certainly goes out of his way to avoid being too conspicuous or flashy, doesn't he? How about that section where he feels uncomfortable when his wife and daughters dress TOO well.
    The Vicar is so conscientious about appearing "humble" that it's become a source of pride. A little bit of a paradox, and thus another example of Goldsmith's humor.
    I just finished reading that chapter and I did think it was quite amusing. I hadn't considered the idea of the contradiction of him being over prideful of his humble circumstances (like a reverse vanity in a way I suppose, or maybe a different sort of vanity) but that is a good point.

    I liked how the scene was sort of a reverse of the expected. While in most cases one becomes ashamed of having to wear shabby clothes when they have had a fall in fortunes, in this case the vicar becomes embarrassed by his wife and daughters dressing up too well in spite of their economical condition, and is actually afraid that the fellow poor people will mock them or resent them for dressing too well.

    I also enjoyed the episode with Thornhill and the vicar being made uncomfortable by the attention Thornhill gives to his daughters, but the wife encourages it. I do think they make an interesting couple for in some ways they see to be quite opposites of each other, though the vicar seems happy in his marriage, and thus far the wife has not expressed any feelings of resentment or discontent with her husband for their circumstances, but clearly she still does value finer things, and wishes to try and improve the family condition, or at least the future prospects of her daughters, while he embraces their humbled state.

    The book seems to be filled with little contradictions as the example of the daughters. The one who compliments Mr. Thronhill disdains him and the one who criticized him admires him.

    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. ~ Edgar Allan Poe

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dark Muse View Post
    The book seems to be filled with little contradictions as the example of the daughters. The one who compliments Mr. Thronhill disdains him and the one who criticized him admires him.
    That's quite an astute observation, DM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dark Muse View Post
    This is quite amusing because I have something of an opposite reaction to Goldsmith's prose. I am finding reading it feels quite awkward and a bit cumbersome in a way. I really cannot get into the flow of the writing style which is making the reading of the book difficult because I find the cumbersome writing somewhat hard to follow at points so a few times I had to go back an reread paragraphs.
    I've been having hard go of it as well. I've given up but may try one more time.
    Do, or do not. There is no try. - Yoda


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    The episode of Moses going to the fair to sell the colt and than coming back with a case of worthless spectacles seemed so Jack in the Bean stalk like.

    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. ~ Edgar Allan Poe

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    Final thoughts on The Vicar of Wakefield

    Now that February is over and we’re well into March, it’s high time to post my final (albeit humble) remarks on The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith.

    Having read hundreds of novels -–good and bad-- over several decades, I’ll start by saying this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Indeed, it is one of the very few of which I could apply the cliché: “Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.” This might come to quite a surprise to my fellow LitNutters, but no one was more surprised than yours fooly!

    My affection for this novel isn’t merely because it is “important.” It does, however, epitomize English literature of the 18th century. Goldsmith’s only novel stands as a transitional work between the Neoclassical Age (of the “Age of “Enlightenment”) and the emergence of the Romantic Movement. The Vicar of Wakefield has elements of both literary traditions. Neoclassical values such as embracing the ideals of antiquity as well as the perfection of Natural Law can be found in the Vicar’s near-obsession with the ideal of monogamy along with his strongly-argued conservative opinions, especially about the monarchy. At the same time, the Vicar’s tightly-knit family embodies the rising middle class, along with the first stirrings of the individual’s right to self-determination, demonstrated by the eldest son, George – whom I think could be regarded as a stand-in for Goldsmith himself (or maybe the ideal of the person Goldsmith would have liked to have been.) Both literary movements revere Nature, and Goldsmith’s “novel of genius” is thus described (among the blurbs on the back cover of my paper-bound edition) as possessing "the sweetness of a pastoral poem.”

    But–what is it about this 1767 book that I find so compelling for the twenty-first century? 2014 has begun in an arguably-disengaged cultural wasteland of 24/7 news coverage and snarky “reality” shows. The pro forma point of departure is “irony,” where earnestly-recited lines are quickly categorized and dismissed as “camp.” A jaded, “been there/done that” attitude greets the debuts of new works, and the term “happy ending” has been a target of contempt, if not a euphemism in the punch lines of dirty jokes.

    In The Vicar of Wakefield we have a protagonist/narrator who lives according to a sunny world-view similar to that of Dr. Pangloss. Even when the vicar (erroneously) believes he’s been double-crossed by a trusted friend or taken in by a con man, his initial disdain is far from deep-seated. He’s not a man to hold a grudge – at least not for very long – and just as soon would forgive his enemies. At first, contemporary readers may find the vicar’s preternatural goodness to be unbelievable; they might prematurely judge the Primroses as naive and poor judges of character.

    What further strains modern credibility is the siege of misfortune upon the Primrose family –a relentless string of calamities-- indeed, one damned thing after another. The reader can’t resist comparing the Vicar with his Biblical counterpart, Job. Still the Vicar and his brood endure adversity with the similar gratitude of tornado-survivors who courageously say “We’ve lost everything, but we still have each other, thank God.”

    In heavier, less-capable hands, the grief-laden plot could have easily descended into the realm of bathos. But Goldsmith employs the light touch of wit, the all-important sense of perspective, along with a bit of subtle irony and paradox thrown in. While the overweening events may seem contrived, the underlying emotion is genuine: sentiment, as opposed to sentimentality.

    Don’t take my word for it. J.H. Plumb, the author of the afterword in the Signet Classics edition,puts it much more eloquently, as he asks why so many people read this novel with “immense pleasure, alien as it is to current literary interests or techniques:”

    “Primarily because it radiates goodness, and goodness most writers have found almost impossible to convey without being either sententious or tedious or both. Dr. Primrose, the hero, however, is a very good man. Of course, he is silly, gullible, too prone to charity, and a natural victim of all who are tyrannical and vicious. So he suffers, and how he suffers. The whole novel is an odyssey of undeserved disaster. Primrose is stripped of everything – home, daughters, son, reputation – only through trusting human beings. Yet he never loses hope, never, even in gaol, tires of life. His spirit proves unbreakable. He retains a relish for living in the worst of times. And that, of course, is the experience of humanity.”
    While running the risk of playing the part of spoiler here, I believe that the ending of The Vicar of Wakefield is quite similar to the effect of a Shakespearean comedy, in both senses of the word–-evoking joyous laughter as well as fulfilling the classical criteria for a “comedy”: the much-maligned “happy ending” in that feuding parties reconcile, couples formerly kept apart reunite in marriage, and above all, out of the previous chaos, order is restored.

    The final effect of The Vicar of Wakefield is the opposite of catharsis, the “purgative” cleansing of emotions the audience supposedly feels when the curtain falls on a classical tragedy. Nor is the ending of the novel the simplistic effect which 21st century “family films” shoot for– “the feel-good movie of the year.” What most novelists aim for and what so few achieve is an unqualified affirmation of life. This is what The Vicar of Wakefield does in such an endearing and irresistible way.
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 03-05-2014 at 05:51 PM.

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    Registered User mona amon's Avatar
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    February's book and I started and finished in April... My thoughts -

    It is a sort of picaresque novel about a good man who undergoes a series of calamities reminiscent of The Book of Job and never loses his faith in God or humanity. The Vicar is a preachy Goody Two-shoes but is saved by his affectionate nature, self-deprecating humour and other endearing traits, and the grace and moderation with which he steers us through the improbable events of his narrative.

    It is a delightful hodgepodge of a novel with all the digressions - verses, sermons, debates, stories, anecdotes and scenes of country life and domestic joys. The series of extraordinarily unfortunate calamities that befall the Vicar and his family and their total and unbelievable reversal at the end is almost satirical. Indeed, there's a strong temptation to read The Vicar as a satire for the sake of our own critical acumen, or here we are liking a book that is a simple, didactic, sentimental morality tale, with worst plot ever and cardboard characters. But it just does not work as a satire. It loses all its charm if we begin to doubt its naivete and sincerity.

    EDIT: Aunt Shecky, that was a well written review! I enjoyed it very much.
    Last edited by mona amon; 04-21-2014 at 08:51 AM.
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    Once thing I'm starting to pick up about the kindly Vicar-- he certainly goes out of his way to avoid being too conspicuous or flashy, doesn't he? How about that section where he feels uncomfortable when his wife and daughters dress TOO well.
    The Vicar is so conscientious about appearing "humble" that it's become a source of pride. A little bit of a paradox, and thus another example of Goldsmith's humor.

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