Oliver Goldsmith (November 10, 1730? – April 4, 1774) was an Anglo-Irish author and one of the most versatile English writers of the eighteenth century. Goldsmith wrote poetry, plays, essays, fiction, journalism, histories, biographies, and more.
Although a good portion of Goldsmith's vast oeuvre is considered uneven by today's standards, a sizeable handful of his works in various genres are considered eighteenth-century classics, including his novel The Vicar of Wakefield, his pastoral poem “The Deserted Village,” his collection of semi-fictional essays Citizen of the World, and his popular comic play, She Stoops To Conquer. His play and novel deal with typical eighteenth-century themes of social class and position, and wealth and poverty. In his novel, the vicar's life seems patterned on the Book of Job, as everything is taken away from him only to be restored at the end. The eighteenth century was the century of sentimentalism, which is based on a view of the innate goodness of people who find themselves at odds with a sometimes "sinful" world.
Goldsmith was a contemporary and confidant of Dr. Johnson (Samuel Johnson) and the two writers often exchanged ideas, leading to perhaps one of the most fruitful intellectual partnerships in eighteenth-century English letters. Goldsmith became a member of "The Club," one of the most influential circles of literary and intellectual figures in the eighteenth century, associating with Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, and James Boswell. Although he is not as popular as he once was, Goldsmith remains one of the major writers of eighteenth-century England; he is still acclaimed by many critics for his effortlessly masterful prose-style that makes even his slightest works eminently readable. Greatly respected by the writers of his own time, Goldsmith is one of the luminaries of his period.
Goldsmith was born in Pallas, near Ballymahon, County Longford, Ireland, where his father, the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, was curate of the parish of Forgney. When Goldsmith was two years old, his father was appointed rector of the parish of Kilkenny West in County Westmeath. The family moved to nearby parsonage at Lissoy, and continued to live there until his father's death in 1747. From Goldsmith's own memoirs, it is apparent that his childhood under his minister-father was an unhappy one, and the young boy spent most of his time alone, keeping to himself and reading.
Goldsmith earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1749 at Trinity College, Dublin, studying theology and law but never getting as far as ordination. Goldsmith recalled his years at Trinity College as some of the gloomiest of his life. After three aimless years in Ireland, Goldsmith crossed the channel to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. After concluding his brief studies at Edinburgh, and despite having almost no money, Goldsmith somehow undertook a long tour of the European continent.
On his return four years later, in 1756, he settled in London, working numerous oddjobs. Perennially in debt and addicted to gambling, Goldsmith found his financial niche when he took up a job as a hack writer—producing huge quantities of (generally poor) translations and other articles. He was able to produce a massive output of hack writing for the publishers of London, and he began to attract fame with some of the more painstaking works he produced during this period. His career among the intellectual elite is generally regarded to begin with the 1759 publication of Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, which earned him the admiration of Samuel Johnson, who, along with Goldsmith and others, was a founding member of "The Club."
Among members of the club, Goldsmith was notorious for his ugliness, his Irish brogue, and his complete ineptitude in spoken conversation. Dr. Johnson famously quipped that "No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had," and Goldsmith would become one of Johnson's constant companions, featured prominently in Boswell's Life of Johnson as a major character in his own right. The combination of Goldsmith's literary genius with his ineptitude in spoken conversation led Horace Walpole to give him the much quoted epithet of "The Inspired Idiot."
Although Goldsmith has become something of a legend because of his epic incompetence (this was a man who once failed to emigrate to America because he missed the ferry), he is just as legendary for his prodigious output and his masterful prose. After the publication of a few minor works, Goldsmith truly rose to fame after publishing a series of Chinese Letters, essays written from the perspective of a Chinese philosopher visiting England. The Chinese Letters were collected and published in a single volume in 1762 entitled The Citizen of the World, and they remain one of the most entertaining and insightful works of non-fiction written in the eighteenth century.
Always struggling to make ends meet despite his success, Goldsmith also undertook during this time an enormous quantity of hack work, producing a number of histories, travelogues and biographies—one of which, the Life of Richard Nash, of Bath, Esq. is considered to be one of the best-written biographies of the period. He also produced, in 1764, one of his most famous poems, “The Traveller,” written from the perspective of an idealistic Englishman traversing the European countryside.
In 1766 Goldsmith wrote what is almost certainly his most remembered work, his only novel, The Vicar of Wakefield. An unusual novel which begins as a light romance and then descends into near-Greek tragedy, written in the form of a fictitious memoir, The Vicar of Wakefield was immensely popular in its time, and it is still read widely today by students and scholars as an example of the sentimental style of novels popular in eighteenth-century England.
In 1768 Goldsmith, who had already had success as a poet, historian, biographer, essayist and fiction-writer, turned to yet another genre: playwriting. His first play, The Good Natur'd Man, debuted in London to modest success. It was not until 1773, however, with the production of his comedy She Stoops To Conquer that Goldsmith would truly cement his reputation as a capable playwright. She Stoops to Conquer was one of the most popular comedies of the eighteenth century, continuing to be produced today.
Around this time Goldsmith also published “The Deserted Village,” his most enduringly popular work of poetry. “The Deserted Village,” remarkable for its melancholy and emotional depth at a time when most English poetry tended towards irony, has become one of the enduring classics of eighteenth-century literature. Although too lengthy to quote in full, an excerpt from the poem's memorable beginning—in which Goldsmith paints a sad portrait of a once-lively country village that has been all but worn away and abandoned—provides a glimpse of Goldsmith's considerable talent for rhyme and imagery:
- Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
- Where health and plenty cheered the labouring swain,
- Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
- And parting summer's lingering blooms delayed:
- Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
- Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
- How often have I loitered o'er thy green,
- Where humble happiness endeared each scene;
- How often have I paused on every charm,
- The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm,
- The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
- The decent church that topped the neighbouring hill,
- The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,
- For talking age and whispering lovers made.…
Goldsmith, always in debt, began to work even harder in the early 1770s. The work, however, took its toll on his health, and in 1774 he died after a brief illness. A monument to him was erected in Westminster Abbey with an epitaph written by Samuel Johnson.
The Vicar of Wakefield
The Vicar of Wakefield was written in 1761 and 1762, and published in 1766. It is briefly mentioned in Jane Austen's Emma, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Charlotte Brontë's The Professor, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther as well as his Dichtung und Wahrheit.
Dr. Primrose, his wife Deborah and their six children live an idyllic life in a country parish. On the evening of his son George's wedding to Arabella Wilmot, the vicar loses all his money through the bankruptcy of a merchant.
The wedding is called off, George is sent away to town and the rest of the family move to a new and more humble parish on the land of Squire Thornhill. On the way, they hear about the dubious reputation of their new landlord. Also, references are made to the squire's uncle Sir William Thornhill, who is known throughout the country for his worthiness.
A poor and eccentric friend, Mr. Burchell, whom they meet at an inn, rescues Sophia from drowning. She is instantly attracted to him, but her ambitious mother does not encourage her feelings.
Then follows a period of happy family life, only interrupted by regular visits of the dashing Squire Thornhill and Mr. Burchell. Olivia is captivated by Thornhill's hollow charm, but he also encourages the social ambitions of Mrs. Primrose and her daughters to a ludicrous degree.
Finally, Olivia is reported to have fled. First Burchell is suspected, but after a long pursuit Dr. Primrose finds his daughter, who was in reality deceived by Squire Thornhill. He planned to marry her in a mock ceremony and leave her then shortly after, as he had done with several women before.
When Olivia and her father return home, they find their house in flames. Although the family has lost almost all their belongings, the evil Squire Thornhill insists on the payment of the rent. As the vicar cannot pay, he is brought to gaol.
What follows now is a chain of dreadful occurrences. The vicar's daughter Olivia is reported dead, Sophia abducted and George is also brought to gaol in chains and covered with blood, as he had challenged Thornhill to a duel, when he had heard about his wickedness.
But then Mr. Burchell arrives and solves all problems. He rescues Sophia, Olivia is not dead and it emerges that Burchell in reality the worthy Sir William Thornhill, who travels through the country in disguise. In the end there is a double wedding: George marries Arabella, as he originally intended, and Sir William Thornhill marries Sophia. Finally even the wealth of the vicar is restored, as the bankrupt merchant is reported to be found.
Structure and narrative technique
The book consists of 32 chapters which fall into three parts:
- Chapters 1 - 3: beginning
- Chapters 4 - 29: main part
- Chapters 30 - 32: denouement
Chapter 17, when Olivia is reported to be fled, can be regarded as the climax as well as an essential turning point of the novel. From chapter 17 onwards it changes from a comical account of eighteenth-century country life into a pathetic melodrama with didactic traits.
There are quite a few interpolations of different literary genres, such as poems, histories or sermons, which widen the restricted view of the first person narrator and serve as didactic fables.
The novel can be regarded as a fictitious memoir, as it is told by the vicar himself by retrospection. Comic situations come from the fact that the reader is often leading in knowledge, because sometimes hints are given which point to the happy ending of the novel.
In literary history books The Vicar of Wakefield is often described as a sentimental novel, which displays the belief in the innate goodness of human beings. But it can also be read as a satire on the sentimental novel and its values, as the vicar's values are apparently not compatible with the real "sinful" world. It is only with Sir William Thornhill's help that he can get out of his calamities.
Moreover, an analogy can be drawn between Mr. Primrose's suffering and the Book of Job. This is particularly relevant to the question of theodicy.
Other notable works
- The Citizen of the World (1762)
- The Traveller (1764)
- Campbell, Gordon (ed.). Oliver Goldsmith (Everyman's Poetry Series). ISBN 0460878271
- Dobson, Austin (ed.). The Complete Poetical Works of Oliver Goldsmith. IndyPublish.com. ISBN 158827277X
- Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield (Oxford’s World Classics). Reissue edition, 1999. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192839403
- Goldsmith, Oliver. She Stoops to Conquer. New edition, 1991. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486268675
- Irving, Washington. Life of Oliver Goldsmith. Reprint edition, 2001. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Fredonia Books. ISBN 1589632362
- Rousseau, George. 1985. Goldsmith: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985. ISBN 0710205112
- Works by Oliver Goldsmith. Project Gutenberg
- The Deserted Village
- Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography by Washington Irving from Project Gutenberg
- Goldsmith (English Men of Letters series) by William Black from Project Gutenberg
- Information on Goldsmith
- Oliver Goldsmith Resource
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