9 Feb 2024

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

Historical Background

When The Vicar of Wakefield was published in 1766 the British Empire was in expansion and the Industrial Revolution had begun. However, despite the rising economic activity in British cities, rural areas like that of Goldsmith's childhood remained untouched, as is reflected in his prose and poetry.

The 18th. century applied the tools of the scientific revolution, empirical observation and research, to law, religion, economics and politics. This replaced the traditional faith in divine revelation as the source of knowledge.

Revolutionary ideas opposing the Absolute Monarchy and replacing it with accountability, were led by Locke in the UK the previous century and Rousseau in the 18th. They argued that authority came from the people, not from God. French soldiers returning home from the US war of independence (1775-1783), where they had supported the colonies against the British, brought republican values. Inspired in the Enlightenment these ignited France and led to the revolution of 1789 that abolished the absolute monarchy. 

In economics Adam Smith complained about mercantilism, the prevailing model of economic isolation, instead of trade. He proposed the novel theories of supply and demand, laissez-faire capitalism and minimum market regulation. The aim was that countries produce what they manufactured well and import what they did not. These ideas set a basis for neoliberalism in modern economic thinking.

In art there was a reaction to the previously Baroque and Rococo extravagances. The neoclassical movement looked to the Greco-Roman artistic ideals. This return to simplicity and harmony fitted well with the 18th. century philosophical vision based on rationality. The novel format arose, too, in this century with its insistence on fictional realism, consistent with contemporary scientific objectivity.

The Enlightenment debate also attempted to overcome traditional thinking by integrating the physical and the metaphysical. These were expressed in philosophical terms by British empiricism and French metaphysicians.

Literary background

The Vicar of Wakefield is a prime example of the sentimental novel, a late 18th-century genre, that traced the emotional responses of characters and readers to their situations.

It was a reaction to the previous century's rationalism, in line with novels like Ricardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768), and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). This tradition laid the way for later Gothic and Romantic novels.

The Vicar of Wakefield is similar to Tristram Shandy in its satire of the clichés of the sentimental novel which mixed tearful scenes and morality and where a pure heart is portrayed in characters' feelings about the beauties of nature and empathy with the sorrows of others. Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811) would later develop this satire with its sharp criticism of sentimentalism.