Une peinture représentant un groupe de personnes dans une pièce, dont un vicaire de Wakefield.

Structure and Plot in The Vicar of Wakefield

  1. Characters and characterization in The Vicar of Wakefield
  2. Structure and Plot in The Vicar of Wakefield

“The Vicar of Wakefield” is a classic novel by Oliver Goldsmith, first published in 1766. It’s often celebrated for its charming portrayal of rural English life, its exploration of virtue and resilience in the face of adversity, and its satirical take on the social and moral issues of its time. The narrative centres around Dr Primrose, the vicar of the title, and his family as they navigate a series of misfortunes that test their faith, virtue, and familial bonds.

Dr. Primrose, a man of modest wealth and virtue, lives contentedly with his wife and six children in a small parish. Their tranquil life is upended when the vicar’s financial stability is destroyed, leading the family to move to a more humble residence in another village. The family’s trials and tribulations include financial ruin, seduction, abduction, and imprisonment. Yet, throughout these hardships, Dr. Primrose’s steadfast faith, optimism, and paternal love remain unshaken, serving as a moral compass for his family and the novel’s readers.

Goldsmith employs a mix of satire, sentimentality, and moral reflection, making “The Vicar of Wakefield” a richly layered text. It satirizes the social and moral pretensions of the time, while also presenting a heartfelt exploration of human resilience and the importance of family. The novel’s enduring appeal lies in its complex characterizations, its humour, and its compassionate insight into human nature and societal flaws.

The story is meant to educate and teach a moral lesson to the reader. Yet, the vicar is a model of good behaviour, a paragon of virtue and he is presented comically. He has shortcomings, defects, and very visible weaknesses. The vicar adores showing off and teaching lessons. He displays his knowledge foolishly. He also has a pet theme: monogamy.

The narrative structure of “The Vicar of Wakefield” is notable for its use of a first-person perspective, allowing readers an intimate glimpse into Dr. Primrose’s thoughts and feelings. This approach lends the story an air of authenticity and emotional depth, as the vicar’s virtues and flaws are laid bare.

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Un collage de femmes et d'hommes côte à côte, représentant le progrès et la diversité de la civilisation britannique aux XIXe et XXe siècles.

British Civilisation and Literature: 19th and 20th centuries

  1. The 18th Century: the Age of Enlightenment
  2. The Gothic and the Fantastic
  3. The 19th Century : Romanticism in Art and Literature
  4. English Romanticism (1798-1832)
  5. 19th Century Literary Movements : Realism and Naturalism
  6. British Civilisation and Literature: 19th and 20th centuries

The Victorian Period: 1832-1900

The Victorian Period took place during the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Great Britain was then the first industrial, cultural and economic nation, with a thriving economy. It was a time of social and political stability and the colonies were a huge market for British products. The British population rose from 2 million people to 6.5 million people. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a demonstration of British power.

Yet, some social problems arose: trade unions were forbidden and this led to riots. The “Corn Laws” were used to keep the price of bread high. There was pauperism too: in 1864, the Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced to solve the problem of poverty with workhouses.

The Victorian Period was the age of two extremes: the poor working class and the middle classes, rich and comfortable. It was a 2-standard society. It was also an age marked by scientific and economic confidence and social and spiritual pessimism. Some great debates took place: intellectual activity and questioning on varied themes such as justice, liberty and progress. In 1859, Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”.

The Mid-Victorian society is still held together by Christian moral teachings. The stress was on the virtues of family life. Some saw the family as an agent of oppression, as an efficient means to maintain uniformity in society. It was also the time of the first real moves of the modern women’s movement. Yet, at the same time, there was a great respect for the matronly model provided by Queen Victoria herself: the stereotype of virtuous womanhood.

The 19th Century: the Great Age of the English novel and Gothic novel

With Charles Dickens, a new concern of the society emerged:

  • he was a clock (a huge worker)
  • his father was imprisoned for debt
  • he started working at the factory at 12

Dickens’ life inspired his novels: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, and Hard Times. They all revolve around the problems of society and the suffering of children.

He is never pathetic but sometimes humourous and ironic. Dickens’s depiction of the Victorian change of feelings from optimism and confidence at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837 to uncertainty and melancholy thirty years later.

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Un dessin animé parodique mettant en scène deux hommes jouant au croquet dans le style de Tristram Shandy.

To what extent is Tristram Shandy a parody?

At the beginning of a novel, a writer has to call up a world of his. It’s the “willing suspension of disbelief’ (Samuel Coleridge), which only happens if the situation is credible. It means that the reader accepts the story without always questioning the facts related, but he’s expected to take things seriously.

The opening chapter is likely to puzzle the reader who has some good reasons to feel disoriented. He suspects Sterne of playing a trick on him.

The novelist presents this text as a fictitious autobiography. “Opinions” means a documented essay, and “gent” (a short for gentlemen) specifies that the character occupies a high level in society. The quotation in Greek is erudite, it’s an epigraph (part of the paratext).

Playing with the rules of the realist novel

The story is presented as a jest.

A lack of chronological progression

The first-person narrator does not follow the linear, chronological progression of an autobiography. The story is “ab ovo” as Tristram is not born yet. He tells a story he cannot have witnessed: “My Tristram’s misfortunes began 9 months before he came to this world”.

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