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.

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. He is an obsessive character: “I valued myself upon being a strict monogamist”.

The novel’s structure

The structure is the general framework, the novel’s design, and the way it is constructed. The structure is static. The plot is how the various episodes are linked together. The plot is dynamic.

The symmetrical design

“The Vicar of Wakefield” is carefully planned: it is made of 32 chapters, an even number. The turning point is in Chapter 17 when Olivia is abducted (eloped). It can be said that the novel’s action hinges on Chapter 17.

The symmetry that acts in a rotative was a common feature in the first half of the 18th century:

  • the Palladian School (1730-1750) and the horse guards at Whitehall
  • landscape gardening introduced geometric design with well-proportioned flowerdales. Le Notre had a huge influence.

Towards the end of the 18th century, a new model was introduced: the picturesque. Gardens then turned into wilderness (shamrock, grottoes). The garden became a wild space, in a move from order to imagination.

The “The Vicar of Wakefield” corresponds to the very end of classicism and proves the way people used to think in the 18th century. The ethos of the age was reason, moderation and temperance. It was an era characterized by stability, with a reluctance to change and the choice of the middle ground. In religion, It was the Anglican way, the “via media” between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

Patterns of correspondences

The structure conveys the author’s attachment to order and permanence: the first 3 chapters of the novel and the last 3 chapters mirror each other. The narrator is designed as a diptych (made of two parts). There is a whole network of echoes and correspondences between the first 16 chapters and the other remaining 16.

Chapters 1 and 32 may be related as if they formed the outer envelope of the story: family harmony is the topic.

  • In Chapter 1, Primrose, the head of the family, introduces the family circle following a principle of hierarchy: his wife Deborah, his offspring. His eldest son is George (like King George III), and his daughters are Sophia and Olivia (their names are from romances, “Sophia” means wisdom in Greek and she is the wiser of the two sisters). The first son is favoured (primogeniture) and we must wait till p. 66 to learn about Dick and Bill.
  • In chapter 32, a double wedding is staged: Sophia and Sir William Thornhill, and George and Miss Anabella Wilmot, which corresponds to the tradition of Shakespearian comedies. Happiness is restored and order is reintroduced.

Chapters 2 and 31 introduce a peripeteia, a sudden change of fortune.

  • Chapter 2 is the sudden break-off of George’s wedding to Anabella which introduces an unexpected development. It breaks a second bad news: the vicar learns he is ruined.
  • In chapter 31, the peripeteia is brought on by an unexpected development in the plot: Squire Thornhill is shown to be guilty, a villain.

Chapters 3 and 30 have a striking correspondence:

  • In chapter 3, Primrose pays Burchell’s bill at an inn.
  • in chapter 30, Burchell can do a good turn to the vicar. Burchell rescues the Primroses from imprisonment. The mask is taken off and the identity is revealed. Burchell is the “deus ex machina”, the character who unravels the plot.

All in all, the symmetrical pattern is perceptible throughout the whole novel. The first half of the novel (until chapter 16) is characterized by light-hearted comedy scenes, scenes of harmony with Nature (insistence on seasons), and family happiness. The second half of the novel shows a series of catastrophes and tragedies the poor Primrose family seems unable to cope with.

The sentimental plot

The story’s events are not very plausible: there are no attempts to depict life in its true state. Goldsmith relies too much on coincidence and introduces many reversals of fortune.

Sometimes, the plot has been criticized: the sudden changes have been described as flaws and shortcomings. The “The Vicar of Wakefield” would be botched, bungled, and not very carefully planned. On the contrary, the novel’s structure is based on 32 chapters and has been indeed planned. The explanation is that Goldsmith used a form of plotting which was fashionable in the 18th century: the sentimental plot.

Sensibility and sentimentalism

Sentimentalism is an aesthetic movement, which consisted in exploiting people’s capacity for compassion, tenderness and sympathy. Sentimental novels include Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” or Henry Mackenzie’s “A Man of Feeling”.

The sentimental plot aims to move the reader. Its purpose o to push the reader to feel sorry for the miseries of mankind. The sentimental novel is a reaction to the austerity and rationalism of the neo-classical period (geometry) and a reaction to Calvinism since with Calvinism, a mood of pessimism settled in. Calvinists believed that man was corrupted, in a negative and depraved image.

Yet, in the 18th century, in France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote “Discours sur l’Origine de l’Égalité” (1755), with the idea that man was naturally good and that society was evil. Human nature can be improved: this must strike people’s emotions rather than reason. Humans can feel compassion through art: it is the belief in the innocence of man, who is in a “state of nature”; and the refinement of emotion.

Emotionally-charged scenes

The plot is a rapid succession of tragic scenes for which the reader has not been sufficiently prepared. The reader also expected to feel emotionally involved.

In “The Vicar of Wakefield”, the two daughters are violently snatched away by an anonymous captor. The plot insists on the tragic aspect:

  • Olivia’s case is very tragic and full of emotions because the announcement of her rapt is made by her little brother. It is a play with pathos.
  • In Sophia’s case, Mrs Primrose breaks the news to her husband who is in prison. It is rather tragic and the purpose is to arouse the reader’s pity through exclamative constructions that show a state of total despair.

One tragedy is immediately followed by another: Sophia’s abduction, and George in prison… there is an emphasis and insistence on the tragedy through the use of exaggeration and hyperbole. The point is to invite the reader to feel by proxy or vicariously Primrose’s emotions.

The plot machinery

The plot is regular and systematic: it is a mechanical device, like a clockwork mechanism, with no surprise. There is a succession of ups and downs, with lots of downs at the end. In the beginning, we have joyful moments. The reader expects disaster to strike soon.

The scene of the limmer, when the Primrose family is painted is a “conversation piece” where the family is fixed at a moment in time:

  • The family circle is gathered,
  • The background is artificial,
  • The characters are dressed up.

In Chapter 16, the painting represents happiness at its highest. Chapter 17 is about Olivia’s abduction (unhappy), then Olivia’s recovery (happy), and then the house burns (unhappy): there is a pendulum movement that oscillates between bliss and calamity.

The rise and fall pattern becomes a theme. The vicar constantly insists on the fact that “man’s destiny is ascending from the heights of ambition and descending from the summits of pleasure” (Chapter 18). The vicar plays with the reader’s emotions. The pace of the succession is so quick that even the vicar gets lost (p. 101).

Are we supposed to believe in the plot without any distance or is there any other level of reading?

A digressive novel

Goldsmith aims to teach a moral lesson to the reader. But if there is coherence, the novel is nevertheless digressive.

Goldsmith’s ideology is consistent from beginning to end. He feels nostalgia for rural and bucolic England. The vicar is politically attached to monarchy and an authoritarian king to protect the weak against the rich. There is a rejection of the Whigs but a fragmentation in form, a unity in vision.

A picaresque tale

The structure is loose: it is an episodic structure. The story depends on the encounters the main protagonist makes on his way. Providence plays a role: Destiny is the force that guides the protagonist.

Here are two examples of picaresque narratives:

  1. The vicar travels to recover his daughters (chapters 18 and 21) and goes to the races (Epsom). There are digressions on theatrical art p.99.
  2. George’s travel is the history of a philosophic vagabond. It’s an embedded narrative: Goldsmith toured the continent in 1755 and visited Amsterdam, Louvain, and Paris… the tale is based on encounters.

A philosophical tale

The philosophical tale is a form of fiction writing which was popularized by Samuel Johnson in “Rasselas” in 1759: the ideas and opinions prevail over the plot and action. The action is simply a peg on which to hand a long argument.

In Vicar, we find examples of such philosophical tales:

  • Chapter 19: Wilinson is a butler who pretends to be the master of a house. He holds a long discussion in which he exposes and defends the Whig politics: freedom of the press and power to the bourgeoisie. He is opposed to Primrose, who is a conservative (monarchy is a divine right). Goldsmith expresses his opinions through the vicar. The story is a pretext to express political ideas.
  • Chapter 24: Primrose’s defence of religion. Religion is necessary to relieve the pain and suffering of the poor.

Ballads and poems

The Ballad of Ewin and Angelina includes a poetic moment on the theme of love which is starting between Burchell and Sophia. There is a parallel between the couples Edwin/Angelina and Burchell/Sophia.

There is an elegy on the death of a mad dog: it is a parody which warns the reader against the dangers of jumping to conclusions. Sometimes appearances can be deceptive, and deceitful.

Finally, another poem of two stanzas that could be read as a woeful lament (which can be turned into music). It can happen when a naive girl is seduced by a rake. It must also remind the importance of music in the 18th century.


The structure of “The Vicar of Wakefield” is an example of mixed genres. Goldsmith built his story on a fairy tale story (chapter 13, p.63 is based on “The Giant and The Dwarf”). Goldsmith includes biblical myths such as the story of Job (absolute poverty) and archetypal patterns: the plot can be found in any culture. In “The Vicar of Wakefield”, this could be a powerful character, a god-like figure who comes along ordinary people, disguising himself and observing their behaviour: Sir William Thornhill (Burchell).

Goldsmith’s main achievement consists of including a first-person narrator who is an ironist (who denounces the weaknesses of other characters) without managing to be convincing all the time. The ironist can be an object of ridicule himself. The vicar is the object of dramatic irony for he is partially blind: he does not see what his daughters do when he sends away Burchell.

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