Irony in the Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield Research Paper

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Failure of Family: The Irony of the Vicar of Wakefield

Tolstoy states that every happy family is the same (Tolstoy 1). He says this because happiness is the effect of a life well lived and not of any other cause, which is also the philosophy of Plato (Plato 47). Unhappy families, however, are unhappy mainly because they have failed to live well, or virtuously. That is the case of the Primrose family in The Vicar of Wakefield: the family undergoes terrible misfortunes mainly because it fails to live for the good or to understand its own place in the world. The primary responsibility for the misfortune falls on the parents who fail to recognize their own faults and do not raise their children correctly. The parents also fail to realize who they are in social terms and thus deceive themselves as to their actual social value. This paper will show how the failure of family in Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield is what causes the misfortune to happen in the novel and how it is only through rescue outside the family that happiness and order are restored.

A good family is one that is humble and virtuous and does not simply talk about how good it is to be humble and virtuous as Dr. Primrose does at the beginning of the novel (Goldsmith 1). A real family interacts with one another, is patient with one another, suffers wrongdoings, and does not go around judging others. It does not promote arrogance, but faithfully adheres to lessons passed down to it from generation to generation (Rollins). Yet the Primrose family hardly interacts except to lecture one another. It does not patiently accept wrongs. It is judgmental. And it is not very bright. It is disconnected with the past and its only focus is on the immediate incidents within the immediate family's own history -- as related by Dr. Primrose. The fact that the father of the family does not ever really raise his children (his son he sends off to school and his daughters are empty-headed) shows that he does not fulfill his duty as a father. He thinks that he is a good man just because he marries and has children, which he says is what an "honest man" should do (Goldsmith 1). But it can be seen that Dr. Primrose views himself as an "honest man" first and then looks at his actions to support his assumption. Instead, he should look at his actions to see whether he is an honest man. He is backwards and unreliable as a narrator (Nunning 236).

To some extent, Dr. Primrose is like Mr. Collins in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. They both might mean well but their actions show them to be ridiculous to anyone with a grasp of good sense. As Zomchick states, Dr. Primrose cannot be the leader he should be "in his own family without transgressing the text's sentimental presuppositions and destroying the harmonious domestic idyll that the narrative struggles to maintain" (Zomchick 169). In this sense, the whole family dynamic is set up around pretensions, self-deception and sentimentality. And it all stems from Dr. Primrose who is a naive individual when it comes to what the real world is all about.

So while a good family is one in which everyone understands his role and does his duty, the Primrose family fails to comprehend the basic nature of family. Family gives more than it takes (Rollins), but the Primrose family is all about taking honor for itself that it is not due. For example, Dr. Primrose calls himself honest without giving any evidence for this claim. His daughter calls herself well-trained in converting "free thinkers" yet the evidence shown suggests just the opposite (Goldsmith 21). And the mother and father hardly have any real interaction with their children. A good mother, for instance, has a strong relationship with her daughters and loves them unconditionally (Rollins), but this is not the case with Mrs. Primrose. She has to be "prepped" by Dr. Primrose to accept the return of her daughter after the latter runs away. A good Christian mother would not do that if she followed the advice of St. Paul. When it comes to parents, St. Paul says, "But if any man have not care of his own, and especially of those of his house, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (I Tim. 5:8). Thus, one could argue that Mr. And Mrs. Primrose do not even act like Christian parents to some extent. This may be argued in the case of Olivia, who is not given this knowledge or understanding. Instead, her parents accept that she knows what she is doing when she speaks of converting a man who does not share her faith (Goldsmith 21). It is a moment of poor parenting on their part.

In fact, the delusion is evident from the beginning. Immediately he begins his story, Primrose states that a good wife will provide clothes and food for the family and that this is his wife's best quality that she is able to do this. But there is more to being a wife and mother than simply cooking in the kitchen and sewing. There is also more to being a good father than preaching from a pulpit and telling others to be virtuous. Part of what it takes to be a good father is to raise your children to know right from wrong and this is not what happens in the story, as the family cannot tell good people from bad people at all (as is evident in their seduction by a man who has evil plans). So when they fall apart and have to be rescued by an outsider, it is not surprising.

The fact that Primrose is not who he thinks he is also evident from the beginning. He thinks of himself as masculine and good (Goldsmith 1), and indeed he is given two distinguished titles -- Reverend and Doctor -- and an august Christian name, Charles. His surname Primrose, however, is not very masculine. Prim is a term that is similar to prudish -- which means overly proper -- and is often associated with a woman, as in a "prim and proper lady." Rose is a flower and has a feminine association. So, as head of church and family, the Vicar should be a manly sort of man. Yet his name alone tells the reader that he is fastidious and full of affectation. The latter quality is one that leads to personal deception, and thus the reader should be on guard against being deceived by Primrose's own assessment of himself as an "honest man" (Goldsmith 1) who considers himself well-educated. As, Prof. Ahmad states in his lecture, Dr. Primrose is an unintentionally ironic character, who can easily deceive the reader about what is happening in the story because he is so well-intentioned. Yet, the astute reader who has good sense will find humor in the ironies that Dr. Primrose unintentionally displays (Goldsmith 3).

Dr. Primrose shows how oblivious he is to good sense, when he praises himself for being read by "a happy few" when the tracts that he writes fail to sell well (Goldsmith 3). He then goes on to talk about composing an epitaph for his wife even though she is still very much alive and in it he talks about how she is "obedient unto death," even though this cannot even possibly have been proven true, since she still has much life to live. It is as though Primrose is browbeating his wife, though he probably does not realize it because with this great epitaph he is actually singing his own praises. He is saying, "Look at what a wonderful woman I married -- I am so intelligent to have married such a great one, and I will never marry another one even if she dies because I am a strict monogamist." The joke is apparent: he does not understand the meaning of monogamy at all. He also does not understand how a husband should behave, or what St. Paul says about being a husband. St. Paul states, "Husbands, love your wives" (Eph 5:25). Hanging a sign over a chimney reminding one's wife to be good is not an indication of real love but rather of a superiority complex. What kind of a husband would do such a thing? One who is either aware of the great joke and does it out of loving affection, or one who is unaware of the humor of the act and does it with all seriousness because he is, like Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice, a pompous buffoon without any sense of self.

Part of the reason for Primrose's self-deception comes from the fact that his country life is so tranquil and peaceful for so long. For twenty years he and his family sit by the fire-side and have their "adventures" but they never really…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. UK: Dover, 1995. Print.

Dahl, Curtis. "Patterns of Disguise in The Vicar of Wakefield." ELH -- Johns Hopkins

University Press, vol. 25, no. 2 (1958): 90-104. Print.

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. UK: Dover, 2004. Print.

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