The Vicar of Wakefield: A Righteous Sinner - by Laura Dame
Author: Laura Dame Instructor: Ellen Perry
Course: English 241
Original date: 13 November 2019
The Vicar of Wakefield: A Righteous Sinner
Regardless of what one believes or desires, much of life consists of making decisions based on one’s personal morals and values. Whether to get married or not, what career path to pursue, or what politicians to support are all greatly influenced by decisions made on the basis of beliefs and principles and the emotions that are woven amongst those values. Although the definition of being “good” varies from person to person, most people can identify with a desire to act heroically or with good intentions, or at least to appear that they do. In many instances, however, “good” and “upright" are not distinctly separate from “bad” or “morally incorrect” since humans are complex mixtures of experience, personality, and beliefs. This complicated dynamic is particularly evident in the main character (and narrator), Dr. Primrose, in Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield. Dr. Primrose, the vicar in question, is a chronic bumbler who holds a genuine desire to be good but frequently and in many different ways falls short of that ideal. By having his religious protagonist’s pride-motivated actions precipitate many of the major plot points in the story, Goldsmith uses irony to explore the impact that leading a disingenuous, or at times blatantly hypocritical, life can have on one’s relationships and overall happiness.
As the main character in The Vicar of Wakefield is a clergyman in the church, one might expect him to be a fair and wise man, but in reading Goldsmith’s novel, Dr. Primrose unwittingly reveals himself to be a typically fallible human who grapples with common sins like pride and anger.
Throughout the novel, these shortcomings reveal themselves in his desire for control, overconfidence, and lack of self-awareness. One example of this can be seen in the actions Dr. Primrose takes prior to his first service in the new vicarage: referring to his wife and daughters, the vicar shares that “the first Sunday in particular their behavior served to mortify me” (Goldsmith 51). Rather than dressing plainly as he had instructed them to do, he relates that “I still found them secretly attached to all their former finery” (Goldsmith 51) and “it was indeed a day of finery, which all my sumptuary edicts could not restrain” (Goldsmith 51). In this instance, Dr. Primrose tries to control his wife and daughters in an effort to prevent being embarrassed in front of his new congregation. Because of his attempt to control them, however, the vicar acts in an ultimately hypocritical manner by remonstrating his family about the same vanity which he shows himself to be susceptible to (Goldsmith 51); his desire to appear dignified and respectable through the tidy appearance of his family is an ironically similar form of vanity to the kind that he censures his wife and daughters for. They want to impress the congregation with fancy clothing, and he wants to impress the congregation with the respectability and neatness of his family members which, in his mind, would be a testament to his own integrity and ability to lead his family.
The foundation for this undercurrent of pride in the vicar can perhaps be found in his religious role itself.
By frequently preaching in favor of character traits like humility, the vicar is encouraged towards a desperate desire to present himself as the epitome of those values. In their article “On Being Holier-Than-Thou or Humbler-Than-Thee: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Religiousness and Humility,” Rowatt et al. indicate that this phenomenon of mild hypocrisy is not uncommon for those in religious roles: “people who are more intrinsically religious are relatively less humble than those who are less intrinsically religious” (235). Dr. Primrose displays this tendency when he becomes more concerned with making his wife and daughters dress as he wants them to appear, than allowing them to dress the way they wish and accepting them and their desires as they are. Whether in a conscious decision or not, he sacrifices the happiness of his wife and daughters so that he can appear in control, dignified, and godly while defining himself as essentially lacking humility. Because of the vicar’s vanity, the female characters suffer under the burden of his frequent self-centered demands and his familial relationship with them is strained.
As seen in the vicar’s struggles with vanity, Goldsmith also seems to indicate an awareness of the ironic and somewhat problematic aspects of the religious Dr. Primrose’s character by repeatedly presenting him with failure. Despite frequently striving to control the actions of his family, the vicar’s desires are overruled by theirs in the majority of those instances. This disconnect between the vicar, his religious beliefs, and his family’s desires can further be seen when the vicar shares that their neighbors had a family portrait painted and “as this family and ours had a long sort of rivalry in point of taste, our spirit took the alarm at this stolen march upon us, and notwithstanding all I could say, and I said much, it was resolved that we should have our pictures done too” (Goldsmith 98-99). In this instance, despite the vicar’s protests against “having their pictures done,” a portrait is ultimately commissioned, posed for, and completed (Goldsmith 98). Simultaneous to his arguments against having a portrait painted, however, Dr. Primrose seems to indicate that he, like his wife and daughters, feels the need to prove themselves dignified and prosperous to their neighbors with the phrase: “our spirit took alarm at this stolen march upon us” (Goldsmith 98). Dr. Primrose seems conflicted between his vain desire to be equal with their neighbors and an awareness that having a family portrait painted on only the basis of pride would be less than godly. In the midst of this discord, he once again turns to verbally correcting his family’s flaws and fails to admit his own and equal guilt. James Kim notes this incongruity between the vicar’s feelings or reality and actions when he writes, “for all his outward certainty, Primrose ultimately only undermines the very style of masculinity he is striving to assert” (21). As Kim indicates, the vicar rarely meets success in his endeavors to control the female members of his family. Whether on the basis of masculinity, as Kim argues, or due to an ingrained hypocrisy, the vicar has a tendency to push his religious beliefs onto his family while failing to live them out himself in a genuine manner. Dr. Primroses’s misaligned, sanctimonious habits foster a lack of respect between his family and himself that allows for drama and further relationship divides in the Primrose family.
As the tumultuous, family-focused storyline in The Vicar of Wakefield progresses, Goldsmith appears to reveal a clear pattern in which the vicar’s frequently-displayed folly and disingenuous nature is often what catalyzes the progression of the story.
Whether blatantly hypocritical or of a more consequentially foolish type, the vicar’s decisions are repeatedly what carry the novel’s events from one major plot point to the next. When his son, Moses, loses money through the ploys of a wily businessman, the vicar determines to return to the market and procure a more equitable trade himself. Unfortunately, the vicar’s confidence in his abilities exceeds reality when he, just like Moses, makes an exchange with the same man—“the greatest rascal under the canopy of heaven” (92). Motivated by a prideful desire to show his trading prowess, the vicar’s bad business deal, which “sufficiently mortified” him, ultimately serves a purpose in finding closure at the end of the novel when “the very same rogue” he made the deal with reenters the narrative during a revealing and opportune moment (Goldsmith 92). Dr. Primrose’s foolhardy but subsequently important actions on this occasion may also be explained by his general lack of humility as encouraged by the religious status he holds. In their article “Humility and Narcissism in Clergy: a Relational Spirituality Framework,” Ruffing et al. write that “humility may be relevant to clergy’s individual well-being and the well-being of the institutions they lead” (529). For Dr. Primrose, his lack of humility and inclination for vainness is detrimental to his own well-being by fostering feelings of embarrassment and anger and by allowing him to stray from the standards purported by the beliefs he represents. In the institution of his family, the vicar’s pride impacts their relationships with one another and creates strife which pushes the story along its course. Seemingly motivated by a desire to vindicate his family from the initial poor trade deal, the failure of the vicar’s own business exchange highlights another moment of vanity and creates a connection between two characters that is ultimately pivotal for the novel’s conclusion.
Similarly vital to the novel’s development and equally tied to the vicar’s pride, Goldsmith also highlights an element of anger and a proclivity for grudges in Dr. Primrose’s character. The vicar, generally self-assured in his decisions and values, spends the majority of the novel struggling for control or peace in some manner, which considering his pattern of sin and failure, appears indicative of the flaws that accompany living in a disingenuous manner. His extreme, and essentially uncalled for, anger towards Mr. Burchell at the beginning of the novel is another surprisingly out of character moment for this holier-than-thou man while also becoming pivotal to the rest of the story as Mr. Burchell is revealed to be a “good guy” by the end of the novel and the drama induced by the vicar becomes not only a waste of energy but arguably prolongs a major conflict of the novel. In the conclusion of the novel, Dr. Primrose does eventually apologize to Mr. Burchell for seeking the “pleasure of vengeance” and attempting to “upbraid him…in a manner that would be perfectly cutting” (Goldsmith 94) by saying “we have long discovered our errors in regard to you” and “I hope you’ll forgive me” (Goldsmith 177-178). Despite this long-needed admittance of guilt, the vicar never seems to reach an awareness of the fundamental moral problems in his ways or the way those issues affect his and his family’s lives. Dong et al., in their research article “Self-enhancement in Moral Hypocrisy: Moral Superiority and Moral Identity are About Better Appearances,” write, “people have this strong tendency to present themselves as more moral than they actually are in various domains of social life” (11). By failing to allow Dr. Primrose to fully understand his own “strong tendency” to be perceived as morally above reproach and how this manifests itself in his vanity, unhealthy desires for controls, and struggles with anger, Goldsmith seems to make an ironic statement about the impact living life in a hypocritical or two-faced manner can have on one’s overall happiness and the happiness of those around them.
Whether using the vicar to serve as an emblem for the pitfalls of having vain or narcissistic values was an intentional decision on Oliver Goldsmith’s part or not, The Vicar of Wakefield offers many instances for readers to contemplate vanity and the impact one’s actions and values have on others.
As an anti-hero protagonist who grapples with a lack of humility that pervades his life, the vicar in Goldsmith’s novel draws attention to the numerous and often far-reaching problems with living in denial about one’s shortcomings and failures. The problematic tendencies that Dr. Primrose displays in the story serve as a reminder to modern readers that people are not always who they present themselves to be and that, similarly, it is easy for one to become a disingenuous person whose actions do not truly align with their beliefs. By repeatedly using the vicar’s moments of vanity and weakness to instigate progress in The Vicar of Wakefield, the problematic nature of those values becomes increasingly apparent; Goldsmith’s novel begs readers to reconsider their own beliefs and value systems by ironically revealing the complications of those held by a purportedly godly vicar, making it an important piece of literature regardless of its age or the author’s original intentions.
Dong et al. “Self-enhancement in Moral Hypocrisy: Moral Superiority and Moral Identity are About Better Appearances.” PLoS ONE, vol. 14, no. 7, 5 July 2019, pp. 1-17. EBSCOhost, 10.1371/journal.pone.0219382. Accessed 13 November 2019.
Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. Penguin Group, 1982.
Kim, James. “Goldsmith’s Manhood: Hegemonic Masculinity and Sentimental Irony in The Vicar of Wakefield.” Eighteenth Century: Theory & Interpretation (University of Pennsylvania Press), vol. 59, no. 1, 2018, pp. 21-44. EBSCOhost, 10.1353/ecy.2018.0001. Accessed 26 Oct. 2019.
Rowatt et al. “On Being Holier-Than-Thou or Humbler-Than-Thee: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Religiousness and Humility.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 41, no. 2, June 2002, pp. 227-237. EBSCOhost, 10.1111/1468-5906.00113. Accessed 23 Oct. 2019.
Ruffing et al. “Humility and Narcissism in Clergy: a Relational Spirituality Framework.” Pastoral Psychology, vol. 67, no. 5, October 2018, pp. 525-545. EBSCOhost, 10.1007/s11089-018-0830-4. Accessed 26 Oct. 2019.