Thursday, July 02, 2015

Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)

Okay, WHY is there a brand of designer sunglasses named after this eighteenth-century writer? TELL ME!!! Okay, so presumably it's just named after some other Goldsmith, but don't spoil the illusion, okay? I really want this to be both true and totally inexplicable.

So there's this vicar. Charles Primrose is his name, and he is our narrator, as his family, which starts out in a good position, suffers sundry falls from grace, and then when things are at the worst, everything gets fixed thanks to authorial contrivance. And that's about that.

Truth be told, this is a bit of an odd one, and I'm not entirely sure what to think about it. On the one hand, Primrose is kind of an insufferable character, given to pious homilies and self-righteous passiveness in the face of troubles. On the other hand, it's clear that at least to an extent, Goldsmith is gently mocking his general pompousness—besides which, he's not all bad; he also has a surprising, charmingly whimsical side that sometimes reveals itself. He also gives us a very good sense of place and everyday life, at least in the early going.

I could live with this ambiguity, but when the plot itself lurches into gear I sort of felt like I was going insane. There's a certain appeal to the melodrama at first, but the way Goldsmith just jerks plot elements around with very little explanation or justification, piling on convenient coincidences and false identities like I've never seen before (seriously, this is what John Barth was parodying in The Sot-Weed Factor) gosh. It all just feels so frantic and almost insulting in its obviousness.

Also, let's not try to hide it: sometimes our narrator's values are fucking horrifying in a way that seems excessive even for the time.  So for instance, his daughter has been seduced by this perfidious squire, who then tries to pimp her out before she flees.  Later, she's reunited with her father, and here's this:

'Indeed, Sir,' replied she, 'he owes all his triumph to the desire I had of making him, and not myself, happy.  I knew that the ceremony of our marriage, which was privately performed by a popish priest, was no way binding, and that I had nothing to trust to but his honour.'  'What,' interrupted I, 'and were you indeed married by a priest, and in orders?'--'Indeed, Sir, we were,' replied she, 'though we were both sworn to conceal his name.'--'Why then, my child, come to my arms again, and now you are a thousand times more welcome than before; for you are now his wife to all intents and purposes; nor can all the laws of man, tho' written upon tables of adamant, lessen the force of the sacred connexion.'

I mean, I read this, and there are just no words.  These values seem so twisted to me that I can't even react to them.  And you will be GLAD to know that this marriage remains at the end of the novel, and DOES NOT cloud the happy ending even a little bit!  Gah!

Of course, I see that it's not at all settled whether this is all meant to be taken at face value, or as a satire of this kind of romantic nonsense, but I remain skeptical. When Primrose preaches his philosophy at length, I see no reason not to assume that this is Goldsmith speaking to us, and more generally, it looks to me—maybe I'm just too cynical—as though people are trying to provide an ex post facto justification, since it would be impossible for contemporary readers to take him seriously if he was being, well, serious.

Either way, I have to admit that I did get swept up in it for a while, kind of. Overall, I didn't dislike it, exactly, but it is very much of its time, and it feels mired in the eighteenth century in a way that Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy don't.

I did learn a good word, though: “deuterogamy.” Look it up, chumps.


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