- The Story of O: Politics and Pleasure in The Vicar of Wakefield
Soon after he sets out on the journey to “reclaim” his daughter Olivia “to virtue,” after she has been “undone” by the libertine Squire Thornhill, Dr. Primrose, in Oliver Goldsmith’s the Vicar of Wakefield (1766), has a debate with a “person discontented with the present government,” a Mr. “Wilkinson” (named for the radical republican John Wilkes). 1 “Liberty, Sir, liberty is the Briton’s boast,” exclaims Wilkinson, and goes on to express his discontent with the king, whom he claims to “reverence... when he does what we would have him,” but to ignore when he “goes on as he has done of late.” In reply to this assault on his Tory principles, the Vicar delivers Goldsmith’s defense of monarchy as the true guardian of British “liberty”:
No sir... I am for liberty, that attribute of Gods! Glorious liberty! that theme of modern declamation. I would have all men kings. I would be a king myself. We have all naturally an equal right to the throne: we are all originally equal.... [But because] it is entailed upon humanity to submit, and some are born to command, and others to obey, the question is, as there must be tyrants, whether it is better to have them in the same house with us, or in the same village, or still farther off, in the metropolis.
Farther off is better, reasons the Vicar, and continues:
The generality of mankind are also of my way of thinking, and have unanimously created one king, whose election at once diminishes the number of tyrants, and puts tyranny at the greatest distance from the greatest number of people.... I am then for, and would die for, monarchy, sacred monarchy; for if there be any thing sacred amongst men, it must be the anointed sovereign of his people, and every diminution of his power in war, or in peace, is an infringement upon the real liberties of the subject.(98–103)
In this essay, I want to ask what the Vicar’s speech in defense of monarchy has to do with his own “house,” and why his daughter Olivia leaves it to pursue a different kind of “liberty.” As the consummate eighteenth-century patriarch (Goldsmith asserts that [End Page 329] his hero “unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth: he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family” ), the Vicar “commands” his family as King George commands the nation. But it is clear that the Vicar’s Tory principles do not work for his own daughter: although seduced by Squire Thornhill, Olivia leaves her father’s house of her own accord, after the Vicar orders her to give over the Squire’s attentions to the suit of “Mr. Williams,” the stolid if solid farmer (another “husband” -man) that he prefers. What, in short, can Olivia’s transgression — the “story of O” of my title — tell us about the weaknesses in the Vicar’s political theory, and in his theory, or thoughts, about family life?
The political theory that the Vicar espouses in his debate with Wilkinson, chapter 19 of the novel, corresponds to the one that Goldsmith espoused elsewhere. 2 Goldsmith, as Robert H. Hopkins summarizes, distrusted persons of “aggressive wealth,” remained loyal to “the monarchy as a counter to a commercial oligarchy,” and believed “in the necessity of a strong middle class.” 3 Suspicious of both old and new money if concentrated in the hands of a few, the Vicar fears above all the gross accumulation of wealth that a commercial economy made possible: “An accumulation of wealth... must necessarily be the consequence, when as at present more riches flow in from external commerce, than arise from internal industry.... For this reason, wealth in all commercial states is found to accumulate, and all such have hitherto in time become aristocratical” (100–101). As the Vicar explains to Wilkinson, such accumulated wealth leads to fierce factionalism among competing oligarchs, who find themselves vying for riches that only they have the resources to contend for, at the expense of the middle (and lower) orders. 4 “The Traveller” (1764...