Friday, April 24, 2009

Reading what the Authors You Read Read: The Vicar of Wakefield

You can't get very far into Victorian literature without tripping over references to The Vicar of Wakefield. Either the novel's heroine is reading the book, making fun of the book or trying to teach her French pupils how to translate the book. Oliver Goldsmith's 1766 novel is sort of the Moby Dick of the 19th century, in that it was the book that everyone read, or was supposed to read, and thus, the default title to name drop. I'm not comparing the literary merit of Moby Dick and Vicar of Wakefield, just the fact that as for us 20/21st century folks who can't really read a magazine or watch a TV show without eventually getting a reference to the 100 year old Moby Dick, so the 19th centurty folk couldn't pass a garden gate without someone quoting the 100 year old Vicar of Wakefield. Which is why I decided to read it. After about the ninth reference, somewhere between Frankenstein and Middlemarch, I thought i might as well see what all the chatter is about.
I was amused to find that scholarship on Vicar of Wakefield is still in debate as to whether it's satire or sincere. The highly sentimental and ridiculous plot, matched with the idealistic and oblivious narrator, make it difficult to imagine anyone reading the novel seriously- but people did/do. I think that's the mark of genius satire; you've satirized something so well that those whom you are satirizing actually think it's great. Thus, most of my encounters with Vicar references are tongue in cheek, winking at the reader whenever introducing a character who loves it- you pretty much know they're either simple, shallow or stupid.Which isn't to say the book is stupid- it brilliantly challenges a world-view based on romantic concepts of providence and prudence that turns a blind eye to personal responsibility and social accountability. The very fact that horrendous things keep happening to the characters, only to be turned into blissfully wonderful endings with no effort at all, points to the absurdity of expecting one's life to follow the pattern of the moralistic tales of the period. Vicar of Wakefield, painted in its its pastoral colors of goodwill and virtue, actually serves as a foil to the real hardships encountered in daily life- causing the reader, almost bitterly, to wonder why real life isn't like this. Don't let the sweet stupidity of the characters fool you- this book is actually warning you not to be as sweet and stupid as its characters. I think that's why it makes for such good inside jokes by the likes of Jane Austen, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte- women who could not abide vapidity or surface morality. Texts above are: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott; The Professor by Charlotte Bronte; Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; Villette by Charlotte Bronte; Emma by Jane Austen

1 comment:

Jen Hinst-White said...

This is fascinating!