The Vicar of Wakefield: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:04 Background to Vicar of…
  • 0:27 Plot Summary of Vicar…
  • 2:29 Characters of Vicar of…
  • 4:46 Themes and Analysis
  • 6:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

Prized as one of the greatest models of 18th century Irish literature, ''The Vicar of Wakefield'' by Oliver Goldsmith is a complex novel of themes and characters. In this lesson, get an in-depth summary, description of characters, and thematic analysis.

Background to The Vicar of Wakefield

The Vicar of Wakefield is a popular 18th-century Irish novel by Oliver Goldsmith. Considered an exemplary sentimental novel, The Vicar of Wakefield houses a complicated plot that follows the misfortunes of the Primrose family. In this lesson, we will cover the plot of the novel, the main characters, and the different themes.

Plot Summary of The Vicar of Wakefield

Dr. Primrose, the vicar of Wakefield, is a wealthy man who lives in a peaceful community with his family. He has two daughters, Olivia and Sophia, and his four sons, George, Bill, Moses, and Dick, and his wife, Deborah. His son George is engaged to Arabella Wilmot, but on the night of their wedding, Dr. Primrose loses all of his money after his broker declares bankruptcy. Arabella's father subsequently cancels the wedding.

George is then sent to London, and the family is forced to move to a parish on Squire Thornhill's lands. Mr. Thornhill has a reputation of being a ladies' man who is living off of his wealthy uncle, Sir William Thornhill. At first, the family has trouble fitting into the new, less fashionable region. Shortly after moving to the area, Mr. Primrose meets Mr. Burchell and Squire Thornhill.

Mr. Burchell saves Sophia from drowning, and both show attraction to one another. The vicar discourages the romance because Mr. Burchell is a poor young man. Squire Thornhill seems courteous, charming, and friendly, despite his poor reputation. Thornhill shows an interest in Olivia, which pleases Mr. Primrose. For a brief time, the family lives happily. Squire Thornhill continuously encourages the Primrose family to go after social ambitions that exceed their class status, and this leads to many embarrassments.

Eventually, Mr. Primrose discovers that Squire Thornhill has been deceiving the family. Olivia leaves with him instead of marrying the man her family chose for her, thus sacrificing her reputation. The vicar goes after her and falls ill during the trip. After a series of unfortunate events that ruin the family's reputation, Mr. Burchell saves the family from disgrace and reveals himself as the gracious Sir William Thornhill.

Characters of The Vicar of Wakefield

The Vicar/Dr. Primrose

Let's first look at the vicar, or Dr. Primrose as his character is named. Dr. Primrose is the narrator and main character of the novel. He is presented as smart, moral, and religious. He is the vicar of a small parish. His simple trust in humanity allows him to be deceived by many others. His dedication to his family allows him to forgive their mistakes.


Now let's look at Deborah. Deborah is Dr. Primrose's wife. She is intelligent and loving, but her desire for belonging to a higher social class interferes with her happiness.


Now let's look at George. He is Dr. Primrose's eldest son. George was educated at Oxford, yet he is very naïve about the world. He has great character and virtue but isn't a very industrious man.


Now let's look at Olivia. Olivia is the eldest daughter. She is highly focused on her appearance and social position. She runs away with Squire Thornhill and ends up ruining her reputation. Ultimately, she is remorseful over her actions after discovering Squire Thornhill's deception of her family.


Now let's look at Sophia. Sophia is modest and virtuous. While Sophia cares about her social status, she is less focused on her appearance and position than Olivia. Sophia falls in love with Mr. Burchell even though he tells her that he is poor.

Mr. Burchell

Now let's look at Mr. Burchell. Mr. Burchell appears in the novel as a handsome and smart man. He falls in love with Sophia but is ill-received as a suitor by Deborah who looks down on his social status. After the Primrose family has fallen to their lowest position, he reveals himself as the wealthy Sir William Thornhill and rescues them from demise.

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