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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 his hero "unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth: he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family" [14]), 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) most forcefully describes Goldsmith's antidote to those local tyrants, a strong monarchy:

But when contending chiefs blockade the throne, Contracting regal power to stretch their own, When I behold a factious band agree To call it freedom, when themselves are free; . . . Fear, pity, justice, indignation start, Tear off reserve, and bare my swelling heart; 'Till half a patriot, half a coward grown, I fly from petty tyrants to the throne.


Although Goldsmith's faith in absolute monarchy was beginning to seem as regressive to his contemporaries as it does to us, it is important to see that, in siding with George III, Goldsmith also saw himself siding against the greater powers of his day. Against the new concentrations of wealth and power made possible by a commercial economy, the king, improbably, was the champion of the unrepresented. Thus, although Goldsmith is a conservative in calling for a return to a strong, central monarchy, he does so in order to reform the status quo: as John Bender puts it, for him "reform participates in a large wish for authoritative intervention and supervision."(5)

The Vicar calls his family a "little republic" (33), but "his familial politics appear to derive from similar [monarchial] principles."(6) Like the state, he believes the family requires the principle of "subordination" to preserve order and morality, and subordination is Providentially ordained; the Vicar preaches the principle in his sermon on Providence in chapter 29, and practices - or attempts to practice - it in his own family.(7) Calling his children "the offspring of temperance," he claims that they are "at once well formed and healthy" because "educated without softness" (19), and he "admonishe[s]" his wife "of her duty to me" by prematurely composing an epitaph "in which I extolled her prudence, oeconomy, and obedience till death" and placing it "over the chimney-piece" (22). As this last statement indicates, too, the Vicar thinks that the subordination of women to men is part of the (patriarchal) divine plan: both sons and daughters must submit to his law, but his sons are counseled rather than, like his wife and daughters, commanded to submit to it. That the Vicar believes he has divine sanction for the absolute power he attempts to assume over his family becomes clearest when he declares that, while "the temporal concerns of our family were chiefly committed to my wife's management, as to the spiritual I took them entirely under my own direction" (21). In his little republic ("to which I gave laws" [33], he adds), the patriarchal Vicar obviously sees himself not only as king, but also as God (or at least as God's delegate).

The relation between the Vicar's political theory and his family life shifts from mere analogy to outright identity when the plot of the novel turns to the topic that the Vicar proclaims "was always one of my favourite[s]": marriage (22). By paying his attentions to Olivia, Squire Thornhill provides the focus for that shift. Hopkins has convincingly shown that, by having the Squire end up legally married to Olivia after he has faked (he thinks) a marriage to her, Goldsmith is attacking the Marriage (Hardwicke) Act of 1753. The act (26 Geo. II, c. 33) "required that all marriages . . . be celebrated only after publication of banns or license, and only . . . before an Anglican clergyman." Although William Holdsworth believed that the act "made the clandestine marriages, which figure so largely in eighteenth-century novels, impossible in England," Goldsmith and other commentators who opposed the act argued just the opposite: that, as Goldsmith put it in An History of England, in a Series of Letters (1764), the act allowed "villains" to go about "deceiving ignorant women, under a pretence of marriage, and then [leave] them without redress."(8) Although the act was intended to regulate what constituted a legal marriage, it was just as easy (if not even easier for the rich) to contrive a properly sanctioned marriage as it had been to throw together an improper, scandalous one. If the Marriage Act was intended to prevent clandestine marriages, Goldsmith and others argued that it was ineffectual.

But it was also unjust. Even the proponents of the Marriage Act recognized that it had the less-obvious result of making marriages between the aristocracy and lower classes more difficult. The rich had no difficulty meeting the provisions of the act; the lower and middle classes often did. Goldsmith attacked the act for making "distinctions among the people" and laying "an impassable line between the rich and poor": it "rendered" the poor "utterly incapable of making alliances with the rich; and the wealth of the nation has thus been more liable to accumulation in opulent families." Decrying such accumulation in his debate with Wilkinson, the Vicar obliquely refers to that cost of the Marriage Act when he states that "the very laws also of this country may contribute to the accumulation of wealth; as when by their means the natural ties that bind the rich and poor together are broken, and it is ordained that the rich shall only marry with the rich" (101). The rich beneficiary of the Marriage Act in Goldsmith's novel is, of course, Squire Thornhill: the marriage that would circulate wealth, between him and Olivia, is consummated even despite Olivia's awareness that, as "privately performed by a popish priest," it "was no way binding" (127), and the marriage that would keep wealth accumulated, that between him and Arabella Wilmot, is properly proclaimed (by three banns) while the Squire keeps the Vicar locked up in a debtors' prison. Despite that attention to form, however, when the Squire's servant Jenkinson reveals that the marriage to Olivia was in fact valid, Goldsmith's plot reveals the proposed marriage to Wilmot to be the improper one. As Hopkins concludes, "Goldsmith set out to show that even within the restrictions of the Marriage Act a sham marriage could take place."(9)

Goldsmith's opposition to the Marriage Act, and the way that he uses the plot of his novel to represent that opposition, consolidates his more fundamental opposition to accumulators of wealth like Squire Thornhill. According to his political theory, the Squire is a "tyrant," one of those few human beings who, because they were "stronger" and "more cunning" than the generality of humankind, "became masters of the rest" in the feudal past.(10) The Vicar's monarchial government now holds such local tyrants in check; Wilkinson's sort of radical republicanism will give them free reign again. Further proof of the Squire's tyranny is provided by his avocation: he is, like all squires, an accomplished horseman, and in chapter 19 the Vicar expresses his fear of an unbridled natural superiority with an equestrian metaphor: "for as sure as your groom rides your horses, because he is a cunninger animal than they, so surely will the animal that is cunninger or stronger than he, sit upon his shoulders in turn" (99). (The Squire even makes his first appearance in the novel on horseback, bursting in "with a careless superior air" on the Vicar and his family, then on holiday in the country [36].) But the Vicar suspects the Squire's despicability, not only as a landlord, but also as a suitor to his daughter Olivia. In an ideal commonwealth, the Squire would realize the alliance that Goldsmith favors: an alliance, between the rich Squire and the poor clergyman's daughter, that would encourage social mobility and the circulation of wealth. That is why, hoping for reform even as he suspects the Squire, the Vicar acquiesces to his wife Deborah's plans to throw the two together. Instead, the Squire only confirms, as "The Traveller" and Goldsmith's other political writings predicted, that too much economic liberty leads to (moral) libertinism. His seduction of Olivia is a transgression against the sanctity of the state as much as the family.

Clearly the Vicar and the Squire are on opposite sides, both with respect to the Marriage Act and their intentions toward Olivia. The Vicar, obviously, wants to preserve his daughter's virtue. The Squire, just as obviously, wants to take it away. But what does Olivia herself want? The question becomes even more intriguing when we realize that, despite the differences in what they want for Olivia, both Vicar and Squire essentially regard her as property, as something to be given away, or taken. The Squire takes her as a mistress because her poverty will not allow him to take her as a wife (although, for the Vicar as well as for the Squire, a wife is a different kind of property). And the Vicar, although he opposes the unbridled freedom (encouraged by the Marriage Act) that corrupts the Squire and allows him to corrupt others, would gladly give Olivia away to a reformed Squire. For both, women, specifically daughters, exist to perpetuate ties of kinship between men. They think of Olivia as a medium of exchange. Is that how Olivia thinks of herself?

It seems unlikely. When it becomes clear that the Squire has no intention of marrying Olivia and the Vicar commands her to marry farmer Williams in order to perpetuate one, if a lesser, kinship tie, Olivia precipitously disobeys him to elope with the Squire anyway. Most criticism of Goldsmith's novel has refused to consider Olivia's motives at all, focusing on either the Vicar's good nature (the sentimental reading) or his naivete (the satiric one). Olivia is regarded as a stock romantic figure, the simple victim of a too-passionate sensibility.(11) Her very name supports that reading: Deborah, the Vicar's impulsive wife, named Olivia and her younger sister Sophia after the heroines of romances, those sensational, popular fictions that Goldsmith contrasts with his own properly didactic (if just as sensational) novel. But few have asked why, if the Vicar is as good a father as he is a priest and husbandman, he misses the strength of Olivia's desire for Squire Thornhill, a desire that causes her to step into a post chaise that she must know there will be no stepping back from. By dismissing Olivia, we implicitly assent to the Vicar's (and the Squire's) view that she is property.(12) I propose, instead, that we step back from the conventional readings of Goldsmith's novel to ask what Olivia wants and why she does what she does. The Vicar obviously misses something in his daughter. Perhaps we are missing something too.

In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault describes how, in eighteenth-century Western societies, the system of "alliance" that the Vicar and Squire share a belief in was imposed on, if not "completely supplanted" by, a system of "sexuality." Alliance was "a system of marriage, of fixation and development of kinship ties, of transmission of names and possessions"; "sexuality" a system of "proliferating, innovating, annexing, creating, and penetrating bodies."(13) I believe that, blinded by his familiarity with alliance, Goldsmith's Vicar fatally neglects that rising system of sexuality, particularly as it is represented by Olivia. He fails to see, both in his conversation with Wilkinson and his more familiar "conversation" with his family, how his desire for absolute, patriarchal power, expressed for his family in his command that Olivia marry farmer Williams and perpetuate the system of alliance, has been overwhelmed by the system of sexuality, represented by Olivia's desire for Squire Thornhill.

As the Vicar describes the characters of his daughters, Sophia and Olivia make the same pair as Jane Austen's Dashwood sisters.(14) "Olivia," he explains, "wished for many lovers, Sophia to secure one. Olivia was often affected from too great a desire to please. Sophia even represt excellence from her fears to offend. The one entertained me with her vivacity when I was gay, the other with her sense when I was serious" (21). Declaring that "the temper of a woman is generally formed from the turn of her features," the Vicar refers the difference between Sophia's sense and Olivia's sensibility to their physiognomies, calling Sophia's beauty "not so striking" as Olivia's "luxuriancy" (21). That word, which could as easily describe the accumulated wealth that Goldsmith fears as a woman's appearance, already implies that Olivia will complicate the Vicar's patriarchal principles.(15) Yet it is her "too great" desire to please, not her luxurious beauty, that really places Olivia in the system of sexuality, and foretells how little her father's moral teachings will impress her. As a patriarch, the Vicar issues commands and expects obedience: his law is primarily negative, prescribing rules to obey rather than describing a virtue to emulate. "The deployment of alliance," says Foucault, "is built around a system of rules defining the permitted and the forbidden, the licit and the illicit."(16) Olivia, then, who seeks, in the system of sexuality, to please rather than, in the system of alliance, not to offend (as does her sister Sophia), will find nothing in that law to inspire obedience. Her sensitive character makes her less likely to hear her father's commands, and naturally susceptible to a surrogate father who might lead positively rather than negatively.(17)

Yet the first impression that Olivia receives from Squire Thornhill, is, surprisingly, one that suggests that her transition from her father's system of alliance to one of sexuality is less than complete. For he impresses her as much by "expatiat[ing] upon the common topics of conversation with fluency" - that is, by mimicking one of the Vicar's own favorite pastimes - as by his "good figure, fine cloaths, and fortune" (43). As susceptible as she is to being led positively rather than negatively, the Squire's positive resemblance to her father leads her away from the Vicar's negative commands. The Vicar, of course, knows Thornhill's "real ignorance": that he is skilled, not in argument, but only in sophistry. And, although the Vicar admits that "it is not surprising . . . that such talents" as the Squire's spurious ability at conversation "should win the affections of a girl, who by education was taught to value an appearance in herself, and consequently to set a value upon it in another" (43; emphasis added), he does not perceive that educating Olivia to value appearance is educating her away from his system of alliance. He also fails to admit that, in making the patriarchal assumption that women are less capable of rational thought than men, he himself is responsible for that education, or rather for the lack of it. Early in the novel, he describes a typical dinner at home, in which the men of the family engage in "philosophical arguments" and the women in "innocent mirth" (33), and when Olivia boasts after the Squire's visit that she too is "employed in reading" religious controversy, the Vicar pointedly directs her to "go help your mother to make the gooseberry-pye" (45). Unable to please her father in a positive, rational way, Olivia gravitates away from the patriarchal system of alliance to the system of sexuality represented by the Squire's "good figure."

Given the Vicar's, and Goldsmith's, reason for favoring an alliance between Olivia and the Squire - to encourage the circulation of wealth between middle and upper classes - it might be thought that only the system of alliance alone, not the one of sexuality, is concerned with the economics of human relationships. Alliance deals with settlements between couples; sexuality with the feelings that get them there. In fact, although Foucault acknowledges that "the deployment of alliance is firmly tied to the economy due to the role it can play in the transmission or circulation of wealth," he also emphasizes that "the deployment of sexuality is linked to the economy through numerous and subtle relays, the main one of which, however, is the body - the body that produces and consumes."(18) The Vicar fears the accumulation of wealth that a commercial economy produces, and he experiences the ill-effects of that same economy within his family in the form of consumerism, one of a commercial economy's salient features. Even the Vicar (and his son Moses) can be led astray by their own desire to get the best of a commercial exchange, as when Moses foolishly trades the family's precious colt for "a groce of green spectacles" (67). Yet it is the women in the Vicar's family who are especially susceptible to the temptations of consumerism. From "appearing with splendor" at church to brewing complexion washes surreptitiously (58, 41), the Vicar's wife and daughters, led by Deborah, assume that material goods make them more desirable. (The Vicar agrees to part with the colt only after Deborah insists that a horse would allow the family "to hold up our heads a little higher in the world" [65].) Even after the Vicar loses his fortune in Wakefield, his daughters remain "secretly attached to all their former finery" (34), and when the move to "a distant neighborhood" brings them into contact with the Squire and two young "women of very great distinction and fashion from town" (53), they become attached to it even more. Indeed, the Vicar's declining fortunes seem only to increase the women's material desires.

Those two women of "distinction and fashion," of course, are nothing of the kind. That the Primrose family is taken in by Lady Blarney and Miss Carolina Wilelmina Amelia Skeggs, two prostitutes whom the Squire passes off as women of quality, demonstrates its "credulous" character, one of the four adjectives that the Vicar himself uses to describe the "family likeness" (21). More important, the two women embody the Squire's ability to turn female desire, here of the material kind, to his advantage. Their suggestion that Olivia and Sophia come to town for "polishing" (55), after all, is the seed that eventually grows into Olivia's decision to elope with the Squire. Ultimately interested in alliance - interested, again, in Olivia only as a mistress, not as a wife - the Squire nevertheless understands how the system of sexuality works: that gratifying one of the body's material desires only leads to a craving in another. The ultimate symbol of the steadily increasing desires of the women in the Vicar's family is the ridiculous historical portrait that the Primroses (spurred again by "my wife and daughters") commission to rival "in point of taste" the neighboring Flamborough family. "So very large" that they have "no place in the house to fix it," the picture remains unhung, forever signifying, as the Vicar interprets, the "vanity" of the Primroses (82-83). But it should also warn the Vicar that his patriarchal idea of the family, which attempts to circulate material goods in the predictable way of alliance, cannot contain the female desire that fuels the rising system of sexuality.(19) While the Squire is using that desire, all the Vicar can do is moralize.

Why doesn't the Vicar heed such warnings? Why doesn't he notice the strength of Olivia's desire, specifically her attraction to the Squire?(20) To extend the analogy between the Vicar's political theory and his family life, he doesn't notice because he thinks that, as the strong "governor" of his family, he can guard against her desire, or the desires of others for her. Given that the Vicar assumes, again in patriarchal fashion, that women are born to follow rather than to lead, they become equivalent, in the analogy, to the "middle order of mankind" in which, the Vicar tells Wilkinson, "are generally to be found all the arts, wisdom, and virtues of society." Although that middle order "is known to be the true preserver of freedom," just as, in the functional eighteenth-century family, the wife is the preserver of virtue, it may nevertheless, the Vicar says, "lose all its influence in a state, and its voice be in a manner drowned in that of the rabble." "The middle order," continues the Vicar,

may be compared to a town of which the opulent are forming the siege, and which the governor from without is hastening the relief. While the besiegers are in dread of an enemy over them, it is but natural to offer the townsmen the most specious terms; to flatter them with sounds, and amuse them with privileges: but if once they defeat the governor from behind, the walls of the town will be but a small defence to its inhabitants. (102)

In other words, the great attempt to woo the middle order with flattery and bribery. As long as the monarch is lording it over the great in a state, such "specious terms" will be ineffective, even "amusing." Without a strong central power, however - when the "governor" has been defeated "from behind" - the siege by the great turns effective, either because the middle order suddenly comes to regard the specious terms as substantial, or because the great turn to other, more violent tactics. The Vicar's comparison here validates the larger analogy between his political theory and his family life, particularly the women in his family: like an impressionable woman giving in to the charms of a seducer, when the governor has been defeated, the middle order will easily capitulate. More important, the Vicar's analogy reveals how he interprets the Squire's flatteries: as a sign that he - the governor who is resisting the great - is strong enough to provoke such entreaties. According to the analogy, the "besieging" squire only offers his "specious terms" because he is "in dread of an enemy over" him. For the Vicar, showing his own vanity, the attentions that the Squire pays to Olivia are actually proof of the effectiveness of his patriarchal government.

Actually, the Vicar has nothing to do with those attentions. Because he understands how sexuality works, the Squire would offer his specious terms to the Vicar's women even without a governor over them, and even a strong governor cannot contain female desire. The economy of exchange - allied with alliance and the Vicar's patriarchal government - and the economy of sexuality, or pleasure, are fundamentally different. The "peculiar pleasures" of the Vicar's family life (35) - conversing, performing and listening to music, observing nature - are calm, moderate, pastoral. They grow incrementally, if at all. But the pleasures of sexuality, like those of its allied phenomenon consumerism, grow exponentially. Even after she has fallen to the Squire, trapped in his estate, Olivia says that she "strove to forget my infamy in a tumult of pleasures" (128). And the Vicar, by teaching Olivia to value appearance, or sensation, rather than sense, may have unwittingly fitted her for the economy of pleasure. Seeking to understand Olivia's transgression, he asks her after her return from the Squire's how she came to run away with him: "But tell me, my child, sure it was no small temptation that could thus obliterate all the impressions of such an education, and so virtuous a disposition as thine." The Vicar's moralistic pronouncement here, like the lesson in vanity that he draws from the family portrait, is his attempt to contain Olivia's deed within his patriarchal system, his economy of exchange. Olivia's reply is devastating to that attempt: "'Indeed, Sir,' replied she, 'he owes all his triumph to the desire I had of making him, and not myself, happy'" (127). By teaching his daughters what he says Olivia has lost, "to seek pleasure by pleasing," the Vicar teaches them not to obey his commands. There is no pleasure in following rules, and seeking pleasure by pleasing does not, as the Vicar thinks, arise from "unblushing innocence" (133).

The analogy between the Vicar's political theory and his family life can extend only so far, however, for the women in the Vicar's family are not "subjects," in either a personal or political sense: they are not included in the "generality of mankind" that the Vicar declares are "of my way of thinking" about the sacredness of monarchy. Interestingly, Olivia's movement away from her father's system of alliance to the system of sexuality (manipulated by the Squire) may be her plea for just that sort of subjectivity. Consider that the story of Olivia, while tragic (at least until its fantastic conclusion), does give her a voice that her father's system of alliance would deny. Even after her fall (or perhaps because of it), she produces the lyric that remains the single most memorable feature of her presence in the novel:

When lovely woman stoops to folly, And finds too late that men betray, What charm can sooth her melancholy, What art can wash her guilt away. The only art her guilt to cover, To hide her shame from every eye, To give repentance to her lover, And wring his bosom - is to die. (136)

Even though the content of "When lovely woman stoops to folly" enforces the conventional moral (The Vicar's moral) that Olivia has "transgressed" by pursuing pleasure - "What art can wash her guilt away?," Goldsmith has Olivia ask of herself - singing it allows Olivia to impose that moral judgment on herself, not to have it imposed on her, from her father.(21) It reminds us of Herbert Marcuse's point about the connection between sexual guilt and subjectivity: "Bourgeois society has liberated individuals, but as persons who are to keep themselves in check. From the beginning, the prohibition of pleasure was a condition of freedom."(22) In the system of sexuality, Olivia "keeps herself in check" by accepting her guilt. By doing so, she gains a measure of freedom: if only, as a fallen woman, the freedom not to marry, and thus not to accept the roles (as either unmarried daughter or wife) that a patriarchal society determines for her. If, to the Vicar, Olivia has been simply "lost" after her fall, to the reader her song makes her far more accountable than she ever was before.

Unfortunately, that song - the acceptance of her fate that it represents and the artful ending to her story that it seems to bring - represents the height of Olivia's subjectivity, not to mention her presence, in Goldsmith's novel. Soon after she sings it, the fantastic revelation that her marriage to Squire Thornhill was "binding" after all pulls her back into the system of alliance, both of her father and of the Squire, and she practically disappears from the novel. She speaks only once more in it, to reaffirm her guilt (152), and although she is present at the resettlement of her marriage to the Squire, of Olivia the Vicar mentions only that, while the revelation causes "happiness [to be] expanded upon every face, even Olivia's cheek seemed flushed with pleasure" (179; emphasis added). When Olivia professed her guilt, she proclaimed her sexual "value" against her exchange value. In Marcuse's terms, she declared a willingness to regulate herself. Now, having regained her exchange value - her mother exults that "she was now made an honest woman of" (180) - (or at least, having prevented the Squire from cashing in on his), she loses subjectivity. Falling back into her father's system of alliance and his regulation of her, she also loses her voice.(23) If Goldsmith is both a reformer and a conservative, this is perhaps the most conservative moment in his novel.

Yet the fantastic, conservative conclusion to the story of Olivia, which affirms the comic nature of Goldsmith's plot, cannot obscure the tragedy of her seduction and fall that has lead up to it. Similarly, although the conservative ending reestablishes the system of alliance, Olivia's story itself gives voice to desires that will eventually supplant it.(24) Politically, even the way that the Vicar articulates his theory indicates that the days of near-absolute, monarchial power are numbered. Imagining a scenario in which the middle order's "voice" may be "drowned in that of the rabble," the Vicar conceives of a time in which "the fortune sufficient for qualifying a person at present to give his voice in state affairs, be ten times less than was judged sufficient upon forming the constitution." If that happens, he continues, "it is evident that greater numbers of the rabble will thus be introduced into the political system, and they ever moving in the vortex of the great, will follow where greatness shall direct" (102). The middle order's voice will be drowned, that is, by a more impressionable rabble, those lower classes who, lacking even the middle order's wisdom and virtue to be led, are merely sucked into the "vortex" of the great. Goldsmith thus anticipates the reform bills, still more than half a century in the future, that will extend the suffrage to other than the wealthiest classes, finally making the strong, central monarchy that he favors obsolete.

The Vicar's family, too, exhibits signs of the strain that the Vicar says comes from too little power at the top. In fact, the erosion of the Vicar's supposedly absolute power, and his blindness in not perceiving that erosion, is a source of much of the comedy in Goldsmith's novel. Certainly the family's conspicuous manner of consumption, from the complexion washes to the too-large historical portrait, is its way of finding, as Spacks says, "occasional modes of rebellion" from the patriarchal government that the Vicar mistakenly (or not) labels a "little republic."(25) Tragic rather than comic, the story of Olivia is more evidence of the Vicar's loss of power over his family. Moses reports that Olivia shouts "O what will my poor pappa do when he knows I am undone!" as she is carried away from him and to her lover in the Squire's post chaise, but he adds that she was "persuaded" rather than coerced to join him (91), and when Olivia herself reports that their marriage was not binding, it is clear that she knew it all along. Olivia's capitulation to Squire Thornhill, like the fall of the middle order to the entreaties of the great, is voluntary: to reiterate, it happens because she desires to please him. If she is undone, it is by her own doing. Whether comically or tragically, his family destroys the confidence that the Vicar had in the efficacy of absolute power, and even at the end of the novel, with the system of alliance reaffirmed by Olivia's resettlement on the Squire, the Vicar's personal impotence is illustrated by his wife's desire to dethrone him at the head of the dinner table (184).

In these political and personal ways, the plot of Goldsmith's novel contradicts its ideology. The Vicar's monarchial government, which attempts to maintain its power through the system of alliance, cannot withstand the system of sexuality, represented in his family by Olivia's desire for Squire Thornhill and, to a lesser extent, by the women's conspicuous consumption. It is not, however, as if the Vicar does not perceive a threat to his system, or has no strategy for dealing with it. For the Vicar, that threat comes from tyrants like Squire Thornhill (not from desiring daughters like Olivia), and his strategy for dealing with tyrants, per his analogy, is to distance them from those they would seduce. In the state, that means giving the monarch, rather than parliament, the sovereign power: concentrating power puts it "farther off," in the "metropolis" or seat of government, rather than "in the same house with us," or in some kind of revitalized squirearchy. In the family, that means keeping Olivia away from the Squire, the local tyrant, who (because he, the Primroses' landlord, is already in their midst) cannot himself be "distanced." It also means assuming sovereign power in - acting as monarch to - the family. In his attempt to combat the Squire's "siege" of Olivia, the Vicar scorns his affection (such as it is) for her, neglects hers for him, and commands her to marry farmer Williams.

Yet that strategy backfires. The Vicar thinks that he, as the strong governor of his family, is the only member of it with power: both the power to distance and the power to command. As Foucault reminds us, however, sexuality is just as much a form of power (even such an amorphous concept as Foucault's power) as alliance is. Moreover, when the power is a sexual one, distancing - in sexual terms, repressing - it only causes it to return, even closer to home.(26) Distancing the Squire - keeping Olivia away from him - only causes Olivia to go to him, and when she returns, when the Vicar brings her home, the sexual power that she represents has already taken its toll: without her virginity, she no longer has alliance (or exchange) value. Her "corruption" reminds the Vicar of his mistake in neglecting her. That Goldsmith has to resort to fantasy to deliver her from such corruption shows that the conservative system of alliance cannot assimilate such power. In such a system, daughters can only be imagined as innocents waiting to be exchanged or as women of experience, who have been exchanged. When their own plea for subjectivity has turned them into something in between, a novelist like Goldsmith can only turn to sentiment to turn them back again.(27)

The weakness in the Vicar's political theory, then, is its failure to account for the power of sexuality (specifically of woman's sexuality) - in a word, of pleasure. Sexuality, says Foucault, "is concerned with the sensations of the body, the quality of pleasures, and the nature of impressions, however tenuous or imperceptible these may be."(28) As eighteenth-century women, Olivia, the Vicar's other daughter Sophia, and his wife Deborah, have learned, as the Vicar said of Olivia, to seek pleasure by pleasing, to please others. What they want, it seems to me, is to please themselves. In the system of sexuality, pleasing oneself - Wilkinson's, not the Vicar's, idea of "liberty" - is the only guarantee of subjectivity.

Auburn University


1 Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Arthur Friedman, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 4:93, 91, 97. Subsequent references to Goldsmith's works (except An History of England, in a Series of Letters) are to this volume, and are cited parenthetically in the text.

2 Arthur Friedman points out the correspondences between chapter 19 and some of Goldsmith's earlier writings - including The Citizen of the World (1760-61), his essay "The Revolution in Low Life" (1762), and An History of England (1764) - in his critical edition of The Vicar (99-103), cited above.

3 Robert H. Hopkins, "Matrimony in The Vicar of Wakefield and the Marriage Act of 1753," Studies in Philology 74 (1977): 328. Hopkins is, in turn, summarizing Ricardo Quintana, Oliver Goldsmith: A Georgian Study (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 188-89.

4 Of course, Wilkinson turns out to be one of those "lower" orders himself, a butler impersonating his master (103). He speaks for liberty, but exemplifies the disorder that can result when that liberty is unrestrained.

5 John Bender, "Prison Reform and the Sentence of Narration in The Vicar of Wakefield," in The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature, ed. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown (New York: Methuen, 1987), 176. For more on Goldsmith's politics, see Howard J. Bell, Jr., "'The Deserted Village' and Goldsmith's Social Doctrines," PMLA 59 (1944): 747-72; Sven Backman, This Singular Tale: A Study of The Vicar of Wakefield and its Literary Background (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1971), 66-67, 184-87; and Donald Davie, "Notes on Goldsmith's Politics," in The Art of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Andrew Swarbrick (London: Vision and Barnes and Noble, 1984), 79-89.

6 Patricia Meyer Spacks, "'Always at Variance': Politics of Eighteenth-Century Adolescence," in A Distant Prospect: Eighteenth-Century Views of Childhood (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1982), 14. Although Spacks's assertion that "power matters immensely" to the Vicar is overstated (she adds that he "accepts no responsibility for his children's misdoings and difficulties, only for their virtues" [14]), it does correct the usual tendency to sentimentalize the Vicar's failings as a father, reading backwards from his final "redemption," where he forgives his children for their follies, to forget how often he drives them to those follies.

7 Raymond F. Hilliard, "The Redemption of Fatherhood in The Vicar of Wakefield," Studies in English Literature 23 (1983): 468.

8 Hopkins (note 3), 323. Holdsworth is quoted in Hopkins, 324, and Goldsmith, 326.

9 Hopkins, 335. Goldsmith is quoted in Hopkins, 326. In a detailed history of the Marriage Act, Erica Harth concludes, like Goldsmith, that it "reinforced the dependency of both women and the poor by keeping capital out of their hands," but disagrees with the novelist in finding it "a victory for patriarchy and capitalism" ("The Virtue of Love: Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act," Cultural Critique 9 [Spring 1988]: 154).

10 Note that, as a Squire, Thornhill represents the tyranny that can result from the accumulation of old money, not, as Goldsmith's political writings more precisely warned, the accumulation of new.

11 In "The Vicar of Wakefield and Other Prose Writings: A Reconsideration," for example, D. W. Jefferson writes that "the ideal domestic, social and Christian order . . . so felicitously depicted by the vicar is continually subverted by the elementary follies and vanities of wife and daughters in ways that could occur only in literature" (Swarbrick, The Art of Oliver Goldsmith [note 5], 28-29). Criticism that focuses on the Vicar's good nature interprets his willingness to believe in the ideal as Christian forbearance, vindicated by the novel's comic conclusion; criticism that focuses on the Vicar's naivete interprets it as more of the same, reproved by the calamities just before that conclusion. Both readings regard the story of Olivia as "elementary," interesting only as it illuminates the Vicar's. For the history of critical responses to The Vicar, see Goldsmith: The Critical Heritage, ed. G. S. Rousseau (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974).

12 The reading most dismissive of Olivia is the satiric one: if the Vicar is not as good a father as he is a priest and husbandman, then his too-passionate daughter becomes just another foil for his naivete. (The best-known satiric reading is by Robert H. Hopkins, "Fortune and the Heavenly Bank: The Vicar of Wakefield as Sustained Satire," in The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1969], 166-230.) I agree with the several critics who dismiss the satiric reading, however, as being too duplicitous for the simple moral lesson (something about forbearance in the face of adversity) that Goldsmith intends his novel to teach. See, for example, Martin Battestin, "Goldsmith: The Comedy of Job," in The Providence of Wit: Aspects of Form in Augustan Literature and the Arts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), 193-214. By calling for a reevaluation of the story of Olivia, I do not intend to read anachronistically, or ignore the ways in which women were regarded as property in eighteenth-century Western societies. I merely intend to point out how our too-easy assent to the Vicar's (and Goldsmith's) view of her can cause us to overlook the way in which her story undermines that view.

13 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 105-7.

14 And, apparently, as other pairs of sisters in eighteenth-century fiction. Backman (note 5) notes that the contrast "between the 'sprightly' and the sensible sister . . . belongs to the standard repertory of the mid-century English novelists" (92-93).

15 For Goldsmith's "ambivalence" toward the concept of luxury, see John Sekora, Luxury: The Concept in Western Thought, Eden to Smollett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977), especially 100-106.

16 Foucault (note 13), 106.

17 Similarly, Spacks (note 6) says that Olivia is "led astray by her compelling desire to please" (13).

18 Foucault (note 13), 106-7.

19 In Family and the Law in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: The Public Conscience in the Private Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), John P. Zomchick notes that "the women of the Vicar's family," unlike Fielding's Amelia or Smollett's Narcissa, "have desires of their own, which demand regulation by a husband, in part because they are represented as too weak or too innocent to regulate themselves." To explain why the Vicar fails to regulate that desire - why, in Goldsmith's novel, female desire seems impossible to contain - Zomchick asserts that the "rigor" necessary to do so is "incompatible with the affective ties that define the [Vicar's] family" (160). I would say instead that the Vicar fails even to see that desire because it lies outside his system of alliance.

20 A more suspicious reader might say that the Vicar doesn't notice Olivia's desire for the Squire because he desires her for himself. Foucault (note 13) alleges that, because the role of the bourgeois family "is to anchor sexuality and provide it with a permanent support, . . . sexuality is 'incestuous' from the start" (108-9), and there are some tantalizing suggestions in Goldsmith's novel that the Vicar does indeed notice his daughter as more than an "unblushing" innocent (133). There is not only the obvious pleasure that he takes in Olivia's "luxurious" beauty, but when it is revealed, again by Jenkinson, that the report of her dying had been greatly exaggerated, the Vicar exclaims, "The warmest transports of the fondest lover were not greater than mine when I saw him introduce my child, and held my daughter in my arms, whose silence only spoke her raptures" (178). (Hilliard [note 7], focusing on Deborah, says that there is even "a suggestion of suppressed rivalry between her and her daughters: watching Olivia dance in front of admiring neighbors, Deborah could not avoid discovering the pride of her heart, by assuring [the Vicar], that though the little chit did it so cleverly, all the steps were stolen from herself" [5354].) If the Vicar did desire Olivia, however, he would be more quick to notice desire in others: not only in the Squire, but also in Olivia.

21 The lyric itself brings to mind Helene Cixous's point about the connection between female subjectivity and transgression: that for a woman to speak is itself "something rash, a transgression," and that a woman's speaking is often about what a phallocentric (or patriarchal) society would call transgression, for when she speaks she often speaks about her body. Cixous also points out that "within each woman the first, nameless love is singing" (The Newly-Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing [Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1986], 92-94).

22 Herbert Marcuse, Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 115.

23 Zomchick (note 19) observes that, "in the curious detail of the final seating arrangements" around the Vicar's "chearful fire-side" at the end of the novel, all of the women in his family lose representation (175): "My two little ones sat upon each knee, the rest of the company by their partners" (184). For an exception, however, see the reference to the Vicar's wife later in this essay.

24 To be precise, Foucault (note 13) is careful to say that, while he "can imagine that one day" the system of sexuality "will have replaced" the system of alliance, even today "it is not exact to say that the deployment of sexuality [has] supplanted" it (107).

25 Spacks (note 6), 14.

26 For Freud on "the return of the repressed," see especially Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols., trans. James Strachey (Toronto: Hogarth Press, 1964), 23:124-27. It is Foucault's (note 13) thesis, of course, that the idea, articulated if not originated by Freud, that sexuality has been repressed in Western societies is a "ruse" to transform it "into discourse, a technology of power, and a will to knowledge that are far from being reducible to" simply repression (12). My point here, however, is compatible with both Freud's and Foucault's: the Vicar does attempt to repress (or neglect) Olivia's sexuality, while the plot of Goldsmith's novel does seem preoccupied with it.

27 In Daughters, Fathers, and the Novel: The Sentimental Romance of Heterosexuality (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1991), Lynda Zwinger asserts that fictional daughters are sentimentalized - improbably drained of their sexuality and made uncommonly virtuous - because they are both desired by their fathers, and yet cannot, like sexually available women (including mothers), be polarized (Zwinger mentions such pairs as "goddess/demon, virgin/whore," and "hearth angel/fallen woman" [4]). Although polarization is a kind of sentimentalizing too, and although I question whether the Vicar desires Olivia for himself (see note 20), Zwinger's point helps to explain why the conclusion to Goldsmith's novel is sentimentalized (or made fantastic): after she has fallen, Goldsmith can neither pretend that Olivia is still a virgin, nor, because of his hero's Christian ethic, discard her as a whore (or disavow her as a daughter, an alternative to sentimentalizing that Zwinger mentions). He must, instead, deliver her.

28 Foucault (note 13), 106.
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Author:Dykstal, Timothy
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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