Masterpieces of

World Literature









Oliver Goldsmith


Oliver Goldsmith

Irish author

born Nov. 10, 1730, Kilkenny West, County Westmeath, Ire.
died April 4, 1774, London

Anglo-Irish essayist, poet, novelist, dramatist, and eccentric, made famous by such works as the series of essays The Citizen of the World, or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher (1762), the poem The Deserted Village (1770), the novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), and the play She Stoops to Conquer (1773).

Goldsmith was the son of an Anglo-Irish clergyman, the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, curate in charge of Kilkenny West, County Westmeath. At about the time of his birth, the family moved into a substantial house at nearby Lissoy, where Oliver spent his childhood. Much has been recorded concerning his youth, his unhappy years as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin, where he received the B.A. degree in February 1749, and his many misadventures before he left Ireland in the autumn of 1752 to study in the medical school at Edinburgh. His father was now dead, but several of his relations had undertaken to support him in his pursuit of a medical degree. Later on, in London, he came to be known as Dr. Goldsmith—Doctor being the courtesy title for one who held the Bachelor of Medicine—but he took no degree while at Edinburgh nor, so far as anyone knows, during the two-year period when, despite his meagre funds, which were eventually exhausted, he somehow managed to make his way through Europe. The first period of his life ended with his arrival in London, bedraggled and penniless, early in 1756.

Goldsmith’s rise from total obscurity was a matter of only a few years. He worked as an apothecary’s assistant, school usher, physician, and as a hack writer—reviewing, translating, and compiling. Much of his work was for Ralph Griffiths’s Monthly Review. It remains amazing that this young Irish vagabond, unknown, uncouth, unlearned, and unreliable, was yet able within a few years to climb from obscurity to mix with aristocrats and the intellectual elite of London. Such a rise was possible because Goldsmith had one quality, soon noticed by booksellers and the public, that his fellow literary hacks did not possess—the gift of a graceful, lively, and readable style. His rise began with the Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759), a minor work. Soon he emerged as an essayist, in The Bee and other periodicals, and above all in his Chinese Letters. These essays were first published in the journal The Public Ledger and were collected as The Citizen of the World in 1762. The same year brought his Life of Richard Nash, of Bath, Esq. Already Goldsmith was acquiring those distinguished and often helpful friends whom he alternately annoyed and amused, shocked and charmed—Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Percy, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, and James Boswell. The obscure drudge of 1759 became in 1764 one of the nine founder-members of the famous Club, a select body, including Reynolds, Johnson, and Burke, which met weekly for supper and talk. Goldsmith could now afford to live more comfortably, but his extravagance continually ran him into debt, and he was forced to undertake more hack work. He thus produced histories of England and of ancient Rome and Greece, biographies, verse anthologies, translations, and works of popular science. These were mainly compilations of works by other authors, which Goldsmith then distilled and enlivened by his own gift for fine writing. Some of these makeshift compilations went on being reprinted well into the 19th century, however.

By 1762 Goldsmith had established himself as an essayist with his Citizen of the World, in which he used the device of satirizing Western society through the eyes of an Oriental visitor to London. By 1764 he had won a reputation as a poet with The Traveller, the first work to which he put his name. It embodied both his memories of tramping through Europe and his political ideas. In 1770 he confirmed that reputation with the more famous Deserted Village, which contains charming vignettes of rural life while denouncing the evictions of the country poor at the hands of wealthy landowners. In 1766 Goldsmith revealed himself as a novelist with The Vicar of Wakefield (written in 1762), a portrait of village life whose idealization of the countryside, sentimental moralizing, and melodramatic incidents are underlain by a sharp but good-natured irony. In 1768 Goldsmith turned to the theatre with The Good Natur’d Man, which was followed in 1773 by the much more effective She Stoops to Conquer, which was immediately successful. This play has outlived almost all other English-language comedies from the early 18th to the late 19th century by virtue of its broadly farcical horseplay and vivid, humorous characterizations.

During his last decade Goldsmith’s conversational encounters with Johnson and others, his foolishness, and his wit were preserved in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Goldsmith eventually became deeply embroiled in mounting debts despite his considerable earnings as an author, though, and after a short illness in the spring of 1774 he died.

When Oliver Goldsmith died he had achieved eminence among the writers of his time as an essayist, a poet, and a dramatist. He was one “who left scarcely any kind of writing untouched and who touched nothing that he did not adorn”—such was the judgment expressed by his friend Dr. Johnson. His contemporaries were as one in their high regard for Goldsmith the writer, but they were of different minds concerning the man himself. He was, they all agreed, one of the oddest personalities of his time. Of established Anglo-Irish stock, he kept his brogue and his provincial manners in the midst of the sophisticated Londoners among whom he moved. His bearing was undistinguished, and he was unattractive physically—ugly, some called him—with ill-proportioned features and a pock-marked face. He was a poor manager of his own affairs and an inveterate gambler, wildly extravagant when in funds, generous sometimes beyond his means to people in distress. The graceful fluency with words that he commanded as a writer deserted him totally when he was in society—his conversational mishaps were memorable things. Instances were also cited of his incredible vanity, of his constant desire to be conspicuous in company, and of his envy of others’ achievements. In the end what most impressed Goldsmith’s contemporaries was the paradox he presented to the world: on the one hand the assured and polished literary artist, on the other the person notorious for his ineptitudes in and out of society. Again it was Johnson who summed up the common sentiment. “No man,” he declared, “was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had.”

Goldsmith’s success as a writer lay partly in the charm of personality emanated by his style—his affection for his characters, his mischievous irony, and his spontaneous interchange of gaiety and sadness. He was, as a writer, “natural, simple, affecting.” It is by their human personalities that his novel and his plays succeed, not by any brilliance of plot, ideas, or language. In the poems again it is the characters that are remembered rather than the landscapes—the village parson, the village schoolmaster, the sharp, yet not unkindly portraits of Garrick and Burke. Goldsmith’s poetry lives by its own special softening and mellowing of the traditional heroic couplet into simple melodies that are quite different in character from the solemn and sweeping lines of 18th-century blank verse. In his novel and plays Goldsmith helped to humanize his era’s literary imagination, without growing sickly or mawkish. Goldsmith saw people, human situations, and indeed the human predicament from the comic point of view; he was a realist, something of a satirist, but in his final judgments unfailingly charitable.




Type of work: Drama
Author: Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774)
Type of plot: Comedy of situation
Time of plot: Eighteenth century
Locale: England
First presented: 1773


Oliver Goldsmith labeled She Stoops to Conquer a "laughing comedy" to distinguish it from the "sentimental comedies" that dominated the theater in his day and which were, in his view, violations of the essential nature of the genre. In She Stoops to Conquer, he succeeded brilliantly, both artistically and commercially, in writing a comedy that is funny as well as insightful.


Principal Characters

Mr. Hardcastle, a landed English gentleman. Sometimes grumpy, he is more often a hearty old squire with the habit of retelling the same jokes and stories to his guests. At first excited by the prospect of having Marlow as his son-in-law, he finds his patience severely strained by the apparent impudence of the young man, who is the son of Hardcastle's old friend, Sir Charles Marlow. When he receives incivilities in return for his hospitality, the old gentleman loses his self-control and orders Marlow and his party from the house. Finally, however, he realizes that he is the victim of a hoax and willingly accepts the young man as Kate's suitor.
Mrs. Hardcastle, his formidable wife. Her strongest desire, other than having her son Tony marry Constance Neville, is to have an annual social polishing in London. For a time she manages to thwart the romance of Hastings and Constance. Seeing that they are in love, she tries to circumvent their plans by taking Constance to Aunt Pedigree's. But this stratagem fails when her undutiful son Tony merely drives them around Mrs. Hardcastle's home for three hours, finally landing the unsuspecting old lady in a horse pond near her home. Finally, she is forced to acknowledge the fact that her beloved Tony has only one desire—to get his inheritance.
Tony Lumpkin, her son by her first marriage. He is a roistering young squire completely spoiled by his doting mother. In return for her parental laxness, the lazy, hard-drinking prankster, when he is not singing bawdy songs in low taverns, plagues the Hardcastle household with practical jokes. Although he is uncommonly healthy, his mother is certain that he is dying of some dread ailment. When he meets Hastings and Marlow, he gives them some wrong information, thus creating his masterpiece among tricks. By telling them that Mr. Hardcastle's home is an inn, he causes them to think Hardcastle is an innkeeper and, what is worse, a windy, inquisitive old bore who takes unseemly social liberties with his guests. Hardcastle, on the other hand, is certain of their being impudent, cheeky young scamps.
Kate Hardcastle, Hardcastle's lovely young daughter. Like her stepmother, she also has social pretensions. Because of her stubbornness and desire to be a woman of fashion, her father makes her agree to wear fine clothes part of the day and ordinary clothes the rest of the time. Aware that Marlow is often improper with ordinary working girls, she disguises herself as a servant. Only then does she realize that he has qualities other than modesty and timidity. Liking this impetuous side of her suitor, Kate is now determined to have him as a husband.
Constance Neville, Kate's best friend. Early in the play, she learns of the joke which Tony has played on Marlow and Hastings, the man she loves. Entering into the spirit of the prank, she and Hastings plot their elopement. Unfortunately for their hopes, Mrs. Hardcastle is keeping a fortune in family jewels for Constance. In order to outwit the old lady, Constance acts out a part: she convinces Mrs. Hardcastle of her love for Tony, who actually dislikes Constance strongly. Finally, with the help of Kate's father, she is free to marry Hastings.
Young Marlow, Kate's reluctant suitor. Timid in the presence of ladies, Marlow is quite different with working girls. After mistaking Kate for a servant, he is mortified to learn her true identity. In his wounded pride, he plans to leave the house immediately; instead, she leads him away, still teasing him unmercifully.
Hastings, Marlow's best friend. With the help of Tony and Mr. Hardcastle, Hastings, a far more impetuous lover than Marlow, wins Constance as his bride.
Sir Charles Marlow, the father of young Marlow and Mr. Hardcastle's old friend.


The Story

Mrs. Hardcastle, the wife of Mr. Hardcastle by a second marriage, had by her first husband a son, Tony Lumpkin. Tony was a lazy, spoiled boy, but his mother excused his actions by imagining him to be sickly. Mr. Hardcastle vowed that his stepson looked the picture of good health.
Kate Hardcastle, Mr. Hardcastle's daughter, was headstrong. To overcome his daughter's wish to be a lady of importance, Mr. Hardcastle had struck a bargain with her whereby she wore ordinary clothes and played a country girl during part of the day; at other times she was allowed to appear in fine clothes. Knowing it was time for his daughter to marry, Mr. Hardcastle sent for Mr. Marlow, the son of his closest friend, to meet Kate. Kate was pleased by her father's description of the young man in all features except one. She did not like the fact that he was considered shy and retiring.
Mrs. Hardcastle hoped to arrange a match between Tony and Constance Neville, her ward and Kate's best friend. The two young people hated each other but pretended otherwise for Mrs. Hardcastle's sake. On the day of Mr. Marlow's expected arrival, Constance identified the prospective bridegroom as the friend of Hastings, the man whom Constance really loved. Constance described Marlow as being very shy with fashionable young ladies but quite a different character with girls of lower station.
En route to the Hardcastle home, Hastings and Marlow lost their way and arrived at an ale-house where Tony was carousing with friends. Recognizing the two men, Tony decided to play a trick on his stepfather. When Hastings and Marlow asked the way to the Hardcastle home, Tony told them that they were lost and would be wise to stop at an inn a short distance up the road. Marlow and Hastings arrived at their destination but thought it the inn Tony had described. Hardcastle, knowing nothing of their misconception, treated them as guests, while Hastings and Marlow treated him as an innkeeper, each party thinking the other extremely rude. Hardcastle decided that Marlow's apparent character was in contradiction to the modest personage who had been described to him.
When Hastings met Constance, she quickly recognized Tony's hand in the mischief, but Hastings and Constance kept the secret to themselves. Hastings explained to Marlow that the two young ladies had arrived at the inn after a long journey through the country. When Tony came home, Hastings took him aside and explained his desire to marry Constance, an arrangement quite satisfactory to the rascal. He promised to help the lovers and even to try to secure Constance's jewelry, which was in Mrs. Hardcastle's keeping. The bargain having been made, Tony went to his mother's room and stole the gems. He gave them to Hastings. When Constance asked for the jewels, Tony whispered to his mother that she should tell Constance they had been lost. Thinking it a capital plan, Mrs. Hardcastle complied with Tony's suggestion, only to discover later that the gems actually were gone. Meanwhile, Kate, according to her agreement with her father, had put on a pleasant, simple dress.
Learning of Marlow's mistaken idea that he was at an inn, Kate decided to keep him in error. Marlow, seeing Kate in her simple dress, thought she was a serving-girl and revealed himself as a flirtations dandy. As he was trying to kiss her, Mr. Hardcastle entered the room, and Marlow fled. Mr. Hardcastle remarked to Kate that obviously she now had proof that Marlow was no modest young man. Kate vowed she would convince her father Marlow had the kind of personality pleasing to them both. However, Marlow's continued impudence aroused Hardcastle to such an uncontrollable state that he ordered him to leave his house. Kate, thinking the time had come to enlighten her deceived suitor, told Marlow about the trick Tony had played. Marlow, still unaware of Kate's real identity, found himself more and more attracted to her, while Kate was discovering him to be a fine and honest person.
Hastings had given Marlow the jewels which Tony had stolen from Mrs. Hardcastle. To protect the valuables, Marlow had sent them to Mrs. Hardcastle, supposing her to be the innkeeper's wife. The servants, under Tony's instructions, then explained to the distraught lady that the jewels had been mislaid because of some confusion in the household.
Mrs. Hardcastle discovered that Hastings planned to elope with Constance. Enraged, she decided to punish Constance by sending her to visit her Aunt Pedigree. To add to the confusion, news came that Sir Charles, Marlow's father, was on his way to the Hardcastle home.
Tony offered to drive the coach for Mrs. Hardcastle, but instead of taking the ladies to the house of Aunt Pedigree, he drove them around in a circle for three hours until Mrs. Hardcastle believed they were lost. After hiding his terrified mother in the bushes, Tony took Constance back to Hastings. But Constance was determined not to leave without her jewels. When Mrs. Hardcastle at last discovered Tony's trick, she was furious.
Sir Charles, on his arrival, was greatly amused by Hardcastle's account of Marlow's mistake. Hardcastle assured Sir Charles that Marlow loved Kate, but Marlow insisted he was not interested in Miss Hardcastle. Kate promised the two fathers she would prove that Marlow loved her, and she told them to hide while she talked with Marlow. Still under the impression that Kate was a serving-girl, the wretched young man told her he loved her and wanted to marry her. Sir Charles and Hardcastle emerged from their hiding place satisfied that the marriage would be arranged. Marlow was upset to learn that the serving-girl with whom he had behaved was really Miss Hardcastle.
Mrs. Hardcastle reminded her husband that she had full control of Constance's fortune until Tony married her when he became of age. But if he should refuse her, Constance would be given control of her inheritance. It was then announced that Tony's real age had been hidden in the hope that the lad would improve his character.
Informed that he was already of age, Tony refused to marry Constance. Sir Charles assured Mrs. Hardcastle that Hastings was a fine young man, and Constance obtained her jewels from her guardian.
So Kate married Marlow, and Constance married Hastings. And Tony gained his freedom from his mother.


Critical Evaluation

Oliver Goldsmith was a poverty-haunted, irritable, and envious man with a great wit and generosity and an essentially lovable nature; all of these contradictory characteristics are reflected in his writings. Hopelessly impractical, especially in money matters, in talk often foolish, he wrote with genius and Irish liveliness in many different forms and left a legacy of at least four masterpieces that will last as long as the English language endures. Goldsmith was forced, like Dr. Johnson before him, to plod away as a literary hack, trying to survive in London's Grub Street literary world. He did editorial work for booksellers, wrote essays and criticism, and gradually gained a modest reputation. The Citizen of the World essays appeared in 1760 and 1761, bringing him more recognition; when they were republished, the charm and grace of the satire in these letters, and their humor and good sense, caused a sensation. Although this success eased somewhat the pinch of poverty, Goldsmith continued to find it necessary to write pamphlets and miscellaneous journalism. A philosophic poem, The Traveler, brought high praise from Johnson, and The Deserted Village was a wide success. In 1766 The Vicar of Wake-field, written to pay his rent, brought Goldsmith fame as a novelist. His collected essays was a further triumph, although his money troubles continued. She Stoops to Conquer, Goldsmith's second comedy, received a flattering public response, but the financial returns paid off no more than a fraction of the author's huge debts. The drudgery of his efforts to raise money with his pen caused his health to fail, and he finally died in 1774, only forty-four years old, a victim of his financial failure.
Goldsmith's writings reflected his whimsical, yet serious, nature. As he fluctuated from lighthearted foolishness to depths of depression, so his work demonstrates a somber, earthy thread running through the farce and sentiment. He belonged mainly to the neoclassical tradition, his style and vocabulary of the eighteenth century, but he avoided the ponderousness of his friend and mentor, Johnson. Even his sentimental streak was lightened with his Irish humor and wistfulness.
Of all of Goldsmith's varied writings, She Stoops to Conquer stands supreme, one of the most beloved comedies of all time. The humor and humanity of such characters as Kate Hardcastle and Tony Lumpkin had guaranteed the play's immortality. The sentimental drama, under the influence of such works as Steele's The Conscious Lovers, dominated the eighteenth century stage. The rising middle class craved this kind of drama, and it provided a conventional code of manners for these new prosperous theater-goers to emulate. In She Stoops to Conquer, Goldsmith tried to move toward real human motivation and escape the artificiality of the sentimental drama, which was in many respects a flight from reality. He satirized the posturings of the sentimental plays, but he did much more than that; his wit and style and shrewd eye for human foibles gave She Stoops to Conquer a vitality and sense of real life that has endured for more than two centuries.
With all of its polish, the eighteenth century was often crude and coarse and cruel; Goldsmith offered a more humane vision of human folly. At the conclusion of She Stoops to Conquer, the audience cannot help but be saner and more civilized, and to view its fellow mortals with a warmer sympathy. There is no viciousness in Goldsmith's comedy, as might be found in the plays of Sheridan, Congreve, or Moliere. In She Stoops to Conquer, the emphasis is not on the outcome (which the audience never doubts) but on how the outcome will arrive. The basis of the plot is the sentimental conflict of the opposed love match and the subordinate trite plot complication (of the mistaken house as an inn, an incident which is said to have happened to Goldsmith in his youth). But Goldsmith takes these conventions and breathes new life into them, with a pace and humanity seldom approached in the drama. The characters are not cruel to one another; even Tony Lumpkin is essentially a goodhearted rogue. The conclusion is a happy one without anyone suffering or being left out in the cold. Unlike so many authors of comedies of manners, Goldsmith has no interest in punishing his characters.
Goldsmith was unlearned compared to his friends and compatriots Sheridan and Johnson, but he was a natural writer with a loathing for pretense and artificiality. If She Stoops to Conquer has any message, it is of the dangers of pretense and pretentiousness. Mr. Hardcastle's rule that Kate and her mother must dress plainly reflects this attitude of Goldsmith. The right of individuals to lead their own lives must be considered the second theme of the play, for both Kate and Marlow at last win their right to love and Tony wins his freedom from his mother.
Because of the failure of his previous play, The Good Natur'dMan, Goldsmith had difficulty getting She Stoops to Conquer produced. The great Garrick would have nothing to do with it, and general opinion was that it was too different from the prevailing mode to be a success. It was believed that only plays in the sentimental manner were wanted by audiences. After many difficulties, the comedy finally opened at Covent Garden, and Johnson himself led a party to see his friend's play through its hour of judgment. "I know of no comedy for many years," Johnson said, after, "that has answered so much the great end of comedy—making an audience merry." As usual, the Doctor was right, for, while one or two comedies of the time might be considered superior, none of them is merrier. There is, in She Stoops to Conquer, something of the quality of the great Elizabethan comedies, a humanity and humor that might have revolutionized the eighteenth century theater. But Goldsmith wrote no more plays, had no followers or imitators, and produced almost no effect on the drama of the day. Perhaps technically the play is not as perfect as those of Sheridan and lacks the sharp wit of the Restoration comedies, but it reflects the author's own rich and genial personality and will continue to be produced and read and loved as one of the kindliest and funniest of all comedies.



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy