English Protestant Clergy in Literature Essay

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Adams, Primrose and Yorick: A Comparison of 18th Century Church of England Clergymen

One of the clearest features shared by Fielding's Adams in Joseph Andrews, Goldsmith's Primrose in The Vicar of Wakefield, and Sterne's Yorick in A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy is relentlessness that the characters demonstrate, as though by sheer force of will they may manage affairs to a happy conclusion. In spite of their sometimes obtuse qualities, their evident pride in themselves, their naivete, their innocence, their ability to bungle their way into all manner of episodic conundrums, their resolute good humor through it all ensures the reader that whatever grace they do possess will be sufficient to make all well by the end of the narrative. Such is true of all three clergymen, and to the extent that all three clergymen represent the pastors of the Church of England in the 18th century, one could surmise that the preachers of English Protestantism were a well-meaning, if not somewhat aloof and self-absorbed, lot. This paper will compare the characterization of Adams, Primrose and Yorick and consider how realistically they represent Church of England clergymen from the time period of 1730 to 1780.

By the 18th century, England had metamorphosed from an entirely Roman Catholic country, as it had been a quarter of a millennium earlier. In 1701 the Act of Settlement held that the English monarch must be a Protestant. And wars against the Catholic Spanish monarchy continued (Roberts 4). England's identity as a Protestant, with its king as head of the Church of England, was secured. In 1727, King George II ascended the throne, second monarch of the House of Hanover (whose dynasty would last for nearly 200 years). And thirteen years later the now famous "Rule, Britannia!" would be penned by James Thomson and scored by Thomas Arne (Fuld 477). The British identity from this point on would be fused with a righteous spirit of fight, mastery, pride, self-determination, glory, and unwavering ability. It would be complete, relying on no foreign bodies (such as the Roman authorities in religious matters), its ships would rule the waves, and its colonies would be a source of wealth. England viewed itself as refined, mannerly, educated, moral, and absolute -- and all of this would be imbibed and projected by the Church of England clergy during this time.

Ironically, the writers Fielding, Goldsmith and Sterne do not take as sterling a view of the Church of England clergy as the clergy themselves were likely wont to take. While these authors do not come out and condemn straight off the antics, demeanor, character, or activities of this class, they do take the opportunity to playfully rib, satirize, and spoof the "fine" gentility of these often country parish types who are so confident in their sense of what is going on, knowing right from wrong, and always finding the right way forward, that when the utterly fail to recognize what is right before their faces they afford great amusement for the reader.

Goldsmith's Rev. Primrose is a family man: he is the happily married father of grown children (though they are not quite so matured that they know to avoid the pitfalls of false love, etc. -- issues the Primrose will have to deal with before the novel's conclusion). Yet, Primrose is also an ironic character -- in much the same way that Yorick and Adams are: they are educated, do understand the Protestant ethos, and are concerned about their duties as preachers, but they so often fail to do the right thing when it comes to their own persons and actual sphere of influence. It is as though they spend all their time in their own heads -- like Jane Austen's Mr. Collins -- and are unable to process the real world directly. This is the main problem of Primrose, as his name suggests (he is prim and proper and delicate like a rose -- but of course a father figure and leader of a parish needs to be of sterner, stronger stuff in order to lead, make good decisions, and provide a solid example). Primrose is not made of such stuff. While his Christian name is rather masculine -- Charles -- and he is noted to be a doctor, his surname betrays the nature of his true character -- he is prim and rosy and, by his own self-assessment, an "honest man" (Goldsmith 9).

Primrose is somewhat unreliable as a narrator too (Nuning 236). That Primrose is unintentionally ironic makes his character all the more enjoyable for the reader, who is meant to delight in the absurdities of Primrose (who fails to see how absurd he actually is). For instance, in the opening of the novel, as he is describing his hearth, over which he has hung an epitaph for his wife (who is still living) in order to remind her daily of her duties, the reader should immediately sense that Primrose has much of the fool in him (Goldsmith 13).

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His sheer total obliviousness with which he condescends to his wife should give the reader no end of amusement, especially if he or she is already inclined to acerbic comedy. Likewise, the way in which he describes choosing a wife is analogous to the way in which a woman chooses a dress or a breeder chooses a horse: there is little sense of the human about it.

This lack of human sense is what drives all three of these clergymen, in fact. With Primrose the problem is that he is not exactly what he himself thinks he is: he is the head of a family, true, but he has not really raised his children (his son he has sent away to school and his daughter is completely empty-headed, as evidenced by her foolish fall from grace -- her seduction -- which could have been prevented had either of her parents been a little more aware of what was transpiring before their very eyes or had any inclination to correct her of her own mistaken belief of being "educated"). Even still, with Primrose, Goldsmith does not wish to entirely skewer him, for in 18th century England, there is still a great deal of respect to be had for the idea of the clergy, even if the reality is far from ideal. Thus, as Zomchick notes, Primrose does not attain the heights of wisdom and leadership that he professes to possess in himself because doing so would be an act of "transgressing the texts sentimental presuppositions and destroying the harmonious domestic idyll that the narrative struggles to maintain" (169). In other words, Goldsmith himself is reluctant to push Primrose all the way down the path of absurdity and thoroughly skewer him upon his own petard of arrogance and smug self-righteousness. Goldsmith backs off just enough to make his satire gentle, his overall orientation still loving and warm. He wants Primrose to have a happy ending and does not portray him in a manner that is meant to totally satirize all the Church of England clergy.

The same can be said of Sterne's Yorick in A Sentimental Journey. Yorick is an unmistakable throwback to one of Shakespeare's most famous characters (who is, ironically, never seen on stage -- only spoken of -- with, perhaps, his skull held up for view). This is, of course, a reference to Yorick, the dead court jester, whose grave is dug up by the gravediggers in Act 5, scene 1, of Hamlet so as to make room for the dead Ophelia. Hamlet grieves for himself and for the passing of time as well as for Yorick: "Alas, porr Yorick! I knew him, Horatio!" (Shakespeare, 5:1). The name Yorick brings up such a flood of emotions and memories and ideas that in naming his clergyman after Shakespeare's dead court jester, Sterne is utilizing the ironic juxtaposition presented by the name to provide the reader with both humor (satire) and gravitas. This orientation is even commented upon by Yorick himself when in Paris he seeks a passport and is immediately granted one because he himself is mistaken as a member of the Court. Sterne's Yorick is both self-aware and yet also oblivious. He is so entrenched in his own Protestant ideology that when the Catholic monk comes begging in Yorick's chambers, the minister's recalcitrant Protestantism virtually erupts and he treats the poor monk to a strong dose of verbal combat, suggesting that the monk should pick himself up by his bootstraps and look after his own affairs instead of going begging from door to door and attempting to take from others what they themselves have worked hard to obtain. Yorick completely fails to understand the monk, his reliance upon Providence, or even the concept the Christian charity: instead, Yorick's staunch Britishness emerges -- the pride of being British, of being a part of a great, independent….....

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Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. UK: Dover, 1995. Print.

Fielding, Henry. Joseph Andrews. Oxford PDF.

Fuld, James. The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular and Folk. NY: Dover, 2000.

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. Oxford PDF.

Nunning, Vera. "Unreliable narration and the historical variability of values and norms: the Vicar of Wakefield as a test case of a cultural-historical narratology." Style, vol. 38, no. 2 (2004): 236-252.

Roberts, Clayton. A History of England. UK: Prentice Hall, 2014.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Web. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/hamlet.5.1.html

Sterne, Laurence. A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. PDF.

Zomchick, John. Family and the Law in Eighteenth-Century Fiction. UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.

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