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The Deserted Village | Study Guide

Oliver Goldsmith

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Oliver Goldsmith | Biography


Early Years and the Move to London

Oliver Goldsmith was born in Ireland on November 10, 1730. His father was an Anglo-Irish minister serving at Kilkenny West, County Westmeath. The young Goldsmith studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and then moved to Edinburgh in Scotland to pursue a medical degree. This venture was not successful, however, even though he became popularly known thereafter as "Dr. Goldsmith." The young student toured Europe, and in 1756, he arrived in London, where he was to remain for the rest of his rather eccentric and colorful literary career.

Literary Life

In Goldsmith's time, "Grub Street" was the symbolic shorthand for indigent, or poor, authors: writers striving to make a living in an era of revolutionary change in the world of books. In the second half of the 18th century, serious reading began to grip the interest of the English public. Literary reputations were there to be made, yet at the same time competition was fierce and rewards often scant. Numerous writers began by "hack writing": projects that included compilations of the works of others, hastily knocked off biographies, reports on fashions and politics, and canned histories.

Oliver Goldsmith, blessed with an untiring curiosity and appealing writing style, made the most of his gifts. By any standard, the diversity of his output is impressive. In the 1760s and early 1770s he composed minor classics in a variety of genres: essay-like letters in The Citizen of the World (1762), pastoral poetry in The Deserted Village (1770), a picaresque novel in The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), and comic drama in She Stoops to Conquer (1773).

In the first of these works Goldsmith satirizes society by recording the experience of a Chinese visitor to London. In The Deserted Village, he creates picaresque, or rascally and dishonest, characters against the background of a declining way of life: the 1760s saw the peak of the enclosure movement in England, during which wealthy landlords evicted poor farmers and peasants in the name of agricultural efficiency. The Vicar of Wakefield also offers portraits of village life along with a certain amount of sentimentality. In She Stoops to Conquer, Goldsmith foreshadows in some ways his fellow dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816), who triumphed on the comic stage with such plays as The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777).

Final Years and Legacy

By 1764 Goldsmith had made enough of a mark on the London literary scene to be included as a founding member of the Literary Club, known at the time as the "Club," a group of writers, artists, and statesmen who gathered weekly for supper and conversation under the guidance of Samuel Johnson (1709–84), the most eminent writer of the age. Goldsmith had especially cordial relations with Johnson and with several other Club members, such as the painter Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), the statesman Edmund Burke (1729–97), and the biographer James Boswell (1740–95). Johnson, a particularly energetic patron, later composed the inscription for Goldsmith's memorial in Westminster Abbey, which begins by describing him as one who left scarcely any kind of writing untouched and "touched nothing that he did not adorn."

Paradoxically, however, Goldsmith's elegant style of writing clashed with incompetence and extravagance in his personal affairs. He tended toward the brash and even foolish in other people's company, striving for attention and admiration. A heavy gambler, he was often overwhelmed by debt. Johnson is also said to have remarked of him, "No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had." Goldsmith died in London on April 4, 1774, at age 45. He is remembered and read largely for his vivid characters, elegant use of the rhymed couplet in verse, and sharp wit.

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