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<BLOCKQUOTE>As for disappointing them, I should not mind much; but I can’t abide to disappoint myself!</BLOCKQUOTE>
Thus speaks Tony Lumpkin in the first scene of Oliver Goldsmith’s eighteenth-century comedy of errors She Stoops to Conquer. It is a rather inconsequential moment with the ostensible purpose of introducing Tony as willful and impetuous, further exemplified by his subsequent slapstick exit (made while comically tethered by his less-muscled if equally willful mother). Tony, in conjunction with his mother, is to be viewed as having a self-indulgent temperament distinct from the rest of the more refined ensemble. However, this moment of Tony’s expression of self-interest represents the driving force behind the entire play: a solipsistic selfishness seems to motivate everyone’s actions throughout the mistakes of a night. Not all of the characters are as blunt about their egotism as Tony, and sometimes they try to mask it behind other supposed stimuli. Nonetheless, it becomes apparent that every major plot development and calculable confusion is the result of a willed expression of egotism by one or more of the characters with little real concern for anyone else.
The disinterested veils behind which the characters attempt to hide their egocentrism have varying degrees of translucence. Tony, as mentioned, is quite transparent, having never hung his veil. His mother, Mrs. Hardcastle, is only slightly less obvious in her “unseemly vanity and affectation” (Danziger, 53). She very much pushes for the marriage of her son to her niece, Constance, out of an expressed belief that they love each other, despite Tony’s contrary protestations. This is all an endeavor, as she herself admits, to continue to keep the fortune in jewels that belongs to her niece in her immediate family. She has little or no concern for her niece, and while she loves her son very much, she is more ardently interested in the jewelry.
For Constance’s part, she dismisses her lover Hastings’s desire to forget the jewels and elope. She loves him, but she will not be satisfied until she has procured the jewelry to adorn herself, even to the torture of Hastings. Hastings, for his own part, comes to the country with Marlow under the pretense of companionship. However, at that crucial moment when Marlow needs him — “George, sure you won’t go?” (21) — he abandons his friend to concern himself with the true selfish reason for his visit. Nonetheless, Marlow’s wish for Hastings to stay is driven by an equal concern for himself, and he does not consider Hastings’s and Constance’s yearning to “manage a little tête-à-tête of [their] own” (21).
Marlow has, however, apparently made the trip to the country, in a further complication of the play’s central theme, at the behest of his father. Given his skittishness around women of his class, Marlow’s natural inclination would be to avoid this awkward encounter, but we shouldn’t forget that he is a young man who probably understands the need for a wife to maintain his social status. Furthermore, immediately following his first encounter with Ms. Hardcastle he muses, “I have pleased my father… by coming down, and I’ll tomorrow please myself by returning” (33). Shortly after he falls in love with a woman he believes to be a barmaid, directly contrary to the wishes of his lordly father, and “proudly asserts his superiority over” her (Danziger, 45). So we see that while he puts up the pretense of obeying his father, he is in fact just as prone to caprice as anyone else in the play, or perhaps even more so. And while he is set up as the gentleman to Tony’s bumpkin, their “character and conduct” bear resemblances: “both have to be humoured like spoiled children” (Dixon, 131).
As for Ms. Hardcastle, she succumbs to her father’s wishes to wear plain country clothes, but she does so on her terms, in the afternoon. She agrees to meet the eligible bachelor, Marlow, but only after she is assured that he will satisfy her vanity. Then, when the opportunity arises, she attempts to secure his love in the guise of a barmaid. She is convinced that she can fix him up to her standards and that he can be “taught to be proud of his wife” (4), further revealing her self-infatuation and controlling desires that are her barefaced motives.
Her father, in contrast, claims that he will “never control [her] choice” (4). He says that he is only attempting to please her with a worthy option that simultaneously gratifies an old friend, Marlow’s father. These both seem to be rather unselfish motivations, driven more by a love of family and friends. However, when Marlow, in his confusion, is repeatedly rude to Hardcastle, he determines to throw Marlow out, despite his daughter’s protestations and his promise to her to wait an hour. Also, his devotion to his friend is less than altruism and more an adherence to his own desire to fortify old friendships — as he admits, “this union of our families will make our personal friendships hereditary” (49).
So we see that everyone is caught up with him- or herself (with the odd, notable exception of the late appearance of Sir Charles, who is utterly benevolent and somewhat inexplicably facilitates the conclusion of the play). Returning to the origins of the theme, however, some difficult complications do arise. Tony’s misdirection of Marlow and Hastings early on seems little concerned with himself, but it stems from a devotion to mayhem and also serves as general revenge against his stepfather. It is an “ultimately beneficent falsehood” (Dixon, 129), but one that he almost checks for concern for himself out of fear of Hardcastle. Yet while he helps Hastings and his cousin, allegedly to be rid of any obligation to marry her, he does so with a vigor that seems almost unnecessary and munificent. Finally, the largest cog in the solipsistic wheel that drives this play is his mother’s attempted self-sacrifice at the hands of the “highwaymen.” But is she not driven by a maternal instinct that views her son as a part of herself? I submit that it is, and that the play as a whole is driven by nearly universal egotism from beginning to unfortunate end.
Danziger, Marlies K. Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1978.
Dixon, Peter. Oliver Goldsmith Revisited. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Goldsmith, Oliver. She Stoops To Conquer. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1991.
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