(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Although Roderick Random comes from a wealthy landowning family in Scotland, his early life is beset by vicissitudes. Soon after Roderick’s birth, his mother dies. When his father thereupon marries a servant in the household, he is disowned by his own father. Heartbroken and penniless, he disappears, leaving his son Roderick in the care of his grandfather, who is prevailed upon to send the lad to school for the sake of the family reputation.

At school, Roderick, although a great favorite with the boys his own age, is the butt of the masters. His whippings are numerous, for he is used as a whipping boy whenever something goes wrong and the real culprit cannot be determined. In Roderick’s fourteenth year, however, there is a change in his fortunes. His mother’s brother, Tom Bowling, a lieutenant in the navy, comes to visit his young nephew.

Lieutenant Bowling remonstrates with his nephew’s grandfather over his treatment of Roderick, but the old man is firm in his refusal to do anything beyond what necessity dictates for the offspring of the son he disinherited. When the grandfather dies, he leaves Roderick nothing. Bowling sends the lad to the university, where Roderick makes great progress. Then Bowling becomes involved in a duel and is forced to leave his ship. This misfortune cuts off the source of Roderick’s funds and makes it necessary for him to leave the university.

Casting about for a means of making a livelihood, Roderick becomes a surgeon’s apprentice. He proves to be so capable that before long his master sends him to London with a recommendation to a local member of Parliament, who is to obtain Roderick a place as surgeon’s mate in the navy. Securing a place on a man-of-war is a difficult task. To keep himself in funds, Roderick works for a French chemist in London. In the shop, he meets and falls in love with Miss Williams. Much to his chagrin, however, he discovers one day that she is a prostitute trying to better her fortune. Soon afterward, Roderick is accused of stealing and is dismissed by his employer. While he is leading a precarious existence, waiting for his navy warrant, he learns that Miss Williams lives in the same lodging house. He wins her everlasting gratitude by acting as her doctor while she is ill.

One day, while walking near the Thames, Roderick is seized by a press-gang and shanghaied aboard the man-of-war Thunder, about to sail for Jamaica. Roderick finds friends on board the ship and is made a surgeon’s mate. The voyage to Jamaica is terrible. The commanding officer, Captain Oakhum, is a tyrant who comes very close to hanging Roderick and another surgeon’s mate because one of the ship’s officers claims he heard them speaking ill of the surgeon and the captain. The captain thinks that Roderick’s Greek notebook is a military code, and he threatens again to hang him as a spy.

After seeing action against the Spanish at Cartagena, Roderick secures a billet as surgeon’s mate aboard the Lizard, a ship returning to England with dispatches. On the way, the captain dies and Lieutenant Crampley, an officer who greatly dislikes Roderick, takes command of the ship. Crampley, a poor officer, runs the ship aground off the Sussex coast. The crew robs and tries to kill Roderick when they reach the shore, but an old woman befriends him, cures him of his wounds, and finds him a place as footman with a spinster gentlewoman who lives nearby.

Roderick spends several months in her service. He finds his way into his employer’s goodwill by his attention to his duties and by showing a knowledge of literature, even to the extent of explaining passages from Torquato Tasso’s Italian poetry to her. The...

(The entire section is 1520 words.)