The Adventures of Roderick Random is among the most adventure-ridden episodic novels of the eighteenth century. Innumerable incidents befall Roderick as he, driven by necessity, roams in every conceivable direction on land and sea. It is a novel written in the best picaresque tradition, with a hero who is at once roguish and (up to a point) virtuous, resilient in the face of adversity yet often despairing, honorable in some matters but underhanded in a great many others. He is by turns whimsical, deliberate, sensitive, vengeful, petulant, gracious, and whatever else Tobias Smollett finds occasion for him to be. Structurally The Adventures of Roderick Random also fits easily into the picaresque tradition, not only in the obvious influence of Alain-René Lesage’s Gil Blas (1715-1735), which Smollett translated into English in 1749, but also in its plot deficiencies. There are several such weaknesses—most of them sudden, unconvincing turns in the narrative—that betray the picaresque fondness for overemphasizing action and character.
The novel is marked above all by its glittering wit and caustic social satire. There are many delightful touches in the book (the repartee of Miss Snapper, for example) that show off Smollett’s comic skills and these, added to the author’s ribaldry, make for highly diverting passages. Perhaps the most engaging parts of the novel are its scenes of London life: the cardsharps, the wags, the floozies and fops, the poverty, the stench, the cruelty. Readers meet every imaginable species of human creature, ranging from prissy lords and lavender-trousered ship captains to lascivious priests and penitent whores. Smollett depicts not just the sins of a sin-worn world but also the need to match good nature with plain animal cunning. Part of the controlling idea in The Adventures of Roderick Random is that education is best obtained not in schoolrooms but in living and learning to adapt to harsh realities.
This theme is a favorite of eighteenth century British fiction. Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, published just a year after The Adventures of Roderick Random, is a well-known reiteration of it. Because Tom, like Roderick, lacks wisdom and self-control (the age would have called it prudence), he is repeatedly victimized by individuals with a crueler nature than his own. In Smollett’s book, readers see the same pattern: A young man with a basically good nature (to echo...
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