Tobias Smollett not only is a great comic novelist but also a morally exhilarating one—a serious satirist of the brutality, squalor, and hideous corruption of humankind. His definite moral purposes are firmly grounded in the archetypal topic of all novelists—people’s unceasing battle for survival in the war between the forces of good and evil. Smollett insists that people defy “the selfishness, envy, malice, and base indifference of mankind”; in such a struggle, the hero will ultimately prevail and will be rewarded for his (or her) fortitude.
The principal theme of Smollett’s first novel, Roderick Random, is the arbitrariness of success and failure in a world dominated by injustice and dishonesty. Smollett’s decision to use realistic detail as a guise for his satire produces a lively and inventive work; moreover, the hero, Roderick, is not a mere picaro nor a passive fool but an intent satiric observer “who recognizes, reacts, and rebukes.” The novel is organized in a three-part structure. The initial stage reveals Roderick’s numerous trials as a young man; he loses his innocence during the years of poverty in Scotland, of failure in London, and of brutal experience in the Navy. The middle of thenarrative embodies “the lessons of adversity” as the hero declines into near collapse. In a final brief section, Roderick recovers his physical and moral equilibrium and promotes the simple human values of friendship, love, and trust as the only viable bases for a satisfying existence.
Roderick’s problem is both to gain knowledge of the world and to assimilate that knowledge. M. A. Goldberg, in Smollett and the Scottish School (1959), finds that “at first his responses are dictated by his indignation, by passionseventually, he learnsto govern the emotions with reason.” The struggle between these two forces is central to an understanding of eighteenth century England and its literature. In Smollett’s first novel, good sense seems a sufficient defense against the sordid viciousness of the world. Good sense, however, can only be achieved, or learned, when the hero can control his pride and passionate nature, which are inextricably linked. Equilibrium, an orderly existence, arises paradoxically from the ashes of his random adventures. This understanding develops as the hero pursues the happiness he thinks he deserves but can never fully attain; as a good empiricist, Roderick gathers knowledge from each reversal, finally achieving a “tranquillity of love” with the prudent Narcissa.
In Roderick Random, the hero’s search for happiness differs significantly from the quest of the traditional picaro. While gaining an education and suffering the rebukes of others, Roderick remains good and effectual, unlike Don Quixote, who is powerless against cruelty. Roderick’s youthful ferocity contributes to the practicality of the satire. Smollett’s approach to correcting the ills of society is to allow no attack or insult to go unavenged. A thorough whipping of a bully or the verbal punishment of a pedant lifts the book beyond the picaresque and advances it past the formal verse satire. The center of the satiric discussion implicates the surroundings and not the hero, thus permitting Smollett to offer a long list of evil, self-centered figures who provide an excellent contrast to the goodness and charity of the ill-servedprotagonist. Only his faithful servant, Strap; his uncle, Tom Bowling; and the maid, Narcissa, join him in opposing his neglectful grandfather, the scoundrel Vicar Shuffle, the tyrannical Captain Oakum, the dandiacal Captain Whiffle, and the rapacious Lord Strutwell.
The last section of the novel provides the hero with the riches of his long quest: family, wealth, and love. The moral of the adventures follows as Roderick’s recently discovered father “blesses God for the adversity I had undergone,” affirming that his son’s intellectual, moral, and physical abilities had been improved “for all the duties and enjoyments of life, much better than any education which affluence could bestow.” The felicity of this final chapter provides a conventional ending, but the crucial point is that Roderick, having completed a rigorous education in the distinctions between appearance and reality, is now deserving of these rewards.
The protagonist of Smollett’s long second novel, Peregrine Pickle, reminds one of Roderick in every aspect, except that Peregrine is an Englishman, not a Scot. The supporting players are improved; among the novel’s outstanding comic creations are Commodore Hawser Trunnion and the spinster, Grizzle Pickle. Often described as the best picaresque novel in English,...
(The entire section is 1951 words.)