Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1520
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 spinster has a niece and a nephew living with her. Narcissa, the niece, is a beautiful girl of marriageable age to whom Roderick is immediately attracted. Her brother, a drunken, fox-hunting young squire, is determined that she will marry a wealthy knight in the neighborhood.
One day, Roderick prevents the girl’s brutal suitor from forcing his attentions on her, beating the man severely with a cudgel. While he deliberates on his next move, he is taken prisoner by a band of smugglers who for their own safety carry him to Boulogne in France. There Roderick finds his uncle, Bowling, and assures him that he will be safe if he returns to England, for the man Bowling believes he killed in a duel is still alive.
Roderick sets out for Paris in the company of a friar who robs him one night and leaves him penniless. Roderick then meets a band of soldiers and enlists in the army of King Louis XIV. He serves at the battle of Dettingen. After the battle, his regiment goes into garrison, and Roderick unexpectedly meets a boyhood companion, Strap, who is passing as Monsieur d’Estrapes and who is friendly with a French nobleman. Strap befriends Roderick and secures his release from onerous service as a private in the French army.
Strap and Roderick scheme for a way to make their fortunes. They finally hit upon the idea of setting up Roderick as a wealthy gentleman. They hope that he will soon marry a wealthy heiress. The two men go to Paris, where Roderick buys new clothes and becomes acquainted with the ways of a man about town. Then they go to London. There Roderick quickly becomes acquainted with a group of young men on the fringe of fashionable society.
Roderick’s first attempt to become intimate with a rich woman is a dismal failure, for she turns out to be a prostitute. On the second attempt, he meets Melinda, a young woman of fortune, who wins many pounds from him at cards and then refuses to marry him because he does not have an independent fortune of his own. Finally, one of Roderick’s friends tells him of a cousin, Miss Snapper, who is a wealthy heiress. The friend promises to help Roderick in his suit in return for Roderick’s note for five hundred pounds, due six months after the marriage.
Roderick agrees to this suggestion and immediately starts out for Bath in the company of the young woman and her mother. On the way, he saves them from being robbed by a highwayman, a deed that establishes him in the good graces of both mother and daughter. At Bath, Roderick squires the young woman about day and night. Although she is crippled and unattractive, her fortune is more important to him than her appearance. Besides, she is an intelligent and witty young woman.
All goes well until Roderick catches sight of Narcissa. Realizing that he is in love with her, he deserts Miss Snapper. Narcissa soon reveals to Roderick that she returns his love. Her brother has no objections because he thinks Roderick is a wealthy man. Unfortunately, Roderick’s former sweetheart, Melinda, arrives in Bath and catches the attention of Narcissa’s brother. At a ball, she spreads evil reports about Roderick because he left her. The result is that Roderick first fights a duel with Lord Quiverwit, one of Narcissa’s admirers, and then sees Narcissa being spirited away by her brother. The only thing that keeps Roderick’s hope alive is the fact that he knows Narcissa loves him and that her maid, the Miss Williams whom Roderick long before befriended, is eternally grateful to him and will help him in any way.
Roderick returns to London and again meets his uncle, Bowling, who was appointed to take a merchant ship on a mysterious trip. He proposes to take Roderick with him as ship surgeon, and he gives his nephew one thousand pounds to buy goods to sell on the voyage. He also makes out a will leaving all of his property to Roderick.
The mysterious trip proves to be a voyage to the Guinea Coast to pick up black slaves for the Spanish American trade. The slaves and the cargo, including the goods shipped by Roderick, are sold at a handsome profit. While their ship is being prepared for the return voyage, Roderick and his uncle spend several weeks ashore, where they are entertained by new friends and business acquaintances. One of their acquaintances is a wealthy Englishman known as Don Rodrigo, who invites them to visit him on his estate. During their stay, it is discovered that the man is Roderick’s father, who went to America to make his fortune after having been disinherited.
The voyage back to England is a happy one. Roderick is full of confidence, for he made a small fortune from the voyage and has expectations of a large fortune from the estates of his father and his uncle. He immediately proposes to Narcissa, who accepts his offer of marriage despite her brother’s opposition. They are married shortly afterward and go to live in Scotland on the Random estate, which Roderick’s father buys from his bankrupt elder brother.