The Adventures of Roderick Random

by Tobias Smollett
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024

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 Fielding) is forced into a world of duplicity where his kindness and trust are manipulated by others. The “knavery of the world,” as Smollett dubs it, everywhere demands that the hero learn to be worldly-wise; his main difficulty is to do this without losing his fundamental goodness. Often Roderick appears on the verge of such a fate. He is ungracious to his faithful friend Strap, he is at times unconscionably cruel in his schemes for revenge, he gravitates too easily toward unsavory rakes (Banter is a good example), and he himself is at times tainted with affectation. He does, however, remain good at heart and in the end is rewarded with Narcissa much as Tom Jones, having gained prudence, is allowed to possess Sophia.

It can be said that the novel employs its main character as a moral exemplum for preaching and illustrating the traditional values of the age, among them temperance, virtue, fortitude, and honesty. It can also be said that the book’s emphasis on sensibility reinforces the efficacy of human goodness, for if the reader is moved to applaud virtue and hate vice, to upbraid the hero’s ingratitude despite his attractiveness, then Smollett in large part proves his point.

Even a quick reading of the novel makes it plain how much Smollett relies on the theme of disguise to develop not only the concept of prudence but also a number of other concerns. One notable example is clothing imagery, which abounds in the book in such scenes as Beau Jackson’s appearance before the medical examiners. Wildly costumed as an old duffer, Jackson is a literal application of the adage that “the clothes make the man.” He is found out, naturally, and thereby Smollett prepares readers for one of the dominant themes of the novel: Pretension, subterfuge, and hypocrisy are all penetrable. An individual with experience and a sharp eye can see through them.

The question as to who that individual may be is usually answered by eighteenth century writers as “the satirist.” It is a commonplace observation that the satirist strips away the coverings of things, that after creating disguises for his characters he tears them away in order to reveal what lies beneath. This is unquestionably so in the case of Smollett. The clothing imagery fits well with his satiric purposes, for everywhere his intent is to bare human morals as well as physical nature. An understanding of this commonplace in part elucidates Smollett’s dislike of romantic novels and other such writings. His attack on romance in the preface owes much to the satiric spirit that prevailed in the Augustan age, for there are few modes so different in philosophy as the romantic and the satiric. Romances—or “novels” as they were often called in Smollett’s day—are in a sense departures from this world; they are fantasies, unrealities, idealizations. Satire, on the other hand, is fully committed to the world as it is; therefore, it both eschews the improbable and dissolves the apparently real in order to plumb life’s deepest recesses.

It should also be mentioned that The Adventures of Roderick Random, Smollett’s first novel, is interesting simply for its biographical and historical inclusions. Smollett was a surgeon and, as is to be expected, the book offers plenty of commentary on eighteenth century medical practices. Like his main character, the author served in the Royal Navy as a surgeon’s mate and was present at the disastrous attack on Cartagena (this is discussed at length in the novel); he thus had a firsthand knowledge of seamanship as well as of medicine. The story of Molopoyn, which occurs near the end of the book, is a thinly disguised account of Smollett’s endeavors to promote his tragedy, The Regicide (1749).

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