The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

by Tobias Smollett
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker has often been called the greatest of the epistolary novels, a genre very popular during this time, and an outstanding example of English humor. The novel is also considered by many critics to be the best of Tobias Smollett’s works. First published in the year of the author’s death, the lively novel was written while Smollett, like his character Matthew Bramble, was in retirement and seeking help for his failing health. Despite the novel’s artful treatment of the effect of an individual’s health on character and mentality, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker caters delightfully to the tastes of its eighteenth century audience. Eighteenth century readers thrived on novels of the exotic, and Smollett focuses primarily on travel, distant societies, and manners. At the same time, however, he lends that same exotic excitement to the travels of Bramble and his party through England, Scotland, and Wales. Smollett combines his audience’s thirst for the remote with their increasing desire to learn more about history and social structure, particularly their own.

The structure of The Expedition of Humphry Clinker is at first glance deceptively simple. As an epistolary novel, it lends itself readily to a straightforward, chronological structure. Dates and locations are given with every letter; even directions are given about where the author will be to receive an answer by return mail. Nevertheless, it is not the passing of time that is important: Nothing really changes over time; no one’s opinions change; Lydia continues to love Wilson; Jerry continues to despise him; Tabitha continues to hope for masculine attention; Clinker continues to devote himself to a humble way of life; and Matthew Bramble continues to reaffirm his sense of distinct social divisions. Instead, action is of prime importance. Although the conclusion of the novel seems to imply a tremendous change of orientation toward life, this is deceptive. The social structure had been tampered with by chance, but now it has been rectified and all continue to love and despise as before; only the outer semblance of the objects has changed in having been returned to what it should have been in the first place.

The novel also has picaresque aspects in being episodic and treating various levels of society, but the reader is led to ask, who is the picaro? He is not the titular hero, who actually appears long after the novel is under way. It is Bramble, a type of picaro who appeared often in the eighteenth century. He is neither a criminal with loose morals nor a sympathetic antihero but rather a reflection of the author himself. In his character of Bramble, Smollett is a moralizer, which allows Smollett to unify the novel through humor. Beyond that, however, Smollett-Bramble is that special kind of moralizer, an idealist. According to Bramble’s view of humanity, society is to be separated into strict social classes that give society order; with order, humans are essentially safe from the many bothersome problems that would otherwise prevent them from pursuing the style of life to which they feel entitled. Such is the latent subject of the majority of Bramble’s letters to his dear Dr. Lewis; but the ironic and humorous vehicle for the moralistic treatises is the description of his encounters with the odd assortment of “originals.” While these figures for the most part concur with Bramble’s views on society, socially they are not what they seem. Sons of refined blood appear to be lowly; people of adequate means satisfy the richest of tastes; worthy gentlemen are treated ill by life and reduced to impoverished, nearly inescapable circumstances. Most of Bramble’s acquaintances are eccentrics and thus “humorous” in the true sense of the word. Each has a master passion that he fervently pursues, often to the point of ludicrousness. Bramble, in his effort to comprehend them magnanimously, creates an equally humorous effect—his endearing desire to help everybody is obviously his own master passion—and the conflict between his head and his heart is never resolved.

In The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, humor eventually leads to satire. Smollett is at least partially successful here, though he tends to direct his satire against personal enemies with allusions too obscure to be easily appreciated, One device by which he executes satire more accessibly is by setting up opposites—town versus country, for example, or commoner versus gentleman—where one at first appears clearly preferable to the other. The reader soon sees, however, that Smollett does not present logical alternatives when opposites are in conflict. By their actions and their verbalized reactions, the characters seem to hold common views on propriety, but when the reader tries to reconstruct what these views are, the result is elusive. Although readers know that propriety depends on good favor, a good name, and money, Smollett refuses to spell out what it is these commodities then bring.

The success of The Expedition of Humphry Clinker is based on Smollett’s reaffirmation of the genuine emotional response. Bramble is presented as someone with sensitivity toward his physical and social surroundings and experiences. He is tempted, for example, to believe that Scotland as he sees it during his trip could provide that ideal way of life he has been searching for and proselytizing; he senses, however, that modernization threatens Scotland with the same laziness and complacency that are seen in England. Smollett also emphasizes how character is shaped by experiences and emotional responses. Bramble’s solitary reflections imply that the most intense and meaningful emotions are those an individual does not feel constrained to share in words. In this way, the emotions of Smollett’s characters are safe from both the reader’s pity and his ridicule.

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