Tobias Smollett Smollett, Tobias (George) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Tobias (George) Smollett 1721-1771

Scottish novelist, satirist, travel writer, historian, journalist, translator, poet, and dramatist.

Smollett is regarded as one of the major British novelists of the eighteenth century, the era when the novel as a genre emerged and became established as an important new form of literary expression. His experiments in satire and caricature, as well as his manipulation of the picaresque and epistolary forms, helped establish the novel as an appropriate means for attacking social vices and criticizing the absurdities of humanity. Before his reputation declined during the Victorian period, Smollett's writings exerted a considerable influence over the work of a number of nineteenth-century authors, among them Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, both of whom borrowed from his methods of comic characterization and picaresque realism. Although today, many critics rank Smollett below Samuel Richardson in his methods of characterization and far beneath Henry Fielding in dramtic presentation, they still find his novels—particularly his first, Roderick Random, and his last, Humphry Clinker—significant and enjoyable. In the words of Robert Donald Spector, these two works "remain among the finest novels written in English."

Biographical Information

Smollett was born in Dumbartonshire, Scotland. His father died when Smollett was only two years old. Smollett was supported well into his teens by his grandfather. At fifteen, Smollett was sent to Glasgow, first to attend the university there and then to be apprenticed to a surgeon and apothecary. Although he received no degree from the university, three years later Smollett left it as a qualified surgeon. Meanwhile, he had been working in his spare time on a drama entitled The Regicide; or, James the First of Scotland. In 1739 he moved to London, where he hoped to secure the production of this, his first literary effort. An immature play filled with inflated rhetoric, The Regicide was turned down by everyone who read it, including the actor David Garrick and the literary patron George, Lord Lyttelton. Smollett never forgave any of his potential producers for their rejection. Unable to support himself as a writer, Smollett was forced to accept an appointment as a surgeon for the British Navy. In 1740 he sailed to the West Indies. He participated in the battle of Cartagena, a brutal experience he later vividly portrayed in his first novel, Roderick Random. When the fleet reached Jamaica, Smollett abandoned both the ship and the navy. He remained in Jamaica until 1744. while there, he met a woman named Anne Lascelles. Smollett returned to London and opened a medical practice; Lascelles joined him there and the two were married in 1747, and Smollett began work on Roderick Random. Published in 1748, the novel was a great popular and financial success, the one such success that Smollett would experience in his lifetime. In 1750 he received his degree in medicine and tried again to establish a medical practice. He published two more novels, Peregrine Pickle and Ferdinand, Count Fathom, neither of which won critical or public acclaim. In need of money, Smollett began what was to be the first English "literary factory," employing a dozen or so writers to produce all kinds of literary hackwork, such as translations, travelogues, and brief histories. It was also during this period that Smollett composed most of his nonfictional works and undertook his translations of Gil Blas and the works of Voltaire. In the 1760s Smollett tried unsuccessfully to launch a career as a journalist. He also traveled through Europe to improve his failing health. He returned to England in better health, but soon became ill again. In 1769 he and his wife moved to Italy, where he began work on what was to be his last and what many consider his greatest novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. This novel appeared just shortly before his death in 1771.

Major Works

Smollett's first novel, The Adventures of Roderick Random, was a major success. The novel is a combination of picaresque narrative and social satire that strings together a series of often-unrelated episodes and ends with the hero's reformation and marriage to the heroine. The stock ending has put off many modern readers—just as Roderick's selfishness and brutality repelled some of Smollett's contemporaries. Nevertheless, there is much in the novel that is regarded as both powerful and unique, particularly the description of shipboard life and the vivid account of the disastrous attack on Cartagena by the British fleet. In fact, several scholars consider Roderick Random among the earliest literary protests against abuses in the Royal Navy. Smollett's next novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), was based on material he collected while living in Paris. Although not as well received as his first work (probably the result of its savagery and its ruthless, womanizing hero), Peregrine Pickle has since been commended for its excellent prose and a number of brilliant scenes. Many literary historians consider Peregrine Pickle as significant as Roderick Random because it demonstrates Smollett's growing ability to direct his satire toward a specific end, and because it helped broaden the scope of the English novel by including events and characters from European countries other than England. The plot of Peregrine Pickle is similar to that of Roderick Random although Peregrine is more despicable as a character than Roderick and thus his transformation to goodness is even less probable. Both novels share Smollett's facility for comic characterization and graphic realism. Peregrine Pickle was followed two years later by The Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom (1753), a complete failure during its time and still regarded by many as one of Smollett's weaker novels, principally because its central character, Count Fathom, is a portrait of villainy. For nearly a decade afterward, most of Smollett's writing was nonfictional. Then in 1762 he published The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves. Modeled on Cervantes' Don Quixote, Greaves is from start to finish the only morally upright and sentimental hero in all of Smollett's works. Unfortunately for Smollett, Sir Launcelot Greaves enjoyed little popularity with its contemporary audience, and its reputation has not improved significantly over time. By contrast, Smollett's last novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) was an immediate success and is today regarded by many as one of his greatest works. Humphry Clinker is an epistolary rather than a picaresque novel. It is based on a family's tour of the British Isles and includes a cast of humorous characters who through their letters provide different points of view of their travels and of each other. While it is considered one of Smollett's funniest and most enjoyable novels, it shares with his other works a detailed account of the more sordid aspects of the eighteenth century, in this case illness and hygiene. Variously interpreted as a creative work of political propaganda, an autobiographical account of Smollett's travels through Britain, a commentary on the breakdown of traditional values in the eighteenth century and the movement toward religious, social, and moral reform, and a mythical-psychological quest, Humphry Clinker remains the most praised, as well as the most controversial of Smollett's canon.

Critical Reception

Smollett, like many other English novelists of the eighteenth century, had the misfortune of competing against such writers as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Although numerous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critics judged him according to the accomplishments of these two novelists, Smollett has since been regarded as of a temperament far different from either Fielding or Richardson. Smollett saw the world as a "vicious and sordid place," and most twentieth-century critics agree that this perception of society and humanity shaped all of his work. During the century after his death, the established opinion of Smollett was that he was a talented caricaturist and a master of realistic presentation, but that he lacked the psychological insight of Fielding and, most signifcantly, his work suffered from indecency. Gradually, a more tolerant view of Smollett's coarseness has evolved, with most critics attributing it to the nature of his age or of the picaresque tradition, rather than as something inherently wrong with his personality. Other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century views of Smollett's work have also been challenged in the present century. For example, the argument that his novels (with the exception of Humphry Clinker) lack any sense of structure has been contradicted today by numerous critics. And the longstanding belief that Smollett's moral conclusions to his stories were simply tacked on in order to avoid censorship has increasingly come under attack by critics who argue that Smollett's early picaresque novels follow a pattern similar to the German Bildungsroman and, therefore, must depict the eventual education and reformation of their protagonists. In fact, most modern critics agree that Smollett was more aware of his craft than previous commentators understood. Although he still lacks the stature of Fielding, Richardson, or Sterne, Smollett nevertheless must be included among the group as a significant contributor to the development of the English novel.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

"The Tears of Scotland" (poetry) 1746

Advice (poetry) 1746

Reproof (poetry) 1747

The Adventures of Roderick Random (novel) 1748

*The Regicide; or, James the First of Scotland (drama) 1749

The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle: In Which Are Included Memoirs of a Lady of Quality (novel) 1751

The Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom (novel) 1753

A Compleat History of England, Deduced from the Descent of Julius Caesar to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, 1748. 4 vols. (history) 1757-58

The Reprisal; or, The Tars of Old England (drama) 1757

The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (novel) 1762

Continuation of the Compleat History of England. 5 vols. (history) 1763-65

The Present State of All Nations: Containing a Geographical, Natural, Commercial, and Political History of All the Countries in the Known World (history) 1764

Travels through France and Italy (epistolary essays) 1766

The History and Adventures of an Atom [as Nathaniel Peacock; attributed to Smollett] (satire) 1769

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (novel) 1771

Ode to Independence (poetry) 1773

The Works of Tobias Smollett. 12 vols. (novels) 1885-1903

The Letters of Tobias Smollett (letters) 1970

*This work was written in 1739.

Holbrook Jackson (essay date 1908)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Tobias Smollett," in Great English Novelists, George W. Jacobs & Co., 1908, pp. 87-107.

[In the following essay, Holbrook surveys Smollett's life and career, concluding that Smollett, while neither essential to the development of English literature nor particularly original as a writer, nevertheless did contribute somewhat to the growth of the novel as a genre.]

Of the early masters of the English novel, Tobias Smollett is the least original and on the whole the least satisfying. But his work was by no means without some considerable influence on the literary taste of his time. His novels are entirely derivative, harking back to the picaresque mode of...

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Ronald Paulson (essay date 1967)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Smollett: The Satirist As a Character Type," in his Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England, Yale University Press, 1967, pp. 186-208.

[In the following excerpt, Paulson focuses on Smollett's later novels, arguing that while earlier works like Roderick Random define what it is to be a satirist, later novels, such as Ferdinand Count Fathom and, ultimately, Humphry Clinker, represent Smollett's greatest maturity as a writer and contain his most realistic character portrayals.]

The Search for a Satirist

After Peregrine Pickle each of Smollett's novels is to some extent a search for a satirist,...

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Paul-Gabriel Boucé (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Representation of the Real," in his The Novels of Tobias Smollett, translated by Antonia White in collaboration with the author, Longman, 1976, pp. 255-301.

[In the following excerpt from a translation of Boucé's book, originally published in French in 1971, Boucé focuses closely on Roderick Random to prove his assertion that Smollett did in fact make use of the "real" or "truthfulness" as he saw it to expose the wrongs of eighteenth-century life and that "realism" is a modern term by which Smollett's works have been unfairly criticized.]

Right from the beginning of his literary career, Smollett was aware of the problems posed by the...

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Douglas Brooks (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Smollett: Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Ferdinand Count Fathom," in his Number and Pattern in the Eighteenth-Century Novel: Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973, pp. 123-43

[In the following excerpt, Brooks examines the numerological patterns of certain events and chapters in Smollett's first three satirical novels as well as the meaning behind such symmetry, observing that Smollett's use of numerological symmetry improves with each succeeding novel.]

I Roderick Random

Form mattered to Fielding. Even in Amelia, its iconographical implications can still be detected, if only...

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R. D. S. Jack (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Appearance and Reality in Humphry Clinker," in Smollett: Author of the First Distinction, edited by Alan Bold, Vision and Barnes and Noble, 1982, pp. 209-27.

[In the following essay, Jack contends that Smollett uses the epistolary form in Humphry Clinker to provide a picture of reality that is truer because it is seen from a "variety" of viewpoints rather than simply through the eyes of a single narrator.]

It was Robert Giddings who suggested that the one moral point made in Humphry Clinker concerned the difference between appearance and reality. He did not himself develop upon this thesis and indeed indicated that Smollett 'seems for the...

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Jerry C. Beasley (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Smollett's Art: The Novel As 'Picture,"' in The First English Novelists: Essays in Understanding, edited by J. M. Armistead, The University of Tennessee Press, 1985, pp. 143-58.

[In the following excerpt, Beasley compares the vivid, episodic, and grotesque world of Roderick Random with Hogarth's serial engravings, and observes that Smollett' s narratives possess great visual power and impact.]

"A Novel," remarked Tobias Smollett in the mock-dedication (to himself) introducing The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753), is "a large diffused picture, comprehending the characters of life, disposed in different groupes, and exhibited in various...

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R. S. Krishnan (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "'The Vortex of the Tumult': Order and Disorder in Humphry Clinker," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XXIII, 1988, pp. 239-53.

[In the following essay, Krishnan contends that not only the images or concepts of order and disorder but also the very terms order and disorder themselves contribute to Smollett's organization and structuring of the novel Humphry Clinker.]

The various readings of Smollett's Humphry Clinker—as a comic romance, as a study of primitivism and progress, or as a satire on eighteenth-century life and scene, just to mention a few—have served only to reconfirm the vitality and variety of Smollett's comic inventiveness...

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Robert Adams Day (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Introduction," in The History and Adventures of an Atom by Tobias Smollet, edited by 0. M. Brack, Jr., The University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. xxv-lxxi.

[In the following excerpt, Day examines the sources, politics, influences, and attribution of an obscure and little-studies novel by Smollett: The History and Adventures of an Atom. The editors have included only those Abbreviations and Footnotes that pertain to the excerpted portion of the introduction.]

It is safe to say that no lengthy work by a major British author (if we except their juvenilia) is so little known, or has been so little studied, as Tobias Smollett's History and Adventures of...

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Elizabeth Kraft (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Peregrine Pickle and the Present Moment of Consciousness," in her Character and Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century Comic Fiction, The University of Georgia Press, 1992, pp. 119-36.

[In the following excerpt, Kraft examines the historiocity and the sense of the present rather that the past in Smollett's second novel.]

Tobias Smollett's second novel, Peregrine Pickle, like all novels, is interested in the relationship between fictional and historical narrative, and it offers the necessary—that is, the personal—corrective to the historical—that is, the official and public—narrative.1 Not that Peregrine Pickle,...

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Robert Mayer (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "History, Humphry Clinker, and the Novel," in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 4, No. 3, April 1992, pp. 239-55.

[In the following essay, Mayer argues that Smollett's use of history in Humphry Clinker makes it not only his best and most coherent novel, but also the only one of his works that inarguably deserves to be defined as a novel.]

Smollett's fictional narratives often seem to be texts at odds with themselves. A large literature has grown up around the question of what they are—satires, picaresque tales, and romances being among the most popular, but by no means the only, candidates.1 For some critics the application of one or...

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Daniel Punday (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Satiric Method and the Reader in Sir Launcelot Greaves," in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 2, January 1994, pp. 169-88.

[In the following essay, Punday refutes the prevailing view that Sir Launcelot Greaves is a failure as a satire. He asserts instead that in this novel, Smollett deliberatelyly manipulated the romantic literary conventions of his time with satiric intent, and that this would have been recognized by his contemporary readership.]

Tobias Smollett is best known for his picaresque social satires, such as Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, and Humphry Clinker. Critics have generally considered Sir...

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David M. Weed (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sentimental Misogyny and Medicine in Humphry Clinker," in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 37, No. 3, Summer 1997, pp. 615-36.

[In the following essay, Weed argues that in Humphry Clinker, Smollett depicts some negative effects of commercialism on human society, including rendering men effeminate, causing illness, and the leading to the overall unbalancing of masculine society.]

On one level, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) presents its readers with a cast of scraggly, wryly drawn "originals" roaming Britain, including the tatterdemalion Humphry Clinker himself, the quixotic Obadiah Lismahago, and the curmudgeonly...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Baker, Ernest A. "Smollett." In his The History of the English Novel, Intellectual Realism: From Richardson to Sterne, pp. 197-239. London: H. F. and G. Witherby Ltd., 1930, and New York: Barnes and Noble, reprint 1950.

Provides an overview of Smollett's life and work, describing the author as "rather abnormally sensitive," and observing that this sensitivity appears in his novels.

Beasley, Jerry C. "Introduction." In The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom by Tobias Smollett, edited by 0. M. Brack, Jr., pp. xix-xli. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Offers a biographical, historical, and critical history of a novel that has been...

(The entire section is 699 words.)