The Adventures of Roderick Random Summary

Tobias Smollett

The Adventures of Roderick Random

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The Adventures of Roderick Random Summary

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The Adventures of Roderick Random, Scottish author and poet Tobias Smollett’s debut picaresque novel, was published in 1748 and is loosely based on Smollett’s experiences in the British Navy. Set in the 1730s and 1740s, the narrative follows the life of the main protagonist and narrator, Roderick “Rory” Random, from childhood to adulthood as Roderick journeys through England, France, the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America. The Adventures of Roderick Random’s synopsis details the book as “one of the first truly global novels [that] casts light on nearly every aspect of its time—imperialism, gender relations, slavery, urban life, colonial warfare, commerce, politics, the professions, high society, and the Hogarthian underworld.”

Roderick’s father is a Scottish gentleman, but his mother is a common woman. His father’s high-class family is ashamed of the son’s marriage to a woman from low society and subsequently shuns Roderick’s parents. Roderick’s mother dies soon after giving birth to him, which leaves his father overwhelmed by grief. Lost and with no family left to financially support him, Roderick’s father flees and abandons his only son.

Roderick has very little guidance growing up, but his paternal grandfather offers him the minimal amount of support necessary. The grandfather secures Roderick a free education at a local school in Scotland in an attempt to uphold the family’s nobility.

At this school, Roderick excels academically but faces abuse from his teachers, tutors, and schoolmasters. He becomes popular among his peers and learns Latin, French, Greek, and Italian. His tutor, however, doesn’t strive to help Roderick succeed and instead goads the boy. Roderick’s schoolmasters are no better and constantly use him as a whipping boy and a model for punishment, even when he’s done nothing wrong. The abuse finally ends when the tutor gets Roderick expelled, but his life continues to spiral out of control when his grandfather dies and he is left to take care of himself.

The one man who consistently offers emotional support for Roderick is his mother’s brother, Lieutenant Thomas Bowling. Because he’s a sailor in the Navy, Bowling isn’t always present for Roderick. Bowling arranges for his nephew to attend a university where Roderick can finally be on the right path, but after he’s called away for Navy duties, the funds are cut off, and Roderick is once again on his own.

Roderick then resorts to surviving off his wit, his intelligence, and his charm to further himself in life. He begins a series of international journeys that open his eyes to different characters from all levels of society, starting in London. Roderick is not generous in describing London, which at the time was ridden with crime and was incredibly dirty. However, Roderick finds some success when he becomes a surgeon’s apprentice and impresses his master so much that he is recommended to be a surgeon’s mate in the Navy.

He continues to meet people from all classes, mostly due to his approachability and honesty. In London, he works for a French chemist who introduces him to Miss Williams, a woman he inevitably falls for. He then discovers that she’s a prostitute seeking a more comfortable life, which doesn’t work for him, as he is seeking a wealthy woman that will finally afford him security. Roderick also encounters malice in the form of sharpers, or swindlers, who steal all his possessions, and essentially, he is left again with nothing.

One day when Roderick is walking near the Thames River, he is seized by a press-gang from the ship Thunder. He joins them on their journey to Jamaica as a surgeon’s mate, but the trip is terrible, as the commanding officer Captain Oakum despises him. The captain even tries to hang Roderick and another surgeon’s mate for talking negatively about him, and he believes that Roderick is a spy because of the Greek in his notebook.

After barely surviving Thunder, Roderick lands a spot as a surgeon’s mate on the Lizard, which is sailing back to England. There, he reunites with his old friend and former schoolmate, Hugh Strap. Misfortune follows Roderick once again as the captain dies and Lieutenant Crampley takes control of the ship. He, too, hates Roderick, and once the ship arrives in England, the crew beats and robs him. Mrs. Sagely, an old lady nearby, comes to Roderick’s rescue and cares for him. She also introduces him to a family looking for help. Not only does this offer him work, but it introduces him to Narcissa, a woman that he pines after from then on out.

Narcissa is not allowed to marry Roderick since her squire brother and guardian won’t agree to the union. At the end of the novel, Roderick miraculously reunites with his now-wealthy father in Argentina. Despite the history between the two, Roderick inherits some of his father’s money. This awards him a secure and comfortable life after years of travel, and he is finally able to marry Narcissa without her brother’s consent.

In the 2012 reprint of the novel, the introduction relays that “in terms of character, language, and theme, Roderick Random daringly expanded the possibilities of fiction in ways that would reverberate through the work of Dickens, Melville, and Thackeray in the nineteenth century and those of Arthur Conan Doyle, William Faulkner, George Orwell, Elizabeth Bowen, V.S. Pritchett, Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., John Barth, John Sladek, and Don Winslow in the twentieth. More broadly, with its sweeping depiction of human depravity and the recurrent cruelty of fate, Roderick Random can be seen in many ways as a key text in the emergence of the whole noir sensibility of modern literature and film.”