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This book is a great deal of fun to read. It is lively, witty and amusing, as well as strikingly modern in displaying the vicissitudes of fortune in the character Roderick. These vagaries of fortune, from penury, to wealth, from imprisonment, to landed gent are also reflected in the vagaries in the moods virtues (or lack thereof) in our title character, thus lending Roderick, for most of the book, a three-dimensional aspect and not simply another cardboard cutout for an 18th century picaresque.-But the book does have its faults, particularly as we draw to what we foresee will be the inevitable end. It's just too pat for many modern readers to swallow. Or at least it is for this one. The Oxford edition's notes, while helpful in places, especially with nautical turns of phrase, and for those with a scholarly interest in the location of certain streets in the London in Smollet's day etc tend to become rather annoying at times, almost to the point of insulting the well-read reader's intelligence. Many times I found myself saying, "As if I could not have figured that out on my own from the context!" The book, not surprisingly, is at its best when it is at its most autobiographical and descriptive, particularly the passages of Roderick's first sea voyage. One of my favourite passages that illustrates the lively vitality and humour of both the character and the work comes when Roderick, feared to be dying of typhoid fever, is visited by a priest to make a last confession:
""Without doubt, you have been guilty of numberless transgressions, to which youth is subject, as swearing, drunkenness, whoredom, and adultery; tell me therefore, without reserve, the particulars of each, especially the last, that I may be acquainted with the true state of your conscience...."
Roderick, a thoroughgoing, Scottish Ant-Papist will have none of it and soon recovers.
I am reminded of Joseph Conrad's short story "Youth" which I recommend to all who enjoy this book. - But, in the end, Conrad's story is the philosophically deeper and more true-to-life narrative than this one.-Again, the ending, for this reader, was just too pat and soppy. I am not trying to be a "spoiler" here and ruin the reading of the book and imperiling this review, by telling you potential readers what it is. You don't need me for that. You will have figured it out about a hundred pages before the end. And, for the record, I believe that this misguided idea of not being able to include the reviewer's analysis of a book's ending seriously handicaps the reviewer as well as insults the reader's intelligence. ---But, I have to abide by the rules in order that this review be posted. So be it.
Anyway, a delightful 18th century romp, until the predictable winding down.
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The Adventures of Roderick Random is a picaresque and partly autobiographical novel depicting a young man's quest for rank and fortune. Roderick's father, the son of a Scottish laird, falls in love with and marries a woman well below his social standing. Roderick himself is the issue of this marriage. His grandfather denounces the marriage and disinherits his son. Shortly after Roderick's birth, his mother perishes. Roderick's father, driven by almost mad by grief, abandons Roderick to the presumed mercies of his grandfather and leaves the country, never to be heard from again. The grandfather wants nothing to do with Roderick and pawns him off on a boarding school.
Reaching early manhood, Roderick finds himself educated as a gentleman but without funds or family. His only true friends are his maternal uncle, Tom Bowling, a naval officer, and Hugh Strap, a former schoolmate and apprentice barber who is Roderick's devoted servant and companion (the model of Sancho Panza is obvious here). Roderick's ambitions are, at first, limited and realistic. He becomes an apprentice to an apothecary and is well on his way to establishing himself in the medical profession. A romantic scandal involving the apothecary's daughter ensues, however, and Roderick is once again afoot and without prospects. His next ambition is to follow his uncle into a naval career as a ship's surgeon, but he is thwarted by the military bureaucracy where such appointments are to be had only by means of influence and bribery. Ironically, when his fortunes are almost at their lowest, he is then press-ganged into service as a common seaman.
Roderick's naval career, based on Smollett's own experiences, is probably the highlight of the novel, as it depicts something of the harsh life aboard a British man-of-war during the early 18th century. Roderick's service is principally in the West Indies where the Royal Navy is conducting operations against the Spanish and French. Tropical diseases and incompetence leadership combine to wreak a fearful toll of death among the common sailors. This is, however, only the beginning of Roderick's peregrinations, which will eventually include a stint in the French army and a voyage aboard a slaver carrying a human cargo from Africa to South America.
The novel satirizes the social structures of the time. Titled nobility are invariably figures of ridicule. The government, military and church are riddled with greed and corruption. Few characters at any level are what they seem, as everyone is putting on the pretense wealth and gentility in order to impress or defraud everyone else.
Roderick himself frustrates the reader's attempts at sympathy. He is touchy, hot-tempered and violent. His attempts to earn his living by honest work are short-lived. Finding himself the dupe and victim of every swindler and false friend he comes across, Roderick becomes dishonest himself. Despising others for their pretense of gentility, he becomes a pretender in turn, his defense being that he is trying to restore the position that was his right by birth. He jokes about leaving a serving girl pregnant, then goes off to court rich (or seemingly rich) women for their dowries. His redemption, if we will grant it, comes only with his love for the beautiful and pure Narcissa.
The appeal of The Adventures of Roderick Random as a novel comes indirectly from its portrait of English society and naval life rather than from the unlikely life story of its protagonist. Some of the better chapters are lengthy digressions into the lives of secondary characters, including a prostitute and an aspiring playwright. Overall, the novel is a picture of a world ruled by greed and pretense where honestly and hard work count for little, but a random stroke of good luck may reward the deserving.