A satirical story very much in the vein of Gil Blas. The youngest son of a moderately wealthy Scottish gentleman falls in love with and secretly marries the housekeeper. Their first and only child, Roderick Random, is soon born and the secret can no longer be kept from the family patriarch, who is so incensed that he at once disowns his son and expels him from the house. Random’s mother soon dies, and his father, driven mad with grief, disappears and is presumed to have killed himself.
Grandfather, while never owning him, does provide for his education at boarding school. Random excels in his studies — or, at least, so he says, the novel being told, in picaresque style, via his own unreliable first-person narration. When Grandfather dies, Random expects to receive the lion’s share of the estate to atone for all the wrongs committed against him, but is quite disappointed to discover that he’s entirely left out of the will. His uncle, a seaman long absent abroad and no great friend of the family, has just returned and takes up Random’s cause — to no avail. His rough approach only alienated the two further. For as long as he’s in country, he pays Random’s way to university, but as soon as he departs on his next voyage, the friends he left him entrusted to turn him out on the street.
Random sets out for London, intent on becoming a surgeon in the navy, and on the road meets his old schoolmate Hugh Strap, who, though rather well funded compared to himself, he takes on as something of a valet. They meet with various misadventures along the way to the city, where Random discovers, much to his consternation, that one can’t simply just start practicing surgery. Turns out there’s this whole training and licensing thing that he’d been entirely unaware of. After spending much of Strap’s money, falling prey to several scammers who did not fail to spot an easy mark in the naive Scotsman (Random himself is only vaguely aware of having been so used), and being briefly arrested, he procures a license to be a surgeon’s second mate third-rate (one of his examiners, rather amused at his ignorance, ask him what he would prescribe for a man with an amputated head — he fails to recognize the joke).
Many more misadventures follow and Random burns many more bridges through his own hubris. Eventually, he gets taken on a ship, but he finds his life is not any easier. He becomes an enemy of the captain and, long story short, finds himself as penniless when he lands as he was when he started out. He condescends to becoming a servant and at once falls in love with his mistress, a young woman named Narcissa. Jealousy for her suitor causes him to behave rather rashly and he soon is forced to flee the country. He joins the French army, which he finds altogether intolerable. Things look bleak until Strap — who Random last saw before setting sail as a surgeon’s mate — returns in the character of Monsieur d’Estrapes. His career has been rather more successful than Random’s and he’s assumed the rank of a gentleman, but immediately upon their reunion, he turns over all his wealth and devotes himself to Random’s service.
In Random’s hands, his friend’s money does not last long. Nearly destitute, Random sets his sights on marrying a wealthy woman, which he very nearly does until Narcissa returns and rekindles his former passion. Her father is dead, but his fortune is held by her brother in trust, and is contingent on his approval of whoever she should choose for a husband. Random assassinates whatever character he had left in courting her, and after some underhanded dealings in search of fresh funds, finds himself in prison. Fortunately, after not many weeks of incarceration, his seaman uncle discovers him once again. Uncle has done well for himself. He secures Random’s freedom and recruits him as surgeon on the ship he’s about to set sail on.
In Paraguay, their ultimate destination, Random meets a British expatriot who, after sixteen years abroad, now goes by the name of Don Rodrigo. Surprisingly, this turns out to be Random’s long-lost father. Random’s fortunes immediately reverse, thanks to Don Rodrigo having built quite a large fortune since his departure from Scotland. They return to England, where Random proposes to Narcissa. They marry without her brother’s approval, although on closer inspection of her father’s will, it turns out that her brother was only in charge of her inheritance until she turned 18, and as she’s now 19, her money is hers to do with as she pleases.
A remarkably smooth read, if that makes any sense. Not that the content is polished — it’s always irreverent and often verges on being bawdy — but each sentence flows seamlessly into the next and the whole has a lyrical quality to it, like a poem in prose. Smollett is similar to Bulwer-Lytton in that regard, but unlike in, say, Bulwer-Lytton’s own picaresque Pelham: or The Adventures of a Gentleman, the humor here is never obscured under too many words. And Roderick Random is a funny book, and entirely relatable, too, never mind its age.