Smollett’s Challenge of Conventional Identity

Tobias Smollett’s novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker begins with commentary on the limitations of philosophy: “[P]eople in general were so misled by vulgar prejudices, that philosophy was hardly sufficient to undeceive them” (17). Combining education with entertainment, Smollett’s novel is a literary construct of social experimentation that demonstrates complex philosophical ideas through mock reality and humor. This construct is useful because it allows readers to conceptualize complex social commentary through entertainment and realism rather than through the abstract or detached musings that one might find in a treatise. The more abstract a concept is, the more likely it is to meet resistance in the mind of readers. His novel engages contemporary philosophy by challenging expectations of how to identify someone. Each character embodies conflicting social roles, rendering them more complex than the conventional guidelines of gender, economic class, and moral judgment allow. Smollett’s novel undermines conventional claims of identity and combines philosophy with reality in novel form. This form makes philosophy more accessible and understandable to a readership that may not have not been engaged, otherwise.

In order to demonstrate the variability of impression, Smollett’s novel gives the reader access to the private affairs of others. This access grants an objective view and greater perspective on multiple characters. Each character reveals personal impressions of their environment and the reader gains a collective perspective of events rather than a singular perspective that would be demonstrated through the use of the first person. The use of multiple perspectives on a single event allows the reader is to question the construct of their own singular understanding. The use of the epistolary form confines the unreliability of a singular narrator and demonstrates the multiplicity of experience and impression. The narrative, therefore, is embodied by the formal structure of the text. The message is not only on the level of the text, but actively engages the reader’s own judgment. The novel reveals that individual perception varies and changes in a number of ways, complicating one’s ability to read and understand their surroundings. It calls on the reader to question the very possibility of cataloging identity.

The method used to educate the reader on contemporary philosophical discourse is the systematic deconstruction of  various conventional practices. One of the practices used to judge one’s character, throughout the 18th century, was with Physiognomy. Physiognomy is the idea that one’s facial features reveal a person’s true nature. Smollett critiques this practice by introducing Humphry Clinker to the other characters (and ultimately to the reader) from back to front. This literal reversal of what one sees upon meeting someone is a humorous and entertaining way to approach the topic: “[H]e had the impudence to shock her sight by shewing his bare posteriors” (81). Humphry later declares: “I shall take care that my tail shall never rise up in judgment against me” (84). Here, Smollett makes it clear that he is referencing assumptions of character based on physical attributes. He undermines that way of knowing by revealing Humphry’s very pious nature. Humphry’s true identity cannot be known through the conventional method. The reader is given a ridiculous first impression, but is forced to alter that initial impression as his character is explored and developed.  Smollett contrasts a character’s features or stature to their moral status’ in order to dismantle what was usually regarded as a trusted way of identifying someone.

The universally accepted views of gender in society are challenged by the comparison of characters Matthew Bramble and Tabitha Bramble. Jery states of Matthew: “He affects misanthropy, in order to conceal the sensibility of a heart, which is tender, even to a degree of weakness” (28) and immediately reveals that: “Our aunt, Tabitha (…) is in all respects, a striking contrast to her brother” (28). At first glance, this is a simple reversal of expectation, a representation of a woman who is not nurturing and a man who is. The complication occurs when it is revealed that Tabitha wants desperately to marry. This duality of character undermines what is initially expected of her character. She is not without the want or sentiment of love and proves to still embody some of the basic tenants relating to female gender roles. Gender, at that time, was regarded as one of the basic establishments of character. Additionally, Smollett creates sympathy for Tabitha despite her loathing of the philanthropic enterprises of Matthew Bramble.

The process of deconstruction continues with a complication of Matthew Bramble’s character; he disguises his actions. Matthew reveals his disgust for humanity by stating “Heark ye, Lewis, my misanthropy increases every day—The longer I live, I find the folly and the fraud of mankind to grow more and more intolerable” (47). However, Jery spies him giving money to a poor woman (21). It is peculiar that he attempts to formulate an opinion of himself as misanthropic to the outside world because most people would rather be well-known for their good deeds. Jery’s ability to see into a private room is a metaphor for seeing into a person’s interiority. It mimics and adds emphasis to the same way that the reader is granted a true or whole account of character when reading about the character’s private affairs. Here, it is suggested that it is fallible to judge someone based on their own representation of themselves. Smollett demonstrates that a person may work to manipulate how others view them by actively concealing their true identity. An individual cannot see all the moments that affect a character and, therefore, it is impossible to know one’s identity based on external representations alone.

The idea that one’s true nature or identity is not readily visible through conventional means is reinforced by the literal cloaking of Wilson. The cloaking of his identity occurs when he appears to Lydia as a peddler: “[I]t was Wilson, sure enough! But so disguised, that it would have been impossible to know him, if my heart had not assisted in the discovery” (26). Wilson turns out to be a gentleman, but most of the characters believe he is a rake. It is Lydia’s heart that allows her to see through to the true Wilson and she states earlier: “I am still persuaded that he is not what he appears to be: but time will discover” (9). She initially believes his identity is that of a young well-mannered man, but her understanding of his identity changes and complicates by the negative impressions of those around her.

The ultimate revelation is that Lydia’s heart was right. Smollett maintains that there is a feminine virtuosity and intuition. Lydia’s intuition is validated when Wilson is, in fact, a gentlemen. Despite the traditionally wise role of older males, in this case the uncle and brother, Lydia’s inclinations prove right. Here, Smollett doesn’t demean women’s intuition, but validates it. In a time when women were often thought to be hysterical and to over react because of their emotions, Smollett states just the opposite.

Lydia’s character is not only used to demonstrate a validity of female intuition, but she is constantly changing her perception while continuing to trust her own intuition. Another conventional way of knowing that is challenged by her character is that of youth and naiveté: “I confess I have given just cause of offence by my want of prudence and experience” (9). Lydia initially falls for Wilson, but after her naïveté is exposed, she attempts to change her own perception of the event. She demonstrates an awareness of how her actions are perceived by those around her, versus her singular and limited perspective, and reasons that her perception is unreliable because of her inexperience. Although Smollett has revealed a flaw in Lydia’s identity, her naïveté, he demonstrates her ability to learn by experience. In this case, she is, in fact, acting wisely by internalizing the perceptions of others to further understand herself. Smollett is constructing a formula for learning: experience and observation. This shows that Smollett is careful to say that only intuition should guide and rather that observation, experience, and intuition can be complimentary. This is a formula for the reader to understand the whole of the novel. The character’s notions of identity are consistently challenged and changed by experience and revelation. This allows the reader to witness the effects of learning and understanding in a realistic setting.

The epistolary form, with its public readership, challenges individual and private identity by allowing the reader a glimpse into private reflections and revelations. The novel presents these private documents in a timeline that allows the reader to follow the characters’ discoveries. All the characters are changed by the revelation of true identity: Matthew gains a son, Lydia a husband, and Tabitha, though initially perceived as an old maid, is married to a Scottish man. Smollett’s novel challenges accepted truths of physical representation, gender roles, and moral judgment because each of these pairings occur after one’s true interiority stood against the shallow assumptions of society.

Because of the novel’s multiple perspectives, each event is observed and revealed by different sets of criteria particular to each character. These multiple perspectives not only allow a diversity of readers to identify with one or more characters, but they relay the innumerable variables of cause and effect that change one’s perception and understanding. Smollett has crafted a novel that allows far more than pure entertainment or pure philosophy. The novel’s realistic setting works as a lab for social experimentation by acknowledging the reader’s role of observer. The reader is challenged to reflect on conventional knowledge by each complication of identity. A broader view of realistic social constructs allows the reader to question their own “vulgar prejudices.”


Smollet, Tobias. The Expedition of Humpfry Clinker. Oxford University Press, USA; Reissue edition (April 15, 2009)