Aesthetics and the senses / Eighteenth Century

Performed Identity in Humphry Clinker: The Etymology of Metamorphosed and Its Relationship to the Supernatural and Class Distinctions

Performed identity was the most interesting theme in Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker partially due to the language used by Jery Melford, Matt Bramble, Lydia Melford, and Winifred Jenkins. Specifically, these characters use variances the term metamorphism seven times in the novel.

Each time the first four characters use the term, they spell it metamorphosed, which is an adjective meaning, “that has undergone metamorphosis; changed in form, nature, or character” (OED). However, Smollett uses it in verb form, which the OED defines as metamorphose whose first definition is “trans. To change in form; to turn into or to something else by supernatural means,” and second definition is “trans. To change the character, nature, or disposition of; to transform” (OED). At first, I was going to argue that it was odd that Smollett used the adjective rather than verb form because all seven examples are verbs. However, soon after, I realized that he used metamorphosed because his work is an epistolary novel, so it makes logical sense that the characters are writing in past tense since they are describing previous events.

Nevertheless, after dismissing my first argument, I noticed that the first definition of metamorphose specifically describes the change as “supernatural,” which is odd because although all seven examples describe radical changes, there is nothing inherently supernatural about those changes. For example, Matt Bramble uses the term to describe the way Lieutenant Balderick, his childhood friend, “metamorphosed into an old man, with a wooden leg and a weatherbeaten face” (Smollett 51). If we were to apply the primary definition of the verb to this text, we can see that it does not make logical sense because certainly Lieutenant Balderick has changed into an old man since Mr. Bramble knew him in his youth.

Another example is with Jery Melford, who uses it four times, twice concerning Humphry Clinker as well as once each with Mr. Blackberry and Tim Cropdale (78, 293, 94, 122). During the second time involving Humphry Clinker, Jery recounts Mr. Bramble’s comment to Tabby: “‘The quondam Humphrey Clinker is metamorphosed into Matthew Loyd; and claims the honor of being your carnal kinsman – in short, the rogue proves to be a crab of my own planting in the days of hot blood and unrestrained libertinism‘” (293). In this quotation, there are two ways that show Clinker’s change is not supernatural. First, when Mr. Bramble describes Clinker as a “carnal kinsman” to Tabby, it infers that Clinker is a nonspiritual, human relative to her. Second, I was unsure about Mr. Bramble reference to a crab, and discovered that he is connecting Clinker to “the wild apple tree of northern Europe, the original of the common apple (Pyrus malus)” (OED). At first, I was unconvinced that this was accurate, but this exact scene and quotation is one of the cited examples in the OED, “1771   T. Smollett Humphry Clinker III. 198   The rogue proves to be a crab of my own planting in the days of hot blood and unrestrained libertinism” (OED). In other words, by correlating Clinker to an apple tree Mr. Bramble forms a connection based on earthly or physical objects.

Finally, it is interesting that Winifred Jenkins is the only lower class character to use the term because with her use it indicates her desire to imitate her master and reinforces her lower status. For example, when she writes to Mary Jones and describes “the player man that came after miss Liddy, and frightened me with a beard at Bristol Well, is now matthewmurphy’d into a find young gentleman . . .” it is clear that she previously heard Mr. Bramble use metamorphosed, and in an attempt to copy him, her spelling includes his name (309). Furthermore, her incorrect spelling reinforces her lower class because it demonstrates her lack of education. Additionally, I was curious why she uses the term to describe Mr. Dennison’s metamorphose rather than Humphry’s since Mr. Bramble was addressing the latter’s change, and it seems like her lover’s change would be more important to her thus a better example of metamorphose.


Discussion Questions:

Why did Winifred Jenkins use matthewmurphy’d to describe Mr. Dennison’s rather than Humphry Clinker’s change (309)?

Why did Jery spell Clinker’s first name “Humphrey” since in the title and most other times it is spelled “Humphry” (293)?


Works Cited

“crab, n.2”. OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. 23 October 2012 <;.

“metamorphose, v.”. OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. 23 October 2012 <;.

“metamorphosed, adj.”. OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. 23 October 2012 <;.


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