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The Times, They are A-Changin’

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker.   I want some structure; plot please.  But then again, maybe the lack of structure was intentional.  I mean the book, in many respects, speaks about social decline: everything from disease, filth, and stench to the disintegration of class distinctions, urbanity, industrialization, and unstable economics.  Matthew Bramble, for example, talks about a chaotic society when he admits that “there is no distinction or subordination left—The different departments of life are jumbled together…” (84).  The novel still being experimental, it would be a leap to say that Smollett intended the novel to be unstructured in order to mimic the decline or growing lack of structure in society.  It is safe to say, however, that the letters offer very contrasting views of society.  On the one hand, you have the misanthropic Matthew Bramble who perceives England to be in a steep decline and, on the other hand, you have Lydia who sees England progressing.   Epistolary form does offer the reader an opportunity to contrast the views of the characters.  For example, Lydia enjoys the new luxuries of modern living while Matthew laments about them on page 83: “there are many causes that contribute to the daily increase of this enormous mass; but they may all be resolved into the grand source of luxury and corruption.”  He goes on to say that 25 years ago only the richest people had servants and now pretty much everyone has multiple servants.  In many respects, Matthew represents the values of preindustrial England from 25 years prior (the old) and Lydia the values of the postindustrial (the new).     

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2 thoughts on “The Times, They are A-Changin’

  1. I strongly agree with your desire for plot. I found the story difficult to put together and follow in spots because of its unique form of letters. However, in my frustration I found myself thinking that Smollett did intend the novel to be unstructured to mimic the decline of structure in society. Like in poetry, I think Smollett took advantage of his artistic license and structured this story in letters to emphasize the difference in the views of society and the members in each class.

  2. I do get what you’re saying in regards to plot. To be honest, I spent the first half of the reading slightly panicing that I’d missed something crucial and therefor missed any major plot development. But once I realized thats just how the novel unfolds, I decided to focus on how the letter format is really what gives the story its comic tone. The characters tend to describe the same events in their letters, but all reveals completely different takes on the same situation. Liddy’s forbidden romance, for example. The Brambles describe it as a sort of Earth shattering candle, while she expresses the timeless angst of a youth in love. I think the letter format is actually essential to the development of the novel as a comedy.

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