The Spanish words picaresque and picaro achieved currency in Spain shortly after 1600. Today they are terms in literary criticism, sometimes misused because of the vague meaning attached to them. The revival of the genre in the twentieth century was accompanied by an increased critical interest in this type of novel, with the result that some critics try to stretch the definition of the picaresque while others attempt to restrict it. Still, some features are generally accepted as distinct characteristics of the picaresque, including a loose, episodic structure; a rogue-hero (the picaro) who is on the move and goes through a series of encounters with representatives of a hostile and corrupt world; a first-person narrative; and a satirical approach to the society in which the adventures occur.
The typical social background of the picaresque involves a disordered, disintegrating world in which traditional values are breaking down. The instability of the social structure permits the emergence of the picaro, a resilient rogue but not a criminal, a person of low birth or uncertain parentage, an outsider whose adventures take him or her from innocence to experience. In this sense, the picaresque novel has affinities with the bildungsroman, but unlike the protagonist of the latter, the picaro is a fixed character. While he (traditionally a “he”) learns survival techniques from his adventures, he does not change inwardly; he remains faithful to his healthy instincts without questioning the larger order of things. Pressured by circumstances to choose between integrity and survival, the picaro makes the pragmatic choice and learns to adjust to the corrupt values of his environment.