The history of the picaresque novel has been cyclical; the genre has appeared, disappeared, and reappeared sporadically throughout its history but traditionally reappears during periods when there is economic upheaval and marked social inequality. The picaresque novel addresses these inequities in a satiric, pseudoautobiographical mode, teaching not by moralizing but by offering the protagonist—the picaro—as a negative example.
The historical origin of the form is uncertain. Some critics believe it sprang initially from ancient mythologies, primarily the myth of Odysseus, while others pinpoint its beginnings in Spanish picaresque novels of the 1500’s. Regardless of when the genre began, it remains characterized, if not defined, by a collection of elements. Often any novel that is constructed in an episodic format, features a first-person narrator, and is satiric may be considered picaresque. Also, the true picaresque novel combines elements of realism and idealism as the picaro moves from ignorance to knowledge as a student in the school of hard knocks. He or she may be a rogue, a scoundrel, and even a criminal, but the true picaro is no more than an initiated but still innocent youth trapped in a situation in which a choice must be made between survival and integrity. The picaro chooses the former.
The picaresque novel is a Spanish tradition. Writers in other countries have emulated the picaresque novel, however. The hallmark of the French picaresque novel is Gil Blas, which is modeled on its Spanish predecessors. In honor of the novel’s sources and to maintain credibility, Alain-René Lesage set his work in Spain; however, he wrote the novel in his native French. The novel’s formality of language sets it apart from the tradition of the colloquial charm of the typical picaresque novel, with its lower-class cast of characters and its high-flown parody of the language of the rich and educated. Additionally, the work is tediously long, something many picaresque novels are not; Gil Blas is constructed in two volumes of incessant repetition of events and types.
Gil Blas may also be considered different from the typical picaresque novel in that its protagonist is not a poverty-stricken creature who will survive and maintain at all costs. Obviously influenced by his contemporary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lesage develops his character into a semirespectable courtier, modifying the picaresque model of a lowly reprobate who must use his wits to live. Lesage’s character thus “transcends” picarism and is endowed with the gifts of middle-class respectability. The protagonist also develops his native abilities, his patience, and his ability to choose his words carefully.
Although the work is a reaction to social inequality and is set in Spain within a picaresque framework, it cannot be considered pure picaresque. The ideas and tone are French, and the protagonist is little more than the prototype of Rousseau’s “natural man,” who is also imbued with middle-class morality. From the initial separation instructions of his parents to “go honestly through the world” and “not to lay [his] hands on other people’s property” to his pious reversal in prison, Gil Blas is not a typical picaro. The true picaro, while he or she may pretend to be redeemed, is not destined for sainthood or aristocracy in any form. He or she is only waiting for the next sucker to wander by.
The basic picaresque quality missing in Gil Blas is longing. The protagonist begins his journey not from need but with money for school and the good wishes of his family. Although the protagonist’s subsequent adventures are tainted with misfortune, the reader feels little empathy with the plight of Gil Blas. It is assumed he could return to his...
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native village and be welcomed with open arms. Alienation, stemming from a life begun in poverty, is pervasive in the picaresque tradition. Such alienation is absent inGil Blas.
One quality that Gil Blas shares with the typical picaro is his skill at manipulation. Although it gives him no joy, Gil Blas is an adept role player. His is a world of disguises, and his troubles begin whenever he fails to see the person behind each mask, for few people in his world are what they seem to be. He rationalizes his roguish behavior as a means of coping, but, in nonpicaresque fashion, he suffers from guilt and remorse at every turn. When the situation threatens his moral code or the work to be done becomes too dirty, he delegates it to his servant and alter ego, Scipio.
Gil Blas’s divergence from a moral course happens only once, when he is aligned with the duke of Lerma. The character has difficulty acknowledging his dark side, and the tale grows complex as Gil Blas the character debates with Gil Blas the narrator. His personality assumes the duality of an existence within the plot simultaneous to a satiric detachment from it.
In service to the duke, Gil Blas’s morality is threatened by his greed. He is lured by avarice into a world of bribery and solicitation until he becomes a different person and is eventually required to compensate for his digression. The salvation for the character and boredom for the reader is an ethical reversal during his political imprisonment. There, the character undergoes a symbolic moral rebirth and vows that he prefers exile in a hermitage to a life of amoral prosperity. Thus, Gil Blas is whisked, a changed man, away to the throne of a Rousseauistic natural aristocracy.
According to Alexander Blackburn, renowned critic of the picaresque, Lesage, in this novel, has converted the picaresque into a novel of manners. The novel may be considered an accurate history of prerevolutionary France and the fall of the feudal plutocracy, but it should not be considered picaresque. Although many of the characters are rogues and scoundrels, Gil Blas is too inherently moral to be a picaro.